Monday, June 18, 2018

"Ink" Review

"Ink" makes a splash buy letting you romp your character through invisible levels, splattering paint everywhere to clear your path.

Taking cues from "De Blob," "The Unfinished Swan" and "Splatoon," "Ink" sets you loose on an invisible obstacle course, using trial and error to splash paint on your surroundings, allowing you to see what course you need to take after you respawn.

A game that will drive perfectionists and speedrunners crazy, "Ink" forces you to accept continuous failure and incremental improvement. The methodical pacing works to its advantage, allowing you to appreciate the intricacies of the levels as you make your way through them.

Complex puzzles prevail across each new challenge, tasking you to dispatch enemies, use double jumps and wall jumps to wend your way around and below choke points and cull your momentum in time to make it through the goal door to move onto the next stage.

Designed to be played in short bursts, "Ink" justifies its challenge with reward. Making a mess of a blank slate and overcoming stubborn obstacles with newfound savvy and strategy never loses its draw.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, June 11, 2018

"Omega Strike" Review

Part Metroidvania, part Mega Man and part Contra, "Omega Strike" is a side-scrolling, exploration-based action game with loads of charm along with a satisfying challenge-reward loop.

You hot-swap among a squadron of teammates with varied talents, in the vein of the old "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" titles. A strongman can shove heavy objects, an athletic gunman can double-jump, and a quick, shifty figure can scamper from outmatched battles, avoiding conflict altogether.

The writing, which references gaming culture and action flick tropes through the ages, is one of the high points, providing welcome comic relief from the often brutal challenges that await you.

An archaic save system -- you have to check into a portal to record your progress -- both dampens the fun and imbues the combat with a sense of urgency. Robbed of the typical auto-save handholding, you find yourself heading into choke points with a fevered drive to succeed rather than a lackadaisical outlook, because failure could set you back several minutes.

Level design is compact and efficient, with devs cramming 12 bosses and 45 enemy types into the circuitous catacombs.

The lighthearted tone keeps things from getting too tense, with the story segments easing in welcome breaks from the do-or-die moments. "Omega Strike" plays just like your favorite game from when you were 12 that didn't happen to actually exist back then.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, June 08, 2018

"West of Loathing" Review

If Buster Keaton made a stick-figure Western game for the Switch, it would have turned out a lot like "West of Loathing," an old-timey comedy with a look and playstyle that is barely echoed by anything else in gaming.

With a touch of the adventure RPG-stylings of the recent "South Park" games, "West of Loathing" sets your 2D cowboy off on a side-scrolling, branching-path journey that plays a little like a pre-rebellion "Westworld" story paid handsomely for by one of the patrons.

Traipsing through the dusty, rolling-tumbleweed-lined paths, you match wits with gunslingers, ladies of ill repute and real and supernatural creatures of the day and night.

A "Maverick"-style self-awareness fuels your renegade protagonist through his misadventures. Slick dialogue, scores of hidden items to track down and plenty of winking pop culture nods await you.

While not overly challenging and sometimes paced with a lolligagging sense of non-urgency, "West of Loathing" packs enough chuckles, facepalms and delirious non sequiturs to keep you longing for the next tip of the 10-gallon hat. Overall, the game sets out to remind you of the old Olsen Twins aphorism -- how the west was fun.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Ocean's Eight"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

"Onrush" Review

"Onrush" sets out to scratch the itch that serious racers of the "Gran Turismo" and "Forza" ilk can't reach.

Those who look back fondly at the days of "Motorstorm," and before that, the pioneering "Burnout" franchise, will find plenty to love in the arcade combat racer. Style and destruction are more important than sheer speed.

You're tasked to bowl through crowds of fodder competitors, leaving wreckage in your wake, hit improvised ramps for colossal air, and rip through sharp turns with paint-scraping skids that bowl over the competition.

Conjured in a team effort from Codemasters and Deep Silver -- which cobbled together former "Motorstorm" team members -- "Onrush" is a turbo-charged blast of nitro-fueled mayhem. You won't find much use for the brake button.

The gameplay emphasizes forward momentum at all costs, which makes it all the more jarring when you make a mistake and wipe out in a cacophony of obliteration. With appropriate savvy, the dev team keeps the punishments for failure at a minimum, snapping you back on course with quick resets that allow you to motor back into the fray to exact revenge on the field.

With four game modes and 12 courses to vie for your attention, the game slams on the gas in both single-player and multiplayer setups. "Onrush" is just the sort of over-the-top racing bonanza to keep you circling around for pit stops.
Publisher provided review code.

"Quad Fighter K" Review

The Switch has seen a flood of retro-minded titles, and the standby 1980s/1990s bullet hell genre has gotten its share of love. Aksys Games' budget-priced "Quad Fighter K" proves to be one of the heavier hitters in this category, heaping on the nostalgia for such titles as "Galaga," "Defender" and "Life Force."

Boasting four-player co-op, the space shooter allows you to team up with buddies or go it alone against a relentless drubbing from marauding, pattern-formation-attacking foes. You can link up with friendly ships to form Voltron-like squadrons, acquiring power-ups that let you spray shots in all directions.

You'll need that sort of fire coverage to stay in action.

Enemies attack from all sides, making for a brain-melting barrage of pitiless assaults. When you take hits, you have no time to stand by idly. It's all about scavenging the rubble and keeping up your counterassaults.

If you play with teammates, expect plenty of the sort of agitating bickering and friendly badgering that comes with the territory.

With unlocks aplenty encouraging you to delve into the fray, "Quad Fighter K" bowls you over with content. As joyous as it is maddening, it's a game that recalls the quarter-munching arcade games of yore.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

"Earth Atlantis" PS4 Review

The most eye-catching quality of "Earth Atlantis" is its art style, which is meant to resemble a living sketchbook influenced by "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" fever dreams.

Giving you control of a weapon-equipped submarine, the game tasks you to navigate through hidden depths teeming with sharp, destructive obstacles and hostile seal creatures.

Newly released on PS4 after coming out last year on the Switch, the side-scrolling action is an ample fit for the handheld mode, with mission design geared toward on-the-go play.

