Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Below" Review


With the roguelike genre having made a strong comeback to prominence, developers have outdone one another in an effort to distinguish themselves from the pack. Leave it to Capy Games to push the genre's unforgiving aspects to their limit.

With "Below," Capy has unleashed a punishing, adamantly old-school take on roguelikes. With no ability to pause, one-hit permadeath coupled with forced restarts and zero handholding in the form of tutorials.

Even with the archetypes from older games firmly in place, there are still technological improvements, even if some are a bit anochranistic. Kinect owners on the Xbox One version can monitor your room surroundings to adjust procedural iterations of the levels.

Much of the allure comes in feeling your way through the formidable systems. To get the full effect, avoid online walkthroughs and go into the game blind. The less you take into it, the more you'll get out of it.

The story involves a grim power known as the Darkness that has put the realm in a chokehold. You arrive at a beachhead and can light a campfire, scrounge for items, spelunk in caves and find and utilize incongruous items.

Feeling your way through the inventory and action system is rewarding, providing an immense sense of discovery that empowers you as you go through. Although death is frequent and harsh, you're meant to learn harsh lessons from your failures, coming back with redoubled efforts hardened by the wisdom granted by gameplay experience rather than artificial statistical buffs of standard RPGs.

"Below" doesn't hold back when it comes to giving gamers an authentically brutal experience, and that motif allows some of the game's rougher edges to seem forgivable. Capy Games didn't strive for perfection, but thrives in the way it sets gamers up against obtuse, borderline unfair challenges. If you're up to the ordeal, you'll be intrigue in what lies "Below."
Publisher provided review code.

"Katamary Damacy REROLL" Review


The concept was so simple it was a surprise that it was never copied. The concept was so insane that it's a wonder it was ever even conceived, much less executed. "

Katamari Damacy" was a wacky action/puzzle/collect-a-thon that had players manipulate a ball around various levels, gathering objects in its wake that made it bigger and bigger.

As the Prince, you do all this to please the sardonic, eccentrically domineering King of All Cosmos, who demands that you craft giant Katamari balls to replace stars that have fallen out of the sky. The goofy setup was a starting point for a cavalcade of nonsensical jokes and non sequiturs.

Fourteen years after its original release, the relentless charmer has tujmbled back into public consciousness, popping up in a remake on PC and Switch as "Katamari Damacy REROLL."

The game doesn't reinvent the wheel, or Katamari for that matter, and that's just as well, because the mechanics that entranced gamers in 2004 remain every bit as alluring.

The latter's dual analogue sticks make for an ideal control setup, allowing you to use one for directional force and the other to change the angle at which you address the Katamari. If you're playing on your TV, you don't need to manipulate the sticks at all, using wrist twists to direct your Katamari.

An all-ages romp, "Katamari Damacy REROLL" is a relentlessly paced lark that, like a Katamari, only gathers stature and momentum as it rolls along. Playing it on the Switch feels just right, as though the PlayStation 2 version was just a beta for its eventual ideal landing spot. The King of All Cosmos would be pleased to see the new star hoisted into the skies.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went through phases of appreciation, satisfaction boredom, annoyance, and outright resentment. Bradbury's stab at a sci-fi YA adventure is worthwhile due to its thought-provoking monologues and interesting depiction of evil's influence and utility in mankind.

Will and Jim are 13-year-old boys who are sucked into the bowels of a traveling, Mephistophilean carnival that is run by a tattooed devil incarnate who intends to harvest their souls, as well as any other small-town bumpkins they can manage. They ignore their parents' wishes and take it upon themselves to expose the demons on their own, Hardy Boys style.

The teen empowerment fantasy fuels the narrative through its most ridiculous moments. I could tolerate the many needed logical stretches to stay present in the story, but Will's twerpiness drove me over the edge. It got to the point where I cringed whenever the next idiotic phrase came out of his mouth, and I rooted for his failure and death.

His dad, who becomes a major part of the story later on, is more tolerable, but at times equally annoying. How he comes to know everything about the carnival, where its denizens came from how to neutralize the operation and what its future held, is head-smackingly dumb.

Christian Rummel's narration in the Audible version does Will no favors, deploying a whiny voice that makes him even harder to stomach. A more straightforward reading would have salved the irritation a bit.

The ending is almost laughably insipid, as though Bradbury has no idea what to do with his endgame and just went with the first, dumbest idea that occurred to him.

Even on a somewhat off day, Bradbury is a brainy, thought-provoking writer with much to say that's worth pondering. This is not the author at his best, but the good moments manage to redeem the awful.

Publisher provided review code.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"Escape Doodland" Review


Playing like a sprint through the hyperactive imagination of a 14-year-old, "Escape Doodland" stands out with its distinctive artistic flair.

Every corner of the screen looks like freehand pen or colored pencil sketches. The backgrounds and characters bubble with miniscule grotesque, intricate details that emerge from idle sketching.

