Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo Edition" Review

You can't help but laugh when "Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo Edition" rolls out its world map and sends you jetting off to various corners of the globe to engage in blackjack battles with its roster of quirky, stereotype-laden goofballs. True to form, they talk smack before and after battles via single-screen quotes

The dev team at Headup Games is out to satirize "Street Fighter II," as well as 1980s and 90s gaming conventions, as well as Capcom's penchant for rereleasing a popular game again and again with increasingly absurd titles.

The problem is that once you get past all the endearing trappings, what you're left with is a shallow-by-definition game of chance. Since blackjack lacks the strategic aspects of competitive card games, including poker and its myriad variations, your skill plays little factor in your advancement.

The impetus is to go all-in on your bets and pray for good cards rather than methodically try to wear down your opponent with small, savvy wagers.

Even though the traditional arcade mode has  mild replay value due to the varied endings assigned to 10 different characters, you can presumably get more mileage out of the offline multiplayer component, which can field up to four players. The mindgames that come into play against human competitors surpass the dull pseudo-strategy you can use to plow through the campaign.

Still, the more time you spend with the game, the more you may find yourself wanting to play real blackjack, or real "Street Fighter." The nostalgia factor can't surpass its inspiration.
Publisher provided review code.

"Monster Loves You" Review

Sly, wicked humor underlines the choice-based text adventure "Monster Loves You." Along with a deceptively innocent, children's book style art design, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions that advance your character down dark paths, guiding it along its quest to hunt and exploit people.

Released on Switch five years after it debuted on PC, the Dejobaan Games product goes all-in on its eclectic design choices. Love it or hate it, there is almost no chance you've ever played a similar game.

You're presented with decisions that shape and alter your character's philosophy and personality. The natural instinct is to button-mash your way through the proceedings, but doing so will rob you of the experience of the writing and story arc.

The problem is that the design is so repetitive and insular that it practically dares you to barrel through it. With little variance or pace changes, there is little to keep you engaged if your focus slips.

Those who crave the absurdity and satirical qualities of the writing will find much to appreciate in "Monster Loves You," but gamers who lack the patience to commit to the bizarre story may find the game too much of a beast to handle.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Space Hulk: Tactics" Review

Developers have long struggled with the challenge of translating the mouse-and-keyboard tactical setup to consoles, to varying degrees of success. The numerous ideas included menu wheels, hot keys and busy HUDs, but no matter how effective the jury-rigging was, players always missed the original setup.

"Space Hulk: Tactics" -- a beloved spawn of the  "Warhammer 40,000" universe -- runs into the same problems. Despite the valiant efforts of the dev team at Cyanide Studios, every move, maneuver and scroll is just a whisper more tedious than it could be if you weren't bound by the rigors of analog sticks, buttons and bumpers.

Once you spend some time with the game, the distractions fade away and you can better appreciate the skill, vision and forethought that went into the mission design. Wearing its board game heritage proudly, the rich building, unit and weaponry selection, along with diverse environmental enhancements and commander boosts making no two encounters unfold the same way.

The campaigns are well-calibrated and intertwined, with an ongoing metagame that plays out apart from the mainline story, as well as a macro-map that shows you the overall progress. With a finely-tuned matchmaking system governing the conflict between the Terminator Space Marines and Genestealers alien race, the challengers are stiff, engrossing and numerous. And also present in the controls as well as  the code.

Publisher provided review code.

Mark of the Ninja: Remastered" Review

A stylish take on stealth ninja action, "Mark of the Ninja" set the bar so high when it was released that scores of imitators haven't been able to match its mastery of the genre.

Klei Entertainment's 2012 Metroidvania masterpiece fell through the cracks because it was released at the end of the last generation. A remaster is the ideal way to reintroduce the game to current audiences. Those who have never played it are in for a treat, and enough time has passed since release to make the game seem new again to fans of the original who may not have touched the game in years.

In a move that bears repeating amid the flurry of current-gen remasters, those who own the original base game on Steam or Xbox 360 need only to pay a nominal $5 to upgrade. The re-up is well worth it. Not only are the already-superb visuals -- which get a hefty boost to 4K from the original 720p -- and tight controls upgraded, but the previously-released DLC is there. Those who already sprung for the DLC on Steam and Xbox 360 get the remaster for free.

Environmental manipulation and a hefty dose of trial-and-error are needed to advance. Even when you run up against one of the game's many bottlenecks, you feel challenged rather than frustrated.

Even when you fail, you can appreciate the devious craftsmanship that went into engineering your comeuppance. Also, it makes your sweet retribution that much sweeter. That's the mantra of the ninja.
Publisher provided review code.

"Starlink: Battle for Atlas" Review

It turns out there's still plenty of life in the ailing toys to life genre.

Years after the likes of "Skylanders," "Disney Infinity" and "Lego Dimensions" have swirled down the proverbial gaming fad drain. Ubisoft draws upon its deep Nintendo heritage to conjure a Switch exclusive that brings back the concept with a vengeance.

