Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"Disneyland Adventures" and "Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure" Remasters Review

Released and developed at the same time but available separately, two promising Xbox 360 Kinect-enabled Disney games that never quite caught fire get new life on the Xbox One as part of its PC-compatible Play Anywhere initiative.

Even better, both games -- "Disneyland Adventures" (2011) and "Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure" are freed from the shackles of Kinect. Full controller support lets you play with standard stick and button controls rather that voice and motion gimmicks that were meant to make the games more intuitive to play but ended up turning them into slogs.

Purists who are still rocking a Kinect can use the peripheral to control the games. And because the Xbox One version was far superior to the Xbox 360 device, those gamers will find the experiences far more playable than they did on last-gen.

Both games looked excellent to begin with so whatever visuals were remastered are barely noticeable. Both games burst with fan service, even if "Disneyland Adventures" is little more than a glorified commercial for the theme park.

You choose to play as a boy or girl who runs through Disneyland alone, serving fetch quests for characters, gobbling up collectibles and taking on levels based on rides. Convincing scale and intricate detail that matches Disneyland's layout down to the churro stands is enough to help scratch the itch of Disneyland junkies who need a fix of the Happiest Place on Earth.

"Rush" is less a virtual brochure than it is a traditional platformer. The worlds of "Toy Story,: "The Incredibles," "Cars," "Up" and "Ratatouille" collide, with characters and settings from each game blending in a cohesive adventure that ties together the films' universes in far less complicated ways than the universal Pixar fan theories that abound. Like "Disneyland Adventures," the removal of Kinect is addition by subtraction, allowing players to take on the content as it was originally envisioned, if not executed.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 27, 2017

"Earth Atlantis" Review

The most eye-catching quality of "Earth Atlantis" is its art style, which is meant to resemble a living sketchbook influenced by "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" fever dreams. Giving you control of a weapon-equipped submarine, the game tasks you to navigate through hidden depths teeming with sharp, destructive obstacles and hostile seal creatures.

The Switch exclusive -- which has been granted a rebirth of sorts thanks to an update that fixed many previous problems -- is part of the flood of indie gems that have given Nintendo's handheld/home console hybrid so much momentum as of late. The side-scrolling action is an ample fit for the handheld mode, with mission design geared toward on-the-go play.

With deceptively simplistic gameplay that echoes the level design in that it reveals hidden depths and nuances the longer you play,  "Earth Atlantis" proves to be a welcome palate cleanser in between meatier first-party offerings. Sure, you may by the Switch for "Breath of the Wild" or "Super Mario Odyssey," but it's games like this that will keep the system as our on-the-go go-to.
Publisher provided review code.

"Slayaway Camp: Butcher's Cut" Review

Like a demented version of the "Professor Layton" penguins on ice lake puzzles, "Slayaway Camp" tasks you to plan out your moves in advance, sending your character in a primary direction on a grid, unable to stop until you meet an environmental block.

The twist is that you're a psycho killer, stalking unwitting campers, counselors and security guards. "Slayaway Camp" -- newly released on PS4 after starting off months ago on PC -- tasks you to take them out in as few moves as possible -- in moves punctuated by comically detailed scenes of "Minecraft" graphics-executed gore -- then escape into a demonic vortex.

Levels are compartmentalized as scenes from VHS slasher flicks, which conveniently allow you to be kind and rewind at will in order to take part in necessary trial and error without the pain of having to restart fresh. Do particularly well on a level -- including executing a button press timed to a slider to pull off a finishing move -- and you'll accumulate enough in-game currency to buy enhancements at the store.

Always giving you a reason to come back for more and build off your past successes and hone your strategic thinking to ace each scene with maximum efficiency. The trappings of 80s horror tropes sweetens the deal, making one of the better puzzle games in recent memory even more of a killer.
Publisher provided review code.

"Just Dance 2018" Review

"Just Dance" justifies its annual release pattern not only by cranking out fresh music and choreography to keep up with the times, but by drastically adjusting its formula year to year, giving players more ways to bust moves to their favorite songs.

"Just Dance 2018" ups the ante by making major strides in online play. You can join massive, worldwide dance competitions at any time, with randomized tracks that assign you to a crew and reward you for nailing coordinated moves. Feedback is instant and constant. In between each session you see your spot on the leaderboard, as well as your cumulative score. The additions are alluring inducements to keep you coming back day after day to strut your stuff.

