Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"R-Type Dimensions EX" Switch Review


Resurrecting two of the greatest shmup titles ever created, "R-Type Dimensions EX" rounds up the first two space shooters into one remastered package on the Switch.

With 14 levels filled with megaships, screen-filling beasts and side-scrolling obstacles to blast your way through, the game ratchets up the difficulty to levels that were acceptable in the 1980s but are rarely seen in this era.

The replay value comes in embracing the intense challenge and gradually working your way toward mastery. Ultimately, you'll find yourself losing yourself in the heat and flow of the game, dodging and destroying enemies as second nature, without even focusing.

Two-player co-op makes the challenge heaped upon you easier to deal with, and a slow-motion mode lets you break down your mistakes and adjust accordingly.

Graphics have been considerably upgraded, but those who are fans of the original, pixelated visuals can swap back and forth between the current and old visuals at any time. Customizable controls allow you to rejigger and tweak the options to your liking.

Whether you're a series veteran or a newcomer, "R-Type Dimensions EX" has plenty to offer you. It's an apt fit for the Switch, thriving on your TV, as well as in handheld mode. The ticket to deep space shenanigans works as a time machine as well, transporting you back to its 80s heyday.
Publisher provided review code.

"Ticket to Ride" Review


The beloved railway-themed board game evolves in "Ticket to Ride," which delivers all the frenzied, competitive gameplay and removes the tedious setup, piece management and cleanup.

Another in a series of local multiplayer-focused PS4 exclusives, including the quiz game "Knowledge is Power" and murder mystery "Hidden Agenda," "Ticket to Ride."

After the initial hassle of having all players download the game-specific app and connecting to the same local WiFi network as your console, you dig in to the fast-paced rail building. The necessity of using phones or tablets rather than controllers makes it easy for larger groups to get in on the action without making the host splurge on hardware.

While the visuals are less than spectacular, they are adequate and don't get in the way. Developers Days of Wonder and Asmodee Digital , which are cognizant that the airtight gameplay is the main drawn, prioritize functionality above all else.

Like other PlayLink games, the more players who get involved, the better time you're in for, with the game acting as a conduit to elicit the ribbing and inside jokes that emerge when friends gather and set their wits on the line against one another.

"Ticket to Ride" is at its best when it goes off the rails, setting the room afire with angst, stress and laughs. It takes the party game concept to a new level, and makes you think twice before cracking open the old board game.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" Review


These are relative boom times for Lovecraftian horror games, with the combat-focused strategy title "Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" following the measured narrative stylings of "Call of Cthulhu."

The newer game, an action-packed turn-based effort in the tradition of "XCOM" and "Valkyria Chronicles," explores the universe's bizarre creatures and their spellbinding powers and abilities, crossed with the trappings of World War II.

This will all seem familiar to tabletop RPG enthusiasts, because developer Auroch Digital adapted the card and miniature setup to conjure the game.

Maintaining the dice-roll sensibilities of combat odds, as well as the sense of progression that allows you to bend those odds to your favor, the result is a balanced effort that taxes your willingness to gauge opportunistic aggression with measured defense.

Those who go in with heedless guns blazing are likely to find themselves repeating levels, as will those who fail to press their advantage when it arises. Multiple variables come into play as things develop, with light and dark powers to orchestrate, shifting senses of momentum that tweak the circumstances and a psychological health dynamic that wears your forces down as they're exposed to further trauma.

The game doesn't do much in the way of holding your hand, but does deliver fair, constructive lessons along with your failures. When you suffer setbacks, you come back stronger and more capable. Heeding the call of battle in "Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" is a brutal, unforgiving affair that never fails to get your adrenaline flowing.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Theater Review: "The Music Man"


"The Music Man" tends to be one of the classic musicals that is too much taken for granted to be regarded as lively and poignant. Leave it to Arizona Theatre Company to breathe fresh life into its creaky bones of Meredith Wilson's opus.

Bill English plays title character Harold Hill with the necessarily heedless devil-may-care panache to keep him likable even as he deceives the town's innocents. He heads up a superb cast of rambunctious performers, elegant singers and athletic dancers.

Standouts include Danny Scheie in an unrepentant hammy tour de force as dopey villain Mayor Shinn, drawing a slew of belly laughs with ludicrous monologues and one-liners. Manna Nichols delivers show-stopping vocals as Harold's bookish love interest, Marian. Amy Button, Carly Natania Grossman, Jay Garcia and George Slotin anchor an outstanding ensemble.

Before the performance, Arizona Theatre Company's brain trust took the stage and revealed that this is the most expensive production in the organization's 52 years. The bulk of the expense seems to have gone into the elaborate sets, which switch out and flow into the narrative in seamless transitions and impressive mobility. Director David Ivers orchestrates the impressive pieces with aplomb.

The synchronicity of the sets and performers is obvious from the outset, with the opening number, "Rock Island," in which traveling salesmen gossip on a train ride. The standout number is the second song in act two, "Shipoopi," an exhausting couples routine that pushes the ballroom and stunt talents of the dancers to the limit. Choreographer Jaclyn Miller and her charges deserve a mid-show standing ovation for that number alone.

Passionate and poignant messages keep the 1957 writing relevant. The show preaches the urgency of financial support of community arts, as well as the innate need for artistic expression that often lies dormant in the heart. The metaphorical song "The Music Man" belts out rings heartfelt and true through the decades.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of "The Music Man" plays through Dec. 30. Buy tickets here.

Book Report: "Fahrenheit 451"

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You would think a book like this would be dated, but it holds up astoundingly well. Now the story of a world without physical books is alarmingly prophetic, if a little misdirected in its alarmism.

The dystopian portrait Ray Bradbury paints is chilling, if a little perfunctory. The cliches it established have been copied to the point that they play like white noise. Bradbury leans away from his weaknesses in descriptive storytelling, delving more into philosophical debates that stem from dueling monologues of its conflicted characters.

Bradbury ultimately arrives at the point that it's not the medium that matters, but the thirst for knowledge and exploration of thought that keeps the human mind vital. Oral tradition, public discussion and the expansive reach that digital distribution delivers in the form of audio and e-books makes physical volumes all but obsolete.

Even more poignant is the book's "Handmaid's Tale"-like message that fascism doesn't always come by violent revolution, but by a methodical chipping away of civil liberties and public curiosity.

In the Audible version, Tim Robbins provides brainy, insightful narration that shades Bradbury's thoughts with depth and nuance, infusing the book's polemics with fevered angst.

The slippery slope grows steeper the longer it remains unchallenged. It's important for thought-provoking works like this to spark people into checking the temperature before things get out of control.

Publisher provided review code.

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Thursday, December 06, 2018

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey: Legacy of the First Blade Episode 1 - Hunted" Review


Upon release in October, "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" was already a staggeringly large game, with a vast world bursting with sidequests to explore. "Legacy of the First Blade Episode 1 - Hunted," the first of three scheduled expansions, continues to ratchet up the depth and reach of one of the year's most impressive open-world titles.