Bolstered by a wallet-terrifying fleet of physical ships, weapons and plilots you can buy and use in the game, "Battle for Atlas" feels like the confident, cunning launch of a new platform. The cherry add-on is the "StarFox" Fox McCloud & Arwing pack, which lets players act out their interstellar shootout fantasies they have been harboring since the Nintendo 64 days.

Other ships available as physical toys include the hawkishly angular Nadir and the sleek. lithe Neptune. With the intricately articulated ships doubling as eye-popping desk or bookshelf decorations -- not to mention imagination-sparking battle props for youngsters -- the pull of buying a package or two to enhance your gameplay is a simple choice.

Set in the Atlas star system, which acts as a treasure trove for alien technology begging to be reverse-engineered, the story pits you against the nefarious Grax, who vies to use the weaponry to enslave and exploit the denizens of the system.

You guide a loose-knit, Rebel Alliance-style network of squadmates take to the skies to engage the enemy and push through high-risk missions. You can speed through the cosmos, skim planet surfaces and execute skilled maneuvers to avoid enemy fire and return devastating shots of your own. The worlds-colliding  range of characters and weaponry toes the line between fan service and forward-thinking engineering.

"Starlink: Battle for Atlas" feels less like a one-shot and more of a wholesale rediscovery of a lost genre, which is built to sink roots and expand on the galaxy's hottest-selling system. Like its heroes, it soars, shoots from the hip and looks slick while doing it.
Publisher provided review code.

Review: "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4"

With a well-placed metaphorical headshot, Treyarch uses "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" to shoot down any reservations that gamers had. The thinking went that a large portion of its fan base would feel excluded because of the elimination of a single-player campaign, as well as the supposition that the Battle Royale-style "Blackout" mode would be a disingenuous imitation of "Fortnite" and "PUBG."

Within minutes you see that the reality is that Treyarch doesn't follow -- it reinvents. "Black Ops 4" is a daring, wildly successful redefinition of what a modern shooter can and should be. The three multiplayer pillars are so robust, well-rounded and enthralling that the wonder becomes not that the single-player campaign has been jettisoned this year, but how surprising it was that it took so long to get here.

Recognizing that the bulk of the "Call of Duty" draw comes from its armies of multiplayer competitors, Treyarch made a savvy gamble that paid off by plunging all its resources into innovation, refinement and polish of its standard multiplayer, "Blackout" and zombie modes.

Those yearning for story and lore points should spend time in zombies. Narration and visual cues fill out the backstory as you and your squadmates fend off wave after wave of hypractive conjurings of the undead, making you feel like a tight-knit team who bands together to fend off the evil hordes.

That squad-based storytelling mechanic flows into the base multiplayer, which does away with traditional classes in favor of archetypical, 'The A-Team"-style heroes. Choosing your player -- each who packs a distinctive look, sense of charisma and special weapon set is like falling into positions in a pickup basketball game. The symbiotic relationships the team assumes emphasize communication, coordination and on-the-fly teamwork to succeed.

Treyarch truly shifts into full throttle in "Blackout" mode, which makes previous Battle Royale efforts seem like little more than cobblestones along the path to this evolutionary destination. Decked out with gorgeous backgrounds, complete with rolling hills, flowing rivers and staggering outposts, the map works as a character unto itself. As players engage in the mad scramble to avoid the shrinking maps while gearing up and battling it out for supply drops, you can't help but marvel at the colossal playground that sets the stage for the carnage.

With each mode equipped with its own slate of progression, unlockables and weapon economies, "Call of Duty" Black Ops 4" forges the bridge to the new normal of online-only shooters with overwhelming skill and bravado. The future is bright, bold and thrilling.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 12, 2018

"Disney on Ice: Dare to Dream" Review

Stepping up its game considerably from years' past, the new touring "Disney on Ice" touring show marks a considerable improvement in nearly all aspects of the production.

Reimagined at every level, from set design to special effects and the acrobatic range of performance pieces, the latest edition is a dazzling thrill ride that gains momentum as it rolls, culminating in a stunning second act.

The show begins with a "Coco"-themed prelude that goes miles in upping the cultural inclusivity factor, then follows with SparkNotes versions of classics including "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tangled." The kid-friendly interludes involving silly antics from Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald are downplayed, making way for more focus on rehashing the animated films.

Each movie segment shows off fresh props and backgrounds and costumes. Particularly impressive are Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and the transformable "Beauty and the Beast" mansion, which opens up to reveal the library that coaxes Belle to fall for her captor.

Rapunzel pulls of some jaw-dropping moves with silks that serve as metaphors for her dangling locks

Overall, the philosophy seems to edge away from the traditional kid-pleasing factor in an effort to appeal equally to all ages. This confident move trusts the audience to appreciate the finer points of the difficulty level involved, and assumes the kids will be just as hooked as the older crowd.

It's after the break that the show truly flexes its muscles, with robust mini-productions of "Frozen" and "Moana" thrusting the show's energy level to fever pitch. Retooled and tweaked to include the trademark songs without sacrificing too many story beats, the stories are awe-inspiring explosions of exquisite lighting, gargantuan props and massive, finely-tuned song-and-dance numbers.

