Monday, August 21, 2017

"Yakuza Kiwami" Review

Hot on the heels of the 1980s-set "Yakuza 0" comes yet another prequel to Sega's somber gangland saga, which melds open world combat missions with social and leisure activities. The new game, set in 1995, tracking the next stage of the career of Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist in "Yakuza 0," in his continued rise to prominence.

This time out, you are tasked to protect an orphan while tracking down $10 billion yen in missing cash. The game amounts to a remake of the little-played original "Yakuza," gussied up with an HD makeover, with new plot elements sprinkled among a bushel of previously unreleased content.

As you traverse the city, you advance your skills by racking up experience points by completing various activities. There are also standard minigames, such as parlor arcade diversions and the ever-popular rhythm-based karaoke minigame you can use to seep into the culture and blow off steam in between missions.

Although some of the old seams in the structure of the decades-old game continue to show. "Yakuza: Kiwami" feels like a fresh enough experience to justify the rerelease. Although the games that followed were fuller-featured explorations into the mythos, there's something refreshing about exploring the series' roots in a package blessed with the smooth trappings of modern systems, including short load times, graphical polish and technical polish.

Firmly entrenched as an eclectic niche attraction, "Yakuza" games refuse to fade into the background. This has been an impressive year for the franchise, which shows no sign of slowing. The new release is more than enough to whet the appetite for the next full-blown sequel.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"The Metronomicon: Slay the Dance Floor" Review

From the "just crazy enough to work" department comes "The Metronomicon: Slay the Dance Floor," which blends rhythm game sensibilities with "Puzzle Quest" style RPG battles.

You lead your glam squad of dancing medieval knights, mages and sorcerers through face-offs with villains by scrolling from one party member to the next, setting off attacks by tapping face buttons in time with onscreen prompts. The truly adventurous can dust off their music game guitars to change up the control inputs.

Catchy grooves and a compelling gameplay loop give you reason to power through the story. You may have played several games that the play style reminds you of, but the end product is an amalgam of features that becomes something unprecedented in gamedom.

A steady stream of DLC packs have trickled out shortly after initial release, freshening up and expanding the content repertoire. The more of "The Metronomicon" you see, the more joyfully absurd it gets. The best way to handle it is to feel the flow and bust some moves to its sick beats.

Publisher provided review code.

"Sonic Mania" Review

It's been a long while since Sonic the Hedgehog could hold his blue spiked head high, but the retro throwback "Sonic Mania" manages to move the hero forward by taking a giant leap back in time.

Paying loving tribute to the Blue Blur's most beloved adventures in the Sega Genesis era, the game captures Sonic's sense of speed, applying it gracefully to creative, precisely calibrated levels that allow you to let the hero rip through with minimal guidance or precise maneuvers.

3D bonus levels maintain Sonic's sense of speed, setting you loose amid a frantic free-for-all. Unlockables and hidden bonuses abound, giving you reason to come back and replay levels to master their intricacies.

Couch co-op adds a dimension to the fun, with rubber-banding that places priority on the faster of the two players, making it easy for an experienced player to carry along someone who is just along for the ride.

Despite the emphasis on old school charms, "Sonic Mania" does just enough to move the franchise forward. It's easy to envision this as the launch of a new direction for the series. Now that Sonic has finally gotten out of his own way, the pathway to glory is as free and clear as the wide-open fields of Green Hill Zone.

Publisher provided review code.

"Logan Lucky" Review

For my full review, click here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"Madden NFL 18" Review

Some dismiss single-player story modes in annual sports games as shameless gimmicks meant to get gamers to re-up each season, but they can emerge as essential, dynamic forces that distinguish each edition if they're executed properly.

That's the case in "Longshot," a QTE and multiple choice quiz-heavy playable film that paces "Madden NFL 18." Tracking the rise of a former star college quarterback who abruptly quit midway through his career through an unlikely rise through the regional combine circuit and an exploitative reality show, the mode tells a fresh, relatable story that shows the focus developers have placed on moving the Madden franchise forward.

Also worth checking it is Madden Ultimate Team squads, which beefs up the card-based fantasy team game by implementing an online co-op mode that lets you hook up with friends to challenge other teams for supremacy on the field.

Online rosters are constantly updated and patched in, delivering a flow of injuries, free-agent signings and depth chart flips to both franchise and online single-player.

On the field, the product is only barely distinguishable from last year's effort, with passing targeting getting most of the emphasis. The Frostbite engine-driven visuals and physics continue to shine.

There is also more tweakability in philosophies. As you start the game, you select your difficulty level, as well as the gameplay style, choosing from among over-the-top arcade mode, steady, intense sim mode and balance-ephasizing competitive mode.

A deep, inventive package, "Madden NFL 18" is a solid pickup not only for annual enthusiasts, but lapsed players curious about the story mode and those with pals looking to do some damage in the online co-op mode. The game is not only a thrilling touchdown, but a celebratory spike over the crossbar.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice" Review

An ambitious and fevered psychological journey, "Hellblade: Senua's Song" shatters convention to deliver a thoroughly disturbing action-adventure with brutal consequences you don't often see in modern games.