Flowing naturally from the base campaign, the saga is a bite-sized addition to the mythos, taking pains to connect the sprawling Ancient Greek opus with the fiction of the series proper, as well as last year's "Assassin's Cred Origins."

Back from that game is the Order of the Ancient, which is fated to evolve into the Templars -- future antagonists of the assassins.

It's on you to investigate mysterious figures who pull strings from behind the scenes. The M.O. stays the same: Investigate, infiltrate and execute your targets, vaulting you toward the next branching path.

Set in the Macedonia sector of the map, "Hunted" is a tight, interlocking series of missions with satisfying ties to the rest of the series and hints of what's to come. This is single-player DLC done right, giving gamers distracted by the likes of "Red Dead Redemption 2" an excellent reason to dive back into the fray.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

"Just Cause 4" Review


Wherever Rico Rodriguez goes, chaos erupts. The grapple-shooting, parachute-dropping one-man revolutionary army overturns governments, blasts away thugs in firefights and sneaks into strongholds for espionage ops. "Just Cause 4" finds the brash protagonist in deep once again, thriving in his element of mass destruction.

Set in the fictional South American nation of Solis, the game is the most vertical in the series, giving Rico ample opportunity to get the drop on enemies from hidden crags and towering nooks.

"Just Cause" games have always thrived on giving players a sense of exuberant freedom, and the fourth entry follows suit. You may find yourself grappling behind a vehicle in one moment, vaulting over a wall the next, deploying a chute to catch a draft up a 50-foot building, then BASE jumping alongside a waterfall shortly after.

Like an absurd action movie fever dream come to life, "Just Cause 4" lets you live out your wildest impulses with little regard for the consequence. Developer Avalanche Studios rewards you time and again for brashness and daring, discouraging you from playing it as safe as you might in, say, "Black Ops 4."

There is clear influence from the likes of "Fortnite" and other Battle Royale releases. The combat and traversal tactics, as well as on-the-fly environmental cover, that players pick up in the other games will apply well here. Enemies are largely hapless and dumb, but that doesn't detract from the glee in taking them out.

Some may gripe that this is just more of the same, but since it's been three years since "Just Cause 3," and there's really no other game out there that matches the "Just Cause" sensibilities, that's no drawback at all.

"Just Cause 4" seeks out its niche and exploits it for all its worth. Its sense of freedom, intensity and rapidfire adrenaline rushes never ceases throughout its well-designed campaign. A welcome release of breezy entertainment, it's an ideal release valve from the pressures of the holidays.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Theater Review: "Waitress"


"Waitress" is just about as upbeat a musical as you could possibly have about such dark things as spousal abuse, infidelity and minimum-wage work.

Much of the credit goes Sara Bareilles's music, which infuses a bouncy pop sound into the song-and-dance numbers. But every aspect of the production, from the minimalist, matte painting sets, to the efficient, complementary movements of the choreography and the 1950s-chic diner costumes is calibrated for maximum buoyancy.

The magnetic lead is Christine Dwyer, as the pregnant-and-trapped waitress Jenna. She belts out her songs with Bareilles-style fervor, effortlessly carrying the audience through her narrative, a succession of bad-to-worse choices.

She struggles with a loveless, abusive marriage to backwoods bumpkin Earl (Matt DeAngelis), and an ill-advised affair with her slick, yet subtly creepy gynecologist (Steven Good).

The beating heart of the production, Dwyer nails her solos, delivering show-stopping emotional moments.

Jeremy Morse steals the entire play as Ogie, the Irish step-dancing suitor who pursues Dawn (Jessie Shelton), and Maiesha McQueen rises to the occasion in her solo, belting out her songs with operatic resonance.

"Waitress," which was adapted from Adrienne Shelly's 1997 film starring Kerri Russell, not only pays homage to its source, as well as its Bareilles-influenced Broadway reinvention. A stark, gorgeous and invigorating production, it's something you need a fresh, hot slice of.

The Broadway in Tucson production of "Waitress" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. Purchase tickets here.

Book Report: "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Louis Stevensons' dark, disturbing tale of duality thrives because of its innovative narrative format and incisive psychological expiration.

Told from alternating perspectives in what is now known as "Rashomon" style, a police procedural-like murder mystery from witnesses gives way to a fevered tale of internal conflict, in which the mad scientist central character faces off with the alter ego that he wrestles with for control of his physical body.

What emerges by the end is that the struggle Jekyll and Hyde endure is something everyone goes through to a degree. Jekyll is not some foreign entity, but a heedless id who indulges his dark impulses. It's possible to argue that Hyde is his true self, and Jekyll is the mask that he's crafted to make himself presentable to society.

Parallels with alcoholism and addiction emerge, with Jekyll suffering physical withdrawals as well as moral conflicts when he considers whether or not to continue to enable his alternate personality.

Richard Armitage delivers a heartfelt, frenzied reading in the Audible version, infusing the story with the harried passion that Stevenson seems to have intended. His fevered delivery helps insert you into the conflict.

There is a lot to consider and sort through in the tight, efficient tale, and it's easy to see why the story has been echoed and repeated, most prominently in "The Incredible Hulk." This is a true essential.

Publisher provided review code.


View all my reviews

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"Johnny Turbo's Arcade: Night Slashers" Review


They sure don't make 'em like "Night Slashers" anymore. The horror-themed beat-em-up is a simple point A to point B affair in which you knock out everyone and everything in your way, int he style of "Double Dragon" and "Final Fight."

Developer Flying Tiger Entertainment, Inc. follows up its innovative and lovingly retro "Heavy Burger" release with a straight-up port of a forgotten 1993 arcade classic.

"Night Slashers" is a rare find, because if you never popped quarters into a machine, you've never played it because the game never made it to a console before. It fits well on the Switch, which has become a haven for retro classics.

The game thrives both on TV and in portable mode, and benefits from save states, which make the game easier to digest than in its original, all-or-nothing format that made you start over from the beginning if you fail.

The Johnny Turbo label is off to an excellent start on the Switch. Games such as "Night Slashers" whet the appetite for more just like it, and there's a feeling that the Switch could become a 1990s arcade that almost fits into your pocket.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having seen a couple movie adaptations, I was expecting something silly, light and inconsequential out of Mark Twain here. That's a major reason it took me so long to get around to this one. What I got blew my mind.

Twain's story of a 19th century man who finds himself transported back to 6th century England. His immediate instinct is to use his 13-century advantage of hive-mind-generated knowledge to make himself master of all he surveys. He fashions himself a powerful sorcerer, dubs himself The Boss and institutes industries and education systems.

The book laid the groundwork for one of my favorite films, "Army of Darkness," and its cocky hero, Ash. Twain's book is not only outrageous and consistently hilarious, but deep and insightful. He takes hard looks at slavery, racism and classism, bitterly satirizing power-mongering authorities. At times, the book comes at close to inducing tears as it does belly laughs.

