Saturday, September 23, 2017

"The Witness" iOS Review

One of the most thought-provoking puzzle games in recent memory has finally made its long-promised debut on iOS, and at quite a discount. After launching on consoles last year for $40, it's only $10 to play on your iPhone or iPad.

At that much of a price cut, you'd expect fewer features. Instead, you get a refined experience tailored to touch screen use. Its connect-the-dots style brain teasers are more intuitive to solve while pointing and tapping with your finger rather than manipulating onscreen prompts with analog sticks and buttons.

Obtuse and demanding, "The Witness" forces you to think differently and taxes the outside fringes of your intellect and creativity to advance. Should either of those fail you, there are plenty of Reddit threads and YouTube walkthroughs to guide you along. But as with most puzzlers, you get more out of it the less you rely on outside guides to help you along. There's something to be said for being stuck in the much without a hope until you manage to stumble upon a breakthrough that renews your vigor and outlook.

Deep and thought-provoking, "The Witness" is an excellent commute or office wait time killer, as well as something to settle your thoughts before you go to bed. iOS feels like the system "The Witness" was always truly meant to be played on.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"Nex Machina" Review

Housemarque, the developer that ushered in the PS4 era with the fascinating launch shooter "Resogun," continues its momentum with yet another bullet hell odyssey. "Nex Machina" breaks away from the formula of the original to hew closer to the "Geometry Wars" template. You play as a soldier with unlimited ammo, spraying ordnance at swarms of assaulting enemies in order to carve out enough space to rescue captives.

Upgraded weaponry, power-ups and new levels await around every corner. Relentless and unforgiving in the vein of old-school, quarter-chomping arcade shooters, "Nex Machina" somehow manages to toe the line between brutally punishing without slipping into frustrating territory. Every time you're sent to the grave, you're itching to pop right back into the action and build upon your past successes. A certain amount of trial and error is involved, giving you an instant "Groundhog Day" feel as you repeat your successful moves and experiment with new ideas to further your advancement.

Enemy formations are tricky but predictable. Pay attention and you can master the intricacies of what it takes to advance through seemingly impassible swarms. Once you've put in enough time, you feel like a zen master who controls all he sees, bending time and space to your will.

If you're less than hardcore, you can slam through the levels as something of a tourist on the lower difficulties. But the game is at its best when it's most intense. "Nex Machina" has proven to be one of the more addictive shooters on the system, as well as one of its most exhilarating experiences. The highest praise I can give it is to say it's a game good enough to get you to put "Resogun" down for a bit.

Publisher provided review code.

"SteamWorld Dig 2" Review

Every two years, developer Image & Form somehow manages to top itself with yet another Metroidvania-style smash.

Following the head-turning successes of "SteamWorld Dig" (2013) and "SteamWorld Heist" (2015) comes "SteamWorld Dig 2," which reaches fascinating heists while allowing you to dig deep into its subterranean depths. The side-scroller tasks you to seek out currency and upgrades beneath the surface, teasing you with just-out-of-reach caches you vow to return to dig up once you've equipped more powerful tools.

Packing a steampunk-style vibe blended with Wild West influences, the game's cast of characters make for a steady stream of chuckles and occasionally thought-provoking witticisms.

Labyrinthine levels are designed with exquisite ingenuity and care, and the bite-size mission design makes it easy to pick up and play in quick hits or invest long-term time for marathon sessions. The versatility is what makes it an apt pairing for the Switch, which has replaced the 3DS as the system of choice for "SteamWorld" games.

A game as filled with hidden treasures as its levels, "SteamWorld Dig 2" is one of the year's highlights and yet another home run for the skilled dev team. Ya dig?

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Thimbleweed Park" Review

Due to the success of Telltale episodic entries and the rise of the walking sim, there has been an adventure game renaissance in the past few years. But left in the dark has been the classic point-and-click, inventory-collection emphasizing style of the genre. Those with fond memories of the likes of "Myst," "Hand of Fate" and "Day of the Tentacle" have had to scrounge for spare new releases or stick to retro gaming to get their fill.

That changed with the release of the shameless and adoring "Maniac Mansion" wannabe "Thimbleweed Park," which has now found perhaps its most appropriate home of all on the Switch. Playable with both touchscreen or JoyCon inputs, you can move around the cast of wacky characters and swap from scene to scene at will. While the genre has always felt most at home with the mouse-and-keyboard combination, the Switch's offering matches -- and in many ways, surpasses -- the classic setup.

With crafty writing, humorous plot twists and an ingeniously interlocking ecosystem, "Thimbleweed Park" is best enjoyed by shunning online walkthroughs and forcing yourself into trial and error. It's a joy to get lost in the myriad puzzles, only to claw your way out with a clever solution. With plenty of red herrings present to throw you off, the experience feels more open-ended than linear.

While plagued with bottleneck issues that always dogged games like this, "Thimbleweed Park" is blessed with enough nods to modern gameplay conventions to make the experience seem intuitive rather than archaically punishing. Yet another joyous addition to the Switch library, "Thimbleweed Park" is worth a look on whatever system you favor.

Publisher provided review code.

"Pokken Tournament DX" Review

Having learned its lessons the hard way in the software deserts it created for the Wii and Wii U in their rookie years, Nintendo has pumped out a steady stream of head-turning games for its fledgling Switch.

Since launch, each month has yielded yet another must-have title for a rotating subset of fans. With a healthy sprinkling of new titles and heavy subsidy of Wii U remakes, Nintendo's first-party lineup has dwarfed those of its rivals in 2017. In October, it's Pokemon devotees' time in the sun.