With deceptively simplistic gameplay that echoes the level design in that it reveals hidden depths and nuances the longer you play,  "Earth Atlantis" proves to be a welcome palate cleanser in between meatier first-party offerings such as "God of War" and "Detroit: Become Human."
Publisher provided review code.

"Sega Genesis Classics" Review

Loaded with more than 50 of the best Sega Genesis games, "Sega Genesis Classics" is a giddy playhouse of nostalgic glee. Crammed with entries from the console's top franchises, including Sonic, Streets of Rage and Phantasy Star, the collection lets you relive the early-1990s glory days of "Blast Processing."

The addition of achievements and online multiplayer, as well as rewind and flash save features makes the games far more palatable than they were in their heyday.

The games also look and play better than they did in their original form, with widescreen format and HD renderings making the 16-bit pixel creations pop in a way they couldn't in the days of fuzzy CRT screens.

While the collection is missing some of the stronger third-party titles of the era -- licensed classics, especially, have no chance in popping up in anthologies like this -- this roundup of Sega-produced landmarks is more than you could hope for in a retro package.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

"PixelJunk Monsters 2" Review

All the rage in the PS3 era, PixelJunk games have fallen out of fashion. The tower defense extravaganza "PixelJunk Monsters 2" looks to inject some momentum into the faded franchise.

Moving from the 2D plane to 3D with aplomb, the dev team from Spike Chunsoft and Q-Games brings back the feel of one of the most beloved tower defense titles.

Some may knock the game for its antiquated gameplay loop, with few nod to complications that have become genre norms over the past decade, but there's something to be said for the clean, sharp routine of the original, replicated well in the sequel.

The bright, expansive play fields shine, making it tough to go back to the original "PixelJunk Monsters." The sequel manages to move the franchise forward without aping the many games the original inspired, all while staying grounded with the original feel and flow.
Publisher provided review code.

"Runner3" Switch Review

Dating back to the DSiWare and Wii Ware days, Bit.Trip games seized the imagination and attention of Nintendo-centric gamers.

One of the most popular and successful offshoots was the "Runner" series, which inspired hordes of clones and which Nintendo itself tried to copy to mediocre effect in its "Super Mario Run" mobile game.

Released both digitally and on cartridge on the Switch, "Runner3" is the coup de grace that shows exactly what an auto-runner game can be.

Designed with branching-path levels, an accommodating checkpoint system and a challenging points system that keeps you going back to try to iron out perfect runs, "Runner3" brings back the best of what the series had to offer while pushing it in new directions.

Wall-jumping, slide-jumping, kicks and floats are all techniques you'll have to master to keep CommanderVideo thriving through the gauntlet. A helpful tutorial system helps you nail the basics, but it's on you to put in the work necessary to master the intricacies of the various ways to apply them to speed up and smooth out your runs.

With a light, happy and funky tone, "Runner3" keeps things lively and buoyant, making it worth running, rather than walking, to pick it up.
Publisher provided review code.

"The Banner Saga" Switch Review

Having long since conquered other realms, "The Banner Saga" is marching onto the Switch, first with a port of the original game, soon to be followed by the sequel, setting the stage for the release of the trilogy's capstone, which is also due out on other platforms.

Originally released on PC and mobile in 2014, the Kickstarter-backed strategy game captured the imagination and satisfied the nostalgic yearnings of legions of players. The tactical RPG sets you at war in a realm influenced by Norse mythology.

Hand-drawn visuals sweep you away into the captivating world, which lets you control two characters whose stories eventually merge. Choices you make affect the way the story plays out, allowing for multiple playthroughs that change your experience from one game to the next.

The combat and writing elevate the game to an elite level, making for a riveting challenge that never slows. The ability to take the game on the go or sink into your couch to enjoy it on your TV makes the Switch version stand out from its predecessors.
Publisher provided review code.

"Songbringer" Switch Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

"Milanoir" Review

Rich with distinctive culture, music and fashion, the 1970s provide a rarely-tapped bounty of satire and full-out appreciation. "Milaanoir" feels the funky flow like no other game in recent memory, diving headfirst into a realm of sideburns, bell bottoms, flared collars and jive slang.

Taking the Quentin Tarantino approach, references are ubiquitous to the point of overwhelming bombardment. Enriched with an endless supply of material, the dev team sets the magnificent tapestry in the mean streets of Milan, where you take part in heists, capers and boondoggles galore.

A smooth, apropos 70s soundtrack sets your voyage to a throbbing beat, and the writing lives up to the hustle and flow with head-shaking twists on genre conventions.

Pixel art visuals conjure a 16-bit, 1990s feel, making "Milanoir" seem like it was a lost classic dug up from the SNES vault and remastered for modern releases. It fits in nicely with the Switch's retro oeuvre, leaving you with the buzz of freewheeling 1970s fun. 
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"Smoke and Sacrifice" Review

"Smoke and Sacrifice" starts about as darkly as any game could, forcing you to present an infant child as a sacrifice to a tree god. A withering sense of "Did... I... really just do that?" sets up the wildly unpredictable, boundaries-bashing story that follows.

The open-world RPG is set in a world dictated by a vicious, unforgiving life cycle, with snarling beasts, predatory plants and dark, foreboding caverns. To survive, disguise, stealth and connivance are the order of the day.

To thrive, you must set traps, lurk in darkness and pounce at opportunities just like the enemies that torment you. Crafting and setting up loadouts for battles takes on a particular urgency usually lacking in RPGs. You make mistakes, double down on fleeting chances and scamper away to survive to see another dark night.

While its downbeat, fevered tone may discourage many gamers from braving the challenges of battling its creatures and ecosystem, "Smoke and Sacrifice" is something like a treasure for those willing to seek out and conquer its bewildering twists.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"Happy Birthdays" Review

"Minecraft" has spawned an entire cottage industry of clones, with few managing to come close to approaching the cultural influence and community size. Even the venerable Lego license couldn't come close to doing so with "Lego Worlds," but big guns continue to fire at the Microsoft-owned behemoth.

The Switch exclusive "Happy Birthdays" is the latest contender to the throne. Bright, colorful and brimming with creative options, the world-building sandbox has enough to offer to turn plenty of heads. Coming from the mind of venerable dev Yasuhiro Wada ("Story of Seasons"), the game challenges you to conjure sweeping lands of mayhem and mystery.

