Monday, November 18, 2019

"Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" Review


These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with wildly exciting projects sketching out new areas of the universe in movies, TV and video games. "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" is among the most thrilling of the offerings.

On the polar opposite of the spectrum of the hit-and-miss, multiplayer-focused "Star Wars Battlefront" series, EA's new game sticks with tight, linear single-player tale. Filled with sweeping action, engaging combat and poignant emotion, it's a tale that touches on the strongest aspects of the franchise's legacy.

Set after "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," you play as a Jedi on the run as the Galactic Empire's minions seek out and destroy every Jedi to fulfill the dreaded Order 66. The single-player, linear narrative has you band with a small, loosely-knit group of fleeing Force-users who strive to re-establish the Jedi order.

You play as a knight with only partial training and plenty of room to grow and develop. Light RPG elements coax you to pursue various unlockable powers and upgrades via a skill tree.

Branching off from their efforts in the multiplayer arena, developer Respawn Entertainment returns to its Infinity Ward, "Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare" storytelling roots, spinning an entrancing tale that pushes the narrative forward at a breakneck pace.

There is plenty of influence from the likes of "Uncharted" at play as well, with cliff-climbing and jumping, traversal across the tops of speeding ships and intricate combat coming into play. Juggling a spectrum of Force abilities, including lightsaber combat and telekinesis, you feel like a powerful, yet always vulnerable mystical warrior.

"Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" opens up new possibilities of what fans can expect from an EA "Star Wars" effort. With this type of care, reverence and bold willingness to forge new paths, the prospects for interactive storytelling stretch as far and wide as galaxies unknown.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Haunted: Halloween '86 (The Curse of Possum Hollow)" Review


If you're digging the retro horror aesthetic of "Stranger Things," "Castle Rock" and "American Horror Story: 1984," "Haunted Halloween" is the next goody you need to go trick-or-treating for.

Developer Retrotainment Games, which is made up of Pittsburgh-based NES enthusiasts, started on the homebrew hobbyist scene but makes a foray into the big leagues here.

Its latest game is a brutally funny, thoroughly captivating throwback, which draws influence from the likes of "Ghouls & Ghosts" and "Castlevania," with a healthy mix of "Final Fight" and "River City Rampage" thrown in.

From the energetically composed chiptune soundtrack, to the lovingly crafted 8-bit visuals and the sly, satirical writing, "Haunted Halloween '86" feels oh so right on the Switch. Whether you're playing in handheld or docked mode, it time-warps children of the 80s back to their youth. For younger gamers, it's a window into the origins that seeded the basic grammar and tropes that would stretch and evolve into gaming's current state.

There's a reason there are so many throwback indie efforts these days -- the gameplay and storytellng mechanics thrived in the days when visual, audio and memory restrictions were so tight. Players were forced to fill in the technological gaps with their imagination, and that added to the legendary air of charm.

"Haunted Halloween '86" nails that aesthetic with resounding authority. Retrotainment Games captures just the right pitch, feel and delivery, and it will be a joy to watch their continuing efforts in recapturing gaming's glory days.


Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Anthill" Review


Lording over a society of scurrying insects is an intoxicating power trip. "Anthill" puts you in charge of an ant colony, charging you to sketch out pheromone trails that guide your insects to destinations to harvest food, defend the nest from predators and shore up the integrity of the hill.

An enhanced port of the 2011 mobile game, the offering from developer Image & Form makes the transition to the Switch with its pick-up-and-play charm intact.

The real-time strategy antics force you to keep your focus. Any misstep could trigger a cascade of mishaps that lead to disaster and derail all your hard work.

While a wholesale reimagining -- rather than a moderately upgraded port -- of the concept would have better taken advantage of the Switch's capabilities, the game makes for an apt fit on the console. Fans of the Pikmin series, in particular, will find much to enjoy here while Nintendo takes it sweet time advancing that series.

 Since the source material is so old and relatively obscure, chances are most games have never even heard of the predecessor, let alone played it. That adds to the sense of newness, and "Anthill" falls in line neatly with the Switch's already massive and rapidly growing stable of indie gems.

There's nothing much groundbreaking here, but the satisfying rhythm and flow of "Anthill" -- coupled with a steady, significant sense of challenge and accomplishment, keeps you scurrying with the frantic pragmatism of your little minions. This is a game well worth digging into.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Charlie's Angels"


For my full review, click here.