Nick Offerman's Audible performance lifts the prose to an even higher level. His blustering tone is a perfect match for the material, and his character voice work is astoundingly convincing. If there's another movie made of this book, he needs to be the star.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" is not only the best Mark Twain book I've experienced, but one of the best humor novels I've ever encountered. The genius author proves that one of the best ways to advocate for progress is to look backward.

Publisher provided review code.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Castle of Heart" Review


A knight turned to stone by dark magic must overcome his inner and outer demons in order to win the day. That's the premise of 7Levels' "Castle of Heart," as well as a metaphor for difficulties players must deal with often clunky controls and confoundingly obstructive design choices.

The 20-level 2D platformer harkens back to the time when players had to grind against the same difficulties over and over, gradually earning an aptitude via trial-and-error in order to conquer the challenge.

There's something to be said for the game's gritty difficulty and lack of hand-holding, because the hard-fought success makes you feel as though you've genuinely accomplished something. Whether or not that triumph is worth the maddening hassle it takes to get there is debatable.

There's no knocking the visuals. The world of "Castle of Heart" shines with a "Trine"-like beauty, which reverently crafts the details of its high fantasy medieval setting.

On the flip side, no matter how pretty the game is, you get sick of looking at the same thing over and over as you fail -- sometimes due to what feels like cheap, unfair design -- and it's a slippery slope to cross over from appreciation to annoyance.

"Castle of Heart" is a tough game to love. You feel as though you are fighting against the developers themselves, and the battle gets ugly. When you feel resentment rather than respect, there's a problem there that sorcery can't fix.
Publisher provided review code.

"Sega Genesis Classics" Switch Review


Rounding up more than 50 1990s games, "Sega Genesis Classics" gives you the full breadth of what the experience was like growing up with the console.

For every brilliant "Sonic" and "Shinobi" game, there were confounding duds such as "Bio-Hazard Battle" and "Flicky." No matter how awful the game was, you played it for hours anyway, because that's all you had around. It was either spend your weekend on "Dynamite Headdy" or face the wrath of your mom for having wasted her $3.50 on the rental from Blockbuster.

The lame games work not only as padding, but as a whimsical sampler platter that provides a glance to the trials and triumphs of game design in its early stages. Even amid the poor, unfulfilling efforts, there are germs of what was set to emerge one day. Developers had to work under heavy constraints, working overtime to squeeze every bit of graphics, sound and gameplay variety out of the 16 bits provided. Those restrictions forced them to get creative, and this set up a laboratory for innovation to gestate.

Historical reverence aside, you're sure to spend the bulk of your time with the more memorable games included, and Sega has gone above and beyond to make sure your experience playing them is as slick as possible. Not only are the ports picture perfect, but the Switch controls are mapped as precisely as possible to echo the original Sega/Mega Drive button setup.

Enhancements such as online multiplayer, mirror modes, rewind and save-states add logical additions to gameplay, and also make them more accessible than before.

An impressive roundup that's an essential addition to any Switch library, "Sega Genesis Classics" brings back the 1990s in all their glory and warts, providing a blast from the past that will have you grinning.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"Nidhogg 2" Switch Review


More than a year after it dropped on PS4 and Xbox One, "Nidhogg 2" romps through the figurative portal and busts onto the Switch. The arcadey, one-on-one action makes an apt fit with the device's sensibilities and controls.

The gameplay favors quick thinking and quicker reflexes. Precise, unencumbered aggression is usually the most effective way to dispatch your enemy and dash off to the other side of the screen, where you start the process over again.

The game amounts to a single-lane, two-player version of a MOBA, with the only path to success always heading straight through your opponent.

Developer Messhof didn't put much effort into advancing the visuals, but the gameplay is as tight and thrilling as predictable. Huge, wild momentum swings are always there to shake up the paradigm.

"Nidhogg 2" is at its best when one player unexpectedly disarms the other, setting up a frenzied power-grab. Do you risk your neck to lunge for the sword or projectile, hoping to squeeze in a quick, decisive kill? Or do you focus on manually stomping your enemy in hopes that you can beat him down before he can shank you?

The answer is always "dunno... but let's try and see what happens." Win or lose, you have no time to dwell on the result, because there's always another frantic battle to be fought.
Publisher provided review code.

"My Hero One's Justice" Review


The arena brawler "My Hero One's Justice" goes from zero to screen-filling-supers insanity in seconds. Wild, cinematic visuals make the game feel like a playable anime, making even the brutal beatdowns you suffer a treat to behold.

The Weekly Shonen Jump manga, with its roster of characters with outsize personalities and abilities, was ripe for a fighting game adaptation. Bandai Namco Games, which has had such success with "Dragon Ball Z" fighters, took on the project with its trademark visual zeal and storytelling panache.

Environments break down and shift, exemplifying the destructive power wielded by the likes of All Might, Deku and Tomura. Thunderous shouts accompany game-changing special moves, Quirks, summons, breakers and parries.

While some characters are overpowered and others are too weak for anyone but experts to expect success with, the diversity of powers makes for intriguing matchups, with ever-shifting power dynamics that lend to diverse types of pacing.

Unfortunately, the lack of balance also leaves openings for players who rely on repetitive money moves to succeed. You can easily find yourself helpless in multiplayer matches.

You get the feeling that developers funneled more resource into style than substance. But even when it's unfair, the game never fails to put on a thrilling show.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 26, 2018

"Save Me Mr. Tako: Tasukete Tako-San" Review


Many modern games draw heavy inspiration from the 8 and 16-bit eras, but few turn to the often forgotten visual wasteland of the Game Boy era. "Save Me Mr. Tako: Tasukete Tako-San" happily subvers that paradigm and dives into the realm of pea soup-colored screens.

The story is vintage early-90s wackiness: An octopus rescues a drowning woman, impressing a fairy who grants him the ability to move about on land. You hop and bop your way through the tightly-costructed platforming levels, blasting enemies with ink, and doing the typical "Link's Awakening" thing of discovering the needs of townsfolk, fetching items that will help them help you help others, and so on.

In an era drenched with throwback offerings, it's not enough just to throw back for the sake of throwing back. The developers at Nicalis understand this, and strive to give their game a reason to exist in the here and now.

"Save Me Mr. Tako" is a sendup of not only 1980s and 90s gaming tropes, but the absurdity of game design cliches and pop culture as a whole. And even without all the references, it's easy to appreciate the disarming innocence and charming sense of humor that run throughout.

While the difficulty ramp-up makes it tough on newcomers, "Save Me Mr. Tako" is worth the dip in its nostalgia-dripped waters. You'll find yourself rubbing your eyes to confirm that your Switch isn't actually a Game Boy.
Publisher provided review code.

