Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Theaterical Review: "Get On Your Feet"


Christie Prades is so good at being Gloria Estefan that it's probably impossible for the star to see the actress in the touring production of "On Your Feet" strut her stuff without a tinge jealousy. She belts out tunes while dancing and hopping up and down while pumping her fist so convincingly like a young Estefan, that you feel as though you're looking back through a Harry Potter pensieve.

A show so fully centered around the rise to stardom of a pop star lives and dies by the enthusiasm and skill of its lead, and "On Your Feet" soars because of Prades' joyous star power. Bolstered by strong supporting performances from Ektor Rivera as her husband/manager, Nancy Ticotin as her mercurial mother and Alma Cuervo as her supportive grandmother, Prades headlines a dynamic ensemble that lives up to the title over and over by forcing the audience to its feet to applaud, as though they're watching a concert.

And maybe it should have been just that. Despite some earnest efforts to glean some laughs and drama in anecdotes of Estefan's journey from Miami Sound Machine headliner to international crossover superstar -- as well as some impressive projection work -- this show is all about the music.

Whether or not "Get On Your Feet" needed to have a story at all is debatable. Other than a well-documented near-death experience and a two-year-long tiff with her mother, Estefan's life has lacked much of the drama and tension you typically see in biographies worthy of a play, film or book treatment. Estefan pr her handlers also presumably had far too much of a hand in the writing, because her character comes off as eye-rollingly flawless. A few warts would have turned the beat around and made her more relatable.

The dramatic moments, though well-acted, only detract from the true talents of the cast, which is unleashing their otherworldly powers of calypso/merengue/salsa dance fusion, accompanied with Prades' brilliant vocals.

"On Your Feet" may as well have dispensed with the storylines and became a full-on concert production. But the show as it stands is still a mesmerizing spectacle to behold. The rhythm is most certainly gonna get you.

The Broadway in Tucson production is playing at Centennial Hall through Nov. 18. Purchase tickets here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Road Redemption" Review


No doubt titled and timed for release strictly to ride the popularity wave of "Red Dead Redemption 2" tricking misinformed gamers into an accidental purchase in the process -- "Road Redemption" seems on the surface like a cheap cash-in.

Once you get past the title, you'll find the end product is far more than that.

A breezy, freewheeling romp, the combat motorcycle game rides its slim concept for all its worth. Racing on crotch rockets through something resembling a Mad Max-style apocalyptic wasteland, you get an edge on fellow competitors by running them off the road, side-swiping them or sending them flying with well-timed weapon swings.

Each race nets you upgrades that you can use to transform yourself into a more formidable racer/combatant, bestowed with even greater ability to turn your races into a bloody mockery of any sense of fair play.

The dev team at Dark Seas Games excelled by choosing a few specific mechanics and thoroughly nailing them. The visuals are unspectacular but functional, adequately built to give the sense of speed and fury necessary to keep the adrenaline pumping along the rough road.

While the content may be thin, the replayability and amplification of the mechanics in both offline and online multiplayer modes lifts the game to a different plane than what it appears to be on the surface. That's how this game with the hokey, wannabe name finds its redemption.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Home Sweet Home" Review


Now that standby franchises such as "Silent Hill" and "Fatal Frame" have seemingly gone dormant, it's up to indie developers to fill the gap in the horror genre. Developers are rewarded for taking chances, shaking up formulas and leaning hard into experimentation.

Sometimes the results are wild successes, but oftentimes, as with "Home Sweet Home," they're decidedly mixed.

Based on Thai mythology, "Home Sweet Home" strives for violent jump scares that punctuate a creeping sense of dread. Packing its share of off-putting atmospheric fright into its diminutive package, the team at Mastiff has created a game with moments that stick with you when you step away from the console, left in the dark to mull over what you've experienced.

They've also generated a game that's so frustrating at times that you think twice about whether or not you'll come back for more.

It's become en vogue to ratchet up the difficulty level to draw comparison to the likes of "Diablo" and "Dark Souls," but there's a blurry line between effective and fair punishment and outright negligence. The controls and camera tend to be as difficult to contend with as the foes.

While "Home Sweet Home" is worthwhile for those who want to flip off the lights, lose themselves in the convoluted fiction and get their hearts racing, gamers who demand more cohesion and polish may want to avoid the freak show altogether.
Publisher provided review code.

"GRIP: Combat Racing" Review


A revved-up arcade racer that's fueled on the understanding that assaulting your opponents is more fun than breezing past them, "GRIP: Combat Racing" is "Mario Kart" by way of "Twisted Metal."

Choosing from among 15 cars decked out with armor, as well as upgradeable arsenal capabilities, you take to circuits of nearly two dozen tracks teeming with environmental hazards, wild jumps and inhumane turns, many of which have ledges designed to knock your rivals over.

