Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo Edition" Review

You can't help but laugh when "Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo Edition" rolls out its world map and sends you jetting off to various corners of the globe to engage in blackjack battles with its roster of quirky, stereotype-laden goofballs. True to form, they talk smack before and after battles via single-screen quotes

The dev team at Headup Games is out to satirize "Street Fighter II," as well as 1980s and 90s gaming conventions, as well as Capcom's penchant for rereleasing a popular game again and again with increasingly absurd titles.

The problem is that once you get past all the endearing trappings, what you're left with is a shallow-by-definition game of chance. Since blackjack lacks the strategic aspects of competitive card games, including poker and its myriad variations, your skill plays little factor in your advancement.

The impetus is to go all-in on your bets and pray for good cards rather than methodically try to wear down your opponent with small, savvy wagers.

Even though the traditional arcade mode has  mild replay value due to the varied endings assigned to 10 different characters, you can presumably get more mileage out of the offline multiplayer component, which can field up to four players. The mindgames that come into play against human competitors surpass the dull pseudo-strategy you can use to plow through the campaign.

Still, the more time you spend with the game, the more you may find yourself wanting to play real blackjack, or real "Street Fighter." The nostalgia factor can't surpass its inspiration.
Publisher provided review code.

"Monster Loves You" Review

Sly, wicked humor underlines the choice-based text adventure "Monster Loves You." Along with a deceptively innocent, children's book style art design, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions that advance your character down dark paths, guiding it along its quest to hunt and exploit people.

Released on Switch five years after it debuted on PC, the Dejobaan Games product goes all-in on its eclectic design choices. Love it or hate it, there is almost no chance you've ever played a similar game.

You're presented with decisions that shape and alter your character's philosophy and personality. The natural instinct is to button-mash your way through the proceedings, but doing so will rob you of the experience of the writing and story arc.

The problem is that the design is so repetitive and insular that it practically dares you to barrel through it. With little variance or pace changes, there is little to keep you engaged if your focus slips.

Those who crave the absurdity and satirical qualities of the writing will find much to appreciate in "Monster Loves You," but gamers who lack the patience to commit to the bizarre story may find the game too much of a beast to handle.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Space Hulk: Tactics" Review

Developers have long struggled with the challenge of translating the mouse-and-keyboard tactical setup to consoles, to varying degrees of success. The numerous ideas included menu wheels, hot keys and busy HUDs, but no matter how effective the jury-rigging was, players always missed the original setup.

"Space Hulk: Tactics" -- a beloved spawn of the  "Warhammer 40,000" universe -- runs into the same problems. Despite the valiant efforts of the dev team at Cyanide Studios, every move, maneuver and scroll is just a whisper more tedious than it could be if you weren't bound by the rigors of analog sticks, buttons and bumpers.

Once you spend some time with the game, the distractions fade away and you can better appreciate the skill, vision and forethought that went into the mission design. Wearing its board game heritage proudly, the rich building, unit and weaponry selection, along with diverse environmental enhancements and commander boosts making no two encounters unfold the same way.

The campaigns are well-calibrated and intertwined, with an ongoing metagame that plays out apart from the mainline story, as well as a macro-map that shows you the overall progress. With a finely-tuned matchmaking system governing the conflict between the Terminator Space Marines and Genestealers alien race, the challengers are stiff, engrossing and numerous. And also present in the controls as well as  the code.

Publisher provided review code.

Mark of the Ninja: Remastered" Review

A stylish take on stealth ninja action, "Mark of the Ninja" set the bar so high when it was released that scores of imitators haven't been able to match its mastery of the genre.

Klei Entertainment's 2012 Metroidvania masterpiece fell through the cracks because it was released at the end of the last generation. A remaster is the ideal way to reintroduce the game to current audiences. Those who have never played it are in for a treat, and enough time has passed since release to make the game seem new again to fans of the original who may not have touched the game in years.

In a move that bears repeating amid the flurry of current-gen remasters, those who own the original base game on Steam or Xbox 360 need only to pay a nominal $5 to upgrade. The re-up is well worth it. Not only are the already-superb visuals -- which get a hefty boost to 4K from the original 720p -- and tight controls upgraded, but the previously-released DLC is there. Those who already sprung for the DLC on Steam and Xbox 360 get the remaster for free.

Environmental manipulation and a hefty dose of trial-and-error are needed to advance. Even when you run up against one of the game's many bottlenecks, you feel challenged rather than frustrated.

Even when you fail, you can appreciate the devious craftsmanship that went into engineering your comeuppance. Also, it makes your sweet retribution that much sweeter. That's the mantra of the ninja.
Publisher provided review code.

"Starlink: Battle for Atlas" Review

It turns out there's still plenty of life in the ailing toys to life genre.

Years after the likes of "Skylanders," "Disney Infinity" and "Lego Dimensions" have swirled down the proverbial gaming fad drain. Ubisoft draws upon its deep Nintendo heritage to conjure a Switch exclusive that brings back the concept with a vengeance.

Bolstered by a wallet-terrifying fleet of physical ships, weapons and plilots you can buy and use in the game, "Battle for Atlas" feels like the confident, cunning launch of a new platform. The cherry add-on is the "StarFox" Fox McCloud & Arwing pack, which lets players act out their interstellar shootout fantasies they have been harboring since the Nintendo 64 days.

Other ships available as physical toys include the hawkishly angular Nadir and the sleek. lithe Neptune. With the intricately articulated ships doubling as eye-popping desk or bookshelf decorations -- not to mention imagination-sparking battle props for youngsters -- the pull of buying a package or two to enhance your gameplay is a simple choice.

Set in the Atlas star system, which acts as a treasure trove for alien technology begging to be reverse-engineered, the story pits you against the nefarious Grax, who vies to use the weaponry to enslave and exploit the denizens of the system.

You guide a loose-knit, Rebel Alliance-style network of squadmates take to the skies to engage the enemy and push through high-risk missions. You can speed through the cosmos, skim planet surfaces and execute skilled maneuvers to avoid enemy fire and return devastating shots of your own. The worlds-colliding  range of characters and weaponry toes the line between fan service and forward-thinking engineering.

"Starlink: Battle for Atlas" feels less like a one-shot and more of a wholesale rediscovery of a lost genre, which is built to sink roots and expand on the galaxy's hottest-selling system. Like its heroes, it soars, shoots from the hip and looks slick while doing it.
Publisher provided review code.

Review: "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4"

With a well-placed metaphorical headshot, Treyarch uses "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" to shoot down any reservations that gamers had. The thinking went that a large portion of its fan base would feel excluded because of the elimination of a single-player campaign, as well as the supposition that the Battle Royale-style "Blackout" mode would be a disingenuous imitation of "Fortnite" and "PUBG."

Within minutes you see that the reality is that Treyarch doesn't follow -- it reinvents. "Black Ops 4" is a daring, wildly successful redefinition of what a modern shooter can and should be. The three multiplayer pillars are so robust, well-rounded and enthralling that the wonder becomes not that the single-player campaign has been jettisoned this year, but how surprising it was that it took so long to get here.

Recognizing that the bulk of the "Call of Duty" draw comes from its armies of multiplayer competitors, Treyarch made a savvy gamble that paid off by plunging all its resources into innovation, refinement and polish of its standard multiplayer, "Blackout" and zombie modes.

Those yearning for story and lore points should spend time in zombies. Narration and visual cues fill out the backstory as you and your squadmates fend off wave after wave of hypractive conjurings of the undead, making you feel like a tight-knit team who bands together to fend off the evil hordes.

That squad-based storytelling mechanic flows into the base multiplayer, which does away with traditional classes in favor of archetypical, 'The A-Team"-style heroes. Choosing your player -- each who packs a distinctive look, sense of charisma and special weapon set is like falling into positions in a pickup basketball game. The symbiotic relationships the team assumes emphasize communication, coordination and on-the-fly teamwork to succeed.

Treyarch truly shifts into full throttle in "Blackout" mode, which makes previous Battle Royale efforts seem like little more than cobblestones along the path to this evolutionary destination. Decked out with gorgeous backgrounds, complete with rolling hills, flowing rivers and staggering outposts, the map works as a character unto itself. As players engage in the mad scramble to avoid the shrinking maps while gearing up and battling it out for supply drops, you can't help but marvel at the colossal playground that sets the stage for the carnage.

With each mode equipped with its own slate of progression, unlockables and weapon economies, "Call of Duty" Black Ops 4" forges the bridge to the new normal of online-only shooters with overwhelming skill and bravado. The future is bright, bold and thrilling.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 12, 2018

"Disney on Ice: Dare to Dream" Review

Stepping up its game considerably from years' past, the new touring "Disney on Ice" touring show marks a considerable improvement in nearly all aspects of the production.