"Pokken Tournament" is an odd bird even by Pokemon standards, and manages to stand out from among the rest of the franchise with its emphasis on kinetic, real-time battles and boss battle-esque graphics. This is all about rounding up Pokemon lineups and pitting them against opponents, both online and off, in relentless slugfests. Without having to worry about exploring, collecting or trading, the horse blinders are on attacks, counters and strategic tuneups.

Falling in line with "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" and "Splatoon 2," "Pokken Tournament DX" embraces the base of what came before and tops it off with some compelling new features that probably always should have been there. The main draw is the new battle Pokemon Decidueye. Also included are four battle Pokemon that only appeared in the arcade version, running the total number of battlers available to 20. There are also several new support Pokemon in the mix, as well as the option for three-on-three team tangles.

A plausible entrypoint into the fray for casual fans who get lost amid the minutiae in mainline Pokemon games, "Pokken Tournament DX" is strong offering to sate Switch gamers as they inch closer to the holidays. Both on the couch and on the go, this Pokemon-themed slugfest rocks its chosen arena.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Book Report: "The Secret Adversary"

The entire book was a footrace of annoying characters and plot developments. Christie loves her heroine Tuppence, a shamelessly shallow and obnoxiously vain hustler, but her twee demeanor is frustrating rather than endearing. Her would-be lover, Tommy, is oddly aloof and creepily jealous of anyone who comes between him and his frenemy. When they finally get together at the end, it's eye-poppingly forced, and feels like Christie is just giving up rather than concluding things. But even more agonizing than Christie's leads is her storytelling formula. "The Secret Adversary" is a break from her trademark whodunnit style, with no real question ever lingering about who the bad guy really is -- making the Bond villain-like monologue unnecessary. There is no mystery here involving anything to do with the plot. The real wonder is how an effort this haphazard from a legendary writer could be lumped in with her classic creations. The one high point is the outrageous use of inventive slang. I wonder whether characters from the 20s really spoke like this, but suspect Christie was just making things up and forcing her characters to talk the way she wishes they would. Which is just what a writer should do.

"Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite" Review

"Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite" is a fighting game that's full of fan service, but struggles with a blatantly corporate-driven need to hold back. As a result, the subtitle is something of a minsnomer int he distressingly finite offering.

Capcom's tendency to hold back characters and skins in order to prime up copious rereleases and special editions is annoying, and seems to be in effect here. Frustratingly, several favorites from earlier "Marvel vs. Capcom" titles are missing, and are planned to be released later, making loyal gamers cough up even more cash to play them via buying character packs.

No modern fighting game plays things any different, but it's tough to ignore the already filled-out roster available in "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3," which was remastered and released on modern systems earlier this year. At half price, the bones of the 2011 game hold up well and are still a more exciting alternative to the new game.

The story mode is forced and riddled with ludicrous writing. The art style is inconsistent, looking slick with characters such as Spider-Man but exaggerating odd features of fighters such as Dante and Chris Redfield.

Despite its flaws, I find myself mysteriously more drawn to the new game than its predecessor. Maybe it's the steadier flow of 2-on-2 battles rather than the frenetic wildness of the standard 3-on-3s of the past. Maybe it's the new move sets and specials, and the cataclysmic ways they interact on screen.

Damn you, "Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite," for possibly earning that subtitle after all by convincing me to continue to cough up good money to buy up whatever characters you release via piecemeal IV drip. I am as hooked on the new game as much as I was on the old ones in spite of logic and willpower.

Publisher provided review code.

"NHL 18" Review

Hockey has always been one of the sports that translated best to video games. Dating from the crude early NES sims to the 1990s, when EA started dominating dorm rooms with its annual releases, the digital version of the sport has served as a gateway drug to the genuine article.

"NHL 18" marks an attempt to snap out of a stagnation, and shows marked advancement in encouraging directions. The key is that developers didn't insist on taking the gameplay in one definitive direction, but rather adapted it to the varied needs of both lapsed video game hockey fans and annual re-uppers.

You can tweak countless options, ranging from standard difficulty levels to rule sets. Want to let it fly with no offsides, over-the-top checks into the boards and slap shots that careen into the goal from center ice by players who never tire? There's a preset mode for you. Prefer a gritty, grimy brand of ultra-realistic hockey with strategic line changes, clock management and special teams lineups? "NHL 18" has got you covered as well.

Everything including the controls layout is adaptable. My favorite way to play continues to be "NHL 94" mode, which simplifies controls to equate to those of the franchise's Super Nintendo glory days. Savvier players will probably gravitate toward the modern control setup, which utlizes the analog stick as an extension of the hockey stick. The beauty of the diverse control layouts is how they allow players of different backgrounds and skill sets to compete on balanced middle grounds.

Although be-a-player, card-stacking fantasy team and franchise modes continue to develop, the calling card continues to be the MMO-like online multiplayer, which allows you to form pickup games with A.I. relegated to the sidelines. This rooftop-style hockey continues to capture the glee of the sport, and makes "NHL 18" an essential pickup for serious sports gamers.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Project CARS 2" Review

Two years ago, the long-gestating "Project CARS" was a major disruptor in the racing genre, putting some heat on the likes of "Forza" and "Gran Turismo." With scores of unlockable vehicles, tracks and impressive environmental effects, the game shook the foundation of the competitors and sparked some imitation.

Now "Project CARS 2" comes along to compete with its fiercest rival -- the shadow of its predecessor. The new game builds steadily -- if unspectacularly -- upon a solid foundation, content to re-trace much of the same path of what came before.

As with the previous game, much of the enduring success of "Project CARS 2" will be determined by the legs it finds in the online realm. An intuitive interface gives it an impressive head start in that regard. With its rivals asleep at the wheel, Bandai Namco could seize this opportunity to drift into the head of the pack.

