Monday, October 16, 2017

"South Park: The Fractured But Whole" Review

Comedy games pretty much weren't a thing before Trey Parker and Matt Stone started making "South Park" RPGs. And that includes the lame gaming products the duo allowed to be slapped onto the "South Park" name before they began their renaissance with "South Park: The Stick of Truth" three years back.

Cramming enough incisive dialogue and satire to fill an entire season of episodes into a single game, "The Fractured But Whole" maintains the high standard established by the last game.

Just as "The Stick of Truth" shredded high fantasy tropes, "The Fractured But Whole" takes its mocking wit to the realm of overextended superhero franchises. Cartman, Stan, Kyle and the gang form a squadron of superheroes whose purpose isn't so much to protect innocents and chase down criminals as it is to make loads of cash with sequels, prequels and spinoffs.

You once again create your own avatar as the new kid in town, setting your difficulty based on the shade of skin color you choose. After starting with an absurd minigame set on a toilet, you venture out into an ever-expanding open world, with new areas unlocked to you as you complete missions and battles.

The format is divided into days, with each night ending with your character going to bed. An assortment of ever-shifting side missions, items and quests await you in each new frame, with decisions that can alter the dialogue and sight gags you encounter.

Occasional cinematics never trip up the momentum of the story. The same isn't so of design bottlenecks, which can be frustrating and force some trial and error before advancing. The impetus to continue is the assurance that tons of laughs await. Stone and Parker maintain their stratospheric level of comedy throughout, immune to the fear that the further into the game the content is placed, the fewer gamers will experience it.

"South Park: The Fractured But Whole" is the rare crossover success that could bring new players into the fold. Fans of the franchise who were content with the PS3/Xbox 360 generation will now have to join the modern gaming age to experience more of the goods they enjoy on a weekly basis in the fall. They'll find it well worth the price of access, especially since early-release copies of the new game come bundled with a remastered version of the previous one. Those unaccustomed to constant chuckling as they jockey the controller will have to get used to it, because that's the way Parker and Stone roll.

  Publisher provided review code.

"Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth" Review

Atlus's "Etrian Odyssey" series is one of the only -- and by far the most successful -- traditional JRPGs to keep on keeping on in an era in which so many stalwart franchises have fallen to the wayside. Operating like a game out of time, it continues to adhere to old-school sensibilities while tacking on more and more modern niceties.

The result is an engrossing, colossally deep experience that could very well shanghai your 3DS cartridge slot for the next several months.

After building and customizing your characters, which you can mix and match to form parties that fit the needs of your missions. You'll need a wide range of loadouts and specialties to match the challenges that confront you, especially if you choose the harder-core of the two difficulties.

Rich, if a little wordy, writing sets a decidedly epic tone that carries resonance throughout the sprawling saga as it develops. And as expansive and winding as your story turns out to be -- significantly affected by your own choices, each new playthrough will doubtlessly be different than the one that came before. The game pushes its story beyond the myth and well into the realm of obsession.

Publisher provided review code.

iPhone 8 Plus Review

Apple's iPhone 8 Plus is no one's idea of a fallback phone. Despite muted fan reaction compared to previous releases, the phone is a knockout that improves on the impressive groundwork laid by its predecessors, overcoming nagging shortcomings of the past while pressing forward to realms yet undefined. Whip out iPhone 8 Plus and expect jealous glances.

Cynics will whine that Apple hasn't made many design innovations since the advent of the 6 and 6 Plus in 2014, that the addition of wireless charging is an effort to play catch-up with its Samsung rivals and that the looming release of the iPhone X rendered the 8 Plus obsolete as soon as it hit the market.

All that cynicism melts away the second you get your hands on the device. While the 8 Plus may not be a colossal leap forward, it's a combination of incremental improvements that form to craft the collective impressive step that will tempt both update-hungry annual Apple updaters and Android afficionados alike.

The advents of the bionic chip and AR, upgrades to 3D Touch, improved cameras, speakers and battery life all team up to form a superphone that manages to make the excellent iPhone 7 Plus seem like a feature-poor relic from yesteryear.