Taking hints from the glorious failed Will Wright experiment "Spore," "Happy Birthdays" lets you evolve ecologies from single-cell organisms to romping dinosaurs and soaring birds of prey. You tweak the paths that your worlds follow by manipulating key branching points. As god games go, "Happy Birthdays" is among the more lighthearted variety.

While the lack of a focused narrative may leave some gamers confounded as to which way to go, those in the mood for freeform world-building and exploration will find all the tools and distratctions they'll need to form a new obsession.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, May 25, 2018

"Ikaruga" Switch Review

"Ikaruga" is one of those standbys that pop up again and again on successive console generations. Until it finally gets ported onto your new console, you have trouble getting rid of your previous-gen machines. Now that "Ikaruga" has blasted its way onto the Switch, PS3s and Xbox 360s are even more outmoded.

Since its 2001 release in arcades, "Ikaruga" has been nearly universally hailed as one of the finest bullet hell shooters ever created. A natural advancement from the humble beginnings of "Galaga" and "Life Force," the integration of a still-mesmerizing 3D world makes you feel as though you are plunging headlong into deep space, obliterating wave after wave of formation-swarming attack ships.

Punishing difficulty level is the order of the day, but lower levels allow non-masochistic gamers to endure the thrills on less-challenging iterations. To get the full experience, though, you need to crank it up to the highest unlocked difficulty and endure the bombardment of painful defeats, controller-smashing obstructions and thrilling triumphs in order to evolve and conquer the formidable challenges.

The gradual breakthroughs that accompany the trials are what make "Ikaruga" fun, but the mesmerizing swirl of interstellar death machines gunning to take you out are what make the game memorable regardless of how successful you are.

Scoop this one up when you can, take your whipping like a good gamer and keep the game on your console as the punishing security blanket that will make it that much tougher to ever get rid of your Switch.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Framed Collection" Switch Review

The two "Framed" games were mobile sensations, and both find a suitable home on the Switch as a compilation. The pairing makes sense because the narratives are so closely tied that they feel more like enmeshed parts of one another rather than prequel and sequel.

The stylistic presentation is a cross between comic strips and film noir. Looking at a grid of panels with interlocking backgrounds and characters following preset paths, you rearrange the pieces to allow the story to continue.

The satisfaction of success after trial and error comes from watching your protagonist narrowly avoid capture as he slinks into stairwells, clocks enemies by opening doors and sneaks past near-capture to slink away unnoticed.

Pure, unmitigated puzzle-solving is the order of the day, with answers always just out of reach, only to reveal themselves to you as obvious from the get-go once you maneuver them into place.

A well-calibrated tour de force of conception, design and execution, "Framed Collection" lives up to its billing and has much to offer to those who were intrigued with the concept but couldn't bring themselves to cough up $5 for a mobile game. Now it feels as though it's found its true home on the bright, beautiful screen of the Switch,
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"Monster Slayers" Review

A roguelike deck-building card RPG, "Monster Slayers" is meant for "Hearthstone" fans looking for a meatier, story-based experience.

Melding traditional JRPG trappings with strategic tenets of tabletop gaming, you guide your unknown hero to renown and heroism as you strive to rescue the realm by becoming a beast-hunting dynamo.

For a budget title, the bevy of features that come with the initial offering -- there is also a stream of DLC to come -- are impressive. The iterative nature of the game allows for vastly different experiences on every playthrough, challenging to piece together your party and vary your techniques to play to your group's strengths each time out.

New decks added to the mix exponentially increase your capabilities and options available, and beating the base game unlocks a legendary mode geared to challenge the most adroit players.

A tinkerer's dream, "Monster Slayer" gives you all sorts of options for statistic buffs, attack and defense boosts and specials for the various archetypes at your disposal. While some may find the structure too rigid, those who delve into its depths will find much to adore and appreciate in this fantastic find of a beast.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, May 21, 2018

"Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Deluxier Edition" Review

Video games have always been audio/visual representations of the sorts of visions that gamers once had to represent only with their imaginations and note-taking. "Knights of Pen and Paper" brings that influence full circle, going full meta by rendering the act of fantasizing and note-taking as the visuals of the game itself.

Originally released on computer and mobile platforms in 2012, the game marches to consoles in evolved form in a "+1 Deluxier Edition" that stays true to its roots. Your party members sit at a table, playing a "Dungeons & Dragons"-like RPG, with dice rolls and you as the dungeon master determining the adventures played out on the top portion of the screen.

Lighthearted, easygoing charm emanates out of every pixel on which the nostalgia-tinged throwback is built. The inherent goofiness of watching actual knights, mages and archers hunkering down for tabletop gaming never loses its incongruous gawk factor.

Also, battles, character interactions and storytelling prods genre conventions in a knowing, winking manner. A geeky game made by geeks for geeks, this revamped "Knights of Pen and Paper" is a new version of an old game that strives for timelessness in all its quirky actions.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Omensight" Review

The action-mystery genre is one of the more underserved and most bristling with untapped potential in all of gamedom. Bubbling with creativity and bold strokes, "Omensight" seeks to make up for that shortfall, even if its ambition is somewhat greater than its reach.

With shades of 'Psychonauts" and "Majora's Mask," the game is steeped in a dark, brooding murder mystery with enough twists and turns as a page-turner.

Using a time-travel mechanice to re-examine characters' action patterns during repeating same-day loops, you scour scenes an timelines for clues in order to conjure the evidence you'll need to advance the story.

A visual dynamo, "Omensight" leaves a stark, consistent impression with its look from the outset, and continues to push down the path on which it sets throughout. Pulling no punches when it comes to traveling dark, sinister paths, the storytelling carries the same boldness.

Some fine-tuning in mechanics and menu navigation could have made the game more accessible and engrossing, but the product as it stands is impressive enough to turn heads. If you're seeking a game that tests your clue-gathering and critical thinking, "Omensight" is more than up to the task.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

"The Fall" Switch Review

All roads in indie gaming seem to lead to the Switch these days, and "The Fall" continues the steady stream of games that made splashes on other platforms in previous years and have been reborn on Nintendo's new console.

Bolstered with top-flight storytelling, an elegant visual style and tight gameplay, "The Fall" has been making true believers since its 2014 release.