"Mary Skelter 2" Review


Emboldened with style to spare and a sly, subtle sense of humor, "Mary Skelter 2" is a headlong jump over the rainbow to a strange and disturbing realm overrun by a swarming evil. It's up to the kewpie-like Blood Maidens, who are as adorable as they are fierce, to turn the tide.

The roguelike RPG has you play as characters inspired by twisted versions of fairy tales, you take part in turn-based battles against enemy parties.

There's an urgency to the combat, due to Nightmares that pursue you in real time, spurring you to be efficient with your attacks in order to hasten the blood-based transformation system. You also have to take into account the mental status of your group, which is always threatened to be shaken by the horrors they face.

The sequel includes "Mary Skelter: Nightmares" (2016), so you can forge through the entire dungeon-crawling saga. Developer Compile Heart stuck to the themes and gameplay that served them well in the first game, stretching the battle structure to come up with scenarios that shove you out of your comfort zone.

Whenever you think you've got a foolproof routine established, the paradigm shifts and you're forced to recalibrate.

Elements of anime, manga, satirical horror and social commentary pulse through every aspect of the game, from the visuals and writing to the combat. It's all part of the package that makes "Mary Skelter 2" a nightmare worthy of your dreams.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Star Wars Pinball" Review


Pinball and "Star Wars" have always shared a Force-like link. The Saturday matinee-style sensibilities of the sci-fi monolith translate well to the pop-up unlockables inherent to the tabletop game.

Video game pinball fits on the Switch particularly well, with the system's shape replicating a miniaturized pinball table shape. Thus, it's little surprise that "Star Wars Pinball" feels so right on the Switch.

The revamped version of the 2013 Wii U game summons three new tables based on "The Clone Wars," Boba Fett and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Additional tables are promised as upcoming DLC, but there is plenty in the original package to keep you flipping your paddles in hypedrive mode through the end of the year.

A hotseat multiplayer mode lets you play couch co-op on the same console, adding an arcade-like intensity to showdowns.

These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with "The Mandalorian" releasing along with Disney+ today, the ballyhooed "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" due out this week and "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker" debuting in theaters next month. But even with those big-hitters tugging away at the attention of the franchise's fans, "Star Wars Pinball" shouldn't be overlooked.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"Death Stranding" Review


Freed from the expectations and routine of the "Metal Gear" sage, visionary developer Hideo Kojima indulges his inner muse to the extremes of the wild and bizarre limits of his imagination in "Death Stranding."

The result is a wildly clever, willfully obtuse thinkpiece that dares you to shunt your predispositions to the wayside and hurls yourself headlong down the increasingly bizarre rabbit hole. The journey is rewarding -- wickedly humorous, intellectually challenging and obstinately baffling.

Spiritual imagery and symbolism pulses throughout "Death Stranding," which thoroughly feels more like an under-the-radar indie download than a major-studio exclusive. The production quality lives up to the Kojima standard. He's always been among the most cinematic of gaming visionaries, prone to elaborate, exquisitely storyboarded cut scenes.

The exquisite voice cast, which includes the likes of Norman Reedus, Troy Baker and Tommie Earl Jenkins, helps drive home the Hollywood-level cachet. It also helps that the game is as gorgeous as any you're likely to play, with sweeping vistas that call to mind the best on offer from "Far Cry" or "Red Dead Redemption" games. There's also a healthy dose of influence from "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" lingering over the saga.

The less you know going in about the story, the better. You control a metaphysical delivery man, tasked with searching out packages and spiriting them to their destinations. Ever teetering on the bleeding edge between life and death, you carve out your own path in an open-world environment. You can toggle scanning and compass features that give you hints as to which roads you could be drawn to, but there are rewards equally as gratifying off the beaten path.

If you can, embrace "Death Stranding" as blindly as you can. Throw yourself into the persona of the protagonist emotionally as well as visually. Allow yourself to be lost, lay off the hand-holding features the game offers, avoid online walkthroughs and let yourself stumble upon the game's surprises by happenstance. The feeling of being lost and lonesome, as well as the rewarding nature of relying on your resourcefulness to forge ahead, is key to appreciating the aesthetic on which Kojima seems to be meditating.

"Death Stranding" may be dismissed as slow or flighty by some, but the fact that it's not particularly crafted to appeal to the masses only adds to its allure. This is not a game for your mom, or the beercan-to-forehead-crushing frat crowd. Even if you're a lifelong Kojima devotee, you've never played anything remotely like this, and the experience can be every bit as enriching, troubling and thrilling as you allow it to be. It's also one of the most subtly funny games I've encountered in years.