At the top of the list of enhancements is the 12MP camera. Equipped with a bigger, speedier sensor and enhanced video stabilization to smooth out your shakes, the camera is designed to snag sexy sunsets, low-light portraits, fast-paced action stills and shimmering color, all in either snapshots, Harry Potter-style Live Photos or video that can run at a 60fps clip at 1080p resolution. A cadre of settings allows you to adjust your shot to your vision, whether it be intentionally blurry-background stage lighting, natural lighting or a studio look. Photo geeks will adore the seemingly infinite post-production tweaks and pre and mid-shoot adjustments available to those willing to experiment.

The battery life is said to have been improved by 25 percent or so, but my experience found it dwarfing the endurance of both a 7 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 by several hours. Fast-charging from either the lightning port or more convenient wireless charging means you'll spend lest time attached to a wall or computer dock.

The video and sound the phone pumps out make the phone more of a draw as a gaming and video watching outlet. Combined with that boosted battery life, you feel less guilty maxing out your data plan while messing around on commutes or office waits. Game developers are taking the AR enhancements and running, pumping out a steady stream of amusements that let you interact with avatars and objects layered over real-world scenes. Here's hoping a future update integrates virtual reality to the level of competitors.

On top of all that, the phone is more resistant to water and drops. Although a case is still recommended, those who prefer taking their phone around naked will better enjoy the new all-glass casing. Even should you cloak your precious investment with a case, the wireless charging still works just as well.

Bursting with practical upgrades that emerge the more you use the device, the iPhone 8 Plus is no placeholder or silver medalist. Built to impress, withstand accidental abuse, snap brilliant shots and handle all your diverse needs without flashing that annoying "low battery" notification, the 8 Plus nails it at just about every level.

Apple provided loaner device.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"Echo" Review

A third-person sci-fi adventure that adapts to the style and choices you establish, "Echo" tells the story of En (Rose Leslie), a space traveler who emerges from cryo-sleep to explore a palace that manifests traces of her former life.

The palace is a haunting realm that reflects En's actions, acting as a character that analyzes, baits and subtly mocks her -- acting as a puzzle that needs to be manipulated and overcome.

Although developer Ultra Ultra does a solid job of establishing an exotic setting, it falls a bit short with narrative thrust. En moves so slowly that you wish there was an option to sprint. The open-ended level design compounds the frustration of taking an incorrect path.

Still, the narrative's meditative and introspective tone serves as a welcome departure from most of the fast-paced, visceral fare that has flooded the marketplace. "Echo" is a methodical, cerebral journey that tends to lull you into its hypnotic pull.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"88 Heroes -- 98 Heroes Edition" Review

You can't help but chuckle at the premise of "88 Heroes." Set at 8:08 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1988, the nefarious Doctor H8 will rain nuclear destruction on the world with his 88 nuclear warheads unless he receives $88 octillion within 88 minutes.

Luckily, you and 87 other heroes have what it takes to bring him down.

Released in January on PS4, the 2D platformer gets a special edition rerelease on the Switch. Speedy, breezy platforming is the order of the day, with stiff challenges worthy of "N+" and "Super Meat Boy."

Satirical humor courses throughout every scene. The members of Indie dev Rising Star Games is clearly well versed in the trappings of old-school thrills, and channel their copious knowledge into a ludicrous tribute.

While the premise tends to grow stale in extended play sessions, it works well in the quick, on-the-go stations that the Switch was geared for in portable mode. Luckily it doesn't cost $88.
Publisher provided review code.

"The Foreigner" Review

For my full review, click here.

"Raiden V: Director's Cut" Review

Originally released in 2016, MOSS's retro throwback bullet hell shooter has re-emerged in director's cut form on PS4. Those who are into classic shooters such as "Life Force" and "Galaga" will eat up the gameplay, which has you select your fighter craft and move it around the ever-scrolling screen as relentless enemy formations come at you.

