Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"Cities: Skylines" Switch Review


After releasing three years ago on PC and two years ago on consoles, "Cities: Skylines" is taking a victory lap on the Switch. A deep and robust city builder, the game has rapidly grown its reputation to the point that it's come to define the genre for its generation.

Deep customization options, wild scenarios, authentic simulation variables and an easy-to-navigate menu system are the hallmarks of a game viewed by many as essential to a well-rounded collection. While that distinction may make "Cities: Skylines" sound about as sexy as a reference book or research paper, a few minutes with the game will show you it's anything but dry. It manages to cast its spell, drawing players into its rhythms, emergent conflicts and moments of peaceful synconicity.

Developer Colossal Order's answer to "SimCity" allows players to craft breathtaking cityscapes, manipulate intricate economies and stretch their urban planning skills to the max.

While it's not realistic to hope that the Switch version could match the keyboard and mouse setup in terms of menu efficiency, the touch screen and hot key maps hold their own well, going far beyond what was possible on the PS4 and Xbox One versions.

Numerous other upgrades are present, such as a savvy use of the device's HD rumble feature to guide you toward sweet spots on your map to build. Those who prefer to hunker down in console mode can also use a Pro Controller to plot out their grand designs.

With a full-figured weather system ever present to change things up whenever you get too confident, "Cities: Skylines" cuts an impressive silhouette of towering buildings cut against the horizon.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk" Review


With 3DS releases waning, there are fewer reasons to dust off the old portable system. "Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk" feels like an elixir that jolts new life into the handheld.

A defiant throwback to the type of game the system became known for over the past decade, "Ghost of the Dusk" is a hard-boiled sleuthing yarn that hearkens back to the likes of "Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective" and "Hotel Dusk: Room 215."

Following the apparently accidental death of a homeless man, gruff gumshoe Jake Hunter teams with an old pal to dive into action, determined to proof that there is more to the incident than at first seems. Navigating dialogue options and menu selections, you strive to unravel the twist-filled web of mysteries linked to the death.

Film noir-style writing blends with comic book style visuals to weave a haunting and entrancing web of mystery and discovery.

Making savvy use of the system's two screens, "Ghost of the Dusk" shows exactly what made the 3DS so versatile and enduring. Even though the fad of glasses-free 3D has long since lost its luster, there remains a staunch appeal to the accompaniment of touch screen navigation with simultaneous story presentation up top.

Like a ghost from the shadowy past, "Ghost of the Dusk" emerges from the ether as a reminder of what once was, and what could be again.
Publisher provided review code.

"LittleBits Avengers Hero Inventor Kit" Review


There's a difference between strapping on some plastic armor and pretending you're iron man and actually simulating the circuitry and mechanics that go into components of an exosuit.

"LittleBits Avengers Hero Inventor Kit" takes the next step toward putting young Tony Starks in training through the paces of cobbling together a superhero suit. Packing beginning and intermediate robotics design and engineering principles, the set works as a training tool for would-be inventors.

As much a hands-on, experiential teaching tool as a toy, the STEM-focused educational package is an empowering and enchanting introduction to circuitry and robotic design. Once you put together a project, you control it via a smartphone app.

Think of the set as a next-level version of angles. Following step-by-step instructions, you snap components together to form circuits that are powered by an included 9V battery. Taking inanimate nodes, connecting them and watching them come to life through your direction is empowering and exciting.

Although designed for kids to be able to decipher and construct themselves, a healthy dose of parental supervision and gentle guidance will keep kids short of IKEA-level frustration. Meant to be built, taken apart, adjusted and experimented with, there are plenty of open-ended applications for the package. A generation inspired by such interactive building could well inspire a generation of Ironmen and women.

Publisher provided review sample.

Monday, September 17, 2018

"Nefarious" Review


As raw concepts go, "Nefarious" is a gem. Playing as a pompous, egotistical villain who romps around action platformer levels to kidnap princesses and dispatch heroes, your goal is to conjure as much mayhem as you can muster.

The execution, though, leaves much to be desired. Playing at times like a rough beta -- with slippery controls, inconsistent hit detection and discomforting difficulty ramps and plateus amid levels, "Nefarious" is as rough around the edges as its ugly protagonist.

Despite the nagging flaws, there is plenty to enjoy in nefarious. If the premise makes you giggle, you'll surely appreciate the sense of power playing as a bad guy grants you.