"Darksiders III" Review


Emerging from the ether after the apocalyptic frenzy of Black Friday/Cyber Monday comes "Darksiders III." It's developer Gunfire Games' way of tapping you on the shoulder and saying "Hey, remember me?"

Anyone who has taken on either or both of the first two games of the series will have a tough time forgetting the promised apocalyptic quadrilogy. Staggering visuals, enrpaturing combat and a dynamic that crosses aspects of "Zelda" wirth "Devil May Cry" has built the "Darksiders" franchise to be one of the most talked-about in gaming.

Each chapter takes on a horseman of the apocalypse as its protagonist. War helmed the 2010 original, followed by Death in 2012. Financial difficulties suffered by publisher THQ scattered the developers to the winds, but the core has reunited to spearhead the continuation of the series into current-gen consoles.

After remasters and enhanced editions of the first two games, the chance to finally play the third full release feels like a blessing from beyond.

This time out, it's Fury's turn to take the reigns. More lithe and athletic than her predecessors, the huntress delivers her brand of death and destruction with weapons such as whips and projectile daggers, as well as the ability to transform to suit the demands of the scanario. If you've played the "Bayonetta" games, you have an idea of what to expect.

In the manner of "Dark Souls" and "Shovel Knight," you harvest souls from enemies that you can use to upgrade and enhance your abilities. The light RPG feel from previous entries returns, adding to the sense of progress and progression, as well as the power fantasy-fueling development of godlike powers. As you romp through quests in the game, you feel like a threat that sends chills into the dark hearts of your adversaries.

"Darksiders III" uses its predecessors as building blocks, taking visual cues from the remastered editions while considerably raising the bar of visual fidelity. This is one of the more darkly gorgeous games of the year. Even amid the blistering action, you often feel the need to pause for a screesnshot to preserve the majesty of the movement.

Credit the dev team for orchestrating all the moving parts into a coherent, often surprisingly emotional storyline. There is plenty of hacking and slashing to be done, but it's all for a higher purpose. Much like "God of War," this is the most mature entry in the "Darksiders" series to date, with the grim upshot of wanton destruction ever hovering over your furious exploits.

Hell hath no fury like... well, Fury. The brutal, seething starlet is ready for her closeup.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Trine Enchanted Edition" Switch Review


Since its PC release in 2009, "Trine" has captured the imagination of gamers with its fascinating puzzle-platforming. Along with two sequels, several rereleases of the original -- including the definitive "Enchanted Edition" -- have spread its spell over various platforms over two generations. The momentum remains strong as it makes its way to the Switch.

The side-scrolling platformer lets you alternate among Zoya, the arrow-shooting thief, Berlin, the object-conjuring wizard, and Pontius, the brute force-wielding knight. Each of the protagonists has specific skills that work in concert with the others to help you overcome the obstacles that lay ahead. Inventive puzzles, environmental hazards and enemies stand in your way, but are no match for well-coordinated teamwork.

Developer Frozenbyte, Inc. works with GameTrust to bring the best version of the game to Nintendo's home console-handheld hybrid. With online multiplayer in tow, the game looks and controls as well as ever, and is particularly accessible when playing on the go. "Trine" oddly has never appeared on cell phones, so this is the only way gamers can take "Trine" on the go.

The high fantasy, swords-and-sorcery details harken back to the heart of "Dungeons & Dragons," and the tale's narration lends a haunting reverence to the proceedings.

A satisfying enhancement to an already solid base, "Trine Enhanced Edition" succeeds as a perfect port of a game millions have enjoyed before, and will continue to adore in the future. Even if you've played "Trine" on several previous consoles, expect to feel the urge to re-up once more. Just knowing it's out there creates a "Trine"-sized hole in your Switch library.
Publisher provided review code.

"Fallout 76' Review


The phrase "your eyes are bigger than your stomach" gets bandied around a lot this time of year, and it seems to apply to the formidable challenge that Bethesda Game Studios took on with "Fallout 76."

The ahead-of-its-time concept -- perhaps too far ahead of its time -- is to adapt one of the watershed solo RPG experiences to an MMO-style scene. The big, bold idea called for all human characters to be controlled by actual players, who would band together, forge rivalries and ultimately work together to craft emergent stories that would outpace anything writers could come up with. While some fans were understandably skeptical, many were fascinated by the idea of taking on the postapocalyptic West Virginia terrain with friends and strangers.

The results, at least out of the gate, fall far short of the ideals of what "Fallout 76" might have been, as well as what it still has potential to evolve into. What players actually find is a wasteland of another sort, and often lonelier than what a typical single-player "Fallout" experience turns out to be.

With players scattered to the winds, those who don't head into the fray with a set group of players wind up chasing down the game's barrage of fetch quests by themselves. Chance human interaction is rare, and PVP, which unlocks after a few early levels, is so disparate and bizarre that the risk and burden of taking on the interactions seems barely worth the reward of scrap you receive if you succeed.

Another questionable aspect is the VATS system, which in the past worked to add the traditional, turn-based RPG flavor to battles. The online-only nature of the game means pausing is impossible, thus taking away much of the appeal of VATS combat.

The feel and trappings of the traditional "Fallout" experience are here. There are "good bones," as an HGTV host would say. But this is very much a work in progress, and must be evaluated and played as such. "Fallout 76" will improve once developers put some heft into the community aspect, making the game a gathering place for like-minded "Fallout" freaks who throw their hearts and souls into the game. Once the tourists stop muddying up the servers, "Fallout 76" will be well on the way along its path to success.

Bethesda's "Elder Scrolls Online" had just as many struggles when it was released in 2014, and has since evolved so admirably that its accomplishments have managed to surpass the initial vision. Bethesda's team will surely iron out many of the initial failures of "Fallout 76," and will doubtlessly improve the game with regular updates.

Those who spend time with the game now can expect to be justly rewarded in the game's future, which seems undoubtedly bright. If you have the game now, stick with it and expect happy returns. If you are intrigued with the premise and have patience for a rough experience, by all means proceed, but bear in mind that you're paying full price for what amounts to a work-in-progress. The 2018 version of "Fallout 76" will most likely one day be looked back upon as the beta version of whatever it eventually becomes.
Publisher provided review code.

"Battlefield V" Review


EA DICE has long thrived at the forefront of war sims, forging its own path while imitators came and went. The result of the experimentation hasn't always been triumphant -- the gonzo "Battlefield Hardline," anyone? -- but even the misfires seem to pay off masterfully.

The overall progression comes to a head in "Battlefield V," which draws heavily on the template of last year's "Battlefield 1." After a break from World War II, as gamers tired of the conflict, the developer gets back to its go-to conflict this time, pulling off the magnificent trick of finding fresh and vibrant tales for its campaign, as well as adding some fresh wrinkles to multiplayer that make it all but impossible to return to a previous online World War II shooter.