The song list is a little light, at 37 tracks, but strong. Of course "Despacito" is there, and there's also Ariana Grande's "Side to Side" and Lady Gaga's "John Wayne." There are also less obvious choices, including entries from Psy, the Sunlight Shakers and Wanko Ni Mero Mero.

Eschewing the need for cameras, onscreen prompts suggest you use your phone as the motion tracker. I am still a sucker for its Xbox One Kinect integration. Despite Microsoft long since having given up on the peripheral, "Just Dance" remains fully committed to its integration, and this is one of the few games -- perhaps the only 2017 release -- that actually sticks to the old "Better with Kinect" credo.

An unmitigated joy year after year, "Just Dance 2018" is, as expected, the best version of the game yet and a must-buy for those who've got the beat, or at least pretend like they do.
Publisher provided review code.

"Jigsaw" Review

For my written review, click here.

"Gran Turismo Sport" Review

"Gran Turismo" games have always been for extreme gearheads who eschewed the frills and hand-holding of arcade-style racers in favor of gritty, brutal realism. The sacrifice came in the form a spartan menu system and unforgiving progression system.

While "Gran Turismo Sport" eases some of the harsh barriers to entry of previous games, the old "GT" bones remain in place. This is no game for tourists, or, if you will, drive-by fans. A rich, immensely detailed driving experience that takes on several disciplines and unloads near-limitless customization options, "Gran Turismo Sport" is a ritzy steak dinner for Sony driving fans who have been waiting patiently for the franchise to emerge onto the PS4.

Optimized for 4K TVs equipped with HDR capabilities, "Gran Turismo Sport" is as insanely sexy looking as it is committed to replication the real-life feel of the road. A genuine, obsessive love of automobiles courses through every pixel of the game, starting with a possibly tear-inducing opening montage that hop-scotches through the history of competitive racing.

The built-in tutorial system wisely holds you back from jumping into the online fray at the beginning, forcing you to take on a series of time trials and simple races in order to build up your experience points to unlock online competition. Everything you do on the road contributes to your progression, allowing you to unlock new rides, customization options, tracks and circuits.

Anything but fuel for the "Mario Kart" crowd, "Gran Turismo Sport" is likely the game that a sizable cadre of players have been waiting for to take the PS4 plunge, as well as deck out their living room with a 4K HDR set. A stunner in visuals, gameplay and content depth, it's a complete package that proves to have been well worth the wait.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Knowledge is Power" Review

Sony's line of PlayLink games are geared to open up your living room to mass multiplayer without the unrealistic requirement of buying several controllers.

"Knowledge is Power" is a simple yet insanely fun trivia game that accomplishes the feat by letting several players link up using their cell phones to answer questions.

Competition is the name of the game here, and the developer took a shortcut by eliminating AI competition. That makes the game a solely player vs player affair, which won't even let you past the intro screen unless multiple people download the app and connect to the game. Families with cell phone-free children can use tablets as a workaround.

The categories and questions available provide a wide range of general knowledge, making the game sort of a "Jeopardy" lite. The interface is visually appealing and there is enough variety to keep things from repeating too often.

A solid ice breaker for awkward acquaintances and excellent way to share a baseline interactive competition for a group of friend or family members, "Knowledge is Power" is a welcome addition to the PS4 lineup that's hopefully a sign of further cheap, accessible efforts to come.

Publisher provided review code.

"Singstar Celebration" Review

After a lengthy hiatus, PlayStation stalwart "Singstar" finally makes its return to the PS4 for the first time since "Singstar Party." The new game wisely integrates PlayLink functionality, letting up to eight players use their phones as mini karaoke machines to join in embarrassing performances.

Although the opening track list is on the skimpy side, with only 30 tracks to get you going, there are hundreds more available to stream and download for a price. The business model seems to be to make you get sick of the included tracks due to repetition so that you will cough up extra dough to enjoy yourself. At least the $20 price point makes the initial investment easier to handle than previous games, which cost $40 or more.

The phone integration is a game changer, freeing you from the old wired microphone setup. If you use the PlayStation Camera, you can record your performances and upload them to Facebook or Twitter to share your tone-deaf exploits.

An enjoyable budget party game that works better in short spurts than it does marathon sessions, "Singstar Celebration" marks a savvy new turn for a longtime favorite.
Publisher provided review code.