It's impossible to play the effort from flukyMachine without a big smile on your face. Giant monsters chase you down through the outrageous 2.5-D, endless runner platformer stages.

Balance and precision were not on the table during the conception stage. This is a mean, nasty and often hilarious game that is purely out to get you.

Sticking to the juvenile motif, you use farts as diversionary weapons and boosts for speed and jumps. What the character ate to generate all this fuel is worthy of NASA research.

Expect to die early and often, through increasingly sadistic means. You find yourself chomped, chewed, swallowed whole, splattered and ground to bits. The trick is that the game manages to keep you eagerly coming back for more instead of scaring you off. That's the mark of precision conceptualization and design disguised as a haphazard mess.

Publisher provided review code.

"Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP" Switch Review


Inventiveness is the currency in which Capybara Games and Superbrothers traffic in "Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP." The wildly creative narrative reinterprets action/fantasy and puzzle game tropes, all set to a distinctive score by Jim Guthrie.

The 2012 blast of fresh indie game air, which made an impression on the scene when it debuted on PC and Smartphones, re-emerges on the Switch.

The less time spent explaining/rationalizing the loopy plot the better. There are plenty of oddball story beats to digest, but "Sword & Sorcery" is more about emergent gameplay that occurs when you tinker with the odds and ends of the design.

Zany humor pulses from every facet of the gameplay. Still more surprising is the heart that emerges. A brainy, artful creation, "Sword & Sorcery" is challenging in more than one respect. Like an engaging portrait or novel, there is plenty to sift through and discuss.

On the downside, the commitment to an eclectic sense of style may scare off gamers used to more traditional experiences. Strictly for those who lean toward the unconventional, "Sword & Sorcery" hints at what mobile gaming could have become had it not plateaued during the middle of the decade.

Finding a welcome landing spot on the Switch is a welcome and fitting next act for a game that might have otherwise faded into oblivion.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"R-Type Dimensions EX" Switch Review


Resurrecting two of the greatest shmup titles ever created, "R-Type Dimensions EX" rounds up the first two space shooters into one remastered package on the Switch.

With 14 levels filled with megaships, screen-filling beasts and side-scrolling obstacles to blast your way through, the game ratchets up the difficulty to levels that were acceptable in the 1980s but are rarely seen in this era.

The replay value comes in embracing the intense challenge and gradually working your way toward mastery. Ultimately, you'll find yourself losing yourself in the heat and flow of the game, dodging and destroying enemies as second nature, without even focusing.

Two-player co-op makes the challenge heaped upon you easier to deal with, and a slow-motion mode lets you break down your mistakes and adjust accordingly.

Graphics have been considerably upgraded, but those who are fans of the original, pixelated visuals can swap back and forth between the current and old visuals at any time. Customizable controls allow you to rejigger and tweak the options to your liking.

Whether you're a series veteran or a newcomer, "R-Type Dimensions EX" has plenty to offer you. It's an apt fit for the Switch, thriving on your TV, as well as in handheld mode. The ticket to deep space shenanigans works as a time machine as well, transporting you back to its 80s heyday.
Publisher provided review code.

"Ticket to Ride" Review


The beloved railway-themed board game evolves in "Ticket to Ride," which delivers all the frenzied, competitive gameplay and removes the tedious setup, piece management and cleanup.

Another in a series of local multiplayer-focused PS4 exclusives, including the quiz game "Knowledge is Power" and murder mystery "Hidden Agenda," "Ticket to Ride."

After the initial hassle of having all players download the game-specific app and connecting to the same local WiFi network as your console, you dig in to the fast-paced rail building. The necessity of using phones or tablets rather than controllers makes it easy for larger groups to get in on the action without making the host splurge on hardware.

While the visuals are less than spectacular, they are adequate and don't get in the way. Developers Days of Wonder and Asmodee Digital , which are cognizant that the airtight gameplay is the main drawn, prioritize functionality above all else.

Like other PlayLink games, the more players who get involved, the better time you're in for, with the game acting as a conduit to elicit the ribbing and inside jokes that emerge when friends gather and set their wits on the line against one another.

"Ticket to Ride" is at its best when it goes off the rails, setting the room afire with angst, stress and laughs. It takes the party game concept to a new level, and makes you think twice before cracking open the old board game.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" Review


These are relative boom times for Lovecraftian horror games, with the combat-focused strategy title "Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" following the measured narrative stylings of "Call of Cthulhu."

The newer game, an action-packed turn-based effort in the tradition of "XCOM" and "Valkyria Chronicles," explores the universe's bizarre creatures and their spellbinding powers and abilities, crossed with the trappings of World War II.

This will all seem familiar to tabletop RPG enthusiasts, because developer Auroch Digital adapted the card and miniature setup to conjure the game.