A welcome mix of arcade and simulation aspects keeps the career climb intriguing. Nearly everything you do on the track contributes to your climb to the top. Not that you need much of an incentive to keep on playing. The race action is exhilarating enough to keep you fascinated without any manufactured rewards loops.

Publisher provided review code.

"PES 2018" Review

For the past few years, the soccer obsessives at Konami have launched free kicks directly at the nuts of their EA competition. Rather than park the bus and run out the clock to preserve its perceived dominance, "PES 2018" stays with the strategy to got it to its current position, pushing its midfield up into an all-out attack on the back of the net.

Lifelike player renditions and motion captures, exquisite ball physics and enchanting crowd noise continue to amplify the experience and make it feel strikingly close to not only broadcast quality, but also the in-person experience of catching soccer at its highest level. An overpowering sense of knowledge, research and detail went into every aspect of the production, making the game feel like a passion project come to life rather than the annual, corporately mandated series update it is.

Although lack of licenses will always be what holds "PES" games back, but loyal fans push out accurate roster updates you can patch in to keep your players and squads as up-to-date as the "FIFA" counterpart.

Another minor niggle is the somewhat stiff menu interface that takes some adjustment to master for newbies. Anyone with experience with past "PES" games will feel right at home, minimizing the adjustment needed.

A true game for the soccer fanatic rather than the casual tourist, "PES 2018" excels in just about every facet of the game. While there are no standout features that necessitate an upgrade, the allure of the highest-precision soccer game on the market is probably enough to tip the balance in favor of plunging in.

Publisher provided review code.

"NBA 2K18" Review

Year in and year out, Visual Concepts slays with its NBA 2K series. "NBA 2K18" continues to rise to the incredibly high bar. Refining earlier slipshod attempts at acing the story mode aspect of the package, this year's entry sticks closer to the previous template, ignoring the unfortunate Spike Lee-directed detour.

After you design your player, you hit a prospect camp and start attempting to play, scheme and talk your way into a high draft slot. Your choices, especially the headway you make in the RPG-style aspects of your character build, determine your skills, status in the league, contract and star power. More than a standard be-a-player mode while stopping short of forcing your player into a predetermined, overly dramatic narrative arc, the mode provides a strong basis for your avatar in the game's various other arenas.

Whether your penchant is for streetball, career simulation, franchise or online team play, your character will be there to help you go up against the greats.

Player movement and animations have been considerably upgraded, adding to the ever-shrinking proximity to Uncanny Valley and inevitable vault into the beyond. As expected, live updates to rosters, injuries and skill developments continue to match real-life developments.

"NBA 2K18" is as brilliant in execution as a Steve Kerr-coached championship squad, and also every bit as fun to watch as Kerr's Dubs. This game is a beacon for what can be accomplished in basketball sims, as well as sports games in general.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review

After the disaster that was the 2016 release of the Galaxy Note 7, Samsung rebounded in a major way earlier this year with the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. As fantastic as that handset was, though, it served a larger strategic purpose for the company as something of a table-setter.

The Galaxy Note 8, packing its larger screen and S-Pen, is the definitive, full-circle success story for the company that gives its devotees a reason to crow to their Apple-toting rivals. Packing a 6.3-inch screen that stretches across nearly the entire face of the handset, the new design is barely distinguishable from the svelte, sexy S8 models. No longer is the Note a workmanlike, bulky phablet for those who prize screen size above all else. It's now a demure, sleek unit that is deceptively large rather than overtly colossal.

The devices's look also belies its toughness. Water resistant enough to survive an inevitable dunk into a toilet and shatter-resistant enough to survive a hard faceplant on tile, the device largely negates the need for a case. Its glass back makes it easier to hold onto the phone in the first place.

The interface and guts of the Note 8 more than back up the streamlined design. The 12-megapixel dual camera setup is a game-changer that ups the ante for Apple, as well as HTC's line of competitors. Expandable Micro SD storage is back, combining with USB-C charging that lets you quickly charge up the impressive battery. If you're into wireless charging, you can eschew the USB-C in favor of inductive charging via Micro USB.

The 1080p AMOLED screen, which you can adjust to peak visuals by tinkering with the settings, blasts your video and games loudly and proudly, and the packed-in AKG earbuds help enhance the already-superb native sound that pumps out from the speakers.

Although the interface still lags behind Apple in terms of simplicity, multitasking capabilities continue to far surpass those of its rival. You can play a video in one screen and check your email in the other half, toggling one of your split screen spaces for social media updates. It's the perfect phone to live tweet while streaming.

A dynamic and almost absurdly impressive package, the Note 8 is a head-turner packed with smart upgrades geared to aid your productivity and its durability at every turn. With nagging ghosts of the past finally exorcised. Somehow, 2016 seems so far away -- just a lingering flicker in the Note 8's rear-facing camera, which is turned boldly toward the future as it slides gracefully into your pocket. Don't call it a comeback.

Manufacturer provided review unit.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Planet of the Eyes" Review

Starting with the "Limbo"  and "Inside" formula and adding in a dash of color and geometric pizzazz, "Planet of the Eyes" is a brutal side-scrolling puzzle platformer that murders you in gruesome ways time after time.

The name of the game is trial and error, as you leap blindly into one seemingly impassable death trap after another, only to restart, not your mistakes and ace the next go-round. Or the one after that. Or the fifth one after that.

Canadian developer Cococumber wears its Playdead influences proudly, but also shakes up the established formula with some environmental and lore enhancements, taking a less baffling route than its role model. Your robotic protagonist stumbles upon audio logs that solve some mysteries while opening up some others, and the haunting, melodic soundtrack paves your way into metaphysical oblivion.