Reimagined at every level, from set design to special effects and the acrobatic range of performance pieces, the latest edition is a dazzling thrill ride that gains momentum as it rolls, culminating in a stunning second act.

The show begins with a "Coco"-themed prelude that goes miles in upping the cultural inclusivity factor, then follows with SparkNotes versions of classics including "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tangled." The kid-friendly interludes involving silly antics from Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald are downplayed, making way for more focus on rehashing the animated films.

Each movie segment shows off fresh props and backgrounds and costumes. Particularly impressive are Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and the transformable "Beauty and the Beast" mansion, which opens up to reveal the library that coaxes Belle to fall for her captor.

Rapunzel pulls of some jaw-dropping moves with silks that serve as metaphors for her dangling locks

Overall, the philosophy seems to edge away from the traditional kid-pleasing factor in an effort to appeal equally to all ages. This confident move trusts the audience to appreciate the finer points of the difficulty level involved, and assumes the kids will be just as hooked as the older crowd.

It's after the break that the show truly flexes its muscles, with robust mini-productions of "Frozen" and "Moana" thrusting the show's energy level to fever pitch. Retooled and tweaked to include the trademark songs without sacrificing too many story beats, the stories are awe-inspiring explosions of exquisite lighting, gargantuan props and massive, finely-tuned song-and-dance numbers.

The new "Disney on Ice" is something any Disney fan can wholeheartedly appreciate, without the need to qualify that love or reduce their expectations for what had been a glorified kid's show.

As Maui would sing, "You're welcome."

The show plays through Sunday at the Tucson Convention Center. Click here to see the rest of the tour stops.

PHIL ON FILM: "First Man"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Report: "Lord of the Flies"

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Golding's sense of immediacy is what makes "Lord of the Flies" a classic. He sticks to prose that matches the education levels and worldviews of his protagonists, a group of schoolboys who crash land on an island and disastrously attempt to forge a society of their own.

He seeks to unearth the depths of greed, domination and inhumanity that are hardwired into even the most seemingly innocuous among us.

The experiment is a success. The novel is fast-paced, accessible and thought-provoking. There are a few nagging faults that weigh it down a bit, though. His characters alternate from behaving like devious, cruel adults in one scene and helpless overgrown toddlers the next.

The range is jarring, conveniently shifting to suit the changing needs of the narrative. This causes the tone to run all over the place, and veer toward crass emotional manipulation. But that doesn't stop it from hitting hard. His gripping, brooding tale of innocence loss strikes the stark reveal that innocence was never really there.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Guacamelee: Super Turbo Championship Edition" Review

Embracing the charming absurdities of Luchador and Dia de Los Muertos lore, the "Guacamelee" series is an exquisite example of just how engaging and gripping storytelling can be in a genre that often dispenses with narrative as it focuses on combat. "The game predates "Coco" by telling a grim, engrossing story of lost love divided by the realms of the living and the dead. Unlike "Coco," it's not afraid to laugh at itself.

Developer Drinkbox Studios continued to refine and expand its 2013 sensation -- eventually following it up with a glorious sequel -- and the ludicrously named "Super Turbo Championship Edition" marks a capstone on what will go down as the definitive version of the game.

With updated and expanded levels, upgrades and unlockables, the game oozes with things to chase, do, see and punch in the face. There is a decidedly Metroidvania tone to the platforming, which often has you double back over area you have previously covered in order to chase down new skills that will help you as you advance through the story.

The Switch makes an apt home for the game, which benefits from the on-the-go play options -- including quick-save states and short missions that are well-designed for mobile gaming -- while still looking stunning when played at home on your TV. If you're a lapsed "Guacamelee" fan who decides to give the game another shot, you'll find it will grip you in its colorful headlock once again.
Publisher provided review code.

"Vampyr" Review

"Vampyr" sinks its teeth into a fascinating concept. As a streetwalking creature of the night who stalks the alleyways of 1918 London, you are a threat to everyone you encounter. And in many ways, you are more of a threat to yourself than any of your adversaries.

You can give into your urges and take the easier way out, upgrading your skills by indulging in your thirst for blood and power. Or you can make things harder on yourself by avoiding killing those who stand in your way and enhancing your abilities by taking the non-lethal options.

The game dropped in June, but has been reborn with its latest update, which adds two new difficulty modes, making the game both more accessible and more challenging, depending on the amount of bloodlust that courses through your cold veins.

Those who just want to appreciate the writing and visuals, without letting the stress of combat get to them, can take on Story Mode, which requires minimal skill to make your way through the dark, engrossing saga.

Hard Mode, on the other hand, grants you less experience from straight-up kills, forcing you to "embrace" -- sucking the blood out of victims -- in order to make your character more viable.

No matter which way you choose to take on "Vampyr," there is a rich tapestry to enjoy. Developer Dontnod is at the peak of its skills, delivering and refining a masterful, largely unsung think piece on the burden of monsterhood. The latest update pumps some new life into its undead saga.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

"Velocity 2X" Switch Review

A shoot-em-up platformer that rocked the PS4 and Vita indie scene in 2014, "Velocity 2X" gets a welcome rebirth on the Switch, where it fits in nicely with the console's stable of retro-minded concepts.

Alternating between side-scrolling traversal and top-down bullet hell mayhem, the game from FuturLab puts your twitch skills to the test. But reflexes alone won't keep you going. Ample puzzle challenges and varied combat structures keep you guessing, adjusting and adapting.

To survive and thrive, you need to be able to think on the fly and recalibrate not only your tactics, but the pace at which you think, operate and react.

Staying true to its name, much of the game boasts a relentlessly raw speed that would make Sonic dizzy. The forward momentum courses through the entirety of the game's makeup, from the sleek visuals to the thumping soundtrack. There's nary a moment of downtime in the escapade, with the action kicking into high gear from the early moments, rarely pausing to take a breath.

Many games show their age quickly, but the polish and energy of "Velocity" keep the game's look and feel relevant, easily managing to keep pace with current offerings. If you missed out on "Velocity 2X" on its first go-round, the Switch makes an excellent landing place for its second tour of duty.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Book Report: "Artemis"

ArtemisArtemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Weir comes close at times but can't quite recapture the alchemy he conjured in "The Martian." He follows the template he set in that book, sticking us in the head of an ultra-nerdy protagonist who solves extraterrestrial problems with exhaustive knowledge of engineering and science.

The setting shifts from a botanist marooned on Mars to a smuggler attempting to make a big score by undermining a megacorporation on a moon colony.

But the formula doesn't quite translate. The hero this time out is a woman in her mid-20s who happens to think, talk and act like a geeky 45-year-old.

Her stream of consciousness and outlook are overly manufactured, undermining the humor and making her thoughts and actions seem forced and calculated, rather than natural. It also doesn't help that she tends to make awkward pop culture references to 20th and 21st century American pop culture, rather than futuristic moon culture in which she was raised.

It's also annoying how Weir gets hung up on the minutiae of scientific explanations, over-narrating scenes that easily could have been pared down.

I liked the book at the beginning, but it wore on me as it droned on. "Artemis" sputters rather than flows, ending as barren and desolate as the barren satellite on which it's set.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

"Rise & Shine" Review

Nearly three years after releasing the run-and-gun platformer "Rise & Shine," Adult Swim games has given the game another shot on Switch.

Feeling more at home on the system than it did on other systems, the fast-paced side-scroller is an apt fit for handheld mode, with its bite-sized missions lending themselves to on-the-go play.

Set on the planet of Gamearth, the robotic overlords of Nexgen have a stranglehold on the remnants of society.

Playing as a gun-toting child named Rise, you double-jump, dash, duck behind cover and aim your weapon and fire away. Rolling through inventively designed levels, with clever platform and enemy placement, you work your way through increasingly frustrating obstacles.

With a steep difficulty ramp-up, you need to glean survival lessons thrust upon you in order to prepare for the next challenges.

With the highly meta story unfolding in stylishly rendered cut scenes, the action-packed levels keep the adrenaline flowing. "Rise & Shine" is well worth a look for those who are looking for an action platformer to add to their Switch stable.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey" Review

Through the years, the "Assassin's Creed" series has taken gamers on a guided tour of world history, spiced up with a fascinating web of conspiracy theories and a sizable dose of historical fiction poetic license. But underlying all the gaming and storytelling trappings always rested a bedrock of historical authenticity. You truly felt like a time traveler, seeing the world through the eyes of an assassin ancestor.