You play as ARID, a female sentient artificial intelligence powered by a robosuit. Tasked to protect a human pilot whose comatose body is wearing the sui, you use all resources at your disposal to pursue your directives while juggling aspects of your humanity and self-determination.

Puzzle-solving, combat and navigation skills are the parameters that dictate your success or failure, and the more you dig into the game's intricacies, the quicker the success you are likely to find. Resonant plot twists, a dark, brooding cyberpunk storytelling style and haunting visuals establish the game as a meaty, challenging undertaking that lives up to its mature billing in impressive fashion.

"The Fall" continues its rise with its new platform, fitting in nicely with other dynamic creative expressions of its ilk.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"Guns of Icarus Alliance" Review

Ambitious and sprawling, "Guns of Icarus Alliance" brings its PVP and PVE MMO-lite stylings from the PC to PS4. You squad up and slug it out in a steampunk-influenced world, pulsing with idiosyncratic airships and lumbering mechs, all scrapping for resources, repairs, upgrades and key strongholds on the map.

Cross-platform play allows PS4 gamers to face off with their PC brethren. That flexibility is key, because the enjoyability of the experience entirely depends on being able to find games online in a timely manner.

Although the base is said to be more than 2 million players strong, you may find yourself spending too much time in lobbies as you wait for the critical mass of players to pop up in your game.

You're best off planning out sessions with like-minded friends -- almost in the manner of old LAN sessions in the 90s -- to make sure your games are populated and competitive.

More impressive in design than execution, "Guns of Icarus Alliance" could benefit from some attention to polish and streamlining as the months roll by. Fresh events that could boost the active player base would also help. As things stand now, the game feels like a party you either need to bring friends to or sit out altogether.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "The Life of the Party"

For my written review, click here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

"Light Fall" Review

A ,2D, side-scrolling platformer with touches of Mario mixed in with some dark, moody tonal influences of "Limbo" and "Inside," "Light Fall" makes for a foreboding challenge to genre enthusiasts.

Bishop Games has crafted an airtight platformer that provides a stiff challenge to veterans, forcing you to master its entrancing series of physics rules, obstacles and enemy patterns.

Making elegant use of a spare, monochrome color palate, the dev team crafts a deep and haunting adventure with little to no hand-holding for newbies.

Expect to undergo plenty of trial-and-error, because sparsely-spaced checkpoints do you few favors. To survive and advance, you truly have to master the challenges set before you rather than luck your way through them.

The sense of accomplishment that comes with confronting and conquering a particularly challenging segment sticks to your ribs with resonance that a breezy difficulty couldn't hope to match.

While "Light Fall" may be too dark and challenging for gamers of meager talent and interest levels, it's a worthy pickup for those looking for something tough to chew on, giving such gamers more than enough reason to flip the switch.
Publisher provided review code.

"Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition" Switch Review

Games that can be played from beginning to end in a single sitting are a rarity, and those that fit those parameters and are well executed are all but nonexistent. "Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition" is a stark exception, excelling in its minimalist presentation to hoist writing and emotion to the forefront.

The 2015 Bracket Games visual novel makes its way to the Switch, where like so many other indie sensations it feels welcome and well-tailored to Nintendo's handheld/home console hybrid. The visuals are simple black-and-white silhouette of car driving through cornfield-lined freeways.

You tap through simple dialogue trees, learning that your protagonist is an early-20s washout who has grudgingly returned to her hometown to stay with her bickering parents and troubled brother. You're on edge because a tornado alarm has gone off, on the phone in stressed conversations with the fam. As the phone rotates among the three loved ones, tensions run high and resentments bubble to the surface.

You can open up and take an apologetic, accommodating tone, stiffen and mount an indifferent, bratty stance, or hop back and forth between the two outlooks. You're not only working the dialogue tree, it' also working you. The exchange feels organic, and it's all but impossible not to infuse your own feelings and life circumstances into the exchange.

While "Three Quarters Home" offers enough branching paths to be replayable -- and completionists will no doubt return again and again to unlock the different outcomes -- I can't see it likely to enjoy the game more than you will during the initial playthrough, when you are thrown into the situation blind and lacking any preconceived notions of bending the story to your goals. A raw, often devastating experience, "Three Fourths Home" is a gripping play and a great read.
Publisher provided review code.

"Earthlock" Review

With turn-based JRPGs haven fallen out of fashion, it's refreshing to see indie developers take some swings at reinventing the genre. Snow Castle Games' "Earthlock," which debuted with the subtitle "Festival of Magic" two years ago on other systems, seeks to capture the nostalgic yearning for older "Final Fantasy"-type games via the Switch.

Those looking for something lived-in and familiar will appreciate the game's bones. This is a standard save-the-realm quest, complete with a party you can use to quest for upgradable weapons and abilities as you venture down the linear path.

Speed and efficiency are not virtues that will get you far in "Earthlock." Exploration and experimentation are the order of the day, with an agrarian economy that tasks you to tend gardens to accumulate wealth and resources that will serve you well in battle.

While too slow for some tastes, "Earthlock" offers enough unique spins on well-worn material to appeal to JRPG fanatics and former fans who have let their tastes lapse over the years. The Switch continues to make a welcome home for unorthodox titles -- especially those with old-school flavor -- and that proves true here.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

"AO International Tennis" Review

With "Top Spin" and "Virtua Tennis" having long since foot-faulted, there's a doubles court-sized opening for an indie interloper to come in, land a smash and seize straight-sets control of the tennis si genre.

BigAnt Studios swings and misses with "AO International Tennis," starting with a head-scratching lack of ambition. Fashioning itself as a realistic tennis sim, the licenses round up a scattershot selection of pros, featuring Rafael Nadal and a short list of "who's that?" rather than "who's who."

Likewise, the tournament selection is bizarrely thin, with the Australian Open being the lone Grand Slam event to show up. The lack of licenses, no doubt due to a lack of funding, is an alarming but surmountable setback. The squad behind Konami's equally hampered "PES" franchise routinely shows up its better-pedigreed rival in "FIFA."