Those hungering for a challenging platformer with branching paths and scores of unlockables to unearth will find treasure troves of what they're after in "Planet of the Eyes." An under-the-radar indie delight, it's a solid impulse pickup that could easily become an instant obsession.

Publisher provided review code.

"Metroid: Samus Returns" Review

Side-scrolling Samus is finally back, and looking not a day older than her prime.

Nintendo's 3DS gets its most impressive sequel in months in the form of long-demanded fan service.

Although it's based on the 1991 Game Boy title "Metroid II: Return of Samus," the original only provides the skeletal framework of this wholesale reimagining. The basic maps, item placements and bosses remain, everything else is new.

Wholly revamped graphics, enhanced gameplay options with new ways to traverse the labyrinthine corridors, new hidden areas, weapons and abilities abound. If you're a fan of old-school "Metroid" games, you will find much to love. The 2D entries offer a certain precision and demanding rigidity that the excellent-in-their-own-way 3D Prime spinoffs can't equal. "Samus Returns" excels in just about every imaginable way.

Here's hoping the subtitle signifies a symbolic return for the side-scrolling Samus to Nintendo's handheld arsenal. This revamped classic could serve as a launching pad for more of the iconic heroine's interplanetary exploration to come.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

"Destiny 2" Review

"Destiny 2" marks the latest summit in a long climb that started three years ago with the release of its predecessor. After more than a year of hype, the ambitious MMORPG/FPS hybrid missed some of its lofty goals. With its reputation hanging in the balance, Bungie doubled down to not only correct its shortcomings, but overcome them in significant ways with a series of game-changing updates that not only advanced what was there, but reinvented the game, streamlining rough spots and adding new characters and lore.

In many ways, the sequel is just the continuation of that momentum. Rather than a hard break between releases, the follow-up is the latest reinvention in a long, winding path to heights unseen.

New classes, weaponry and realms to conquer are the main aspects that separate "Destiny 2" from its predecessor. Not only does the sequel match the promise that fans have long expected from the franchise, it surpasses them in every significant way. Silk-smooth interfaces -- including the welcome addition of a map system -- facilitate loadout swapping, multiplayer sessions and loot collection and upgrade application. Nagging legacy issues, such as clunky travel, have been fixed up with the elimination of orbiting animations and the addition of fast travel.

Fans who decried the original release's lack of accessible lore will be pleased with the countless channels through which Bungie fills out the backstory. Character and world development is at the forefront of the Destiny journey in its current state. Heroes are still largely blank slates, to allow players to infuse their own personality and motivations into the design and attitudes of the avatars. You end up joining the writing team in a way, as you carve out a place for your hero in the ever-expanding universe and the winding paths it leads you through.

For those who own both the Xbox One and PS4, "Destiny 2" is a smarter pickup on the latter, better-selling system, thanks to timed exclusive content that will pump through the system, as well as slightly (at least until the Xbox One X releases) sharper and smoother visuals. PC gamers will have to wait until Oct. 24. Switch devotees, sadly, will be left out in the cold entirely.

No matter the system you choose to continue your "Destiny" journey, you're in for a treat. This is not only one of the most polished and content-rich shooters at release, but it promises to continue along the upward trajectory Bungie has mapped out for the series. It's a game that is already amazing and promises to get better year by year.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 04, 2017

"Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth" Review

Scantily clad, vulnerable girls, domineering father figures and a realm-hopping quest to dethrone nefarious forces are all facets of the raucous, naughty package that makes up "Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth" -- a wacky, sexy manga come to life.

A Simulation RPG, much of the narrative in "Utawerumono: Mask of Truth" is a visual novel that you can tap through at your own pace, or flip on the mercifully included auto mode that plays the scenes with the speed of an electronic comic book.

With a gameplay experience that stretches well over 80 hours, there is enough material to sift through and digest. You hop among exotic backdrops, taking on sinister foes that stretch the outer reaches of absurdist satire.

Rather than fumble at an Americanized dub, developer Aquaplus sticks to a subtitled version of the original Japanese voice acting track. You may find yourself inadvertently picking up some of the language as you become entranced in the tale.

Veterans of the series can transfer over their saves from the previous game, "Mask of Deception," enriching the overall experience as it comes to a head with the developments that simmer and emerge in the new game.

A beefy experience that justifies the $50 asking price with its sizable amount of content and lavish artistry, "Mask of Truth" is more of an obsession than a pastime.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 01, 2017

"Life is Strange: Before the Storm" Review

"Life is Strange: Before the Storm" is gamedom's answer to "13 Reasons Why."

Although not fixated on suicide like the Netflix series is, the episodic game takes a brutally honest look at adolescence. Avoiding the usual idealization or dismissal of the tumultuous life crossroads, the game takes a hard look at life-defining choices that emerge in your teen years.

Focusing on heroine Chloe Price, whose metaphysical powers from the original "Life is Strange" aren't yet present in this prequel, "Before the Storm" puts Chloe's relationship with Rachel Amber in the crosshairs. The friendship feels deep, resonant and decidedly lived-in. Through dialogue and action choices that come up during gameplay, you wrestle with the conflicting demands and ambiguity so often heaped upon teens.

By scaling back the stakes and telling a tighter, more realistic tale, "Before the Storm" hits homes in ways the predecessor couldn't quite touch. The first episode aptly sets the stage for the coming storm.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Report: "Dust and Shadow"

Lindsay Faye proves to be a better Sherlock Holmes writer than Arthur Conan Doyle. Seamlessly blending the iconic detective's mannerisms and eccentricities with real-life scholarly theories about the Jack the Ripper investigation, she creates a historical fiction hybrid that gives those obsessed by both the all-too-real unidentified serial killer and imaginary detective.