The new "Disney on Ice" is something any Disney fan can wholeheartedly appreciate, without the need to qualify that love or reduce their expectations for what had been a glorified kid's show.

As Maui would sing, "You're welcome."

The show plays through Sunday at the Tucson Convention Center. Click here to see the rest of the tour stops.

PHIL ON FILM: "First Man"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Report: "Lord of the Flies"

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Golding's sense of immediacy is what makes "Lord of the Flies" a classic. He sticks to prose that matches the education levels and worldviews of his protagonists, a group of schoolboys who crash land on an island and disastrously attempt to forge a society of their own.

He seeks to unearth the depths of greed, domination and inhumanity that are hardwired into even the most seemingly innocuous among us.

The experiment is a success. The novel is fast-paced, accessible and thought-provoking. There are a few nagging faults that weigh it down a bit, though. His characters alternate from behaving like devious, cruel adults in one scene and helpless overgrown toddlers the next.

The range is jarring, conveniently shifting to suit the changing needs of the narrative. This causes the tone to run all over the place, and veer toward crass emotional manipulation. But that doesn't stop it from hitting hard. His gripping, brooding tale of innocence loss strikes the stark reveal that innocence was never really there.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Guacamelee: Super Turbo Championship Edition" Review

Embracing the charming absurdities of Luchador and Dia de Los Muertos lore, the "Guacamelee" series is an exquisite example of just how engaging and gripping storytelling can be in a genre that often dispenses with narrative as it focuses on combat. "The game predates "Coco" by telling a grim, engrossing story of lost love divided by the realms of the living and the dead. Unlike "Coco," it's not afraid to laugh at itself.

Developer Drinkbox Studios continued to refine and expand its 2013 sensation -- eventually following it up with a glorious sequel -- and the ludicrously named "Super Turbo Championship Edition" marks a capstone on what will go down as the definitive version of the game.

With updated and expanded levels, upgrades and unlockables, the game oozes with things to chase, do, see and punch in the face. There is a decidedly Metroidvania tone to the platforming, which often has you double back over area you have previously covered in order to chase down new skills that will help you as you advance through the story.

The Switch makes an apt home for the game, which benefits from the on-the-go play options -- including quick-save states and short missions that are well-designed for mobile gaming -- while still looking stunning when played at home on your TV. If you're a lapsed "Guacamelee" fan who decides to give the game another shot, you'll find it will grip you in its colorful headlock once again.
Publisher provided review code.

"Vampyr" Review

"Vampyr" sinks its teeth into a fascinating concept. As a streetwalking creature of the night who stalks the alleyways of 1918 London, you are a threat to everyone you encounter. And in many ways, you are more of a threat to yourself than any of your adversaries.

You can give into your urges and take the easier way out, upgrading your skills by indulging in your thirst for blood and power. Or you can make things harder on yourself by avoiding killing those who stand in your way and enhancing your abilities by taking the non-lethal options.

The game dropped in June, but has been reborn with its latest update, which adds two new difficulty modes, making the game both more accessible and more challenging, depending on the amount of bloodlust that courses through your cold veins.

Those who just want to appreciate the writing and visuals, without letting the stress of combat get to them, can take on Story Mode, which requires minimal skill to make your way through the dark, engrossing saga.

Hard Mode, on the other hand, grants you less experience from straight-up kills, forcing you to "embrace" -- sucking the blood out of victims -- in order to make your character more viable.

No matter which way you choose to take on "Vampyr," there is a rich tapestry to enjoy. Developer Dontnod is at the peak of its skills, delivering and refining a masterful, largely unsung think piece on the burden of monsterhood. The latest update pumps some new life into its undead saga.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

"Velocity 2X" Switch Review

A shoot-em-up platformer that rocked the PS4 and Vita indie scene in 2014, "Velocity 2X" gets a welcome rebirth on the Switch, where it fits in nicely with the console's stable of retro-minded concepts.

Alternating between side-scrolling traversal and top-down bullet hell mayhem, the game from FuturLab puts your twitch skills to the test. But reflexes alone won't keep you going. Ample puzzle challenges and varied combat structures keep you guessing, adjusting and adapting.

To survive and thrive, you need to be able to think on the fly and recalibrate not only your tactics, but the pace at which you think, operate and react.

Staying true to its name, much of the game boasts a relentlessly raw speed that would make Sonic dizzy. The forward momentum courses through the entirety of the game's makeup, from the sleek visuals to the thumping soundtrack. There's nary a moment of downtime in the escapade, with the action kicking into high gear from the early moments, rarely pausing to take a breath.

Many games show their age quickly, but the polish and energy of "Velocity" keep the game's look and feel relevant, easily managing to keep pace with current offerings. If you missed out on "Velocity 2X" on its first go-round, the Switch makes an excellent landing place for its second tour of duty.
Publisher provided review code.