For years, "Battlefield" campaigns were inconsequential, but that all changed last year with the unorthodox, emotional World War I vignettes. As rival "Call of Duty" has scrapped single player entirely," "Battlefield" doubles down, distinguishing itself with a powerful, front-hopping collection of battlefield narratives that deepen your understanding of the massive, multifaceted war in a way no documentary or history book could approach.

Its smattering of antiheroes, unsung female combatants and common folk who rose to the occasion is breathtaking to behold. The research and sensitivity that went into constructing these stories is commendable.

An equal amount of thought and execution went into the multiplayer suite, which has always been and always will be the enduring reason to pick up a "Battlefield" game. Standout visuals blend with rock-solid netcode to craft a seamless experience. Something about the series' professionalism and somber tone has always drawn more serious gamers into the mix, making games less likely to be soiled by griefers who trolls who tend to deflate some other popular online destinations.

Some may argue that "Battlefield V" multiplayer could have benefited from more risk, but the story is not full written. With a promised Battle Royale mode still in the pipeline, "Battlefield V" promises to only grow in prominence as the months roll by. War may be hell, but "Battlefield V" is the opposite.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

PHIL ON FILM: "Creed II"


For my written review, click here.

T-Mobile REVVL 2 Smartphone Review


Smartphone technology seems to have plateaued, with the updates to the likes of the iPhone, Pixel and Galaxy rearranging captain's chairs on the rocketship.

Even the most basic smartphones are now expected to perform the sort of magic that a decade ago would have seemed like science fiction. The stagnation of high-end devices has provided an opportunity for budget manufacturers to bring up the rear in decisive faction, shortening the technological gap between a phone that costs a mortgage payment and one that could pass as an impulse buy.

T-Mobile's REVVL 2 is an example of high-end tech at a bargain basement price. If you're used to springing for devices that run close to $1,000, you may wince at the thought of shifting to a daily driver that costs less than $200. The thought, in fact, may bring to mind a 2000s flip phone or a pair of cans with strings tied together. But once the REVVL2 is in your hands, those fears float away once you realize you're clutching something that can run in the same race with the big boys.

A 1.5 quad-core processor works with 2GB of RAM, with front and back-facing cameras that boast 8MP and 13MP, respectively. Those aren't specs that match those of modern top-end smartphones, but the step down in technological prowess is more of a curbside ramp than a rappel down a skyscraper. Messing around with the REVVL 2, you discover that when it comes to functionality, the numbers may as well be letters.

True, there are some sacrifices in the transition from the upper crust to the REVVL 2. Bluetooth functionality has a way of cutting out at the least opportune moments, and the 3,000mAh battery seems to figuratively wheeze and chug at times, as though tasked with too much to handle without proper optimization.

Still, the phone handled a slew of games and live quiz show apps with ease, streamed video without hiccups, and juggled the rapidfire keyboard tapping of texts, emails and calls without faltering.

The toughest part about switching to the REVVL 2 will be the status symbol aspect. You'll pull out the phone, someone will ask what it is, and you'll answer, bracing for the start of a conversation that will make you explain what it is you're using, and why you don't have an iPhone or Galaxy. But you'll have an ideal way to win that discussion: You'll reveal the price of your phone, then raise an eyebrow and ask them how much theirs cost.
Carrier provided review loaner.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Sid Meier's Civilization VI" Switch Review


Like all its predecessors, "Sid Meier's Civilization VI" mesmerized legions of 4X strategy obsessives when it hit the PC scene in 2016. Also like just about all of its predecessors, it never arrived on other platforms.

The Switch popularity surge, though, turned some heads at 2K Games, which turned developer Aspyr lose on translating the sometimes complex keyboard-and-mouse menu navigation systems to the Nintendo device's touch screen and buttons arrangement.

The team's efforts shine through so well that -- to use a Civ gameplay metaphor -- it seems 2K must have powered-up the dev team with advanced research skills from two ages beyond ours.

This port not only showcases the Switch as a platform flexible enough to take on just about any genre, but sets a template for other developers to bring high-end PC and console titles to the Switch. With no noticeable deficiencies, this is a full, robust "Civilization VI" experience, and superior in many ways to the original for its portability.

This is no quick-and-dirty "me too" Switch port. Not only is the complete original content from the 2016 release included, but four add-on packs are also here, rounding up the likes of Viking, Poland, Australia and Persia/Macedons, complete with civilizations and challenge scenarios geared toward each.

Choosing from among 24 historic world leaders, you seek to expand your power and influence throughout the globe by means including warfare, diplomacy, culture and technology. There is more than enough here to keep a solo player occupied for months, if not years, but multiplayer opens up an invigorating stream of replayability.

A comprehensive, adjustable tutorial system gets players of any skill level up to speed. But no matter how many dozens of campaigns and thousands of turns you plunge into the game, you feel as though there's always still much more to learn. Now with the Switch, you can go beyond "just one more turn" and evolve to "I'm taking this with me to work." That's the mark of a Civ game, and a sign of the bright future of top-flight Switch ports such as this.
Publisher provided review code.

"Spyro Reignited Trilogy" Review


If you have fond memories of frolicking around grassy fields and roasting enemies as Spyro the Dragon, odds are you haven't touched the games anytime in the last 15 years. Many aspects of the creaky old games added up to make the originals all but unplayable to anyone but the most devoted fans of the franchise.

Now here comes along "Spyro Reignited Trilogy," which reinvents the series with wholesale modern trappings. So slick, lovingly created and invigorating are the new games that they figuratively breathe fire on the originals, leaving frayed embers behind.

Developer Toys for Bob, which kept the spirit of Spyro alive with the "Skylanders" series, channeled some deep love and care into the original series, released from 1998-2000 on the PlayStation. Their months upon months of dedicated labor paid off big-time.

This suite of remakes follows the template of last years "Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy" and pushes the concept even farther. These new games are what the original developers may have dreamed of but never could accomplish with late-20th century tech.

Rather than strive for a pixel-perfect recreation, Toys for bob uses the original games as base parameters for a wholesale remake. New character models, backgrounds, animations, transition screens and audio suite are all included.

There are also countless quality-of-life improvements, from checkpoints, to slick loading times and saves that make the Spyro games seem so different from their forebears that they may as well be entirely new games. Those who aren't aware that the games are remakes would see no signs of Spyro's severely outdated past.

Spyro the Dragon is very much alive and well, resurrected like a cloned dinosaur from amber. Even if you think you know Spyro, the new games prove that notion false. He's reignited as a fresh, vital character with a spirit as bright and vital as the flames that rage out from his belly.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "A Room With a View"

A Room with a ViewA Room with a View by E.M. Forster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

E.M. Forster's classic starts out slowly but steadily, subtly builds up its emotional themes until the end, when it punches you in the stomach and forces its characters into inevitable decisions that define their lives.

An early-20th century tale of moneyed social and business world climbers whose choices in love and industry weighs on their families' status as well as their social well-being. Forster works hard to populate the novel with lots of disparate characters, most who act as checks and balances on the main plotline, with their commentary and reactions spotlighting the story's leanings.