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey" marks a new highwater mark for the franchise because it embraces its history to such an obsessive degree that even its exhaustively researched predecessors can't match. Ancient Greece comes alive in ways a textbook or even a film couldn't hope to approach. Every detail, from the ways the clouds roll over Mount Olympus to the manner in which townsfolk react to the way you brandish a dagger or swipe some loot channels lifelike realism into the experience. The game not only makes you feel as though you live and breathe inside a Peloponnesian War-era Greece, it grants you the sense of powerful freedom to manipulate the land to your goals.

Ubisoft Quebec prioritized player choice above all else for "Odyssey," which is by far the most RPG-like entry in the series to date. Taking a cue -- whether consciously or not -- from the direction in which "God of War" moved, you can adorn your hero with upgradable, craftable armor, unlock abilities by distributing points along the branches of a skill tree, and make meaningful choices in dialogue and actions that have ramifications on the way the story unfolds. The first, but not least of those choices, is whether to play as a man or woman.

That sense of choice and the empowerment it represents echoes throughout the world. More than ever before in an "Assassin's Creed" game, you are at liberty to take non-lethal routes toward your goals. You can also forgo the usual HUD setup that tracks your progress and quest goals, freeing you to explore without inhibitions. Regardless of what you choose, the narrative is written in a manner to justify and de-gamify your selections.

Whether you choose to pursue the main path or allow yourself to be sucked into the many side quests that you encounter, you get a rich, thrilling escapade into times of yore, getting an up-close, full-bodied dose of Ancient Greece in its prime. Along for the ride are a pair of animal friends -- one series veterans are used to and the other which is new, yet familiar to those who have played titles with similar tropes.

There is a bird of prey you can summon to give you aerial recon and mark locations of adversaries, and there is also a horse you can call whenever you like to help speed your travel, trample enemies or navigate harsh terrain. Much like "Red Dead Redemption" and the "Zelda" games, you form a stark, emotional bond with your steed, adding yet another layer of depth to the experience.

Bolstered by crackling dialogue, a sweeping and enrapturing story, as well as boundaries-shattering visuals that fulfill promises the series has long hinted at but never fully delivered, "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" shines in free running, naval combat and stealthy slinking. This is an "Assassin's Creed" to sink into and savor. There is a bright, big world of history there for the seizing, and exalting in it makes you feel like a Greek god.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

"THE Card: Poker, Texas Holdem, Blackjack and Page One" Review

Not every game needs to swing for the fences. There's something to be said for a title that aims small, eschews frills and executes its niche with a vengeance. That's the hand dealt by "THE Card: Poker, Texas Holdem, Blackjack and Page One."

That mouthful of a title is just what the game is -- no more and no less. It's strictly for those looking to kill time while maybe refining their card game skills a bit. The games are as basic as their execution. Sure, you could get the same games via free apps on your phone, but those would likely come attached to a train of microtransaction upsells and ads that dampen your enjoyment.

Everything about "THE Card" is pure and Spartan to the core. You take part in network-wide ranking systems partitioned by each game.

The card games are simple, straightforward and well-executed, with modifications possible including house rules, card design change-ups and backgrounds. The inherent challenge and strategy embedded in each of the card games is the main draw, and you "level up" not by artificial XP but by genuine experience that makes you a savvier and more efficient gambler. With no real money at stake, this is a cheaper and less stressful way to learn the ropes than by braving a real-life or online casino.

An attractive impulse buy to keep in your back pocket to fill out the edges of your Switch library, "THE Card" gives you just what you bargain for, and is worth the proverbial roll of the dice for those looking to do some ramification-free gambling.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 28, 2018

"Life is Strange 2: Episode 1" Review

It's fitting that "Life is Strange 2" is launching the week that Telltale Games went under. As the old guard that reinvigorated the point-and-click adventure genre with "The Wolf Among Us," "The Walking Dead," "Batman" and "Game of Thrones" fades away, the wily innovators at Dontnod Entertainment have reached new heights with "Life is Strange 2." The third episodic series in the franchise proves beyond any doubt that the torch for the genre has been passed.

The first of five planned episodes, "Life is Strange 2" shifts to a different set of characters. Once again, the game is a supernatural forces-tinged tale of awkward, brutal adolescent life. Much of the appeal comes in small moments, such as crashing on a beanbag to sketch out a drawing, flipping on music, and firing up a laptop or pulling out a cell phone to check on your friends. With the vigor and insight of "13 Reasons Why" and "Stranger Things," the "Life is Strange" sequel plants you squarely into the tumult of teenage life, where decisions fluctuate from inconsequential to life-changing minute by minute.

The narrative focuses on two brothers who are left to fend for themselves in a harsh, unforgiving world. David, a high school senior, is the reluctant caretaker of Daniel, who is coming to grips with newfound, barely-controlled psychic powers. The kids wrestle with the typical interchangable insecurities, rivalries and tenderness of siblings, all while sinking into a larger struggle that's more explosive and wide-ranging than either of them can fathom.

The choices you make in actions and in manipulating the dialogue trees have a heavy impact on the way the story unfolds. Likewise, your choices in the original "Life is Strange" -- yet not that of the prequel, subtitled "Before the Storm" impact the setup you face in this game. You can vie to steer Daniel toward the path of righteousness, or nudge him seemingly along the path or short-term gain that could possibly lead to madness or megalomania.

A crackling start to what promises to be yet another chilling, tragic and effortlessly funny and insightful take on teen angst and empowerment, "Life is Strange" proves that despite the fall of Telltale, the adventure genre has not yet plateaued.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Night School"

For my written review, click here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

"Forza Horizon 4" Review

Each release in the "Forza" series somehow pushes the bar for realism and accessibility even higher. "Forza Horizon 4" manages to continue the trend, delivering stunningly realistic visuals that captivate and thrill, feeling at times like an action movie come to life.

The "Horizon" spinoff series has always been the more fun, freewheeling open-world cousin of the mainline franchise. The temptation for developers Playground Games and Turn 10 studios may have been to devolve into something of a "Burnout Paradise"-style arcade romp, they throttle back and lean into the sim aspect. That doesn't mean this new "Horizon" pulls back from fun and frivolity. With nearly everything you do counting toward XP-style clout that lands you sponsors, funding and access to better cars and more varied events, you always feel as though you are inching forward on the progression loop.

Compared to dryer games such as "Gran Turismo Sport," "Forza Horizon 4" is a freewheeling goof. With so many disciplines available to keep things fresh and fascinating, you never feel as though you're playing the same race twice -- even if you take on the same event over and over in an effort to grind to the top. The trick of the game is that it makes all the grinding required feel like messing around. As you refine your skills, upgrade your fleet and seek out the events clamoring for your attention in the British countryside, you lose yourself in the constant forward momentum with which "Forza Horizon 4" enraptures you.

More than 450 cars from a staggeringly diverse 100 manufacturers are there to draw you onward. New modes such as "Horizon Life" boast 25 unique campaigns, testing varied skills such as stunt driving, drifting and sprint racing. The seasonally-divided shared world makes the same courses seem varied depending on whether they are, say, frozen over with ice or drenched with rain. The weather effects merge with impressive damage modifiers that particularly pop when you shift the POV to first person, dealing with the need to peek in between window cracks at the road hazards flying fast and furious at you.

It's been a slow couple of years for Xbox One exclusives, but "Forza Horizon 4" is nearly excellent enough to make up for the dearth of games to pick from. A driver's delight, the game is brilliant enough to convert those who don't care much about car games into true believers.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Fear: Trump in the White House"

Fear: Trump in the White HouseFear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think this book will become more relevant and valuable as the decades pass and people look back on this surreal period of time to sort out exactly what the hell happened. Woodward's research and sourcing are sure to stand the time better than the likes of Omarosa, James Comey, Stormy Daniels or the other Trump book-of-the-week opportunists.

In the wake of Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury," though, Woodward's work comes off as milquetoast and meek. Just about everything here has been copiously reported elsewhere. Woodward takes the newspaper-of-record tack of foregoing the attempt to break news while making sure its facts are settled and straight.

Woodward shocks no one by tearing the lid off an obviously chaotic and dysfunctional White House and showing that it's... chaotic and dysfunctional. He offers no more insight as to the haphazard way Trump operates than what anyone can see after watching him jabber on for a few minutes on camera. If anything, Woodward doesn't so much rip Trump apart as he does provide a security blanket by showing how his staff actively works to undermine his crazier impulses to keep some semblance of normalcy in the day-to-day at 1600.

