Wednesday, November 20, 2019

"The Surge 2" Review

Having crash-landed on the lonely outskirts of a megalopolis, you're taken captive and socked away inside a chaotic holding facility, you have only your wits -- along with a burning desire to thrive -- to help you regain your bearings and scrap your way back to prominence.

The dilapidated urban hell of Jericho is the unforgiving sandbox in which you dig in. With storms sweeping through encampments, half-cocked, sentient war machines raging unchecked, you patch together your resources and gradually build up your strength and capabilities until you become the hunter rather than the hunted.

Developer Deck13 follows up its 2017 success with a worthy follow-up. The sequel nails the basics that the original thrived on, and expands on nearly every aspect in meaningful ways.

The survival action aspect once again takes center stage, with your affinity for collecting scrap, building out your arsenal and upgrading your abilities is every bit as important as your skills in combat.

Some may gripe that "The Surge 2" is simply more of the same, but those who poured dozens of hours into that game and are aching for a fresh challenge won't find much to complain about.

"The Surge 2" may suffer from its inability to stretch out in new directions, but for those who crave the original formula and are on the hunt for a meaningful expansion, this will hit the spot with a marksman's precision.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Broadway in Tucson Review: "Anastasia"

A technological tour de force with exquisite stagecraft and a masterful deployment of projections and LED displays, "Anastasia" is more than a standard stage musical. It's a paradigm-pushing multimedia experience that blurs the lines between cinema and theater.

Those expecting a twee, kid-friendly show may be surprised by the density of the material. This is a thoughtful and resonant historical study, treating the material and culture with care and reverence.

A voyage into a particularly touchy period of Russian/Soviet history in the first third of the 20th century, it's an inspirational yet carefully cynical tale of mistaken identity, self-deception and socioeconomic presence. We're taken to a Leningrad, and -- in the second act -- Paris struggling to come to grips with their cultural identities and geopolitical visions. At the center of the fracas lingers the at times literal ghosts of the slain Romanov family, which has been assassinated in the name of progress.

Rumors abound that the young heiress Anastasia has survived in hidden exile, and is poised to re-emerge and stake her claim of inheritance of the last slivers of Russian oligarchy, as well as a tidy monetary inheritance. Anastasia mania has swept the world, sparking an untold number of 20-somethings to step forward as pretend Anastasias. The story follows Anya, an amnesiac who buddies up with two opportunists who are only two happy to push forward her claim to the shattered throne.

Lila Coogan thrives in the lead role, blending the required naivete with a burgeoning self-confidence and drive. It also helps that she can belt out tunes with a pop star's exuberance, and has the dance moves to match.

She's supported well by the likes of Jake Levy and Jason Michael Evans, conjuring a playful triangle of deception and mild jealousy. The raspy Joy Franz delivers a resonant, workmanlike performance as Dowager Empress, whose emotional connection with young Anastasia and grown-up Anya is the emotional key to the story.

The creative team of director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey keeps the story flowing with urgency and momentum, making for a crowd-pleasing enterprise that thrives on emotion, personality clashes and unpredictability.

"Anastasia" is an eye-popping joy to behold, a benchmark in the evolution of its storytelling medium and just plain fun as well. Unlike the questionable identity of its main character, this one is no imposter.

"Anastasia" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

PHIL ON FILM: What's Leaving Netflix in December 2019

For the full story, click here.

Monday, November 18, 2019

"Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" Review

These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with wildly exciting projects sketching out new areas of the universe in movies, TV and video games. "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" is among the most thrilling of the offerings.

On the polar opposite of the spectrum of the hit-and-miss, multiplayer-focused "Star Wars Battlefront" series, EA's new game sticks with tight, linear single-player tale. Filled with sweeping action, engaging combat and poignant emotion, it's a tale that touches on the strongest aspects of the franchise's legacy.

Set after "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," you play as a Jedi on the run as the Galactic Empire's minions seek out and destroy every Jedi to fulfill the dreaded Order 66. The single-player, linear narrative has you band with a small, loosely-knit group of fleeing Force-users who strive to re-establish the Jedi order.

You play as a knight with only partial training and plenty of room to grow and develop. Light RPG elements coax you to pursue various unlockable powers and upgrades via a skill tree.

Branching off from their efforts in the multiplayer arena, developer Respawn Entertainment returns to its Infinity Ward, "Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare" storytelling roots, spinning an entrancing tale that pushes the narrative forward at a breakneck pace.

There is plenty of influence from the likes of "Uncharted" at play as well, with cliff-climbing and jumping, traversal across the tops of speeding ships and intricate combat coming into play. Juggling a spectrum of Force abilities, including lightsaber combat and telekinesis, you feel like a powerful, yet always vulnerable mystical warrior.

"Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" opens up new possibilities of what fans can expect from an EA "Star Wars" effort. With this type of care, reverence and bold willingness to forge new paths, the prospects for interactive storytelling stretch as far and wide as galaxies unknown.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Haunted: Halloween '86 (The Curse of Possum Hollow)" Review

If you're digging the retro horror aesthetic of "Stranger Things," "Castle Rock" and "American Horror Story: 1984," "Haunted Halloween" is the next goody you need to go trick-or-treating for.