"Assassin's Creed Origins" Review

 "Assassin's Creed" games have served as some of the most effective history lessons in the gaming era. Over the past decade, the multimedia historians at Ubisoft's plethora of studios have whisked gamers to such fascinating social tinder boxes as the ancient Middle East, the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution London and the French and American Revolutions.

Ancient Egypt was always a long-sought dream of fans, and "Assassin's Creed Origins" shows why it was wise for developers to wait so long to grant the wish. The technological advancements shine through in the breathtaking sweep of the age of Pharaohs and pyramids, and it's tough to fathom a previous dev team having managed to tackle the Ptolemaic era with such breathtaking confidence.

Playing as Bayek, a steadfast warrior willing to stand up to the authority of the Phara, and oh's rule. As usual with characters in the series, Bayek is an ace at parkour, wire walking and leaps of faith, as well as sharpening his instincts with an Eagle Vision-like modifier that opens up hidden items and passageways. He can summon camels as mounts at will, commandeer canoes to row down rivers and control a bird of prey to run aerial recon.

Packed with side quests, collectibles and crafts to use to upgrade and hone your skills, the realm of "Origins" is a literal sandbox begging to be roamed and excavated. The sense of time and place is all-encompassing, truly making you feel as though you are living and working in the era. Hardships of slaves and underclass surround you, and opportunities to roam, seek and undermine your enemies via stealth, brute strength and sedition surround you.

The lack of multiplayer is no loss at all. Combined with the extra year in development left by a gap in the previous annual release schedule, the focus on providing a spectacular and engrossing single-player experience pays off in impressive detail and a soaring sense of liberation.

The appropriately titled "Assassin's Creed Origins" works as a fresh start for a series that had flirted with going stale. The present and future of the franchise now seem as bright and promising as its monumental past.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Hidden Agenda" Review

Fresh off the runaway success of "Until Dawn," Supermassive Games continues to redefine the adventure game with "Hidden Agenda," a novel crime thriller that lets multiple players use their phones -- via the new PlayLink system -- to guide protagonists through grim investigations.

You connect your phone to the system and use a touch screen to move a cursor onto screen prompts to vote on decisions at key times. "Hidden Agenda" turns into a playable film, with incredibly lifelike graphics -- most notably the facial animations, which push current-gen technology the way Quantic Dream did for the PS3 with the likes of "Heavy Rain."

In between voting sessions, you also scan the screen for clues in the manner of hidden object games, boosting your opportunities as you continue along branching paths.

What could come off as a cheap, hackneyed gimmick excels because of the motion capture performances and writing. "Hidden Agenda" is an absurdly good deal for its budget price, and a gleaming pre-Holiday surprise for an otherwise lackluster PS4 first party lineup. Don't sleep on this one.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Book Report: Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen set the template for the romantic comedy with her trio of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma.  Pride and Prejudice is the prototypical girl meets jerk, jerk falls for girl, girl rejects jerk, before falling for him after he shows his persona is just a rough exterior meant to preserve his sweet inner nature.

This one in particular reads like a diary originally written in first person but transposed into third. She is all about telling rather than showing, describing and projecting Elizabeth's innermost thoughts rather than letting them play out via manner and dialogue.

Austen is an elegant writer, and excels best at braiding the intricacies of courtship and manners while prodding at the underlying ugliness of people pretending to be prim and proper. Her extreme wordiness is tiring, though, and slows her ability to tell her story. That's why most movies based on her work play better than her prose.

"Numantia" Review

"Numantia" is a game for those who toiled away nights in "Advance Wars," "Might and Magic" or "Civilization" games. With hex-grid, turn-based strategy tempting you to truck through one more turn that turns into endless turns, it's a fevered, addictive experience that enraptures you, taking you into its overlooked historical era.

Set in ancient Rome, the rebellious colony of Numantia is attempting to overthrow their Roman Republic overlords. You can play as either the side that sees itself as freedom fighters or that of the Roman peacekeepers, engaging in fortified battles to take over key chokepoints and resources to out-think and out-maneuver the enemy into submission.

With a saga that plays out for more than 20 years, you take control of a twisting narrative that bends to your successes and failures on the battlefield. Controlling 30 units with diverse capabilities, you decide offensive or defensive postures, how to utilize specialized ranged units and weighing short-term risks vs. long-term advantages.