Maintaining the dice-roll sensibilities of combat odds, as well as the sense of progression that allows you to bend those odds to your favor, the result is a balanced effort that taxes your willingness to gauge opportunistic aggression with measured defense.

Those who go in with heedless guns blazing are likely to find themselves repeating levels, as will those who fail to press their advantage when it arises. Multiple variables come into play as things develop, with light and dark powers to orchestrate, shifting senses of momentum that tweak the circumstances and a psychological health dynamic that wears your forces down as they're exposed to further trauma.

The game doesn't do much in the way of holding your hand, but does deliver fair, constructive lessons along with your failures. When you suffer setbacks, you come back stronger and more capable. Heeding the call of battle in "Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" is a brutal, unforgiving affair that never fails to get your adrenaline flowing.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Theater Review: "The Music Man"


"The Music Man" tends to be one of the classic musicals that is too much taken for granted to be regarded as lively and poignant. Leave it to Arizona Theatre Company to breathe fresh life into its creaky bones of Meredith Wilson's opus.

Bill English plays title character Harold Hill with the necessarily heedless devil-may-care panache to keep him likable even as he deceives the town's innocents. He heads up a superb cast of rambunctious performers, elegant singers and athletic dancers.

Standouts include Danny Scheie in an unrepentant hammy tour de force as dopey villain Mayor Shinn, drawing a slew of belly laughs with ludicrous monologues and one-liners. Manna Nichols delivers show-stopping vocals as Harold's bookish love interest, Marian. Amy Button, Carly Natania Grossman, Jay Garcia and George Slotin anchor an outstanding ensemble.

Before the performance, Arizona Theatre Company's brain trust took the stage and revealed that this is the most expensive production in the organization's 52 years. The bulk of the expense seems to have gone into the elaborate sets, which switch out and flow into the narrative in seamless transitions and impressive mobility. Director David Ivers orchestrates the impressive pieces with aplomb.

The synchronicity of the sets and performers is obvious from the outset, with the opening number, "Rock Island," in which traveling salesmen gossip on a train ride. The standout number is the second song in act two, "Shipoopi," an exhausting couples routine that pushes the ballroom and stunt talents of the dancers to the limit. Choreographer Jaclyn Miller and her charges deserve a mid-show standing ovation for that number alone.

Passionate and poignant messages keep the 1957 writing relevant. The show preaches the urgency of financial support of community arts, as well as the innate need for artistic expression that often lies dormant in the heart. The metaphorical song "The Music Man" belts out rings heartfelt and true through the decades.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of "The Music Man" plays through Dec. 30. Buy tickets here.

Book Report: "Fahrenheit 451"

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You would think a book like this would be dated, but it holds up astoundingly well. Now the story of a world without physical books is alarmingly prophetic, if a little misdirected in its alarmism.

The dystopian portrait Ray Bradbury paints is chilling, if a little perfunctory. The cliches it established have been copied to the point that they play like white noise. Bradbury leans away from his weaknesses in descriptive storytelling, delving more into philosophical debates that stem from dueling monologues of its conflicted characters.

Bradbury ultimately arrives at the point that it's not the medium that matters, but the thirst for knowledge and exploration of thought that keeps the human mind vital. Oral tradition, public discussion and the expansive reach that digital distribution delivers in the form of audio and e-books makes physical volumes all but obsolete.

Even more poignant is the book's "Handmaid's Tale"-like message that fascism doesn't always come by violent revolution, but by a methodical chipping away of civil liberties and public curiosity.

In the Audible version, Tim Robbins provides brainy, insightful narration that shades Bradbury's thoughts with depth and nuance, infusing the book's polemics with fevered angst.

The slippery slope grows steeper the longer it remains unchallenged. It's important for thought-provoking works like this to spark people into checking the temperature before things get out of control.

Publisher provided review code.

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Thursday, December 06, 2018

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey: Legacy of the First Blade Episode 1 - Hunted" Review


Upon release in October, "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" was already a staggeringly large game, with a vast world bursting with sidequests to explore. "Legacy of the First Blade Episode 1 - Hunted," the first of three scheduled expansions, continues to ratchet up the depth and reach of one of the year's most impressive open-world titles.

Flowing naturally from the base campaign, the saga is a bite-sized addition to the mythos, taking pains to connect the sprawling Ancient Greek opus with the fiction of the series proper, as well as last year's "Assassin's Cred Origins."

Back from that game is the Order of the Ancient, which is fated to evolve into the Templars -- future antagonists of the assassins.

It's on you to investigate mysterious figures who pull strings from behind the scenes. The M.O. stays the same: Investigate, infiltrate and execute your targets, vaulting you toward the next branching path.

Set in the Macedonia sector of the map, "Hunted" is a tight, interlocking series of missions with satisfying ties to the rest of the series and hints of what's to come. This is single-player DLC done right, giving gamers distracted by the likes of "Red Dead Redemption 2" an excellent reason to dive back into the fray.

Publisher provided review code.