With fevered dialogue peppered with colloquialisms of the day, Faye establishes 1888 London with vigor, inserting a Holmes on the verge of retirement. She makes lovingly subtle references to Doyle's novels by way of casually referencing a trophy Holmes picked up in previous sleuthing, or bringing up the history between the pompous genius detective and his loyal, ever-baffled assistant in casual conversation between them. Far from a slave to convention, she projects Holmes as something of a pain killer addict and self-destructive nightcrawler.

Most exhilaratingly, she pushes Holmes to his breaking point and beyond. The serial killer is his match in drive and intellect to the point where he admires his craft, fears for his own life and doubts his capabilities. This is a spectacular work that would make an excellent movie or miniseries.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"Songbringer" Review

"Songbringer" does everything possible to declare its unbridled love for the original "The Legend of Zelda." From the opening gameplay screen, which plops your unarmed hero in front of a cave beckoning you with a sword, the game replicates the NES rainmaker both stylistically and visually.

A labor of love created by the one-man development team Wizard Fu, the project adds a few crucial new twists to differentiate it from the classic it so obsessively apes. A decisive sci-fi bent separates the lore from the high fantasy trappings of Link's quests, and an emphasis on procedural generation -- each new world created by a player seeds a distinct environment based on a set of basic rules -- making each journey truly unique.

The method seems geared to be far more than a gimmick. It replicates the feel of taking on a challenging RPG in the pre-Internet era, leaving you isolated and scrambling to patch together maps and strategies based on your own wits and experiences rather than slavishly adhering to walk-throughs.

The seed generation, though, also has the potential to make for some fascinating streams, giving players to peek into "Minecraft"-style parallel words created by other players.

The adherence to old-school graphics adds rather than takes away from the visual flair, with close-ups, magical effects and the sounds of battle emerging with charmingly creative flair.

A bold and beautiful download for nostalgic gamers, "Songbringer" plays some sweet music that lulls you into its hypnotic realm.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"ARK: Survival Evolved" Review

An MMORPG that's part "Monster Hunter" and part "H1Z1," "ARK: Survival Evolved" sets you in a realm crawling with dinosaurs. Your task is to respect the behemoth creatures as you scramble to patch together enough resources to see another minute.

You can play cautiously and craftily, conserving items, health and cover to strategically build up your attack and defense capabilities until it's time to strike -- taking down and taming the beasts to help you make the big score. Or you can just charge your naked beginning hero in toward the first brachiosaurus you see and start punching its leg until it either dies or stomps you to death.

With nearly 14 square miles of land to roam and sixty species of dinos to encounter, the adventures you find will be largely of your own creation. No preset narrative gets in your way or guides you toward pre-destined goals.

After several months in early access, the game's rough edges have been smoothed out. It's now in the form that developers Studio Wildcard have long been touting, and the level of polish is staggering.

To endure, you must observe and respect the intricate ecosystem that surrounds you. No walkthrough or online guide will help you much. The range of your success is determined by your insight, adaptability and imagination. The game hands out successes in direct relation to the amount of care and work you're willing to channel into it.

Those who are looking for a linear, hand-holding experience may find themselves lost, but anyone with a thirst for wild, "Jurassic Park" by way of "Choose Your Own Adventure" experiences will eat this game up like a velociraptor does a downed triceratops.

Publisher provided review code.

"Resident Evil: Revelations" Review

Back in 2012, "Resident Evil: Revelations" came out of nowhere -- on the 3DS, of all places -- to set the wayward franchise on the right track. What ended up as little more than a one-off on the system set the stage for a more grounded, horror-minded emphasis in the series' mainline entries and spinoffs.

A short-order PS3 port and 2015 sequel on current-gen systems continued the momentum, and now here we have an HD remaster of the original on the PS4 and Xbox One.

It's expected that the game looks and plays far better than it did in earlier versions. Scraped away is any sign of the game's origin on Nintendo's dual screen handheld, and the result is something that matches modern "Resident Evil" games in form and stature. Previously released DLC, also expected, buffs up the package nicely.

Set between the fourth and fifth numbered entries in the series, the game stars stalwarts Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, who spearhead an effort to sniff out a conspiracy involving corporate and government efforts to mask the greed-driven spread of mutated viruses that have caused havoc in most of the stories in the series. What the plot lacks in coherence it makes up for in set pieces and surprising twists.

While the remake is less than essential if you've played through it in previous releases, the fresh coat of paint makes it worthwhile for completionists, as well as those who never got around to it in previous iterations.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Rock of Ages 2: Bigger and Boulder" Review

Six years and a console generation ago, "Rock of Ages" rolled onto the scene and gave indie game lovers a laugh before disappearing over the horizon. Few thought they'd ever see a sequel, but the development team ACE Team is back with a follow-up that matches the absurd humor and addictive gameplay of the original.

Once again, you engage in anachronistic "Civilization"-style battles pitting various empires from various eras against one another in the form of real-time strategy battles involving rolling giant boulders down hills.

You and your opponent -- the game offers multiplayer as well as a solo campaign -- take turns breaking down and setting up your defenses, then steering your angry, tumbling rock along the way toward oblivion. The goal is to keep your rock as intact as possible as you pick up a head of steam to charge into the enemy's gate.

You navigate a balancing act between defense and attack as you trudge through battles of attrition, hoping to strike the enemy's gate with just enough juice to end the round before your opponent puts you under.

Between-rounds cut scenes are as entertaining as the boulder-rolling and defense-setting. There's something inherently funny about watching pompous historical figures talk smack to one another. Will the gaming world demand a "Rock of Ages 3?" Not likely. But nor was this sequel invited, and it is all the more welcome for the rock-ous way it manages to charge through the gates.