Woodward's more explosive material is at the beginning and end. The bulk of the book could have been written by anyone with a stack of newspaper pieces to summarize. Woodward catalogs the list of Trump's well-reported scandals, padding out what cynically could have been an extended magazine article.

But I'm glad Woodward made this into a book. It will either be something to pass down to future generations in an effort to explain WTF happened during this episode of temporary insanity... or show how the first domino fell in the process that ended up giving us President Ivanka.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 22, 2018

"MagiCat" Review

It's a bold move for a developer to take on the tried, true and done-to-death genre of the child-friendly, side-scrolling platformer, but Toge Productions didn't back down from the challenge. "MagiCat" is an unapologetically earnest and whimsical take on the genre.

With 63 levels to take on, there is no lack of content in the sprawling game. You navigate difficult jumps, shifting platforms, unfortunately placed enemies and secret pathways to keep maneuvering onward. Your hero kitty not only has the ability to pounce, but can shoot projectiles at the enemies. In between levels, you navigate a top-down overworld first popularized in "Super Mario Bros. 3."

While the controls are tight and hit detection is fair, there isn't much here to push the genre forward. That may be fine for younger gamers who didn't grow up on a steady diet of games like this, but anyone in need of innovation should look elsewhere. At times, "MagiCat" plays like an underbaked minigame in some grander adventure.

Still, there is plenty to appreciate in "MagiCat" for those willing to give it a chance. Its hero has enough charm and personality to star in internet memes and T-shirts, but risks being lost in the morass of obscurity. MagiCat" is bound to be the favorite game of some subsets of kids -- and kids at heart -- whose parents, inner or otherwise, give it a shot.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"Cities: Skylines" Switch Review

After releasing three years ago on PC and two years ago on consoles, "Cities: Skylines" is taking a victory lap on the Switch. A deep and robust city builder, the game has rapidly grown its reputation to the point that it's come to define the genre for its generation.

Deep customization options, wild scenarios, authentic simulation variables and an easy-to-navigate menu system are the hallmarks of a game viewed by many as essential to a well-rounded collection. While that distinction may make "Cities: Skylines" sound about as sexy as a reference book or research paper, a few minutes with the game will show you it's anything but dry. It manages to cast its spell, drawing players into its rhythms, emergent conflicts and moments of peaceful synconicity.

Developer Colossal Order's answer to "SimCity" allows players to craft breathtaking cityscapes, manipulate intricate economies and stretch their urban planning skills to the max.

While it's not realistic to hope that the Switch version could match the keyboard and mouse setup in terms of menu efficiency, the touch screen and hot key maps hold their own well, going far beyond what was possible on the PS4 and Xbox One versions.

Numerous other upgrades are present, such as a savvy use of the device's HD rumble feature to guide you toward sweet spots on your map to build. Those who prefer to hunker down in console mode can also use a Pro Controller to plot out their grand designs.

With a full-figured weather system ever present to change things up whenever you get too confident, "Cities: Skylines" cuts an impressive silhouette of towering buildings cut against the horizon.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk" Review

With 3DS releases waning, there are fewer reasons to dust off the old portable system. "Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk" feels like an elixir that jolts new life into the handheld.

A defiant throwback to the type of game the system became known for over the past decade, "Ghost of the Dusk" is a hard-boiled sleuthing yarn that hearkens back to the likes of "Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective" and "Hotel Dusk: Room 215."

Following the apparently accidental death of a homeless man, gruff gumshoe Jake Hunter teams with an old pal to dive into action, determined to proof that there is more to the incident than at first seems. Navigating dialogue options and menu selections, you strive to unravel the twist-filled web of mysteries linked to the death.

Film noir-style writing blends with comic book style visuals to weave a haunting and entrancing web of mystery and discovery.

Making savvy use of the system's two screens, "Ghost of the Dusk" shows exactly what made the 3DS so versatile and enduring. Even though the fad of glasses-free 3D has long since lost its luster, there remains a staunch appeal to the accompaniment of touch screen navigation with simultaneous story presentation up top.

Like a ghost from the shadowy past, "Ghost of the Dusk" emerges from the ether as a reminder of what once was, and what could be again.
Publisher provided review code.

"LittleBits Avengers Hero Inventor Kit" Review

There's a difference between strapping on some plastic armor and pretending you're iron man and actually simulating the circuitry and mechanics that go into components of an exosuit.

"LittleBits Avengers Hero Inventor Kit" takes the next step toward putting young Tony Starks in training through the paces of cobbling together a superhero suit. Packing beginning and intermediate robotics design and engineering principles, the set works as a training tool for would-be inventors.

As much a hands-on, experiential teaching tool as a toy, the STEM-focused educational package is an empowering and enchanting introduction to circuitry and robotic design. Once you put together a project, you control it via a smartphone app.

Think of the set as a next-level version of angles. Following step-by-step instructions, you snap components together to form circuits that are powered by an included 9V battery. Taking inanimate nodes, connecting them and watching them come to life through your direction is empowering and exciting.

Although designed for kids to be able to decipher and construct themselves, a healthy dose of parental supervision and gentle guidance will keep kids short of IKEA-level frustration. Meant to be built, taken apart, adjusted and experimented with, there are plenty of open-ended applications for the package. A generation inspired by such interactive building could well inspire a generation of Ironmen and women.

Publisher provided review sample.

Monday, September 17, 2018

"Nefarious" Review

As raw concepts go, "Nefarious" is a gem. Playing as a pompous, egotistical villain who romps around action platformer levels to kidnap princesses and dispatch heroes, your goal is to conjure as much mayhem as you can muster.

The execution, though, leaves much to be desired. Playing at times like a rough beta -- with slippery controls, inconsistent hit detection and discomforting difficulty ramps and plateus amid levels, "Nefarious" is as rough around the edges as its ugly protagonist.

Despite the nagging flaws, there is plenty to enjoy in nefarious. If the premise makes you giggle, you'll surely appreciate the sense of power playing as a bad guy grants you.

A catchy soundtrack and charming visual style will give gamers who came of age in the 1990s much to appreciate. It takes considerable reflexes and pattern detection to make your way through the more harrowing parts, and handholding is kept at a minimum. A throwback that mocks conventions of the era while also leaning into them, the game shimmers with nostalgia.

"Nefarious" may not have quite lived up to its potential, but manages to win hearts and mind as an occasionally brilliant diamond in the rough. The ramshackle experience works especially well in short bursts, and manages to grow on you as much as you're willing to let it.
Publisher provided review code.

"Mercenaries Saga Chronicles" Review

If you're looking to pick up a strategy-minded RPG that wears its "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Quest" influences proudly, you'll be hard-pressed to find more value than what awaits you in "Mercenaries Saga Chronicles."

Packing three lengthy games into a $40 package, the Switch download packs dozens of hours of gameplay into its beefy package. It's easy to lose yourself in the interlocking tales of intrigue, robust lore, staggering amount of upgrades and skillfully balanced combat.

The knocks against the package are its stiff, linear narrative and milquetoast design. The "Mercenaries Saga" games seem so intent on aping their influences that it struggles to establish tones of their own.

If there's any system best suited to enjoy "Mercenary Chronicles," it's the Switch. Just as enjoyable in quick hits on the go as it does in marathon sessions on the couch, the game shines as brightly in portable mode as it does in the traditional console setup.

With few alternatives out there to contend with the series in its chosen genre, "Mercenaries Saga Chronicles" stands out as one of the most appealing options for strategy RPG-minded Switch gamers. If you find yourself hooked, you may not feel the need to play anything else for weeks on end.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Shikhondo: Soul Eater" Review

A bullet hell shooter adorned in the trappings of Asian mythology, "Shikhondo: Soul Eater" adds beauty and resonance to the typical shmup tropes.

As is always the case in the genre, you barely have time to appreciate the visuals and story as you work frantically to stay alive amid a constant assault from the neverending grind.

But don't be surprised if you find yourself occasionally distracted because you are so taken with the window dressing. This is as gorgeous a game of this type as you're ever likely to stumble upon, so it's only right that you appreciate the captivating visuals.

A tight and combustive package, "Soul Eater" packs five stages of increasingly bizarre and difficult barrages of enemies gunning for your head. Close brushes with death are encouraged, with brash, high-risk flying patterns rewarded with additions to the soul gage, which you can build up toward super moves, much like a fighting game.

The challenge to climb your way up the leaderboards always beckons/taunts you to copious replays with the goal of enhancing your skills to reach new heights. Boss rush and local co-op modes join the traditional arcade campaign to keep things fresh.