Spanish developer RECOtechnology a breakthrough, marking one of the most impressive achievements of its country's fledgling indie game scene. "Numantia" proves that while turn-based strategy may be out of fashion, it remains as relevant as ever if executed with the proper enthusiasm and precision. Here's hoping the developer works the hex grid of game marketing to make a lasting impact.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"South Park: The Fractured But Whole" Review

Comedy games pretty much weren't a thing before Trey Parker and Matt Stone started making "South Park" RPGs. And that includes the lame gaming products the duo allowed to be slapped onto the "South Park" name before they began their renaissance with "South Park: The Stick of Truth" three years back.

Cramming enough incisive dialogue and satire to fill an entire season of episodes into a single game, "The Fractured But Whole" maintains the high standard established by the last game.

Just as "The Stick of Truth" shredded high fantasy tropes, "The Fractured But Whole" takes its mocking wit to the realm of overextended superhero franchises. Cartman, Stan, Kyle and the gang form a squadron of superheroes whose purpose isn't so much to protect innocents and chase down criminals as it is to make loads of cash with sequels, prequels and spinoffs.

You once again create your own avatar as the new kid in town, setting your difficulty based on the shade of skin color you choose. After starting with an absurd minigame set on a toilet, you venture out into an ever-expanding open world, with new areas unlocked to you as you complete missions and battles.

The format is divided into days, with each night ending with your character going to bed. An assortment of ever-shifting side missions, items and quests await you in each new frame, with decisions that can alter the dialogue and sight gags you encounter.

Occasional cinematics never trip up the momentum of the story. The same isn't so of design bottlenecks, which can be frustrating and force some trial and error before advancing. The impetus to continue is the assurance that tons of laughs await. Stone and Parker maintain their stratospheric level of comedy throughout, immune to the fear that the further into the game the content is placed, the fewer gamers will experience it.

"South Park: The Fractured But Whole" is the rare crossover success that could bring new players into the fold. Fans of the franchise who were content with the PS3/Xbox 360 generation will now have to join the modern gaming age to experience more of the goods they enjoy on a weekly basis in the fall. They'll find it well worth the price of access, especially since early-release copies of the new game come bundled with a remastered version of the previous one. Those unaccustomed to constant chuckling as they jockey the controller will have to get used to it, because that's the way Parker and Stone roll.

  Publisher provided review code.

"Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth" Review

Atlus's "Etrian Odyssey" series is one of the only -- and by far the most successful -- traditional JRPGs to keep on keeping on in an era in which so many stalwart franchises have fallen to the wayside. Operating like a game out of time, it continues to adhere to old-school sensibilities while tacking on more and more modern niceties.

The result is an engrossing, colossally deep experience that could very well shanghai your 3DS cartridge slot for the next several months.

After building and customizing your characters, which you can mix and match to form parties that fit the needs of your missions. You'll need a wide range of loadouts and specialties to match the challenges that confront you, especially if you choose the harder-core of the two difficulties.

Rich, if a little wordy, writing sets a decidedly epic tone that carries resonance throughout the sprawling saga as it develops. And as expansive and winding as your story turns out to be -- significantly affected by your own choices, each new playthrough will doubtlessly be different than the one that came before. The game pushes its story beyond the myth and well into the realm of obsession.

Publisher provided review code.

iPhone 8 Plus Review

Apple's iPhone 8 Plus is no one's idea of a fallback phone. Despite muted fan reaction compared to previous releases, the phone is a knockout that improves on the impressive groundwork laid by its predecessors, overcoming nagging shortcomings of the past while pressing forward to realms yet undefined. Whip out iPhone 8 Plus and expect jealous glances.

Cynics will whine that Apple hasn't made many design innovations since the advent of the 6 and 6 Plus in 2014, that the addition of wireless charging is an effort to play catch-up with its Samsung rivals and that the looming release of the iPhone X rendered the 8 Plus obsolete as soon as it hit the market.

All that cynicism melts away the second you get your hands on the device. While the 8 Plus may not be a colossal leap forward, it's a combination of incremental improvements that form to craft the collective impressive step that will tempt both update-hungry annual Apple updaters and Android afficionados alike.

The advents of the bionic chip and AR, upgrades to 3D Touch, improved cameras, speakers and battery life all team up to form a superphone that manages to make the excellent iPhone 7 Plus seem like a feature-poor relic from yesteryear.