But the poor licensing turnout is a harbinger of the other flaws. There is little of Rafa's serve-and-volley specialty to be found, with any attempt at charging the net resulting in an embarrassing loss of a point. The best way to hang in is to go full Sampras, sit on the baseline and wait for the opponent to make a mistake. This unexciting brand of tennis flows into every other aspect of the game, from the menus to the game modes and customization.

A vanilla tennis sim  that disappoints more than inspires, "AO International Tennis" lacks the punch to stand up to the upcoming "Mario Tennis Aces," which isn't even a true competitor. Instead of providing hope for the resurrection of the tennis sim, this lackadaisical game just acts as evidence as to why people stopped caring about video game tennis alogether.
Publisher provided review code.

"Dragon's Crown Pro" Review

When it takes a developer five years to remake a game, it basically seems new. That's the case with "Dragon's Crown," a bubbly 2013 2D hack-and-slasher that's managed to improve with age, as well as minor visual and gameplay upgrades.

The base game was solid, if not memorable enough to endure in the public consciousness for half a decade. You choose a medieval adventurer and bludgeon your way through an army of evildoers. Branching paths open up along the way, upping the replay value by freshening up your journey depending on the hero you choose and the choices you make along the way.

Those who have stuck with the PS3 version -- a truly bizarre choice reserved solely for die-hards -- can step into modern society by joining PS4 players in cross-platform co-op. The rare feature may not expand the player base much, but is such an intriguing novelty that it may spark you to dust off your PS3 just to test out the functionality for kicks.

With characters who appear to have stepped out of stylized high fantasy covers from dusty used bookstore shelves, charm is abundant. The wizard/warrior/sorceress archetypes bring to mind quarter-slurping arcade games such as "Gauntlet" and "Dragon's Lair."

A fitting hole-filler for any PS4 player looking for yet another reason to disconnect their old PS3.
Publisher provided review code.

"Death Road to Canada" Review

"Death Road to Canada" will bring knowing smiles to anyone who has gone on a road trip with know-it-all friends. Cramped quarters, limited resources and tight deadlines have a way of emphasizing constant bickering, one-upmanship and second-guessing.

Such burdens only intensify if you throw a zombie apocalypse into the mix.

A punishing roguelike with delightful 16-bit graphics, "Death Row to Canada" takes on another trademark of road trips -- the long, slow slog. Although the game never bores, it's often excruciating due to the overwhelming burdens it thrusts upon you.

As undead hordes swarm around you, you scavenge for weapons, crafting materials and food. When you don't scrounge up exactly what your buddies need, expect them to gripe. You'll find yourself constantly weighing long-term desires against short-term needs.

Do you venture into a zombie-swarmed catacomb to try to unearth some goods that will help you make it to the next stop, or do you cut and run in hopes of surviving on meager resources? This "Oregon Trail" dynamic may be stress-inducing, but it keeps you on your toes.

The quirks and intricacies of "Death Road to Canada" are what keep you coming back for more despite the brutal punishments it doles out. As entertaining and engaging as the experience can be, you're relieved when it's all over.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, May 07, 2018

"Don't Die, Mr. Robot" Switch Review

Blending the single-screen bullet hell stylings of "Geometry Wars" with the upgradeable options of an RPG lite, "Don't Die, Mr. Robot DX" offers a hectic quest for survival amid mounting odds.

With enemies materializing all around the grid, you're always scampering to endure as many extra seconds of life as you can muster. A superimposed counter tracks your ill-fated progress, nudging you to top your previous best score, snag a medal and etch your legendary status in the memory bank.

The certainty of your demise focuses you on concentrating your efforts to use all your resources -- guns, mobility and strategic maneuvering -- to fight to the last.

While the Switch version offers minimal upgrades and enhancements, the bite-size download is appealing to system owners looking for a light palate cleaners in between heavier undertakings.

Mr. Robot dies hard with a vengeance.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Book Report: "The Arabian Nights"

The Arabian NightsThe Arabian Nights by Anonymous
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I went in expecting lighthearted, whimsical "Aladdin"-style hijinks but what I got was a monotonous, occasionally disturbing collection of sadistic fables. Grimm, Aesop and Homer can't touch The Arabian Nights in terms of darkness or depravity. Rape, slavery, beheadings and castrations are as common as breathing in these stories, which are remarkable mainly for their absurdity.

While serving as an intriguing look into the fabric of Arabian culture, the material is as dense and foreboding as religious scripture. Getting through it is as as masochistic an undertaking as reading through "Moby-Dick," "War and Peace" or "Great Expectations." You read it not out of pleasure or interest, but out of sheer, stubborn will to defeat it and claim it as a trophy on your mental mantle.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Book Reort: "A Higher Loyalty"

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This did not need to be a full book. The only reason anyone has picked it up was to get to the final third, when the former FBI director, burned over losing his job in brutal, "Apprentice"-style fashion, unleashes on Trump. Comey may lack the detached skill of Michael Wolff's Trump roasting in "Fire and Fury," but his savage attack is just as entertaining.

What's odd is that once Comey gets on a roll, he loses all semblance of the professionalism and rationality and descends into a Trump-like free-association tirade. In transforming into an approximation of the object of his own fire and fury, Comey squanders all the goodwill he has accumulated to that point as he's recounted his career, fashioning himself as a cool, virtuous and impartial leader.

There are some intriguing moments in the rest of the book, but you have to trudge through monotonous recollections of Comey's workdays to get to them. He comes up with some intriguing hot takes on the dysfunctional Bush-Cheney dynamic, as well as the inner workings of Obama's self-assured, almost condescending administration.

But the person Comey most likes writing about -- at least until he shifts his focus to Trump at the end -- is Comey. Some valuable nuggets about corporate responsibility and leadership are buried among his copious self-praise disguised as humility, but there are dozens of business books that weren't rush jobs like this that can give you the same lessons with more skill.

The point of the book is to catapult Comey into the status of MSNBC talk show host, or at least the A-list on the public speaking circuit. In that respect, mission accomplished.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

"Shantae: Half-Genie Hero Ultimate Day One Edition" Review

Dating back to the GameBoy Color days, Shantae has always been a standby on Nintendo handhelds. So it's only natural that the belly-dancing half-genie busts her moves on the Switch, which is something like half a handheld.