You can easily lose yourself among the rhythms and hypnotic swirl of sights and sounds, becoming one with the soul of "Shinkohndo," only to happy to have it eat you alive.
Publsiher provided review code.

"Valkyria Chronicles 4" Review

After a mic-drop debut in 2008 on the PlayStation 3, the "Valkyria Chronicles" series had spread itself too thin, losing its focus in watered-down, sporadic spinoffs. "Valkyria Chronicles 4," though, marks a proud return to form.

The tactical strategy enterprise is just as much of a head-turner today as the original was a decade ago. The dev team at Sega has approached and largely achieved the vision set forth by the first game in the saga, marking a watershed achievement. "Valkyria Chronicles 4" matches an enchanting narrative with stylized visuals, a thematically enhanced score and sharp writing to an airtight combat, upgrade and resource management system.

It's the action-infused battles where the game's threads of tension, suspense and execution come to a head. Orchestrating your party's priorities as you systematically take down the opposition is a fascinating and often harrowing rush. This is a game that's dangerous for its ability to captivate you, making time and priorities slip away as you obsess over the next step in your path to glory.

Chapter after chapter, the plot changes the paradigm on you, forcing you to forget what you think you know and channel your creativity and gumption to forge new solutions on the fly, making use of your limited, often unbalanced forces to jury rig a ramshackle way to survive and advance.

To call "Valyria Chronicles 4" a surprise for its excellence would be something of a disservice to its heritage. So if the game doesn't shock you with its overwhelming competence, it certainly at least satisfies while slickly relieving any doubts that may have mounted over the years. "Valkyria Chronicles," like George Costanza, is back, baby.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Book Report: "A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever"

A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy ForeverA Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever by Josh Karp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was drawn to this by the Netflix movie, which is a much more entertaining rundown of the rise and fall of Doug Kenney and the National Lampoon empire. Karp's book has much more detail and nuance, but gets bogged down in the effort to complete a well-rounded portrait rather than focus on Kenney's foibles and the wackiness that went on off the clock.

Reading like a textbook, albeit an often fascinating textbook stuffed with all sorts of inappropriate, cocaine-fueled 1970s mayhem, the book chronicles the origins of biting political satire that reshaped the whole of the entertainment medium, spawning the likes of "Animal House," "Caddyshack," the "Vacation" series, "Saturday Night Live" and the indomitable John Hughes.

Kenney emerges as a lost soul; a genius incapable of handling the success or especially the perceived failure that the highs and lows of life thrust upon him as he ran roughshod through the print world and Hollywood. The finest moments are those that get intimate with Kenney and his most meaningful relationships, particularly with Chevy Chase.

This is an instance in which you can get all the good stuff by watching the Netflix movie and save the book only to sate the need of fully nerding out.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 13, 2018

PHIL ON FILM: "A Simple Favor"

For my written review, click here.

"Senran Kagura Reflections" Review

Unless played any way but ironically, "Senran Kagura Reflexions," is almost sure to creep you out. It seems geared to do so.

Shamelessly and outrageously creepy, the game tasks you play as a reflexologist whose job it is to touch, stroke, massage and otherwise fondle a string of bubbly, jiggly and hyperflirtatious clients.

While this is presumably the most outrageous "Senran Kagura" game to date, it's always toed the line between entertainment and exploitative near-pornography as it took on the brawler, watergun fighting and cooking. That the content is leering and exploitative has never been in doubt.

The whole point to the game is to give you the mandate to pleasure your clients to the point of wildly enthiuastic elation with your reflexology skills. You rotate among eager shinobi customers, rotating among hand massage, body rubs and... thigh slaps. The strange dynamic that develops is unnerving enough to shatter whatever illusion exists of professionalism or innocence.

At its core, "Reflexions" is a rhythm game with overtly questionable window dressing. There is challenge, humor and subversive satire at play, redeeming a game that most might turn up their nose at. Determined to focus on the "guilty" portion of the term "guilty pleasure," the game is a thought-provoking, disturbing commentary on sexuality, while at the same time an outlet for those with particular kinks and control fetishes. For better or worse, you make the experience what you bring into it.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

"Haunted Neighbors: Hyakki Castle" Review

A real-time dungeon-exploration JRPG, "Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle" is an eclectic entry that revels in its relentless oddity.

Wacky, Lovecraftian characters stalk the catacombs. You scrounge among limited resources to make your way through the passageways, facing increasingly formidable opposition as you advance. Each of the bad guys brings with it a distinct moveset and slate of strengths and weaknesses, and much of the game's attraction comes in ferreting out the most effective way to dispatch them.

Enemies that start off seeming like invulnerable behemoths tend to devolve into weaklings once you figure them out.

Japanese publisher Happinet keeps things fresh by adding a party split-up feature that allows you to go the route of every ill-advised slasher flick protagonist and go separate ways. Those who take advantage of the system can cover more ground, tracking down enemies, loot and hidden passageways to clear dungeons with smooth efficiency.

A punishing yet personality-filled spectacle, "Haunted Neighbors: Hyakki Castle" packs loads of charm into a tight, innovative package. These are walls well worth scaling.
Publisher provided review code.

"Jurassic World Evolution" Review

A theme park builder in the vein of "Sim City" and "Roller Coaster Tycoon," "Jurassic World Evolution" released in June, perhaps in something of a rush in order to drop while "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" was the hottest film in theaters. Critics praised its tight management aspect but chided it for its tedious grinding aspect.

Games of today are an ever-evolving medium, though, and the team at Frontier Developments kept at it, listening to its community as it plotted out a series of regular updates to sharpen the game's claws and amping up its roar. Like the team of genetic editors who conjure the movie's bio-engineered dino-hybrids, the squad has been ruthless in its pursuit of the "wow" factor. The result, with the 1.4 update, is a game that has evolved from its initial release.

Sprucing up what was previously somewhat of a dry sim, the free update adds in a Challenge Mode, in addition to new cameras, contracts and lighting options. The result is a number of small improvements that coalesce together to create something more refined and polished than before. The current game is more action-packed and filled with things to see, do and adjust than the previous release.

While still tuned to the management-minded player -- the console edition still plays much like its mobile version -- "Jurassic World Evolution" will please the type of player who likes to tinker with concepts and see how they play out. It's also for those who like to unleash chaos on an imagined world. Life finds a way, and so does "Jurassic World Evolution."
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Shadow of the Tomb Raider" Review

Five years ago, developer Crystal Dynamics reinvented one of gaming's icons by scrapping just about everything that came before and reimagining Lara Croft as a younger, more vulnerable and experienced adventurer who got by on her drive, creativity and resourcefulness.

Now three games into the revitalized series, "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" finds Lara as a seasoned explorer, benevolent thief and confident adventurer more akin to her persona in the older games and films. Thanks to the groundwork put in place by the previous two games, this new iteration of Lara seems more grounde, realistic and sympathetic. She now stands alongside Nathan Drake in terms of relevance and precision.

The game tells a stirring tale of Lara meeting her destiny, determined to derail the efforts of the notorious Trinity, while determined to avoid succombing to the temptations of bowing to self-indulgence and wanton destruction that her newly-honed powers make possible. To defeat her enemy, she fears she may risk becoming just as nefarious.

The dev team makes the most of the game's jungle setting, taking cues from the likes of "Far Cry" and "Uncharted" in developing and establishing a sense of place. Utilizing the resources at your disposal, you scrape your way through the enemies and obstacles in your face by culling together minimal resources and dispatching adversaries with stealthy fair. A smattering of quick-time events make for occasional distractions, but don't take away from the momentum.

As strong as the previous two games were, "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" manages to dwarf them wth confident verve and flair.

The tombs are larger, more elaborate and more integral to the story than those of the previous two games. Combat is engrossing and refined. The voice acting and cinematic storytelling are revelatory triumphs.

Much has been said of "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" being the capstone of a trilogy, but the game feels more like a beginning than an end. Lara Croft will continue to reign as the queen of adventurers, and this game is the material on which her thrown is built. All future iterations of the character will draw from this superb trilogy and its resonant finale.

Publisher provided review copy.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

"NBA 2K19" Review

Visual Concepts keeps managing to push the "NBA 2K" franchise to new heights because it never seems content to rest on its past triumphs, always pushing toward the next frontier by hitting the figurative open gym to refine what it does well and reinvent its few flaws.

"NBA 2K19" is the latest example of what such tireless work can yield. It's a sports game that transcends the appeal of the NBA itself, recognizing what it is that makes the league so appealing and synthesizing its essence to craft a fast-paced, 1980s Showtime Lakers-caliber experience.