Its titular heroine is a capable puzzle-solver and agile, deadly huntress. She is both troubled and somewhat aided by an inner dialogue of mixed and splintered personalities. These conflicting voices sometimes give her guidance that boosts her along, or stifles her and ridicules her endeavors. She is a woman whose mind is steadily crushed by the weight and pressures of the interdimensional quest set before her, with each loss pushing her further to her breaking point.

In most games of the past couple decades, death has had little consequence. You shake it off, respawn and get back at it. "Hellblade" zags rather than zigs, making the protagonist weaker and less capable with each demise. Die enough times and you will reach your end, unable to proceed at all.

While you can game the system by reverting to previous saves when you are on the brink of death, doing so does a disservice to the core concept. "Hellblade" is a game best experienced by suffering the consequences of your poor choices or misfortune and struggling onward to make the best of what comes next.

An audio-visual dynamo, "Hellblade" strains to unnerve you. The inner voices, in particular, are not only a rugged obstacle to overcome, but essential in placing you inside the distressed mind of Senua. It's not a pleasant place to be, and her game is more stressful than fun. But those looking for brutal challenge in an elegantly and honestly told tale will find their bliss.

"Night Trap" Review

For the past quarter century, "Night Trap" has lingered as an oddball relic of the past -- a strange glimpse of an FMV interactive movie future that never was to be. Most derided the game without ever touching it, but the PS4 remake now allows the masses to actually get their hands on it.

I was thoroughly impressed with the improvements from the original. Playing as a booby trap-springing surveillance agent in a house overrun by vampire-like monsters, you now get to watch live video feeds from each room in the mansion you're surveying, allowing you to keep tabs on where the bad guys are so you can take them down in steady rhythm.

The video quality is vastly improved from the pixelated-by-necessity look of the original. Now you can enjoy the cheeseball performances from never-were actors in all their glory. As a dose of 90s kitsch, the so-called drama is priceless -- reminiscent of "Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later," only as an earnest time capsule of the era rather than mocking satire.

Inventive and technically impressive despite its limitations, "Night Trap" is more than the awkward embarrassment from gaming's past that it's usually dismissed as. An essential piece of gaming history, you owe it to yourself to play if you care about the industry's long, winding journey.

"Agents of Mayhem" Review

The spirit of the "Saints Row" in Deep Silver's "Agents of Mayhem," a fast-paced open-world shooter that steers the franchise hard in the tech fantasy/metaphysical direction "Saints Row 4" and its expansion, "Gat Out of Hell" took it. Now having fully cut its ties to its gangland origins to become a full-on squad shooter, the characters and gameplay spirit can let their freak flags fly.

Choosing from among a slate of diverse, oozing-with-personality heroes, you play toward your specialty -- be it speed, tank damage or gadgets -- to take down the objectives set before you.

The franchise's trademark tongue-in-cheek, gleefully immature writing remains intact, as does its penchant for wild, chills-inducing action set pieces and deep customization. A few obnoxious out-of-the-gate DLC packs focus on that end, but won't help you play better.

Although the overarching story is slight, it's the action that provides the appeal here. If you're looking for creative, intense battles, snappy dialogue and pixel-scintillating explosions, "Agents of Mayhem" is your game.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Report: The Price Of Salt

Highsmith is wise enough to know that the way to spread a message of acceptance and to deride prejudice is to avoid preaching and dive deep into the heart of a personal story. That's what she does here, inhabiting the mind of a 19-year-old woman in the 1950s who explores her sexuality in a rigid era in which such concepts were shoved off to the side in favor of strict conformity. She takes a soft touch throughout, gracefully spinning an inner monologue of someone who must appear baffling to nearly everyone who encounters her, including the woman with whom she falls in love. The writing is brave enough to challenge the fluidity of the protagonist's attractions and her inability to make firm, informed choices due to her youth. In some ways she plays a major part into the bigotry that oppresses her. A complex and thought-provoking novel -- frustrating only for the way it stubbornly holds back with little payoff -- it tells a sad, winding story with enough of a dash of hope to leave you feeling moved and optimistic about how far society has come while aware of how far it has left to go.

"Annabelle: Creation" Review

For my written review, click here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Book Report: Slumdog Millionaire

This is a case where the movie managed to fix all the problems with the book, turning a creative but flawed-in-execution idea into a near masterpiece.

Swarup rides his gameshow gimmick hard, and shows little nuance. His work surpasses the movie in its grit and ugliness, showing a seediness and tragedy the movie only hints at but never fully explores. Swarup's story also has an unnecesarily dark climax and a pair of ludicrous twists with unconvincing resolutions.

Despite its failures, I liked the book a lot. It tells its story with a fevered pace and spectacular economy. There are no wasted strokes here. For those who love the movie, this is an experience that will increase the depth of that love.