Pop-locking and moonwalking to its own bizarre beat, "Death Stranding" carries the unbridled confidence of a street performer. This is a game to die for.

Publisher provided review code.

"Midway" Review


Boasting impressive effects, a top-flight cast and a script that manages to nail a patriotic vibe while also being fair to the enemy, "Midway" is a robust, thrilling tribute to the battle that turned the tide of the World War II in the Pacific theater.

Director Roland Emmerich shies away from his usual overdramatic, exaggerated set piece tendencies to tell a measured and tight tale.

Wisely allowing the historical facts and built-in urgency of the stakes at play, the filmmaker provides one of his most mature efforts to date.

The makeup team deserves credit for making its cast of actors closely resemble their real-life counterparts. Nuanced performances from the likes of Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Patrick Wilson and Nick Jonas pay resonant tribute to the heroes of yesteryear.

While "Midway" takes the copilot seat to the 1976 classic, the update adds historical facts -- particularly from the participation of the intelligence community -- that wasn't available at the time, as well as providing a tear-jerking capstone to the Doolittle Raiders, the last of whom passed away this year.

The consummate Dad Movie, "Midway" is a well-crafted World War II film that will likely end up being one for the ages.

3.5 stars out of 4

Saturday, November 09, 2019

"Just Dance 2020" Review


Gaming doesn't have to be a sedentary, soda and chips-munching pastime. Games such as "Just Dance 2020" are the opposite, forcing you to get moving and making a fool of yourself -- fortunately away from public eyes.

If you'd like to advertise your moves, you can link up to social media and publish recorded excerpts of your awkward move-busting exploits -- provided you're playing on a system with the camera.

That's why the Kinect-friendly Xbox One version is still the best option in my eyes. The phased-out motion-sensing camera tracks your full body and records clips, allowing you to analyze your replays and make for a hilarious living room spectacle. That's the key to granting the title go-to party game status, thanks not only to the dancing, but the lyrics-providing karaoke aspect.

Most gamers -- even Xbox One devotees -- have no Kinect or camera at all. Those players sync their phones to the game, using the device to guesstimate their movements. Either way you go, you can track your workout progress by activating a sweat mode that tracks the calories you burn as you play.

The base game comes with more than 40 new songs. To get the most out of the game, though, you'll need to spring for a $25 yearlong Unlimited pass, which grants you access to more than 500 songs from previous games.

Since the game comes at a discount -- it's listed at $40, but available at $35 on Amazon -- it's easier to justify the subscription. As usual, the game comes with a 30-day free trial. The upfront cost sure beats the old system, which nickel-and-dimed you with constant microtransactions to download new tracks. Ubisoft regularly pumps out new songs to Unlimited for no extra cost.

Co-op multiplayer is the game's high point, provided you have enough space in your living room to allow as many as four people to boogie down simultaneously. You can also take your show online, competing in season-segmented competitions that pit you against worldwide opponents in single and multi-part competitions, as well as leaderboards.

With minor enhancements to visuals, menu design and load times. "Just Dance 2020" incrementally improves on a rock-solid base to maintain the franchise's standards. It will get your limbs flailing and heart pumping, allowing you to knock out your daily workout while dancing and singing safely hidden away from the outside world.

Publisher provided review code.

"Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition" Review


It's said that "Dungeons & Dragons" inspired just about every video game that hit the market, role-playing games in particular. The seminal "Baldur's Gate" titles were some of the truest synthesizers of the "D&D" aesthetic, rivaling "Final Fantasy" for the mindshare of a generation of RPG enthusiasts.

Originally released in 1998 and 2000, the RPGs paved the way for the likes of "Dragon Age" and "Elder Scrolls." The series may have fallen by the wayside, but its influence continues to reign.

Skybound Games took great care in translating the aesthetics to modern sensibilities, giving the visuals HD enhancements while staying true to the original look. Measures were also taken to bring the sound design, animations and save systems up to modern standards.

Rereleased on PC in 2012 in their current enhanced editions, the games now make their debuts on consoles, opening up their riches to a vast new segment of modern gamers.

Still, the "Baldur's Gate" games look and play very much as you remember two decades ago. What was cutting-edge technology and storytelling at the time now seems rustic and antiquated. Still, there are some fantastic adventures to be had, and you can find yourself sinking dozens of hours into upgrading your characters and venturing off on a multitude of quests.

It's hard to fire the old games up and keep a wide, dopey grin off your face. The "Baldur's Gate" games wear their geekiness proudly on their sleeves. You feel as though you have torn open a portal to the past.

Publisher provided review code.