At the center is Lucy, who is courted by the free-spirited George and the wealthy, reserved Cecil. The love triangle that develops forces Lucy to frame the person she is, as well as that who she desires to become.

What emerges are themes that there may not be as much choice as you might think when it comes to matters of the heart, and to go with logical over emotional needs, or vice versa, is to shut down the other option completely.

Rebecca Halls' narration on the Audible version draws out the passion and emotional inflections of the characters, adding considerable heft to the prose with her storyteller's grace.

"A Room with A View" is a sometimes-tedious journey that justifies its length and pace with the powerful way it ends. This is a book that hits hard when it most needs to, and leaves you much to ponder after it sends you on its way.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"Heavy Fire: Red Shadow" Review


A rough-hewn turret shooter that feels rushed and underdeveloped, Mastiff's "Heavy Fire: Red Shadow" wears out its slim premise quickly, giving you little reason to return to its repetitive format in order to slog through its dense chain of unlocks.

Taking a "Homefront"-style conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, you set up turrets on a beachhead reminiscent of the D-Day storming of Normandy. As enemy ships approach from a distance, you line up shots at long distance and short range, steadily dispatching the onslaught of troops.

The shooting is thrilling at times, but success too often feels more based on luck than skill. The opposite is also true, with unseen enemies obliterating your defenses before you make much progress, ratcheting up the frustration factor to unforgivable levels.

Weak visuals and lackluster sound design can't compete with the "Battlefield" and "Call of Duty" entries of the world. Indie efforts usually disguise a lack of technical muster with throwback retro design, and that might have been an incongruous yet necessary way to go here. As it stands, the game looks and plays something like a relic from the PS2/Xbox generation.

A flimsy premise with little to build on, "Heavy Fire: Red Shadow" is an odd misfire that works only as a brief stress reliever, allowing you to let loose on a swarm of faceless enemies. The amount of stress it heaps on you due to technical deficiencies, though, negates much of what little there is that makes the game work.
Publisher provided review code.

"Rogue Legacy" Switch Review


Upon its release four years ago, "Rogue Legacy" set a standard for other throwback roguelikes to aspire to. A winning sense of humor, fascinatingly instanced levels and a compelling reward loop separate it from the pack. Now that Cellar Door Games' creation has made its Switch debut, it's as clear as ever that its innovations and attributes hold up in a lasting manner.

As with all roguelikes, permadeath is an expected and accepted part of progress. Each time you give up the ghost, a descendant comes along to resume the family obsession.

Playing along a family line, you leave inheritances for future generations along the shared quest. No two generations are alike, with variants including characters with disabilities, upgraded abilities and quirks.

The action is everpresent and gripping, but it's the humor int he writing and design that  grants the game the majority of its charm. "Rogue Legacy" is at its best when thrusting a comically underpowered hero against an absurd challenge, forcing you to scramble haplessly in order to inch onward. A "they killed Kenny!" vibe permeates the fatalistic feel.

While there are few visible enhancements for the Switch version, it clearly wasn't necessary to mess with the formula. "Rogue Legacy" was polished and vibrant out of the gate, and survives the port to Nintendo's console without losing any of the luster that it had. Adapting seamlessly to both portable and console modes, this is a game that's tough to put down no matter where you are.

Four years on, "Rogue Legacy" is reborn to uphold the family name.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Theaterical Review: "On Your Feet"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Road Redemption" Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Home Sweet Home" Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

"GRIP: Combat Racing" Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Valiant Hearts: The Great War" Switch Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hitman 2" Review


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 09, 2018

Book Report: "Sense and Sensibility"

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

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

For my full review, click here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 05, 2018

"Johnny Turbo's Arcade: Heavy Burger" Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Book Report: "Dirty Sexy Games"

Dirty Sexy Games (Dirty Games Duet, #2)Dirty Sexy Games by Laurelin Paige
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was a colossal disappointment, failing to live up to its intriguing title. I went in expecting a "Cruel Intentions"-style tale of manipulation, lust and deceit, but got a bland tale of rich people dealing with rich people problems.

The lone intriguing conflict -- a man discovers on his wedding day that he has a two-year-old son he never knew about and conceals it from his wife on his honeymoon -- peters out about halfway through, turning this into a milquetoast tale of a couple working out marital difficulties.

Author Laurelin Paige spends copious time describing steamy sex between the couple in extreme detail. While eye-rollingly cliched, these passages are no doubt the most crowd-pleasing to its target audience, which is no doubt made up of readers who revel in having such pictures painted for them. Trashy, sure, but at least it's honest.

Paige could not have conjured a more pointless and unsatisfying story to weave her softcore porn around. Groan-inducing dialogue and dopey plot twists wait around every corner, and no real tension grows or twists emerge.

While Elena Wolfe and Jacob Morgan do an admirable job of narrating the insipid prose in alternating-perspective chapters in the Audible version, their efforts aren't close enough to making this worth your time.

Neither dirty nor all that sexy, these games aren't worth playing.



View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" Review


A fast-paced, over-the-top two-on-two basketball game in the tradition of "NBA Jam" meets the card-collecting, fantasy team-building aspects of EA's "Ultimate Team" side modes in "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2."

More freewheeling and accessible than its basketball sim counterpart, the Saber Interactive creation goes far beyond the side mode it could have been to stand alone as a formidable basketball title in its own right.

A colossal swath of current and former players are unlockable, ranging from superstars to obscure benchwarmers. Harvesting points that can be cashed in for card packs to unlock new players is an unending thrill, providing you ample reason to return to the playground. It also helps that the basketball is damn fun.

Online multiplayer is where "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" really comes into its own, taking on the feel of street ball pickup games, with all four players being controlled by people. This "we've got next" style, king-of-the-court feel is addictive and enthralling, and gives you incentive to not only hone your own skills, but refine your communication and cooperation with your teammate in order to maximize your court time, success and accompanying rewards.

Although the rewards loop is well designed and executed, there is a creeping money-grubbing, pay-to-win mentality that creeps in, feeling more in place in a free-to-play mobile title than a full-figured console release.

That said, "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" is perfectly enjoyable without spending a penny of extra money. Everything you want can be won with honest, sneaker-squeaking grinding, and the fact that it takes a while to build up to the blind-drop hoopster of your dreams somehow adds to the charm of the hustle rather than detracting from it. Like a real-life game of playground ball, sometimes the going is rough, but the thrills that await you make the struggles well worth it.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Castlevania Requiem" Review


While some argue the early NES and SNES "Castlevania" games are the series' high point, while some swear by the last-gen "Lords of Shadow" action adaptation, just about all "Castlevania" fans hold soft spots for the two iconic 1990s  entries, which managed to bridge the classic exploration aspects with the intricate flourishes of the gothic art style that had evolved with the franchise.