New this year is a Takeover feature, which replicates that tough-to-define feel when a superstar player ratchets up his play to the next level, becoming a formidable force that draws all attention on the court and in the stands.

Somewhat akin to the "on fire" power up from "NBA Jam," the star metaphorically glows with upgraded attributes, moving with an extra step exemplified in special animations, draining shots with more accuracy, wrestling away rebounds and steals and zinging passes with thunderous crispness. It's all the opposition can do to adjust and weather the storm.

The ever-popular MyCareer mode has struggled in recent years with hit-or-miss narrative campaigns, but this year's "The Way Back" story is an upswing. A well-written and acted tale of redemption, the story keeps you engaged and allows you to skip cut scenes if you want to move things along even quicker.

As a franchise mode, MyLeague Online has long rivaled that of "Madden" for superiority, and ups the ante this year with an imersive, full-featured offseason crammed with unexpected storylines and intrigue that mirrors that of the league in real life. "The Saga Continues" also allows you to play out a storyline campaign.

On the court, the action is barely distinguishable from that of the past couple stellar years. Tighter animations, more realistic ball physics and an amped-up broadcast presentation are the most distinguished upgrades.

Taken as a whole, "NBA 2K19" is a robust, full-featured upgrade that makes a strong case for yet another upgrade for superfans and casual NBA dabblers alike.
Publisher provided review copy.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

"428: Shibuya Scramble" Review

A visual novel blessed with stunning photographic visuals and a dizzzying, twist-filled story to match, "428: Shibuya Scramble" is a wily, text-heavy adventure that keeps you as engrossed as you would be in a binge-worthy TV series or page-turning beach read.

The concept may seem fresh, but it's actually a relic from a decade ago. Originally released in Japan in 2008, the game is a mix of stylized text, still photography at times manipulated by subtle fascination. You follow five protagonists over a period of 10 hours.

Choices you make in one timeline affect the various others, making no two playthroughs the same. As many as 50 different outcomes are possible.

Soaked in the authentic-feeling culture of Tokyo's Shibuya district, you begin to feel as though you are part of the humming community, which serves as the backdrop to the web of intrigue. An engrossing use of gaming to tell an interactive story that wouldn't be possible with any other narrative medium, "428: Shibuya Scramble" is a hard-to-forget experience that sinks its hooks into you and hangs on for one wild ride after another.
Publisher provided review code.

"Little Dragons Cafe" Review

Playing as a twin brother and sister thrust in charge of a cafe set amid a world of dragons and magic, you keep the questing heroes happy by feeding them when visit your place to refuel in between adventures.

From the creative mind of Yasuhiro Wada, who created the "Bokujo Monagatari" series, comes a frantic cafe management sim that keeps up a frantic, engrossing pace.

Like the "Overcooked" games, "Little Dragons Cafe" keeps you busy, putting out fire after fire as you juggle tasks to keep thigns running smoothly while ever teetering on the edge of disaster.

Utilizing the Switch controls to fluid effect, you gather ingredients, fill orders, deal with demanding customers and prepare for the next unexpected twist. The more dexterous and adaptable you are, the more likely you are to thrive.

The ability to play as either gender goes far in helping the game appeal to families, and while the cutesy setup seems geared toward children, there is enough challenge to keep adults interested. Buried beneath the bubbly, whimsical exterior is a well-hones suite of interlocking puzzle mechanics poised to challenge veterans. This dragon packs its share of fire in its belly.
Publisher provided review code.

"Fall of Light: Darkest Edition" Review

An action-focused RPG with stunning visuals and a captivating visual style, "Fall of Light: Darkest Edition" introduces an arresting tale of an aging warrior who embarks on a journey with his light-emitting daughter on an elegiac quest to reach the rumored last place on earth that's still touched by daylight.

Working in a co-op manner with your computer-controlled sidekick has the feel of the "God of War" reboot, with  admirable AI making your companion feel like more of a boost than a burden. Much of the game, though, does take on a nagging, escort-mission feel. If you let her die, your progress ends abruptly.

Combat is slick and innovative, with 20 different battle stances available to help you dodge, parry and counterattack the hordes of enemies that assault you.

An update to a game that was released on PS4, Xbox One and Steam two years ago, the new edition adds an exclusive new dungeon. The updated version is new on Switch, and excels on the platform, taking advantage of mobile play with scaled-down visuals that fit the system well without losing any noticeable framerate or graphical fidelty.

A stronger, more vibrant rendition of a game that turned heads in 2016, "Fall of Light: Darkest Edition" sheds some new light on a promising premise with more exact execution.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

"Destiny 2: Forsaken" Review

One of the qualities that makes "Destiny" stand out from the pack of open-world shooters is the lengths Bungie is willing to go to reinvent the game, injecting life into it with a regular stream of sizable free and paid updates, as well as the occasional rainmaker mid-cycle expansion.

"Forsaken," like 2015's "The Taken King" for the original "Destiny," is one of the latter. More of a full-figured sequel than an add-on, the $40 package revamps the very bones of "Destiny 2," adding an overwhelming amount of equipment drops, weapon types, enemy classes and bosses. Along with vast new areas to explore, there is a head-spinning amount of new things to experience in Bungie's finely-crafted universe.

The story kick-starts with a riveting prison break. You confront a Western-inspired area, complete with rolling tumbleweeds, rolling prairies a la "Borderlands" and fortified outposts that house untold treasures to uncover.

Striking intimidating profiles are the new enemy archetype, the Scorn, as well as the big bads -- dubbed Barons -- force you to reevaluate your tactics and restock your firepower options. Luckily, there is plenty to choose from, with new energy slots that let you wield special, energy-enhanced attacks. There are also scads of new weapons with which to arm yourself, including long, medium and short-range bows that provide intriguing alternatives to traditional firearms.

With ample additions to the ever-expanding universe of "Destiny" lore added to the mix, the franchise continues to grow in depth and resonance. Adamantly proving to be a series worth the considerable investment of time and energy it takes to advance to high levels, the game feels like less of a grind than ever before, and more of an onion, with layer upon layer to reveal as you probe its depths.

"Destiny 2: The Forsaken" proves above all that Bungie has kept fan service front and center as it pushes the series' boundaries wider with considerable vigor.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 03, 2018

"Divinity: Original Sin 2 -- Definitive Edition" Review

With the "Divinity: Original Sin" series, Larian Studios has taken the "Diablo" aesthetic, mellowed out the frenetic action in favor of tactical mastery, and created one of the shining lights in gaming innovation in the past half decade.

"Divinity: Original Sin 2 -- Definitive Edition" serves as a victory lap for the developer, which tops off its achievement of the 2017 release with a tricked out, fuller-featured version that includes all previously released DLC, upgrades and tweaks. The improvements lift an already superior game to legendary status, making it a must-play for any fan of isometric strategy games.

Numerous adjustments make the game more palatable on consoles than before, with hot keys and menus geared for easy access via controller HUD wheels. The result is a free-flowing, slickly paced journey into darkness that captivates even as it frustrates, heaping massive challenges on you, filled with twists and psychological mindgames that top those that came before.

As tough to put down as it is to conquer, the game pushes your analytical skills to the limit as you collect and ration resources, plot out upgrade paths and seek out innovative ways to keep surviving and advancing.

New additions include two-player couch co-op, four-player online co-op, a revitalized and redesigned Arena Mode and scores of new surprises lurking around every corner, "Divinity: Original Sin 2" still packs scores of surprises, even for veteran fans. This is the version to check out for console gamers seeking a passion that will last them months on end.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

"PES 2019" Review

With FIFA World Cup 2018 still fresh in mind, it's time to get started on the new soccer season. "PES 2019" is there to take your newfound soccer enthusiasm in stride, deke a defender and launch a back-of-the-goal screamer that brings the crowd to its feet.

Impeccable controls, stunningly realistic charactetr models, precision onfield tactical reactions and countless authentic chants, crowd reactions and stadium quirks make up components to a robust soccer casserole that manages to be as accessible as it is intricate.

Even having lost the UEFA license to rival FIFA, "PES" still maintains the crown as the go-to game for the most realistic soccer experience.

Konami's dev team has long since wrestled away the crown from EA's "FIFA" as the superior choice for serious fans, the latest entry continues to hold the banner proudly despite several imitative advances from the competition.

Like its cover athlete, Brazilian and Barca attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho, "PES 2019" favors high risk/high reward style strategy, while subtly punishing those who prefer to park the bus and pray for a counterattack opportunity.