A catchy soundtrack and charming visual style will give gamers who came of age in the 1990s much to appreciate. It takes considerable reflexes and pattern detection to make your way through the more harrowing parts, and handholding is kept at a minimum. A throwback that mocks conventions of the era while also leaning into them, the game shimmers with nostalgia.

"Nefarious" may not have quite lived up to its potential, but manages to win hearts and mind as an occasionally brilliant diamond in the rough. The ramshackle experience works especially well in short bursts, and manages to grow on you as much as you're willing to let it.
Publisher provided review code.

"Mercenaries Saga Chronicles" Review


If you're looking to pick up a strategy-minded RPG that wears its "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Quest" influences proudly, you'll be hard-pressed to find more value than what awaits you in "Mercenaries Saga Chronicles."

Packing three lengthy games into a $40 package, the Switch download packs dozens of hours of gameplay into its beefy package. It's easy to lose yourself in the interlocking tales of intrigue, robust lore, staggering amount of upgrades and skillfully balanced combat.

The knocks against the package are its stiff, linear narrative and milquetoast design. The "Mercenaries Saga" games seem so intent on aping their influences that it struggles to establish tones of their own.

If there's any system best suited to enjoy "Mercenary Chronicles," it's the Switch. Just as enjoyable in quick hits on the go as it does in marathon sessions on the couch, the game shines as brightly in portable mode as it does in the traditional console setup.

With few alternatives out there to contend with the series in its chosen genre, "Mercenaries Saga Chronicles" stands out as one of the most appealing options for strategy RPG-minded Switch gamers. If you find yourself hooked, you may not feel the need to play anything else for weeks on end.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Shikhondo: Soul Eater" Review


A bullet hell shooter adorned in the trappings of Asian mythology, "Shikhondo: Soul Eater" adds beauty and resonance to the typical shmup tropes.

As is always the case in the genre, you barely have time to appreciate the visuals and story as you work frantically to stay alive amid a constant assault from the neverending grind.

But don't be surprised if you find yourself occasionally distracted because you are so taken with the window dressing. This is as gorgeous a game of this type as you're ever likely to stumble upon, so it's only right that you appreciate the captivating visuals.

A tight and combustive package, "Soul Eater" packs five stages of increasingly bizarre and difficult barrages of enemies gunning for your head. Close brushes with death are encouraged, with brash, high-risk flying patterns rewarded with additions to the soul gage, which you can build up toward super moves, much like a fighting game.

The challenge to climb your way up the leaderboards always beckons/taunts you to copious replays with the goal of enhancing your skills to reach new heights. Boss rush and local co-op modes join the traditional arcade campaign to keep things fresh.

You can easily lose yourself among the rhythms and hypnotic swirl of sights and sounds, becoming one with the soul of "Shinkohndo," only to happy to have it eat you alive.
Publsiher provided review code.

"Valkyria Chronicles 4" Review


After a mic-drop debut in 2008 on the PlayStation 3, the "Valkyria Chronicles" series had spread itself too thin, losing its focus in watered-down, sporadic spinoffs. "Valkyria Chronicles 4," though, marks a proud return to form.

The tactical strategy enterprise is just as much of a head-turner today as the original was a decade ago. The dev team at Sega has approached and largely achieved the vision set forth by the first game in the saga, marking a watershed achievement. "Valkyria Chronicles 4" matches an enchanting narrative with stylized visuals, a thematically enhanced score and sharp writing to an airtight combat, upgrade and resource management system.

It's the action-infused battles where the game's threads of tension, suspense and execution come to a head. Orchestrating your party's priorities as you systematically take down the opposition is a fascinating and often harrowing rush. This is a game that's dangerous for its ability to captivate you, making time and priorities slip away as you obsess over the next step in your path to glory.

Chapter after chapter, the plot changes the paradigm on you, forcing you to forget what you think you know and channel your creativity and gumption to forge new solutions on the fly, making use of your limited, often unbalanced forces to jury rig a ramshackle way to survive and advance.

To call "Valyria Chronicles 4" a surprise for its excellence would be something of a disservice to its heritage. So if the game doesn't shock you with its overwhelming competence, it certainly at least satisfies while slickly relieving any doubts that may have mounted over the years. "Valkyria Chronicles," like George Costanza, is back, baby.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Book Report: "A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever"

A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy ForeverA Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever by Josh Karp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was drawn to this by the Netflix movie, which is a much more entertaining rundown of the rise and fall of Doug Kenney and the National Lampoon empire. Karp's book has much more detail and nuance, but gets bogged down in the effort to complete a well-rounded portrait rather than focus on Kenney's foibles and the wackiness that went on off the clock.