At the top of the list of enhancements is the 12MP camera. Equipped with a bigger, speedier sensor and enhanced video stabilization to smooth out your shakes, the camera is designed to snag sexy sunsets, low-light portraits, fast-paced action stills and shimmering color, all in either snapshots, Harry Potter-style Live Photos or video that can run at a 60fps clip at 1080p resolution. A cadre of settings allows you to adjust your shot to your vision, whether it be intentionally blurry-background stage lighting, natural lighting or a studio look. Photo geeks will adore the seemingly infinite post-production tweaks and pre and mid-shoot adjustments available to those willing to experiment.

The battery life is said to have been improved by 25 percent or so, but my experience found it dwarfing the endurance of both a 7 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 by several hours. Fast-charging from either the lightning port or more convenient wireless charging means you'll spend lest time attached to a wall or computer dock.

The video and sound the phone pumps out make the phone more of a draw as a gaming and video watching outlet. Combined with that boosted battery life, you feel less guilty maxing out your data plan while messing around on commutes or office waits. Game developers are taking the AR enhancements and running, pumping out a steady stream of amusements that let you interact with avatars and objects layered over real-world scenes. Here's hoping a future update integrates virtual reality to the level of competitors.

On top of all that, the phone is more resistant to water and drops. Although a case is still recommended, those who prefer taking their phone around naked will better enjoy the new all-glass casing. Even should you cloak your precious investment with a case, the wireless charging still works just as well.

Bursting with practical upgrades that emerge the more you use the device, the iPhone 8 Plus is no placeholder or silver medalist. Built to impress, withstand accidental abuse, snap brilliant shots and handle all your diverse needs without flashing that annoying "low battery" notification, the 8 Plus nails it at just about every level.

Apple provided loaner device.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"Echo" Review

A third-person sci-fi adventure that adapts to the style and choices you establish, "Echo" tells the story of En (Rose Leslie), a space traveler who emerges from cryo-sleep to explore a palace that manifests traces of her former life.

The palace is a haunting realm that reflects En's actions, acting as a character that analyzes, baits and subtly mocks her -- acting as a puzzle that needs to be manipulated and overcome.

Although developer Ultra Ultra does a solid job of establishing an exotic setting, it falls a bit short with narrative thrust. En moves so slowly that you wish there was an option to sprint. The open-ended level design compounds the frustration of taking an incorrect path.

Still, the narrative's meditative and introspective tone serves as a welcome departure from most of the fast-paced, visceral fare that has flooded the marketplace. "Echo" is a methodical, cerebral journey that tends to lull you into its hypnotic pull.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"88 Heroes -- 98 Heroes Edition" Review

You can't help but chuckle at the premise of "88 Heroes." Set at 8:08 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1988, the nefarious Doctor H8 will rain nuclear destruction on the world with his 88 nuclear warheads unless he receives $88 octillion within 88 minutes.

Luckily, you and 87 other heroes have what it takes to bring him down.

Released in January on PS4, the 2D platformer gets a special edition rerelease on the Switch. Speedy, breezy platforming is the order of the day, with stiff challenges worthy of "N+" and "Super Meat Boy."

Satirical humor courses throughout every scene. The members of Indie dev Rising Star Games is clearly well versed in the trappings of old-school thrills, and channel their copious knowledge into a ludicrous tribute.

While the premise tends to grow stale in extended play sessions, it works well in the quick, on-the-go stations that the Switch was geared for in portable mode. Luckily it doesn't cost $88.
Publisher provided review code.

"The Foreigner" Review

For my full review, click here.

"Raiden V: Director's Cut" Review

Originally released in 2016, MOSS's retro throwback bullet hell shooter has re-emerged in director's cut form on PS4. Those who are into classic shooters such as "Life Force" and "Galaga" will eat up the gameplay, which has you select your fighter craft and move it around the ever-scrolling screen as relentless enemy formations come at you.

The "Raiden" has been holding the genre's standard high since the early 1990s, when it was king of the arcades, and has ably shifted to consoles, where it serves as a welcome change of pace from more complicated games of today.

The main change from previous games is the graphics. The detail and particle effects of explosions, upgrades and weaponry is sharper and more vibrant, while the creativity of upgradable weapons remains consistent. Snake-like streams of weaponry, screen-frazzling smartbombs and pulse shields help you make your way through simplistic yet consistently challenging levels.