With elegant and lively through balls, conniving first touches and devastating precision in free kick set plays, the game that unfolds on the virtual pitch feels like an elevated, slightly stylized and idealized version of what you see on TV.

With a revamped franchise mode that takes cues from the dry but influential "Football Manager" franchise, the front office becomes as lively a strategic outlet for your soccer passions as the onfield action.

A host of other improvements, including an upgraded multiplayer suite and an exhaustive slate of customization options, makes the game more of a long-term investment than you'd expect out of an annual release. "PES 2019" is built to last, never mind that you'll almost certainly be tempted to trade it in for "PES 2020" a year from now.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 30, 2018


For my written review, click here.

Book Report: "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America"

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Larson's book is half a riveting account of the sadism of the first American serial killer -- a figure of inexplicable evil and cold calculation -- and half a dull, monotonous recap of the committee meetings and political infighting that led to the creation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Having scoured libraries for primary sources, Larson's indispensable research and vivid writing recreates a lost time of juxtaposed pride, ambition and horror. He seems to be so deep in the weeds, though, that he loses sight of what makes his topic intriguing. The chapters languishing on the design and construction of the fair are bores that you suffer through only to get to more of the good stuff.

Eventually most of the dullness fades away, and Larson justifies why it was that he felt the need to spend so much time dwelling on the legwork that went into creating the beacon of science and culture that was the World's Fair.

H.H. Holmes, who built a hotel equipped with a hidden kiln and gas chamber that he used to trap and kill women throughout the fair, emerges as an unspeakably evil man, who was all the more terrifying because his murders lacked motivation. He was a doctor and businessman who sought success and stature only to facilitate the end goal of sacrificing the lives of the innocent to no known purpose.

Meanwhile, the fair that sprouted up around him was a bubbling crossroads of ideologies and the human spirit of progress. The first Ferris wheel was erected as a response to the Eiffel Tower. Chicago came into its own as global city. Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley showed off their Wild West road show, Nikola Tesla wowed the world with alternating current demonstrations. World-changing minds such as Walt Disney, L. Frank Baum and Frank Lloyd Wright sprang from the fai like flowers in a garden.

All the while, the similarly ambitions Holmes spun his diabolical web in a blind spot. His story cannot be told without also including the fair as context. Had Larson spent as much time on revision and condensation of his languid portions he could have had a masterpiece rather than something that only flirted with such a status.

View all my reviews

"Freedom Planet" Review

A fast-paced brawler in which a dragon girl leads her oddball friends in a spirited romp through a colorful world. Insects, megalithic androids and bizarre beasts straight out of monster movies stand ready to be dispatched by whatever wacky means necessary.

Originally released four years ago on PC and Wii U, the under-the-radar gem springs to new life on the Switch, where it fits in well with the cadre of indie-style gems that thrive on the system.

The dev team's philosophy seems to have been to prize fun above all else. In a journey that brings to mind the silliest offerings of the TurboGrafx-16 era, "Freedom Planet" excels with slick combat and energetic pacing.

True to the inspiration of its origins, the difficulty level is squarely on the tougher side of the equation. But the challenge is earned because of the way the opponents are stacked, helping you hone the sharp edges you'll need to advance to the next menaces that lie in wait.

A breezy, whimsical chase through blooming fever dreams, "Freedom Planet" sends you freewheeling through increasingly fascinating sights and experiences.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age" Review

"Dragon Quest" is one of the most revered names in RPG gaming, and also one of the most sporadic. The dev team at Square Enix had the type of crushing expectations to live up to that tend to be thrust on its protagonists.

Leave it to the heroes to come through when it counts, delivering a thunderously action-packed and emotional addition to the storied franchise.

The first numbered series release since the 2012 MMO, and the first single-player mainline experience since 2009's DS title, "Dragon Quest 9," the new addition to the series somewhat benefits from the distance from its predecessors, which sit so far back in memory and technology that the onus was on the current team to reinvent what a "Dragon Quest" RPG can be from basically scratch.

While trademarks such as the high fantasy setting, slime enemies and iconic retro sound effects remain in place, "Dragon Quest XI" obliterates what came before in terms of storytelling depth, graphical fidelity and combat flexibility.

Eschewing the turn-based battle RPG trope "Dragon Quest" pioneered back when it was known stateside as "Dragon Warrior," the new setup is a vivacious and tense game of cat and mouse that allows you to score bonus points by striking first, dodge enemy attacks in the field of play, set and adjust your party's tendencies and orchestrate magic and force attacks with healing and item use. The result is a fluid and dynamic skirmish setup that means no two battles will ever play out exactly the same way.

The writing team delivers similarly creative inspiration, spinning a miniseries-worthy tale of a child predestined as a savior since childhood. The burden placed on him plays into the emotional depth and lingering sense of fatalism, shading the bonds he forges with allies, as well as the grudges with adversaries.

Captivating from the opening moments, the saga sends you headlong on an unpredictable, violently twisting quest that takes cues from the likes of "Ni No Kuni" and "Persona."

A robust and beautiful journey, "Dragon Quest XI" is a bold critical strike of an RPG that will please lifelong fans, as well as do its part to usher in a new generation of "Dragon Quest" fanatics who will join the throngs of elders who long for the next entry.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Blade Strangers" Review

A throwback 2D fighter with tight controls, well-balanced characters and flashy visuals, "Blade Strangers" is all about pitting cult favorite heroes against each other in one-on-one slugfests.

Characters largely from Studio Saizensen and Nicalis games including "Cave Story," "Shovel Knight," "Code of Princess" and "The Bind of Isaac" all appear, ready to slug it out in an incongruous but immensely satisfying arena fighter. The game thrives on setting up bizarre "what if" matches that likely only popped into the heads of the most obsessive indie gamers.

Those familiar with the likes of "Street Fighter II" and "BlazBlue" will be comfortable with the four-button control scheme, 2D fighter setup and victory conditions.

Although the game was crafted with traditional tropes, the flashy battles that emerge are anything but common. A thrilling sense of energy courses through the competition, with an appealing array of specials, breakers and finishes splashing the screen with thrilling standoffs, slugfests and comebacks.

Playing like a lost classic from the 1990s that happens to be stacked with some of the more popular under-the-radar gaming characters in recent years, "Blade Strangers" cranks out just the sort of fan service you may not have even realized you had been craving.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

"HackyZack" Review

With shades of "N+" and "Super Meat Boy," "HackyZack" is a single-room puzzle-platformer extravaganza that starts off simply before piling on stiff challenge as you advance.

It takes finely honed critical thinking, quick reflexes and a well-calibrated sense of timing to keep advancing. Many puzzlers disguise the one way to advance with window dressing, but the "HackyZack" dev team opts for a more open approach, providing multiple paths to victory.

As you orchestrate your hero's jumping skills through the increasingly complex levels, you generate a feel for the way you prefer tackling obstacles. Expect to have to re-evaluate your strategies regularly. On-the-fly adjustments help you adapt to the more agonizing challenges, thrusting you onward to take on the next task.

While Goal Mode focuses on the traditional find-the-exit objective, Target Mode has you seek out and destroy diamonds planted in various spots on the map.

No matter which mode you take on, you can appreciate the minimalist graphics, easygoing soundtrack and creative design. While suitable for all ages, "HackyZack" will cause hassles for the most seasoned puzzle gamers.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

"Shenmue" and "Shenmue II" Review

With fans of the watershed 1999 and 2001 Dreamcast gems gearing up for next year's release of a long dream-of sequel, remastered versions of the first two "Shenmue" game
s have been released. A precursor series of interactive narratives that paved the way for the likes of "L.A. Noire" and "Heavy Rain," "The Shenmue" titles opened up the realm of possibilities for sandbox titles.

Standard-def TVs of the era did games like "Shenmue" major favors by blurring some of the gaudy, crude detail of the visuals. Also harmed by the march of technology, crystal-clear audio of the horrendously-dubbed voice acting performances hit with all the more of a thud than they would in tinny audio of yesteryear.

Geared to allow its saga to breathe amid a methodical flow, the games have you explore wide areas of largely nothing as you meander toward the next cutscene. The stories, which are more rich, nuanced and mature than that of most other games of the era, are what carry "Shenmue" through its slowdowns and bottlenecks.

Realism, for all its advantages and disadvantages, is so central to the makeup of "Shenmue" that it is more or less a character on its own. You have the freedom to roam listlessly, lose track of your objectives and take part in mundane, everyday tasks. Somewhere amid the meta repetition you could possibly find your gaming zen.