The "Raiden" has been holding the genre's standard high since the early 1990s, when it was king of the arcades, and has ably shifted to consoles, where it serves as a welcome change of pace from more complicated games of today.

The main change from previous games is the graphics. The detail and particle effects of explosions, upgrades and weaponry is sharper and more vibrant, while the creativity of upgradable weapons remains consistent. Snake-like streams of weaponry, screen-frazzling smartbombs and pulse shields help you make your way through simplistic yet consistently challenging levels.

Ample difficulty settings allow newbies to taste the fun while providing a stiff challenge for vets. A compelling download for those looking for some lighter fare amid the coming onslaught of serious games, "Raiden V" is a welcome blast from the past.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"The Evil Within 2" Review

"The Evil Within" seized the survival horror banner from "Resident Evil," which has long since evolved into more of an action-oriented escapade. In both the original 2014 "The Evil Within" and its impressive sequel, you find yourself scrambling in the dark to escape from overwhelmingly bleak scenes, left with only your wits and impulses to guide you through.

You once again play as Sebastian Castellanos, a cop suffering from a family tragedy who submits to a thought manipulation program called STEM in a desperate attempt to reunite with his daughter, who he believes died in a fire.

You sink into Sebastian's mind, a prison of psychoses. You find yourself confronting a series of nightmare-like hallucinations with limited resources at your disposal.

Customization options abound, starting from control options and difficulty levels at the onset. You can also load out your character with attributes that allow you to play the way you want to. If you prefer to confront your opponents with angst and ammunition, setting traps to lure in the big bads, have at it. If you would rather hone your stealth and hiding abilities, you can build your character to suit those purposes, thanks to a flexible suite of craftable materials.

Unlockables abound for those willing to devote the time to exploring the harrowing environments. The emphasis throughout is on survival despite horrific odds, and the horror comes from not only jum scares but a nagging sense of hopelessness. Flick off the lights, sink into a chair and enjoy an engrossingly agonizing horror experience.

Publisher provided review code. 

Book Report: "The End of Eternity"

Isaac Asimov didn't just present visions of the future, he put considerable thought into the moral implications of what factors such as artificial intelligence, time travel and space exploration would have on culture as well as the way it would skew the collective long-term purpose of mankind. "The End of Eternity" contemplates the effects that traveling through time would have on the moral makeup of political leaders, projecting moral wars that would span centuries.

At the kernel of the treatise is a sad love story and gripping espionage thriller. Asimov's plotting would have held up just as well if no sci-fi was involved and all the backstabbing, misdirection and vengeance quests took place in a contemporary city. If he held true to his storytelling he would have ended up with something approaching perfection. Instead, he gives up on his story in the final chapters and takes to characters swapping monologues that would better serve as term papers.

"Middle-earth: Shadow of War" Review

Monolith Productions lives up to its lofty moniker by going big at every opportunity.

Back in 2014, it harnessed the overwhelming mythos of J.R.R. Tolkien's universe to produce an epic, branching-paths adventure that transcended both the books and films. The innovated Nemesis system had you forge rivalries and alliances with opponents that would come back to haunt you or even pay off positively in endeavors down the line.

Despite its ambitious reach, Monolith's vision exceeded its grasp, largely due to technological limitations of the time. Now with experience and advancements on its side, Monolith goes in for the glorious kill with "Shadow of War." Once again taking the reins of human-wraith hybrid Talion on his obsessive quest to get back at Sauron, the saga lives up to the lofty expectations left by the predecessor. In many ways, this was the game that the original promised to be but didn't quite achieve.

Although the architecture of the RPG elements can be intimidating, the level design has a comforting way of presenting you your tasks in a piecemeal manor that helps you master them without being overwhelmed. You can go from a someone who has no idea what they're doing to a masterful, bast-dispatching, orc-enslaving ninja of vengeance in minutes.

The world-building aspects come later on, tasking you to conquer the realm by setting up and maintaining feifdoms lorded over by submissive rivals. The game soars higher in its action and visual aspects than it does in its franchise mode-style amalgam, but the total package meshes well and makes sense.