"Castlevania Requiem" rounds up the inseparable duo: "Rondo of Blood" and "Symphony of the Night." Both games maintain their original aspect ratio, graphical fidelity and audio tracks. Bucking the trend of re-imaginings and remasters of 1990s games that have flooded the PS4/Xbox One generation, Konami went the route of directly porting the games.

Purists will adore the choices, although some quality-of-life improvements, such as the rewind feature of "Rare Replay" or a more friendly checkpoint system, might have made the games as accessible as they are enderaing.

Both games ooze haunting charm. While neither is a stranger to rereleases -- the games have popped  up on both handheld and home console previous-gen PlayStation consoles -- there is something deeply satisfying about witnessing the old standbyes claw their way out of the grave once again to raise their particular reward loop of explore, unlock, backtrack and advance that defined the term "Metroidvania."

It's a testament to the craftsmanship of these now ancient artifacts of gamedom that they hold up so well. Both games are just as able as ever to sear their brand of horror into your psyche, challenging you to redouble your efforts to take on the tremendous challenge and see your way through the morbid, elegiac sagas. The games are still cruel and unforgiving, just as they should be.
Publisher provided review code.

"Lego Overwatch Omnic Bastion" Review


As "Overwatch" has planted its stake in various corners of pop culture, dominating eSports and streaming sites while making headway in fields such as comics, it was only a matter of time until Blizzard's dynamo was ordained with its own Lego set.

It's finally happened with "Lego Overwatch Omnic Bastion," which lets you construct a towering warrior capable of swiveling at the waist, moving its arms and aiming a humongous machine gun at all comers.

Meant to stand guard at desks, book cases, dorm rooms and lockers, the intimidating yet disarmingly adorable creature is as fun to pose as to build.

The 182-piece set, recommended for ages 10 and up, is a blast to put together, deconstruct and -- as is the beauty of Lego -- modify to your whims. Want to add a robot crane arm? Just take it off another set and snap it on. Prefer a pair of mechanical wings? Knock yourself out.

Just keep that snazzy "Lego Blizzard" exclusive placard at the front, because this is "Overwatch," after all, and you should never pass up a chance to humblebrag.
Publisher provided review set.

"Diablo III Eternal Collection" Switch Review


Since its 2012 PC release, "Diablo III" has stood as one of the most fascinating and content-rich action RPGs in all of gaming. Blizzard has taken its time to spread the game to other consoles, in each instance managing to release a bigger, bolder version of the towering adventure -- gracing PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2013, then the PS4 and Xbox One in 2014 -- that it seemed to have been coded from the ground up for the new platform.

Now the game finally makes its Switch debut. What some expected to be a pared-down version of the game instead is a robust release that makes a strong, virulent case for being the definitive version of the game. Rounding up all previously released DLC, as well as the myriad updates and enhancements that developers have trotted out over the years, this is a slickly playing, gorgeous-looking, impossibly deep version of the game that easily stands alongside the substance you'll find on the Xbox One and PS4, surpassing those versions in many ways.

Blizzard casts the template for how hardcore multiplayer co-op should have been done all along, and must be followed in the future. With lobbies that boast masterful matchmaking and friend pairing, the multiplayer aspect of "Diablo III," which is integral to its makeup, shimmers in a way that had not yet been even hinted at on the Switch. Only "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" and "Splatoon 2" have even hinted at such a level of well-honed infrastructure, and although hampered by Nintendo's insipid approach to voice communication, it smooths over the rocky roads with a satisfying suite of communication tools. 

With all modes unlocked from the start -- including the instanced rift modes that continue to dole out high-powered enemies and rare loot ad infinitum -- it's easy to jump back into the maelstrom even if you're a veteran who has poured dozens of hours into the game over the years. You're reading that right. The likes of "Reaper of Souls," "The Rise of the Necromancer" and "Kanai's Cube" are all accessible from the get-go. Seasonal additions that were previously native to the other platforms are also promised to come, along with the online challenge ladders.

Nintendo-specific enhancements are also there, including a Legend of Ganondorf armor set, Triforce portrait frame and other Easter eggs add a Zelda seasoning to the mix. Naturally, the Pro Controller is supported. The game looks gorgeous at home, but playing it on the go makes for a giddily fresh experience that seems almost too good to be true. For a frame of reference, think of that feeling you got while playing "Skyrim" on the go.

Perhaps the game's greatest triumph has little to do with "Diablo III" itself, but what it portends for the future of the Switch, as well as gaming as a whole. This is an adaptation that's likely to open the eyes and minds of other publishers and developers to see what's possible for Switch ports of top-tier games. "Well, if Blizzard can do it with 'Diablo III' then we can do it with Game X," may well become the mentality for the creative class moving forward.

If that proves true, this "Eternal Collection" will prove to be even more of a legendary drop indeed.
Publisher provided review code.

"Call of Cthulhu" Review


A haunting and eerie take on horror game, "Call of Cthulhu" is arguably the most mature H.P. Lovecraft video game adaptation to date. Cyanide Studios' first-person game blends adventure, walking simulator and branching-path RPG elements into a surreal and torturous trek into the dark resources of the mind.

Set in 1920s Boston, you play as a private detective who is haunted by traumas suffered during service in World War I. A hard drinker who struggles with mental health and tortured relationships, he struggles to keep things together as he takes on a case from a wealthy client who insists on proving that there was more to the death of his daughter than the police managed to uncover.

Your efforts to crack the mystery lead you down a long, winding road of destruction and decay. You're confronted with choices that let you decide whether to seek a short-term gain in favor of longer-term suffering. Your choices during conversations shade the inner workings and motivations of your character, leading down potentially varied paths.

As you struggle through your obsessive quest toward some measure of redemption, you face down demons both personal and actual, locked in a struggle with your own heart, mind and even eyes. You  are rarely fully sure whether your adversaries are real or hallucinatory.

Occasional hiccups in controls and visual fidelity tend to snap you out of the suspension of disbelief, separating you from engagement with the spell cast by the writing. But trudge through the shortcomings and you're in for an arresting experience that stays true to the source material while pushing the genre forward in bold and meaningful ways. It takes a lot of effort to work your way through the world, but those who heed Cthulhu's foreboding call will be rewarded in kind.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 29, 2018

"Goosebumps: The Game" Review


With the "Goosebumps" sequel in theaters and Halloween in the air, it was time to revisit the overlooked "Goosebumps" game. The Switch is just the platform needed to inject some life into the delightfully creepy, family-friendly adventure, which is occasionally more frightening than it has any right to be.

WayForward Technologies' port of the 2015 point-and-click adventure meshes well with the Switch's repertoire, making excellent use of the device's screen. The game thrives most in mobile play, in which the immediacy emphasizes the frightening moments.

True to the spirit of the novels and their TV adaptations, the horror focuses on dark, sci-fi-heavy twists on everyday life as a child and teen. You play as a student whose life goes off the rails, starting with a harrowing walk home from school. Nearby lurks wilderness plagued by deadly creatures.