While also available on the PS4, Xbox One, PC, Vita and.. Wii U?!? the game feels as though it was made for the Switch. Quick missions emanate from a flashy hub world, sending you off on far-flung adventures that test your twitch skills and strategic maneuverings.

A rhythmic platformer that bursts with color, creativity and rapidly-flowing combat, "Half-Genie Hero" recalls the best the series can offer. Using a combination of jumps, strikes and booty shaking, you take on a bouncing, goofy cadre of enemy fodder.

Sent in the realm of Sequin Land, the game tasks you to defend beleaguered Scuttle Town from the bombardment of Risky Boots, who ringleads an army of soldiers, zombies and pirates.

With 2.5-D platforming thrills pulsing around every corner, there's plenty of delightful fun to be had in the rambunctious romp that is "Half-Genie Hero."
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"A Robot Named Fight" Review

Few Metroidvania throwbacks wear their influences as proudly on their sleeves as "A Robot Named Fight," an exemplary indie effort from Matt Bitner Games. Genre standbyes such as a cyber-suited hero who jumps in a spinning ball, sealed, blastable portals that link rooms and grotesque, leaping alien menaces.

The twist is that instead of copious backtracking built on rote memorization, the labyrinthine hallways change every time out due to procedural generation. Every outing leas to paths with entirely new twists and turns, forcing you to think on your feet and adapt to the gauntlet set before you.

As charming as it is daunting and intimidating, "A Robot Named Fight" foists considerable challenge at you at every turn, packing staggering boss battles, delightful hidden power-ups and frantic chases. To survive, you need a savvy blend of twitch reflexes and steady forethought.

Since Nintendo and Konami have proven slow at cranking out sequels to the search-and-explore action genre mash-up the publishers popularized in the 1990s, it's fallen to the hands of obsessive developers and appreciative players to carry the torch forward. In "A Robot Named Fight," the hands of Matt Bitner prove to be capable indeed.
Publisher provided review code.

"South Park: The Fractured But Whole" Switch Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally released on the Xbox One and PS4 in October, the game comes to Switch woith a full head of steam. Although it's disappointing that previously-released DLC doesn't come as part of the initial purchase, other improvements and Switch-based enhancements help make up for that bit of money-grubbing. Given Nintendo's spotty history with third-party DLC, it's pleasing to see the full slate of add-ons will come to the Switch port.

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

Contains material from original review. Publisher provided review code.

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Megadimension Neptunia VIIR" Review

The wacky, mildly NSFW Neptunia goddesses are always up for a round of gamer culture-mocking misadventures. "Megadimension Neptunia VIIR" is a redux of the 2015 PS4 title.

The base game remains largely the same. You guide a crew of bubbly heroines as they seek to protect the realm of Gamindustri. Marching through a series of turn-based battles, you maneuver your party members around opponents to execute cooperative takedowns using special attacks.

Upgrades to the remake include transformations, reminiscent of "Persona" and "Final Fantasy" summons, to reign visually dazzling terror on the opposition.

Those who own the PlayStation VR will find added value, because the game supports the peripheral during one-on-one interactions with characters. Those without the PSVR can still play through those scenes.

As expected, these added scenes ratchet up the trademark creepiness factor, placing you in subtly sexualized encounters with the goddesses. It's all in the name of goofy, self-mocking fun.

Those who have yet to experience "Hyperdimension Neptunia VII" will find a treasure trove of absurd delights in this, the definitive version of the game, but anyone who has the original game and lacks PSVR can sit this one out.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Report: "Alexander Hamilton"

Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Combining exhaustive research with cunning insight and a screenwriter's sense of dramatic rhythm, Ron Chernow crafted a brilliant biography that, along with the musical it inspired, solidified the legacy and stature of the most divisive of founding fathers.

Chernow's book is so excellent that any future biographers will have to replicate all the beats he hits and add some material that Chernow was unable to uncover. Not only do we get a complete portrait of Hamilton, his insecurities, flaws, genius and triumphs, but thoroughly nuanced portraits of the figures who surrounded him -- George Washington, John Adams, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, Angelica Church and Eliza Hamilton.

Hamilton seemed to be preternaturally aware that his time on earth would be short, and that he would light up with a fire fated to burn out before its time. He worked at a feverish pace as a writer, enterprising politician and general. He was also a slave to his ambitions and biases, unwise enough to leaven the relentless execution of his visions with moderation. As a result, he tortured himself and especially those who loved him, whom he left penniless in addition to heartbroken by the deception of his covert showdown with Burr.

A complicated man with unrelenting cravings, Hamilton embodied the revolutionary spirit of the infant nation he helped found. We have him to thank for the national bank and accompanying debt, the checks and balances of the federal government, the seeds of the abolitionist movement, the strength of the First Amendment and the Coast Guard. He put the needs of his country ahead of those of himself and his family and political prospects, and lived a life of frenzied raconteurism.

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"I Feel Pretty" Review

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Manticore -- Galaxy on Fire" Review

The Switch has specialized in indie games with retro-style visuals that take advantage of the system's nostalgic heritage, but those games tend to underutilize the system's capabilities as a graphics powerhouse. "Manticore -- Galaxy on Fire" bucks that trend, with stunning visuals and sound that show off the system's capability for flashy shock and awe.

The game works well on the Switch thanks to its short, compact mission structures, which allow you to take down objectives on your morning commute without having to flip the game into standby mode and restart mid-mission.

As an ace starfighter pilot, you engage in interstellar dogfights while dodging asteroids and shrapnel. You can pick up bounties and advance the cause of your command, making you feel like a Han Solo of sorts.

Unlockable weapon and ship upgrades keep you coming back for more, seeking to tweak your loadout and rig to perfection. With plenty to seek, study, explore and blast into smithereens, "Manticore -- Galaxy on Fire" fans the flames of your space battle passions.
Publisher provided review code.

"BAFL: Brakes Are For Losers" Review

A kinetic arcade racer that -- as you can judge from the title -- emphasizes gas pedal slamming, violent steering and agile track navigation to stay in the winner's circle.

With as many as eight players jockeying on the same course to a pulse-pounding soundtrack, you can speed through the campaign, time attack or perfect race speedrun modes.

The action is always fast, frenetic and unhinged, and considerably more vigorous if you're playing with friends.