Publisher provided review code.

"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.

"Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle" Review

Nintendo is mighty stingy at lending its main mascot to other publishers, so when a third-party Mario game pops up it's always worth a look. "Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle" offers a fresh take on the Mushroom Kingdom squad, being so bold as to hand Mario and company firearms.

True, the guns are goofy-looking blasters rather than cap-busting nines, but it's still eyebrow raising to watch the cartoonish heroes scamper behind cover to line up headshots.

Taking cues from the "XCOM" reboot and its sequel, Ubisoft's bizarre mash-up largely succeeds where the likes of Nintendo's similar effort, "Code Name: S.T.E.A.M." stumbled. With an accessible interface -- thanks much in part to an isometric view reminiscent of "Super Mario 3D World," the gameplay manages to simplify a complex, high learning curve genre for the masses. Noobs will be able to pick it up and grasp the mechanics, while there is enough depth and disparate objectives to challenge experienced gamers.

With more than 250 weapons and a slew of characters from both genres participating -- complete with the trademark, out-there Rabbids style of humor -- "Kingdom Battle" is a joyous, intense slugfest that excels as much as the strategy front as it does in narrative thrust. Bite-sized missions make the game play just as well in quick-hit portable mode as it does when you're at home, glued to your couch for marathon sessions on your TV.

The lack of online multiplayer -- at least there's couch co-op -- is disappointing but expected. With the Switch's online system still in its beginning stages, there was little upside for Ubisoft to take it online. That thankless task is best left to Nintendo's first party obsessions, such as "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" and "Splatoon 2."

With an enthralling campaign and savage gameplay lining every step of the way, "Kingdom Battle" is a welcome introduction for a non-vehicle riding Mario to Nintendo's newest system. Sure, when "Super Mario Odyssey" drops in a couple months this game will be little more than an afterthought, but until then this is peak Switch Mario.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Report: "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

I see this as the original Scooby-Doo story. You have a supernatural threat who scares people into inaction for monetary reasons, and an end-of-story off-comes-the-mask event that shows how someone who was seemingly innocent was the ringleader for the terror.

The writing is good but the logical leaps are annoying. Sherlock makes assumptions based on probability, and if one of his 60/40 guesses were wrong he would have nothing. You have to go in with a willingness to just accept that whatever Sherlock guesses will always be right, and that the mystery will be impossible to solve unless you happen to be him, because the author doesn't give you any information that Sherlock can observe, leaving you stranded and feeling like a Watson-like moron until Sherlock rolls up and solves everything easily with his string of guesses.

Still a fun and interesting book despite its annoyances.

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

"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.

Publisher provided review code.

"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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

'Hey, Pikmin' Review

The puzzle-based platformer and pseudo RTS dynamo franchise Pikmin has always been a mainstay of Nintendo's home consoles.

"Hey, Pikmin" finally gives the series a portable version, but those looking for the traditional top-down control setup will need to make an adjustment. This is a side-scrolling adaptation of the tap-and-manage setup, which lets you round up, sort and deploy various colored Pikmin to accomplish various tasks for you.

With the feel of a mobile adaptation rather than a full-fledged traditional Pikmin exerience, "Hey Pikmin" feels a bit nerfed, but still manages to capture enough of the feel of the previous games to feel like an extension of the genuine article.

Amiibo interactivity on New 3DS models allow you to aid in puzzle solving and accessing secret areas.

Although far from an essential addition to the considerable 3DS library -- especially as first-party games go -- "Hey Pikmin" is not only a breezy and entertaining time-killer, but a sign that Nintendo is far from giving up support of the 3DS family of handhelds in favor of the Switch.

Publisher provided a review copy.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: Dromida MT 4.18 Brushless 4WD Monster Truck

An absolute beast of an RC rig, the Dromida Brushless Monster Truck is meant to romp over rough terrain and survive the skids and crashes demanded of recreational and competitive racing.

A flexible, durable chassis encases some serious horsepower, with admirable range from the remote and a rechargeable internal battery means you won't accidentally knock some AA batteries out of place.

The remote controller does gobble up AAs, but an off switch lets you save power when you're not using it.

Capable of reaching speeds of up to 30mph, with tweakable customization options that will satisfy gearhead hobbyists.

The truck performs just as well as a toy to mess around with indoors.With a throttle that responds to the degree of pressure with which you squeeze the trigger, it takes little time to gain a feel for how to maneuver it around with minimal crashing.

Of course, intentional crashes, as well as jumps and donuts, are where the truck allows for the most fun. A durable set of wheels that's built to last under rough conditions, the truck is a blast to mess around with.

Distributor provided a review unit.

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Dunkirk" Review

For my written review, click here.

Book Report: The Descendants

Hemmings unloads raw pain and confusion of a swirl of painful and joyous experiences in marriage, parenthood, loss, finance and heritage in a brilliant collage that also works as a great story. The movie came nowhere close to living up to the riches that the author doles out in his quiet, compelling prose. Not a word or scene is wasted, with everything collaborated toward sinking you into the personas of his characters and his setting.

What could have been a depressing tale of a family torn apart by the aftermath of a catastrophic accident that leads to discoveries of a bedrock of lies on which a seemingly stable marriage was built instead turns into a thrilling journey of self-discovery. The theme of the book is that change is constant, and memories captured in photographs and mementos only capture half-truths. Things never really were a certain way -- they were simply part of a process of evolution from one shifting stage to the next. The same is true about ideas of how the future will unfold. Despite whatever inevitabilities seem in store, there are no constants and nothing but a fragile, Wile E. Coyote-like focus on the path forward that keeps everyone and everything from dropping to the bottom at any moment.