Caged Element Inc. not only has the know-how to craft a rock-solid racer, complete with highly-calibrated balance, immense replayability and a stacked upgrade system, they also have conjured the special sauce to tie it all together, making the cohesive hole greater than the sum of its parts.

As solid as the standard racing is, the atmosphere truly shifts into overdrive in multiplayer. "GRIP" is a game geared for mayhem, and the satisfaction of blasting away AI bots can't come close to comparing against the unadulterated glee of reigning doom upon a real-life foe.

True to the spirit of a garage tinkerer, the game is nearly as much fun off the track, with loads of customization options available to get your ride looking and riding its best. Hints of the likes of "Forza" and "Gran Turismo" abound, without the requisite slate of tweaks that are there only for show, and have little results on the track.

While more vehicles, weapons and tracks could lift the game to an even higher plane -- expect plenty more of each in DLC on the horizon -- the base package that "GRIP: Combat Racing" ships with already feels feature-complete, and is enough to keep you occupied for countless hours of staying up way too late trading paint and projectiles with your combat racing frenemies.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Valiant Hearts: The Great War" Switch Review


In the great race to port just about every significant -- or insignificant -- release from the past few years to the Switch, Ubisoft has been among the most dutiful. Some of the best fits have been the titles in the short-lived UbiArt Framework, which conjured several classics in the first half of the decade. "Rayman Legends" and "Child of Light" have had their moment in the Switch sun, and now it's time for perhaps the greatest UbiArts title of them all.

One of the shiniest of those gems was "Valiant Hearts: The Great War," the 2014 Ubisoft Montreal adventure masterpiece. Set during World War I, the narrative shifts among the perspectives of various characters ensnared in the conflict.  Civilians, soldiers and even pets, deal with the moral angst and deep-cutting tragedy that resulted from what was then known as the War to End All Wars. Combat and reflex-oriented gameplay slip to the wayside in favor of puzzle-solving.

You run across someone with a need, and seek out the means to solve that person's problem by finding someone else that can help that person, and doing what it takes to satisfy that person in order to proceed. This chain of favor-swapping and paying it backward with the goal of the benefit eventually circling back to you marks out the playing field for immensely satisfying solutions. There's something soothing about seeing all the pieces fall into place after you've put in all the effort to set things just right.

There is usually only one correct path to proceed, making it tempting to fall back on walkthroughs whenever you find yourself stuck. But using your own wits to patch together your solutions is much more fulfilling.

Ancillary to the mainline gameplay, but just as enchanting, are the loads of historical facts that pop up as you play. "Valiant Hearts" is based on intensive research, not only of the war itself, but the daily lives of people of the era, and quirks that arise are explained by full-screen explainers that are fascinating to devour. Collectibles also abound, incentivizing you to sniff around every corner of the screen in your travels.

An apt fit for the Switch, due to its beautiful and big portable screen, "Valiant Heart" is a war game unlike any other. More than any other game, and even any book or movie based on the war, it places you into the psyches and minds of those forced to find out what they were made of when unspeakable uncertainty and violence tore their sense of normalcy to shreds. This is a treasure of a game that cries to be sought out, and it warms my heart that it's found its way to the hottest platform in gaming, where it will doubtlessly capture a new block of devotees.
Publisher provided review code.

"Hitman 2" Review


"Hitman 2" builds off of the impressive foundation laid by its predecessors to reach bold and satisfying new heights for the franchise. It takes equal parts of tactical preparation, precision execution and on-the-fly improvisation to succeed. The foreboding difficulty level makes it all the more satisfying to come out on the winning end, usually after more failures than you'd care to admit.

The dev team from IO Interactive follows up their underrated episodic 2016 reboot with an effort that impresses both technically and artistically. The sandbox that Agent 47 has to work with is an open-ended playground for creative assassination, with multiple, equally valid paths available to approach each objective. The impressive mission variety is equaled only by the dizzying amount of options at your disposal.

As you traverse the globe, taking on varied settings and circumstances that never let you get too comfortable with the methods and stratagems that have worked to you before, you start to count on the unexpected. Working your way through the campaigns, you face so many variables that your experiences are almost certain to be different than those of your friends. The iterative stories that emerge match the permutations that emerge in series such as "Grand Theft Auto," "Red Dead Redemption" and "Just Cause."

If you pick up the $20 Legacy Pack DLC, there is plenty more waiting for you. The pack rounds up six locations from the last game, enhancing them with the trappings of the sequel. It amounts to something close to the feel of a brand-new game, and is exactly that if you missed out on that one. This sort of revisionism sets a welcome standard for other developers to follow when rereleasing old work. It's amazing how just a few tweaks can vastly improve the gameplay experience, and that's just what we see here. Playing "Hitman 2," with its countless upgrades, enhancements and adjustments, makes it all but impossible to return to the last game with any gusto.