Any Switch racer will compare poorly to "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" when it comes to personality and course variation, so it's up to developers to make their game stand out by distinguishing the nuts and bolts. "BAFL" excels on that front, establishing a distinctive feel and flow, establishing a reward loop that keeps you speeding back for more.

Settings are wild and varied. You will find yourself racing on the moon one moment, a Calypso-inspired island setting or a factory-influenced gearbox. A worthy, grittier palate cleanser for those who have had their fill of Mario and friends, "BAFL" is ever at the ready to slam on the gas and leave the competition in the rear-view mirror.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Wild Guns Reloaded" Review

Picking up where its predecessor left off more than two decades ago, "Wild Guns Reloaded" reignites the light gun shooting gallery thrills of the 1990s in a tight, updated package that recaptures the retro thrills of the original while adding ease-of-use and quality-of-life updates.

With decidedly old-school visuals, the Old West setting pulses with hiding spots for rascally varmints to pop out. You strive to join the ranks of the quick rather than the dead by keeping your spray of bullets flowing to dispatch them.

Several flavors spice up the array of available modes. Boss rush lets you skip through all the filler to take on the touchest challenges in brutal succession. Beginner mode lets you cruise through the story with minimal resistance and time attack throws the emphasis on precision and timing once you've got the trial-and-error routine down pat.

Packing in ample replayability to what otherwise might be a thin package, "Wild Guns Reloaded" loads up with more than enough momentum to keep the six-shooter thrills raging. This throwback to a throwback proves there is plenty of ammo left in the chamber.
Publisher provided review code.

"Football Manager Touch" Switch Review

A standby for the soccer franchise management sim-obsessed mouse-and-keyboard set, the "Football Manager" franchise has hardly made a dent on the console market. But that is set to change, thanks to a mobile-friendly revamp that makes the game a smoother fit on the Switch's touch screen, which packs more real estate than any cell phone.

A tinkerer's delight, "Football Manager Touch" brings a full-figured version of the menu-driven sim to Nintendo's home console/handheld hybrid. The Switch's responsive setup lets you toggle quickly among the various menus screaming for your attention, letting you do your scouting, adjust your roster, massage your contracts and comb the free agent market and email inboxes to stay abreast of the ever-shifting sea changes that are constantly shifting your priorities.

Despite the "Touch" moniker, the game is most easily navigated with a combination of button taps, which let you hop from one highlighted field to another. The interface resembles an interconnected, labyrinthine spreadsheet from hell -- or heaven, if you're obsessed with that kind of thing -- bulging with valuable information. It's up to you to filter the bombardment of information to focus on whatever changes are most pertinent at the time.

While action-minded gamers will always find "Football Manager" dry, tedious and stale, aficionados who eat these games up will be thrilled that the admittedly geeky obsession is able to come on the go with them.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Rogue Aces" Review

A cartoonish, arcadey take on World War II, "Rogue Aces" is a side-scrolling dogfighting game that sends you through harried skies to strike down enemy forces and protect Allied strongholds.

Something close to a strategy-tinged bullet hell shooter, the game challenges you to evade opposing fighters with barrel roles, strafe parachuting troopers, take out fighters and bombers and swoop to the rescue of comrades on the ground.

Breezy and light, the gameplay eases a lighthearted feel into the grim realities of combat. There's also a subtle educational aspect at play, with genuine locations and battles trickling into the frenzied combat.

Once you've mastered the lower difficulty levels, you can take on increasingly stiff challenges, with the effort to climb your way up the leaderboards. Alternate modes, including Bomber Defense and Roge Ace, spice things up if you need a break from the base campaign.

A solid fit for the burgeoning Switch indie scene, "Rogue Aces" is a polished, pick-up-and-play pastime that doesn't wear away its welcome. It's thrilling to take to the unfriendly skies either at home or on the go.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"Ys Origin" Review

A 2006 prequel to the to the storied "Ys" series of action JRPGs, the remake of "Ys Origins" brings the series to an Xbox platform for the first time after releasing on PS4 and PC in 2017.

A mix of throwback visuals and elegantly rendered cinematic cut scenes, the game pays homage to the franchise's past while subtly pushing the gameplay forward in concrete, "The Legend of Zelda"-style manner.

You guide the superpowered heroine through her realm-rescuing exploits, collecting a series of upgrades and enhancements via unlockable treasure chests. Combat is fluid and engaging, with beefed-up attacks granting you a sense of exhilarating power and control. The battles are juxtaposed with wordy and convoluted story sequences that tend to slow things down a bit too much.

New to the game is a speedrun mode and blood splatter control mechanic, helping to freshen things u while staying true to the original vision.

If you are a "Ys" fan who has yet to tackle the prequel -- or uninitiated with the appeal of the franchise -- you owe it to yourself to give "Ys Origin" a try.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, April 06, 2018

"The Book of Mormon" Musical Review

Throughout their storied careers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have never been shy about mocking the Mormon faith. Dating back to "Orgazmo" and the early days of "South Park," the duo declared their sneering contempt for the religion's scripture and cultural quirks. Always hidden just behind the mockery was a fascination that approached a gruding admiration.

"The Book of Mormon" musical could have been yet another cheap shot at Mormonism, but its jabs are tantamount to light, good-natured -- if forcefully sacrilegious -- teasing. The story, on the other hand, is an earnest tribute to the faith's growing power and influence, as well as the transformational power of its missionaries, who fearlessly venture into third-world countries and chip away at deficincies in infrastructure, education and resources.

The musical no doubt draws more curiosity about the book of which it shares the title as it does drive people away. The church plays along with the musical's capabilities as a prosthelytizing tool, taking out lighthearted ads in programs that beckon theatergoers to kindly check out the source material.

Whether crowds view the faith as an antiquated, straitlaced curiosity or a path to the kingdom of God, they'll be uniformly entertained by the wacky song and dance numbers, with lyrics bubbling with clever and foulmouthed turns of phrase. The musical is consistently entertaining and more than occasionally crack-up funny, with every touch channeled into crafting a shimmering spectacle of awkward satire.

Accompanied by the musical talent of Robert Lopez, who would go on to "Frozen" fame after creating this 2011 Tony-sweeping phenomenon, the material never misses an opportunity to use its sharp barbs as bludgeons.