Reading like a textbook, albeit an often fascinating textbook stuffed with all sorts of inappropriate, cocaine-fueled 1970s mayhem, the book chronicles the origins of biting political satire that reshaped the whole of the entertainment medium, spawning the likes of "Animal House," "Caddyshack," the "Vacation" series, "Saturday Night Live" and the indomitable John Hughes.

Kenney emerges as a lost soul; a genius incapable of handling the success or especially the perceived failure that the highs and lows of life thrust upon him as he ran roughshod through the print world and Hollywood. The finest moments are those that get intimate with Kenney and his most meaningful relationships, particularly with Chevy Chase.

This is an instance in which you can get all the good stuff by watching the Netflix movie and save the book only to sate the need of fully nerding out.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 13, 2018

PHIL ON FILM: "A Simple Favor"


For my written review, click here.

"Senran Kagura Reflections" Review


Unless played any way but ironically, "Senran Kagura Reflexions," is almost sure to creep you out. It seems geared to do so.

Shamelessly and outrageously creepy, the game tasks you play as a reflexologist whose job it is to touch, stroke, massage and otherwise fondle a string of bubbly, jiggly and hyperflirtatious clients.

While this is presumably the most outrageous "Senran Kagura" game to date, it's always toed the line between entertainment and exploitative near-pornography as it took on the brawler, watergun fighting and cooking. That the content is leering and exploitative has never been in doubt.

The whole point to the game is to give you the mandate to pleasure your clients to the point of wildly enthiuastic elation with your reflexology skills. You rotate among eager shinobi customers, rotating among hand massage, body rubs and... thigh slaps. The strange dynamic that develops is unnerving enough to shatter whatever illusion exists of professionalism or innocence.

At its core, "Reflexions" is a rhythm game with overtly questionable window dressing. There is challenge, humor and subversive satire at play, redeeming a game that most might turn up their nose at. Determined to focus on the "guilty" portion of the term "guilty pleasure," the game is a thought-provoking, disturbing commentary on sexuality, while at the same time an outlet for those with particular kinks and control fetishes. For better or worse, you make the experience what you bring into it.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

"Haunted Neighbors: Hyakki Castle" Review


A real-time dungeon-exploration JRPG, "Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle" is an eclectic entry that revels in its relentless oddity.

Wacky, Lovecraftian characters stalk the catacombs. You scrounge among limited resources to make your way through the passageways, facing increasingly formidable opposition as you advance. Each of the bad guys brings with it a distinct moveset and slate of strengths and weaknesses, and much of the game's attraction comes in ferreting out the most effective way to dispatch them.

Enemies that start off seeming like invulnerable behemoths tend to devolve into weaklings once you figure them out.

Japanese publisher Happinet keeps things fresh by adding a party split-up feature that allows you to go the route of every ill-advised slasher flick protagonist and go separate ways. Those who take advantage of the system can cover more ground, tracking down enemies, loot and hidden passageways to clear dungeons with smooth efficiency.

A punishing yet personality-filled spectacle, "Haunted Neighbors: Hyakki Castle" packs loads of charm into a tight, innovative package. These are walls well worth scaling.
Publisher provided review code.

"Jurassic World Evolution" Review


A theme park builder in the vein of "Sim City" and "Roller Coaster Tycoon," "Jurassic World Evolution" released in June, perhaps in something of a rush in order to drop while "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" was the hottest film in theaters. Critics praised its tight management aspect but chided it for its tedious grinding aspect.

Games of today are an ever-evolving medium, though, and the team at Frontier Developments kept at it, listening to its community as it plotted out a series of regular updates to sharpen the game's claws and amping up its roar. Like the team of genetic editors who conjure the movie's bio-engineered dino-hybrids, the squad has been ruthless in its pursuit of the "wow" factor. The result, with the 1.4 update, is a game that has evolved from its initial release.

Sprucing up what was previously somewhat of a dry sim, the free update adds in a Challenge Mode, in addition to new cameras, contracts and lighting options. The result is a number of small improvements that coalesce together to create something more refined and polished than before. The current game is more action-packed and filled with things to see, do and adjust than the previous release.

While still tuned to the management-minded player -- the console edition still plays much like its mobile version -- "Jurassic World Evolution" will please the type of player who likes to tinker with concepts and see how they play out. It's also for those who like to unleash chaos on an imagined world. Life finds a way, and so does "Jurassic World Evolution."
Publisher provided review code.