At their best, "Hitman" games have always tapped into players' dark sides, tempting them to search out their minds for their brutal inner selves that are bent on searching out the cruelest, coldest ways to snuff the life out of targets. And that's exactly what you'll find here. This is "Hitman" at its best.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Book Report: "Sense and Sensibility"

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jane Austen could have swapped the titles of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" and it wouldn't have made any difference, because the terms apply just as well to both novels. Her characters, storylines and plot twists are just as interchangeable. She could have written her books by Mad Libs.

In her dry, matter-of-fact way, Austen explored heavy, inconvenient truths about love and relationships that ring as profoundly now as they did 200 years ago. Her heroines were Kardashians of the era. Young, outgoing women who sought to remake the world in their image, with nothing but money and free time. The difference is that life expectancy and social expectations forced them to be obsessed with marriage in their teens. Family pressures forced arrangements upon them that their hearts rebelled against, creating boundless sources of smoldering conflict.

Austen invented the template for the modern romantic comedy with her work, and her breakthrough as a feminist literary icon deserves respect and reverence. But as Yoda would say of her work, "page turners, they were not." This is dense, often rough material to trudge through, feeling more like homework than breezy reads for the sake of fun. Austen tends to repeat words and phrases, and spends too much time lingering on pointless detail when she could be moving the molasses plot forward.

Still, this is homework well worth hacking your way through. Her thesis, that true love isn't always enough in the face of practical needs, and that romantic idealism isn't built to withstand the long haul, remains relevant.

In the Audible version, Rosamund Pike delivers a passionate performance, injecting the necessary vigor and flair into Austen's words, and adjusting her voice masterfully to define each character. "Sense and Sensibility" is the sort of book made for audio. It's a far more staisfying listen than a read.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

For my full review, click here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" Review


In this age of copious remasters, rereleased and throwback anthologies, it's no longer enough to slap a quick-and-dirty group of ports onto a release and call it a day. The likes of "Rare Replay," Capcom's "Mega Man" compilations and Nintendo's Switch suite of NES games for Switch online users have considerably upped the ante for what's expected in such releases.

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" meets that bar and surpasses it with innovations of its own.

A robust gathering of old-school arcade and console classics stretching over four decades of SNK excellence, the titles alone would make owning the 13-game collection (with 11 more titles coming via free DLC) essential for any history-appreciating gamer. The likes of the renowned "Ikari Warriors" franchise, lost arcade classics such as the bullet hell "Prehistoric Isle" and cult favorites such as "Victory Road" make up the lineup. Pixel-perfect adaptations that maintain the original aspect ratios are there, and tight, responsive controls make the transition.

The dev team doesn't stop there, though. A remarkable measure of passion went into the curation of the games, as well as the slate of special features. Present is the "Rare Replay"-like ability to rewind action at any point, making excruciatingly difficult titles more tolerable by letting you correct mistakes in short order rather than make the walk of shame back to the beginning of the level like you had to in the olden days.

Even more impressive is the innovation of "watch" mode, which contains perfect speedruns of each game. You can either sit back and watch in awe, or jump in and take over at any point. The mode is liberating and adds a new dimension of appreciation that future dev teams who make retro compilations should follow.

Equally as fascinating as the games is the "museum" category, which doles out a treasure trove of concept art, promotional materials and factoids about SNK history, including the games in the collection, as well as those that didn't make the cut. Looking through these archives helps lend an appreciation not only of SNK's past, but of the publisher's role in gaming history in general.

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" feels like a hands-on grad school class in gaming history. School is in session not only for gamers, but developers looking for pointers on how a retro collection can be done right.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 05, 2018

"Johnny Turbo's Arcade: Heavy Burger" Review


A fresh twist on the retro compilation trend. "Johnny Turbo's Arcade: Heavy Burger" brings back a gaggle of classics in all their old glory, but allows you to play inside of them without quite playing the games.

The old games, which are fully operational scenes, complete with flying bullets, fists and other deadly projectiles, are simply hazard-filled backgrounds for the main event.

Like Wreck it Ralph, you infiltrate old-school games in an arcade, hopping from one to the next, reshaping and blowing up old concepts as you go.

Rounding up classic arcade Data East arcade titles, such as "Burger Time," "Bad Dudes," "Night Slashers" and "Heavy Barrel," you hop through active levels, trying to move a bag of cash from one end of the screen to the other while stopping your opponent from doing the same.

Once you make your way through the edge of one screen, the action starts over in the adjacent game in the arcade.

With one-on-one or two-on-two battles -- the latter which considerably ratchets up the chaos factor -- it's all you can do most of the time to keep from laughing as you engage in the wild back-and-forth, which often compares to the momentum swings of "Rocket League" matches.

A simple concept executed with expert precision and a wily sense of irreverence, "Heavy Burger" hammers home its goofy charm. You may have played all these games before, but never like this. "Heavy Burger" comes loaded with new toppings that shake up the paradigm and make for a fascinating new dish.

Publisher provided review code.