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.