Ample difficulty settings allow newbies to taste the fun while providing a stiff challenge for vets. A compelling download for those looking for some lighter fare amid the coming onslaught of serious games, "Raiden V" is a welcome blast from the past.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"The Evil Within 2" Review

"The Evil Within" seized the survival horror banner from "Resident Evil," which has long since evolved into more of an action-oriented escapade. In both the original 2014 "The Evil Within" and its impressive sequel, you find yourself scrambling in the dark to escape from overwhelmingly bleak scenes, left with only your wits and impulses to guide you through.

You once again play as Sebastian Castellanos, a cop suffering from a family tragedy who submits to a thought manipulation program called STEM in a desperate attempt to reunite with his daughter, who he believes died in a fire.

You sink into Sebastian's mind, a prison of psychoses. You find yourself confronting a series of nightmare-like hallucinations with limited resources at your disposal.

Customization options abound, starting from control options and difficulty levels at the onset. You can also load out your character with attributes that allow you to play the way you want to. If you prefer to confront your opponents with angst and ammunition, setting traps to lure in the big bads, have at it. If you would rather hone your stealth and hiding abilities, you can build your character to suit those purposes, thanks to a flexible suite of craftable materials.

Unlockables abound for those willing to devote the time to exploring the harrowing environments. The emphasis throughout is on survival despite horrific odds, and the horror comes from not only jum scares but a nagging sense of hopelessness. Flick off the lights, sink into a chair and enjoy an engrossingly agonizing horror experience.

Publisher provided review code. 

Book Report: "The End of Eternity"

Isaac Asimov didn't just present visions of the future, he put considerable thought into the moral implications of what factors such as artificial intelligence, time travel and space exploration would have on culture as well as the way it would skew the collective long-term purpose of mankind. "The End of Eternity" contemplates the effects that traveling through time would have on the moral makeup of political leaders, projecting moral wars that would span centuries.

At the kernel of the treatise is a sad love story and gripping espionage thriller. Asimov's plotting would have held up just as well if no sci-fi was involved and all the backstabbing, misdirection and vengeance quests took place in a contemporary city. If he held true to his storytelling he would have ended up with something approaching perfection. Instead, he gives up on his story in the final chapters and takes to characters swapping monologues that would better serve as term papers.

"Middle-earth: Shadow of War" Review

Monolith Productions lives up to its lofty moniker by going big at every opportunity.

Back in 2014, it harnessed the overwhelming mythos of J.R.R. Tolkien's universe to produce an epic, branching-paths adventure that transcended both the books and films. The innovated Nemesis system had you forge rivalries and alliances with opponents that would come back to haunt you or even pay off positively in endeavors down the line.

Despite its ambitious reach, Monolith's vision exceeded its grasp, largely due to technological limitations of the time. Now with experience and advancements on its side, Monolith goes in for the glorious kill with "Shadow of War." Once again taking the reins of human-wraith hybrid Talion on his obsessive quest to get back at Sauron, the saga lives up to the lofty expectations left by the predecessor. In many ways, this was the game that the original promised to be but didn't quite achieve.

Although the architecture of the RPG elements can be intimidating, the level design has a comforting way of presenting you your tasks in a piecemeal manor that helps you master them without being overwhelmed. You can go from a someone who has no idea what they're doing to a masterful, bast-dispatching, orc-enslaving ninja of vengeance in minutes.

The world-building aspects come later on, tasking you to conquer the realm by setting up and maintaining feifdoms lorded over by submissive rivals. The game soars higher in its action and visual aspects than it does in its franchise mode-style amalgam, but the total package meshes well and makes sense.

Although weighed down by everpresent microtransactions prompts urging you to cough up a stream of money as continuous as Mordor's orc battalions, "Shadow of War" provides a path to victory for those who refuse to play ball. It seems that you don't need to buy anything to win, although spending big on loot boxes and premium orcs will ease your bath to endgame triumph.

But don't expect to make it to that point any time soon. Loaded with sidequests and bursting with things to do and places to explore, "Shadow of War" is more of a place to spend time than a point-to-point narrative to barrel through. Monolith's realm is even more engaging than the Tolkien books and films that came before, as well as its original game.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

"Sine Mora EX" Review

Newly released on Switch, "Sine Mora EX" is more than a quick and dirty port. The bullet hell escapade seems like a natural fit for Nintendo's handheld/home console hybrid.