Developer Retrotainment Games, which is made up of Pittsburgh-based NES enthusiasts, started on the homebrew hobbyist scene but makes a foray into the big leagues here.

Its latest game is a brutally funny, thoroughly captivating throwback, which draws influence from the likes of "Ghouls & Ghosts" and "Castlevania," with a healthy mix of "Final Fight" and "River City Rampage" thrown in.

From the energetically composed chiptune soundtrack, to the lovingly crafted 8-bit visuals and the sly, satirical writing, "Haunted Halloween '86" feels oh so right on the Switch. Whether you're playing in handheld or docked mode, it time-warps children of the 80s back to their youth. For younger gamers, it's a window into the origins that seeded the basic grammar and tropes that would stretch and evolve into gaming's current state.

There's a reason there are so many throwback indie efforts these days -- the gameplay and storytellng mechanics thrived in the days when visual, audio and memory restrictions were so tight. Players were forced to fill in the technological gaps with their imagination, and that added to the legendary air of charm.

"Haunted Halloween '86" nails that aesthetic with resounding authority. Retrotainment Games captures just the right pitch, feel and delivery, and it will be a joy to watch their continuing efforts in recapturing gaming's glory days.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Anthill" Review

Lording over a society of scurrying insects is an intoxicating power trip. "Anthill" puts you in charge of an ant colony, charging you to sketch out pheromone trails that guide your insects to destinations to harvest food, defend the nest from predators and shore up the integrity of the hill.

An enhanced port of the 2011 mobile game, the offering from developer Image & Form makes the transition to the Switch with its pick-up-and-play charm intact.

The real-time strategy antics force you to keep your focus. Any misstep could trigger a cascade of mishaps that lead to disaster and derail all your hard work.

While a wholesale reimagining -- rather than a moderately upgraded port -- of the concept would have better taken advantage of the Switch's capabilities, the game makes for an apt fit on the console. Fans of the Pikmin series, in particular, will find much to enjoy here while Nintendo takes it sweet time advancing that series.

 Since the source material is so old and relatively obscure, chances are most games have never even heard of the predecessor, let alone played it. That adds to the sense of newness, and "Anthill" falls in line neatly with the Switch's already massive and rapidly growing stable of indie gems.

There's nothing much groundbreaking here, but the satisfying rhythm and flow of "Anthill" -- coupled with a steady, significant sense of challenge and accomplishment, keeps you scurrying with the frantic pragmatism of your little minions. This is a game well worth digging into.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Charlie's Angels"

For my full review, click here.

"Mary Skelter 2" Review

Emboldened with style to spare and a sly, subtle sense of humor, "Mary Skelter 2" is a headlong jump over the rainbow to a strange and disturbing realm overrun by a swarming evil. It's up to the kewpie-like Blood Maidens, who are as adorable as they are fierce, to turn the tide.

The roguelike RPG has you play as characters inspired by twisted versions of fairy tales, you take part in turn-based battles against enemy parties.

There's an urgency to the combat, due to Nightmares that pursue you in real time, spurring you to be efficient with your attacks in order to hasten the blood-based transformation system. You also have to take into account the mental status of your group, which is always threatened to be shaken by the horrors they face.

The sequel includes "Mary Skelter: Nightmares" (2016), so you can forge through the entire dungeon-crawling saga. Developer Compile Heart stuck to the themes and gameplay that served them well in the first game, stretching the battle structure to come up with scenarios that shove you out of your comfort zone.

Whenever you think you've got a foolproof routine established, the paradigm shifts and you're forced to recalibrate.

Elements of anime, manga, satirical horror and social commentary pulse through every aspect of the game, from the visuals and writing to the combat. It's all part of the package that makes "Mary Skelter 2" a nightmare worthy of your dreams.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Star Wars Pinball" Review

Pinball and "Star Wars" have always shared a Force-like link. The Saturday matinee-style sensibilities of the sci-fi monolith translate well to the pop-up unlockables inherent to the tabletop game.

Video game pinball fits on the Switch particularly well, with the system's shape replicating a miniaturized pinball table shape. Thus, it's little surprise that "Star Wars Pinball" feels so right on the Switch.

The revamped version of the 2013 Wii U game summons three new tables based on "The Clone Wars," Boba Fett and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Additional tables are promised as upcoming DLC, but there is plenty in the original package to keep you flipping your paddles in hypedrive mode through the end of the year.

A hotseat multiplayer mode lets you play couch co-op on the same console, adding an arcade-like intensity to showdowns.

These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with "The Mandalorian" releasing along with Disney+ today, the ballyhooed "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" due out this week and "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker" debuting in theaters next month. But even with those big-hitters tugging away at the attention of the franchise's fans, "Star Wars Pinball" shouldn't be overlooked.

Publisher provided review code.