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking book that not only tells a fantastic story and sketches out indelible characters, but stimulates your sense of introspection throughout.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Splatoon 2" Review

Nintendo is determined to keep feeding the beast, cranking out a head-turning first-party release for the Switch per month. Stacking along with an impressive slate that includes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Arms, Splatoon 2 is the third among the four offerings of games either previously made for the Wii U or remade from releases on the system.

The strategy of bolstering the new system's library by drawing from the old well is working so far. Nintendo is using the mediocre reach of the Wii U to its benefit, building upon solid word of mouth and unbridled enthusiasm of hardcore fans who devoured the previous games to build a groundswell of anticipation for new-ish games on its hot-selling system.

More Splatoon 1.5 than a full-fledged sequel, the new game excels by refusing to tamper with what already works well.

A strong, competitive third-person shooter hindered only by the lack of multiplayer voice chat that dogs all Nintendo software, Splatoon 2 brings the thrills and entertainment factor of a usually adult genre to all ages. Replacing bullets with paint guns gives the action a harmless, laser-tag style feel.

Gyroscope-aided motion aiming makes the Switch feel like a window into a world you control with your wrists and button taps, and the fluid combination of wall-crawling and paint stream dodging makes for invigorating war games.

What you get is an expanded set of offerings of what the 2015 title offered. New weapons, skins, maps and modes expand naturally on what came before, matching and exceeding the original slate.

LAN play makes more sense than online multiplayer, as long as you happen to have Switch-equipped pals. Face-to-face competition makes the action more exciting, thanks to the smack-talk and facial expressions that come along with the intimacy of the setup.

The four-on-four team-based Turf War mode remains the main attraction, but the new Salmon Mode offering -- think Gears of War's Horde Mode, team you and a buddy to face off against increasingly difficult waves of oncomers.

Checking off another box in the Switch's slowly, steadily growing catalogue, Splatoon 2 helps Nintendo continue to have an unmatched 2017 in first-party production. If you're still satisfied with the Wii U and original Splatoon, rest comfortably that you aren't missing out on all that much new. But if you're looking for future-proof shooting you can take on the go, the sequel should be in your sights.

Publisher provided a review code.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age" Review

Eleven years ago, "Final Fantasy XII" pushed the PlayStation 2 to its limit, reaching what was then a high point for the famed RPG series and laying the groundwork for an awkward decade for the franchise that finally came to blossom last year with the spectacular "Final Fantasy XV."

Telling a sprawling, layered story with gorgeous visuals, deep writing and exhilarating combat that melded turn-based and action qualities, the game was ripe for an HD remaster. "The Zodiac Age" builds on everything that worked with the original -- enhancing the visuals and streamlining the rough, antiquated edges of the gameplay -- and minimizes what didn't work. The result is a gleaming gem that rivals "XV" and "VII" for the top spot among the series' pantheon.

Those who were wowed by "XV" but yearn for the series' roots will find much to love in "XII." Although the checkpoint-based saved system is a previous-gen relic -- hey, at least it does away with the ludicrous PS2 memory card system -- the structured, linear experience recalls the experience that most longtime fans of the franchise grew up loving. You can micromanage every attack or preset your party's emphasis and sit back and watch the mayhem unfold.

A new orchestral score helps give the action and story beats the cinematic resonance that the newer games have, while keeping a foot squarely planted in the past. Looking at the story through the 2017 lens gives the saga a decidedly "Game of Thrones" feel, with the tale of redemption unfolding through brutal setbacks and slivers of hope.

Weighing in at $50, "The Zodiac Age" is on the pricey side of previous-gen remasters, but the cost is well worth it based on the 100-plus hours of thrills it provides, as well as the loving care that went into nearly every aspect of the build. Easily the definitive way to experience "XII," this is as much a remake as it is a makeover.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Minecraft: Season 2, Episode 1" Review

Building of the momentum of the 2015 Telltale Games episodic adventure, the follow-up season reunites characters from the original game and takes your choices into account.

Nailing the blocky graphics and sing-song music of the famed sandbox builder game on which it's based, the storyline and dialogue capture Telltale's trademark humor and emotional resonance.

The new story takes a while to get going, with much of the time spent establishing characters and motivations. Intriguing choices come into play for the branching paths you decide to take, letting you establish your hero as egotistical, sarcastic or compassionate.

Mission directives are always clear and concise, reducing the amount of time you'll need to waste wandering around while looking for ways to advance the story. That's not to say the format is strictly linear. Staying true to the Minecraft spirit, there is plenty to distract you from the main path in the way of exploration and whimsy -- including, of course, opportunities to build stuff.

Like an expert Minecraft builder, the first episode of the new season lays a solid foundation for the heights that are sure to come.

Publisher provided a review code.

Book Report: The Zookeeper's Wife

This is hardcore history dressed up with fictional interludes to streamline the narrative. You know what you're getting into here. A tale of torture and inhumanity, with animals as well as people suffering the spirit-crushing reach of the Nazi regime. I wasn't familiar with the Polish resistance beforehand, and learning about how the people risked everything they had to turn the tide and take back their homes only to find physical devastation, imprisonment and slaughter waiting for them was difficult to handle. Ackerman is very much on the nose with her symbolism, relating animalistic qualities to her heroine, and could have made more of an impact with her theories had she scaled back a lot. But overall, this is a fascinating, well-researched and resonant record of a sad yet inspiring tale of survival.

Monday, July 10, 2017

New Nintendo 2DS XL Review

Sometimes progress means taking a step back.

That's the case for Nintendo's newest handheld, which further clouds the choices handheld gaming enthusiasts need to make when deciding which device to tote around.

The New Nintendo 2DS XL -- yep, quite a mouthful -- is a nominal advancement over the New 3DS XL, the current king of Nintendo's handheld-only products.