Cut scenes, which play out in animations set to text, provide some harrowing moments, but the most satisfying scares come when you make a wrong choice that leads to a jump scare signaling your demise. Not only is the image itself off-putting, but the thought of having to lose your progress is equally horrifying.

"Goosebumps" plays at times like a game that came long before 2015. The lack of significant voice acting could be explained away as a conscious choice in an effort to stay true to the feel of R.L. Stine's source material, but it can more easily be attributed to the publisher's intent to favor expedience over quality.

While rough around the edges, the thrills the game provides make it well worth a pickup for "Goosebumps" fanatics in the mood for a visual novel-style feel that takes them back to their youth, reading the books late at night with a flashlight under the covers.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Just Dance 2019" Review


The "Just Dance" series continues to thrive, superseding a graveyard of rhythm games, including other dance titles that fell to the wayside. The main reasons are ease of use, as well as the novelty of seeing how ridiculous -- and if you're lucky, even how good -- you look when you're busting moves in your living room.

With "Just Dance 2019," Ubisoft continues to refine what worked for the series in the past, get rid of extraneous fluff and innovate with compelling new features. A finely curated tracklist of some of the songs that made the most memorable impact on the pop culture landscape over the past year continues to freshen up the exergaming superstar, keeping "Just Dance 2019" front and center as not only the premiere party game on the market, but also one of the most efficient and fun ways to work out daily while gaming. Games from the series have become my personal go-to. I ditched jogging in favor of dancing like an idiot in front of the Kinect sensor, and have never looked back.

If you lack Kinect, a PS4 camera or a similar console camera, you can use a mobile device to track your movements. The ideal way to play the game, though, remains with video accompaniment.

The game comes with a 30-day trial subscription for Just Dance Unlimited, which opens up just about the entire back catalogue of the series' songs  -- around 400 total. The cost is $24 a year if you decide to go with it, and is well worth it if you're a daily user.

Kids Mode is a godsend for parents, not only rounding up the most innocuous -- if also the most ear-splitting -- tunes, but covering up the dancers' faces on videos in order to prevent any accidental exposure if the video is shared online.

The choreography is as creative and cutting-edge as always, and the visuals also get a significant boost, with media such as claymation making appearances.

One of the better-kept secrets of "Just Dance 2019" is how it doubles as a karaoke machine. While the likes of "Singstar," "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" have long since faded into the background, "Just Dance" continues to be the go-to place for musicians to get their work in front of would-be performers.

It's a tribute to the game's design acumen how it manages to stay replayable even after copious use. With loads of side modes, unlockables, a calorie tracker and online shenanigans to chase after, "Just Dance 2019" is yet another crowning achievement in a series that never fails to impress. Here's to yet another memorable encore.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

"Red Dead Redemption 2" Review


I let my 11-year-old son play "Red Dead Redemption II" for a bit, insisting he start a new save file so as not to mess with my own. I usually let him hop in and out of the games I play, happy to have him score some achievements for me or see how he would react to certain scenarios as a way of cross-checking my 40-year-old point of view with his youthful perspective.

With this game, though, I wanted none of that. This is a game wrapped up in a living economy in which every choice you make has rippling affects toward everything else you will see and do as your journey unfolds. I couldn't bear to have my singular journey tainted by my boy's choices.

As he watched the majestic sequence he became antsy, wondering when exactly the action would start.

He was bored as hell and could hardly stand it.

He couldn't appreciate the majesty of the rolling, snow-sloped vistas, the way the snowflakes rested on your horse's mane, or the way the voice actors spoke as though their words were chilled by the biting nip of wind. He gave up before he saw any gun battles, looted any bodies or shivered at the sight of a wolfpack emerging from the forest to hunt him down.

As much as I respect my boy's fresh perspective of TV, movies and especially games, I was elated that he couldn't stand this one, which I hold up as my game of the year, if not decade, if not lifetime.

"Red Dead Redemption" is a game for adults only, and I would hazard to say best appreciated by middle-aged and older gamers. Its methodical, angst-ridden pace is ever plagued by the dreaded footsteps of old age and death that the young simply can't fathom. I selfishly want "Red Dead Redemption 2" for my generation alone, sparing it for those that follow to appreciate one day as a retro classic, when flecks of gray grace their own heads.

It's easy to fall into the trap of gushing with over-the-top praise for the game. I will try to restrain myself from that, in favor of analyzing exactly what it is that separates "Red Dead Redemption 2" from the work of mere mortals and elevates it to its status.

This is an elegant an elegiac journey leavened with haunting notes that reference life as well as pop culture. It's a truly great Western that should be compared to novels and films rather than games, because gamedom -- even the original "Red Dead Redemption" and especially its laughable predecessor, "Red Dead Revolver," aren't even in the same orbit as the though-provoking, soul-searching moments like the game offers. Above, all, the game favors deconstructionism of the American myth.

Its closest spiritual cousin is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" for the way it ruefully exposes how much of the myth of heroism is absolute bullshit, as well as how important it is to fan the flames of such legends, because they are what light the embers that inspire the best among us to forge on, pushing humanity to the next stages of the opera in which we all play a small part.

This is a game that revels upon the grand scale, but what I most appreciate are the small moments that form the brushstrokes that make up the masterpiece. I like that the more you pet and feed your steed, the more he is willing to do for you. And I absolutely love the heartache that comes from your horse's inevitable death, which approaches the devastation you feel when a real-life pet dies.

It takes courage and determination to begin again in your recovery from the heartache, be it romantic devotion to a love one or the passion you felt for a career that has ended in a pink slip. To rebuild, with the Kintsugi-like cracks healed stronger than they were before, is the essence of endurance and growth as a person.

As the countless hours unfold, with sidequests and the main campaign intertwining into a bittersweet, indistinguishable morass, I tried to pause to savor the intricacies of this masterwork. I strove to appreciate my failures and the lessons I gleaned from them, not only in how better to approach and rectify how I fell short in my next attempt, but in the futility of my misdirection itself, and how sometimes the act of falling short can be a victory in itself. Discovering that a door is closed is somehow a triumph on its own. The dark, closed hallway is a sometimes gentle, often brutal shift in a the next direction on a path to better things.

In some time this game will grow. Missions and items will be added, quests will be unlocked and new areas of the map will open up. And also maybe next month or the month after, but before we know it the game will open up and reshape into the online mode that will redefine what "Red Dead Redemption 2" is.

To play this game again in the future will test the maxim that no man can cross the same river twice, for not only will the river have changed, but so well have the man. Not that you need all that much encouragement, because if you are at all inclined to gaming than you have surely been bombarded with breathless endorsements for this game. But nevertheless I add my voice to that chorus. If you are old, or at least can imagine what it's like to be old, you owe it to yourself to spend some of your ever-dwindling hours on this truly fantastic, unparalleled experience.

To die in this virtual tapestry is to taste redemption.
Publisher provided review code.