Even if you rock a colossal TV with surround sound, the game plays far better when in handheld mode.

With the ability to hunch over, glue your eyes to the screen and exact sweet vengeance on the swarms of enemy aircraft that have been pummeling you into oblivion.

While the game was a superb effort in its original form, and especially its enhanced EX mode, "Sine Mora" shines brightest on the Switch. If you own Nintendo's console, the infinitely replayable shooter is well worth the $30 it costs to add to your library.

Publisher provided review code.

"Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga: Bowser's Minions" Review

Dusting off a 2003 GameBoy Advance classic, developer AlphaDream not only remakes "Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga," but reinvents it for the Nintendo 3DS, making the game look and play better than ever before while retaining the rollicking sense of humor and clever puzzle design that tantalized fans 14 years ago.

The result is a vital entry in a somewhat slow year for the system, building off the momentum of "Metroid: Samus Returns," another brilliant remake from Nintendo's handheld past. As expected, the main quest is still there in all its glory. You juggle Mario and Luigi in their efforts to track down Bowser, hunting down his lackeys in a series of interactive turn-based battles. You can shift the tide with combo attacks, special moves and items.

The main draw for those looking for something new is the "Minion Quest: The Search for Bowser" mode, which lets you play as Captain Goomba, who leads ShyGuy, Boo and other members of Mario's rogues gallery as they hunt down their leader in an adventure that runs parallel to the good guys' journey.

Amiibo collectors will find plenty of outlets for their army of miniature statues. All figures from the Mario universe are compatible with the game, popping out bonuses and item drops that help you on your voyage.

Every bit the giggle-inducing good time that the original was -- and topped off with a new quest that stands tall in the shadow of the original -- "Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga: Bowser's Minions" is a handheld blast that proves Nintendo still has plenty of love for its handheld-only systems as we move deeper into the Switch era.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

"Forza Motorsport 7" Review

It used to be that the standard "Forza Motorsport" series did all the stiff-lipped heavy lifting, leaving it to the "Forza Horizon" offshoot to inject a sense of free-wheeling fun. "Forza Motorsport 7" marks the apex of a years-in-coming change to that paradigm, imbued with enough arcadey adaptations to match its spinoff in the fun factor while still flooring it in the realm of accurate simulation.

Easily the most accessible mainline "Forza" game to date, "7" is something newcomers can pick up and play without feeling the urge to slam their controllers in frustration. With enough assists and a handy rewind mode that makes the racing process less solemn, the floor has been lowered for newbies.

Veterans won't feel that their obsession has been nerfed. You can still opt for ultra-punishing simulation specs, made all the more challenging due to varied weather options. The sense of speed the game imbues its vehicles at every level is as engrossingly addictive as ever.

With more than 700 cars available to pick up through its web of win bonuses, promotions in-game credits and real-life currency -- each with countless customization options -- there is a limitless amount of permutations to your vehicle stables.

The variety of racing classifications and tracks is just as staggering. From the opening tutorial, you get a taste of the various speedsters, trucks and open wheel rides available. "Forza Motorsport 7" wears the burden of being Microsoft's only first-party late-2017 release with as much smooth confidence as a world-class racecar driver. 
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 02, 2017

"Cuphead" Review

"Cuphead" turns out to be a deal with the devil that parallels its own plot.

A gorgeous game, with every frame hand-drawn in 1930s Fleischer Bros. style, it lures you into its maddening platforming, only to inflict you with ceaseless torture and torment.

That the game - about anthropomorphic cup brothers who lose their souls to the devil at the craps table and try to win them back by acting as his soul repo men -- is so difficult is a plus for old-school gaming fanatics, who will appreciate its "Mega Man" and "Contra"-style platforming and run-and-gun inspirations. But anyone looking for modern hand-holding amenities will run screaming.

Don't expect niceties such as checkpoints or the ability to add lives. "Cuphead" makes you work for every inch, and demands you learn the intricacies of its levels via a brutal regime of trial and error until you can skate through unscathed.

A dazzling showpiece and undeniable artistic achievement, "Cuphead" will likely prove popular on the speed-run circuit and streaming. Its style overshadows its maddeningly difficult content. If you see its ending, it will be either by sheer force of will with finely honed skill or because you gave up and watched it on YouTube.

Publisher provided review code.