Smaller and lighter, with a longer-lasting battery, included charger -- the New 3DS XL lacks one -- the 2DS boasts the same size of display and resolution in both its screens.

Its slimmer form factor, endurance and game library gives it the edge over all other handhelds, including the Switch. The sacrifice is its lack of 3D capability, rendering the once wow-grabbing visuals that have now faded squarely into antiquated fad territory obsolete. You may not be able to get as much out of your 3DS library visually, but if you already have tired of handheld 3D, it's no big loss.

Still, depending on your preferences, there is a cornucopia of brethren systems to tempt you. Start with the tight, compact original 3DS, move on to its supersized big bro, the New 3DS XL, check out the kid-friendly, tablet-style 2DS and then consider the console/handheld hybrid system of the future the Switch, with its currently slim library.

If you want the best of all Nintnedo's offerings, the solutions is a trick question. You'll need both a Switch and a member of the "3DS Family." The New 2DS XL, being the newest of the bunch, makes the most sense for streamlined on-the-go gaming.

If you only have the budget for one system -- and if you plan on keeping the system in your pocket at all times -- your best bet is the newest system, which puts glasses-free 3D in the rear-view mirror, probably for good.

Publisher provided device for review.

Friday, June 30, 2017

"Baby Driver" Review

For my written review, click here.

HTC U11 Review

HTC has struggled to keep pace with Samsung and Apple -- usually playing catch-up on significant tech specs -- but that changes with the U11.

Introducing new tactile functionality along with an elegant two-sided glass form factor and shimmering 5.5-inch, 2K resolution display, this smartphone vies to be the center of attention rather than a wallflower.

Exemplary battery life -- intense use after a full work day will not deplete your power bar -- a staggeringly impressive 16/12 megapixel camera set and impressive multitasking and processing speeds make the U11 tough to put down.

The most intriguing new feature is the squeeze input. Rather than hunt for buttons, you squeeze the phone to launch the camera app and snap pics. While the functionality initially seems incongruous, it quickly becomes second nature, even going to the point of making it feel archaic to go back to another device and snap pics the traditional way.

If you dig the squeeze input, you can take a deep dive and set other apps for squeeze activation. If it doesn't work for you, you can ignore it and rely on the preset inputs.

The Pixel-style Google assistant fills the Siri/Bixby roll well -- riding high on a Snapdragon 835 processor -- and the dust-resistant surface keeps you from having to wipe it clean.

Most importantly, the U11 just feels right. Engineered for responsiveness, ease of use and an appealing ergonomical feel, this gem of a device puts HTC into the unfamiliar -- for the past few years -- spot at the head of the pack in the ever-evolving smartphone arms race.

While there's nothing here to make iPhone or Galaxy die-hards give up their cult-like devotion, fence-sitters looking to upgrade should give this one a long, hard look -- and not be shocked if it's love at first sight.

HTC provided a device for review.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Report: People Who Eat Darkness

Parry goes beyond nuts and bolts journalism to tear the cover off his murder story and dive deeply into the sociopolitical context and disturbing subculture that spawned Joji Obara's kidnapping and killing of Lucie Blackman.

Recounting a case he covered extensively for a British newspaper, Parry exposes the seductive repression of the hostess bar circuit that Obara used to hunt his prey and Blackman clung to as a means to use her charm and looks to get by in a foreign land. Shoving aside constraints of reporter neutrality, he shares the yearnings and frustrations of him and Blackman's family as the staggered Japanese justice system strains to shackle the monster.

Fascinatingly told and free of cliches or lazy true crime crutches, Parry creates a true masterwork that endures as the magnum opus of Blackman case coverage and sets a shining example for not only authors, but reporters, to follow.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Injustice 2: Ultimate Edition" Review

As excellent as "Injustice 2" was, the base game is sadly incomplete. Significant characters that appeared in the story mode were seemingly held back as paid DLC or to trick out the Ultimate Edition.

Shell out an extra $40 for the tricked-out edition of the spectacular D.C. universe fighting game and you get nine DLC fighters that significantly flesh out the roster of pugilists. Red Hood, Starfire, Sub-Zero and Tamaran are included, with the others yet to be announced.

You also get premiere skins, which give existing characters alternate voices and dialogue, as well as shader packs that trick out their gear in the manner of alternate jerseys in pro sports.

Oddly, Darkseid is not included in the package, and remains a pre-order exclusive. If you failed to order the game before release, expect to cough up $6 for the hilariously overpowered -- and arguably most fun -- fighter on the roster.

Whether the premium cost is worth all the additional characters depends on how much time you plan to invest in the versus mode, but there's little question that you need the add-on to complete the full game. Cheapskates can hold out hope that a version of the game with all DLC will eventually come along at a discount, as it did for the previous game in the series.

The publisher provided a review code.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Report: "The Prestige"

Christopher Nolan's flawed movie surpassed the strange, winding book, which takes an intriguing premise, strangles it to death midway through, then keeps on trucking long past when the curtain should have dropped on the plot.

The tale of rival magicians, told through dueling, conflicting journal entries found by their descendants, is at its best when it explores the psyches of the leads, pacing the escalation of the conflict from contentious professional conflict to blood feud and onward to mutually-destructive obsession.

Priest falters once he has to spill the secrets of each magician's special trick that they are hiding from one another. His explanation is a bizarre, supernatural copout that forces the story to wander off into the woods, never to return. Misdirection turns into directionlessness, and the story stops rather than ends.

The format, period detail and character voices are exquisite, but the botched execution fails to coalesce the moving parts into the masterpiece it could have been. The end result is a head-scratching magic trick that baffles rather than dazzles.