For the most part, the "Shenmue" remasters will appeal only to fans of the originals with a rose-tinted rear-view mirror. Laborious and stiff, the controls and design stand as much in your way of advancement as any external enemies.

The "Shenmue" games deserve their position as landmarks of innovation in the evolution of gaming. That said, they are best appreciated at a distance rather than up close, and by sweetened memory rather than reality's bitter sting.

More fun remember than they were to play, the "Shenmue" games look better than they did before, but retain their anachronistic charms, awaiting for masochists to tread their paths.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

PHIL ON FILM: "The Happytime Murders"

For my written review, click here.

"Yakuza Kiwami 2" Review

Over the past few years, Sega has demonstrated an uncanny ability to produce sweeping, open-world sagas under the "Yakuza" banner with impressive regularity. Part of the reason for the prolific release schedule is the regular inclusion of remakes.

Like "Yakuza Kiwami," which dropped in 2016 and was a remake of the original PS2 game "Yakuza" (2005), the "Kuwami" sequel is a redux of the PS2's "Yakuza 2" (2006). Rebuilt from the ground up to treat the story from the original as though it were a new game using the "Yakuza 6: The Song of Life" engine, the remake lifts the original well past the trappings of the PS2 original.

Not only are myriad quality-of-life updates in place -- gone are the days of tedious memory card save points -- but countless details of the production have also improved several degrees. From combat, to the menu system, the visuals, sound and story pacing, "Yakuza Kiwami 2" lifts the source material to heights it could never approached on the original hardware.

The Golf Bingo, Virtual-On and Cabaret minigames flesh out the open world as you work your way through the seedy underworld. You shape your character's personality along with his skills and attributes. The side touches round out the character and make you feel as though you're inhabiting a genuine person rather than an archetype.

Adjustments to the main story integrate the beloved Goro Majima character more directly into the mix, making the dagger-wielding thug a playable character. Following Majima through various developments, he fits into the franchise's first two games more naturally.

A story told with depth and passion, the mob opera that "Yakuza Kiwami 2" sings a haunting and resonant song of antiheroes jockeying ruthlessly for power, money and influence. By returning to its roots, the series continues to thrive as it ages.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

"Kero Blaster" Review

Pixel's follow-up to the beloved "Cave Story" may not have set the world on fire when it was released last year, but it manages to charm and disarm by marking out its  own distinctive path. The side-scrolling shooter delivers ample challenge amid its ludicrous thrills. The setting, a world of anthropomorphic animals who whine about work, is head-shakingly relatable.

Starting off with poor weaponry, you die often, get sent to the hospital and re-emerge with revitalized gusto, equipped with more funds to deck yourself out with a more effective arsenal. As you inch your way through the game, you relish the opportunity to size up your mistakes, reload and come back for more.

An odd duck that embraces its quirks with open eyes and arms, "Kero Blaster" delivers as many smiles as it does deaths. And it deals a heck of a lot of deaths.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

"Guacamelee! 2" Review

Five years after "Guacamelee!" dropped, shaking up the indie world with its colorful battles and rollicking humor amid its Mexican culture-tinged backdrop, the sequel comes along.

The surprise factor may be gone, but the flavor is still just as strong. What "Guacamelee! 2" lacks in innovation it makes up for by outpunching and jump-kicking the predecessor. The sequel manages to one-up the original with splashier set-pieces, a more cohesive story, slicker pacing and an evolved control system that fulfills the original vision.

The game's ambition is obvious from the opening minutes, in which you review the previous plot with a mini boss rush that familiarizes you with the controls, playstyle and flash of what's already happened and what is to come.

Once again, you play as a luchador set out to redeem the soul of his lost love, slugging it out with undead and mythological enemies, interacting with quirky townsfolk and scrounging for bonuses, unlockables and upgrades.

It's surprising how fresh "Guacamelee! 2" manages to feel while innovating so little. Somehow, the past half-decade hasn't brought many imitators, as though developers were sheepish to try and replicate the panache of a game with such intimidating and distinctive flair.

Every bit the sequel superfans have been clamoring for, "Guacamelee! 2" is a vibrant, engrossing romp that goes heavy on the hot sauce and bursts with color and imagination. The sequel to one of the treasures of 2013 is one of the highlights of 2018.
Publisher provided review code.

"Flipping Death" Review

If "The Sixth Sense" were adapted into a funky, side-scrolling game with a touch of the intriguing but bungled premise of "Murdered: Soul Suspect," the best-case result would be something close to "Flipping Death."

Death has taken a vacation, letting you toggle between the worlds of the living and dead at will. You solve puzzles by swapping the realms, solving the problems of those in both planes of existence by retrieving insight and taking action on the other.

After your character has died, you get the unique opportunity to investigate the reasons you were dispatched from the land of the living. Along the way, you act as something of a ghost whisperer, allowing tormented spirits to attain the peace they desire.

A fascinating gothic art syle, accompanied with an energetic soundtrack, help bring the game to life. "Flipping Death" is packed with intriguing puzzles to chew on and an involving story that hooks you from the start. The game is a macabre delight that puts the "switch" into the Switch.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Manual Samuel" Review

"Manual Samuel" is so intent on being quirky and surprising that it almost slips into the doldrums of predictability.

The premise is unsurprisingly odd. A trust fund baby who has taken his wealth and position for granted but is knocking on death's door after a car accident, Samuel is given a one-day challenge worthy of Instagram. If he can make it through a full day while controlling every part of his body manually, he'll get another shot at life.

On paper, it might seem fascinating to try to control a character's every function -- down to breathing and blinking -- with button presses, but in execution, the challenge is much more tedious than fascinating. Making Samuel do even the most basic tasks is an arduous chore, which is sort of the point. As a a result, "Manual Samuel" is all or nothing. Either you dig the setup and want to see it through, or you tire of it almost immediately and would rather delete the game than forge on.

Released two years ago on PS4, the game now comes to the Switch, where it has a better chance of catching on with an audience more accepting of its rough patches. If you're intrigued by the setup, you may want to give it a shot. Everyone else can just move along.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Shoeless Joe"

Shoeless JoeShoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the grand scheme of baseball media history, Kinsella's novel boils down to a promising but sometimes frustrating rough draft for a masterwork of a film. Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson's adaptation is a water-into-wine creation of divinely inspired brilliance akin to Ray Kinsella's carving of a time-traveling ghostly baseball field out of Iowa corn stalks.

Robinson pruned away intriguing but extraneous characters, honed B+ monologues into A+ rainmakers, and lopped off the gratuitous down-home metaphors Kinsella crams into every other line as though he were writing his book by Midwestern-fried Mad Lib.

The lone way the book has one up on the movie is its bold inclusion of a then-living J.D. Salinger as a main character, rather than the movie's understandable cop-out at making its recluse author fictional. At least that choice allowed the casting of the legendary James Earl Jones in probably his finest performance of his career.

Kinsella's book also dazzles for the way it drips with obscure baseball knowledge. In pre-internet days, Kinsella made himself into a walking Baseball Reference, and it's doubtful a book was ever penned by a man who loved the game more.

I could have done without the late-book speech by one of the characters excised by the film that comes off as lunatic ranting rather than the baseball scripture-drawn homily that Jones enunciates in the movie. I was also put off by the way Ray buys a gun and uses it in his "kidnapping" of Salinger. For a protagonists already well on the verge of insanity, the move made it tougher to cheer him on as he followed his Joan of Arc-like vision to parts unknown.

I admire the book, but I truly love the movie it became. That's the difference between goodness and greatness. Between W.P. Kinslla and J.D. Salinger. Between Moonlight Graham and Shoeless Joe.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"The Amazing Shinsengumi: Heroes in Love" Review

The Switch has proven to be a go-to destination for visual novels, particularly the few that come along with romantic themes. "The Amazing Shinsengumi: Heroes in Love" falls squarely into the latter category, telling a choice-based saga of love-influenced political power plays in 19th century Japan.

Released two years ago on smartphones and Steam, the game takes a new life on the Switch, which gives the story's visuals and words more space to breathe than on mobile devices.

You play as a woman who juggles potential romances with several political and militaristic power players who tangle, team up and bicker as they seek to keep the realm safe.

Elegant dialogue and richly detailed narratives and character shading help breathe life into the methodical affair. Your character is a cypher you can infuse with your own personality and predilections, shaping the story as you see fit.

While a bit slow and dense for some tastes, those with patience and a fascination for the material will enjoy what "Heroes in Love" has to offer. Its riches are well worth exploring for those intrigued by the premise.
Publisher provided review code.