Although weighed down by everpresent microtransactions prompts urging you to cough up a stream of money as continuous as Mordor's orc battalions, "Shadow of War" provides a path to victory for those who refuse to play ball. It seems that you don't need to buy anything to win, although spending big on loot boxes and premium orcs will ease your bath to endgame triumph.

But don't expect to make it to that point any time soon. Loaded with sidequests and bursting with things to do and places to explore, "Shadow of War" is more of a place to spend time than a point-to-point narrative to barrel through. Monolith's realm is even more engaging than the Tolkien books and films that came before, as well as its original game.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

"Sine Mora EX" Review

Newly released on Switch, "Sine Mora EX" is more than a quick and dirty port. The bullet hell escapade seems like a natural fit for Nintendo's handheld/home console hybrid.

Even if you rock a colossal TV with surround sound, the game plays far better when in handheld mode.

With the ability to hunch over, glue your eyes to the screen and exact sweet vengeance on the swarms of enemy aircraft that have been pummeling you into oblivion.

While the game was a superb effort in its original form, and especially its enhanced EX mode, "Sine Mora" shines brightest on the Switch. If you own Nintendo's console, the infinitely replayable shooter is well worth the $30 it costs to add to your library.

Publisher provided review code.

"Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga: Bowser's Minions" Review

Dusting off a 2003 GameBoy Advance classic, developer AlphaDream not only remakes "Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga," but reinvents it for the Nintendo 3DS, making the game look and play better than ever before while retaining the rollicking sense of humor and clever puzzle design that tantalized fans 14 years ago.

The result is a vital entry in a somewhat slow year for the system, building off the momentum of "Metroid: Samus Returns," another brilliant remake from Nintendo's handheld past. As expected, the main quest is still there in all its glory. You juggle Mario and Luigi in their efforts to track down Bowser, hunting down his lackeys in a series of interactive turn-based battles. You can shift the tide with combo attacks, special moves and items.

The main draw for those looking for something new is the "Minion Quest: The Search for Bowser" mode, which lets you play as Captain Goomba, who leads ShyGuy, Boo and other members of Mario's rogues gallery as they hunt down their leader in an adventure that runs parallel to the good guys' journey.

Amiibo collectors will find plenty of outlets for their army of miniature statues. All figures from the Mario universe are compatible with the game, popping out bonuses and item drops that help you on your voyage.

Every bit the giggle-inducing good time that the original was -- and topped off with a new quest that stands tall in the shadow of the original -- "Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga: Bowser's Minions" is a handheld blast that proves Nintendo still has plenty of love for its handheld-only systems as we move deeper into the Switch era.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

"Forza Motorsport 7" Review

It used to be that the standard "Forza Motorsport" series did all the stiff-lipped heavy lifting, leaving it to the "Forza Horizon" offshoot to inject a sense of free-wheeling fun. "Forza Motorsport 7" marks the apex of a years-in-coming change to that paradigm, imbued with enough arcadey adaptations to match its spinoff in the fun factor while still flooring it in the realm of accurate simulation.

Easily the most accessible mainline "Forza" game to date, "7" is something newcomers can pick up and play without feeling the urge to slam their controllers in frustration. With enough assists and a handy rewind mode that makes the racing process less solemn, the floor has been lowered for newbies.

Veterans won't feel that their obsession has been nerfed. You can still opt for ultra-punishing simulation specs, made all the more challenging due to varied weather options. The sense of speed the game imbues its vehicles at every level is as engrossingly addictive as ever.

With more than 700 cars available to pick up through its web of win bonuses, promotions in-game credits and real-life currency -- each with countless customization options -- there is a limitless amount of permutations to your vehicle stables.

The variety of racing classifications and tracks is just as staggering. From the opening tutorial, you get a taste of the various speedsters, trucks and open wheel rides available. "Forza Motorsport 7" wears the burden of being Microsoft's only first-party late-2017 release with as much smooth confidence as a world-class racecar driver. 
Publisher provided review code.