The heedless flames not only torch Mormonism, but spread to engulf the people of Uganda as well. Serving as the setting for the majority of the story, the Ugandan people are dismissed as ignorant, gullible, godless and AIDS-plagued. With a piggish cultural insensitivity that borders on racism, more than a few laughs are guilty and discomforting.

Savvy stagecraft redeems the writing's missteps, but the overall feeling that Stone and Parker stretched a "South Park" episode or two's worth of material into a 2.5-hour stage production, leavened with unnecessary filler to stretch out the run time. As successful and radiant as the production is, there is creeping suspicion that the musical may pack the least amount of laughs per minute in the Stone-Parker CV.

Regardless of any shortcomings, the musical is a touchstone not to be missed.

Purchase tickets here.

"Blockers" Review

For my written review, click here.

Monday, April 02, 2018

"The Charming Empire" Switch Review

Billed as a dating sim for women, "The Charming Empire" is an eclectic, full-voice, text-heavy adventure game that plays like a walking sim without the walking aspect. The entire experience is based on dialogue, melded with painterly visuals that help bring the story into focus. You choose your responses, which can press on you heavily as you delve deeper into the text.

The D3 Publisher visual novel, which started off as a smartphone app before making its way to Steam and now Switch, flowers to fuller life on Ninteno's console/handheld hybrid. The big, bright, gorgeous screen allows the visuals to blossom, helping to draw you in to the saga.

Playing as a princess stuck under the thumb of her ambitious prince of a brother, you're forced into the dating pool, wedged into a charm school with the aim to fall into an arranged marriage that coud benefit your personal yearnings, your brother's fiefdom or the kingdom as a whole -- as well as possibly bring ruin to one or all three. The outcome depends on a combination of your choices and the fickle leanings of fate.

"The Charming Empire" is a decidedly niche entry, but tapping through it feels like experiencing the future of the console. Quiet, thoughtful experiences like this tend to draw in non-gamers, making the Switch relevant as an entertainment device beyond the typical scope of gaming.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

"Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom" Review

Five years after acclaimed animation mavens Studio Ghibli and developer Level-5 collaborate for the gorgeous, enchanting PS3 JRPG "Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch," the developer is back with a former Ghibli animator for a sequel. "Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom" proves to be a worthy follow-up in every way to the original.

Set in the anthropomorphic mouse-ruled kingdom of Ding Dong Dell, you play as a young king who sets out to strike down usurpers and seize control of his throne.

The story unfolds in a breathtaking manner, with hand-drawn animation that replicates the look and tone of Ghibli classics such as "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro." Although somewhat hamstrung by awkward transitions from full-voice cut scenes to animations accompanied by texts and voiced grunts or single-word expressions.

Although the storytelling scenes can be a bit awkward, the combat has evolved past the stiff action-RPG hybrid of the original. In the manner of "Final Fantasy XV," combat is fluid and action-oriented, with no notes of the traditional turn-based battles typical of JRPGs.

Playing out in a linear fashion with heartfelt story beats paving the way throughout, "Revenant Kingdom" etches its way into your heart while keeping the juices flowing with invigorating, strategically-tinged combat throughout. The wait for the next "Ni No Kuni" game was longer than fans would have hoped for, but the payoff proves to be worth the anticipation.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 30, 2018

"Lode Runner Legacy" Review

One of Nintendo's all-but-forgotten classics comes home in the form of "Lode Runner Legacy" for the Switch, bringing with it a haul of buried gold as it scampers across crumbling platforms and jets up ladders to glory.

The update to the 1983 NES classic retains the original design elements while subtly shading the visuals into 2.5-D.

The "Lode Runner" franchise was every bit as influential as the likes of its contemporaries -- "Pac-Man," "Donkey Kong." "Defender" and "Q*bert," and has spawned so many followers that its influence has muddle its own legacy. The multitude of imitators has caused "Lode Runner" to be lost in the shuffle.

"Legacy" could change that by returning the spotlight to the bold design choices and invigorating gameplay of the original. The clean, direct objectives and obstacles make each level an exercise in efficiency, with each level being scored on a three-star speed system in the manner of "Angry Birds" or "Cut the Rope."

In addition to the standard Adventure Mode, you can also hone your skills in the enemy-free Puzzle Mode. In all, there are more than 300 levels to chew on.

If that's not enough for you, there's the level editor, Craft Mode, which lets players put their own design visions into actions, creating characters, levels and items, all shareable online.

A lovingly crafted expansion to one of gamedom's seminal building blocks, "Lode Runner Legacy" is a refreshed retro treasure that lovers of classic games should grab and run.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Ready Player One" Review

For my written review, click here.

"Atlelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Paintings" Review

Each chapter of the anime-influenced "Mysterious" series graces players with dozens of hours of gameplay, steeped in a world of high fantasy intertwined with intense, personal themes juxtaposed with a fanciful backdrop.

Unfolding from the perspective of two magically talented twins, the narrative draws you inside an enchanted painting that transports you to a realm burgeoning with materials to pick up and blend in the family alchemy operation.

The overarching goal is to run the most impressive atelier operation in the realm. A mix of open-world exploration, collection-based fetch quests and recipe experimentation and optimization, the game tasks you to stretch your analytical and creative capabilities to continue advancing.

With dialogue that's as rich as the mystical brews you concoct, "Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Paintings" is a fine acquired taste for those willing to slip under its spell.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

"MLB The Show 18" Review

The dev team behind "MLB The Show 18" faces much the same quandary as the "Madden" squad. Being the only game in town has both its perks and drawbacks. With no competition to push the product, the only major comparison is the previous year's product.

Which makes it all the more impressive how many leaps the "MLB The Show" franchise continues to take each year.

Like its cover athlete, Aaron Judge, the game looms large and in charge, able to display the patience and laser-precision accuracy to wait for its pitch and crush it over the fence.

While each of the improvements are generally incremental, they combine as a whole to account for a goliath, Judge-like, bat-flipping trot around the base paths. The franchise mode is more detailed and intricate, the visuals are subtly more rich and detailed and the Road to the Show mode is graced with more options and subtleties.

My favorite upgrade involves the ability to toggle into retro mode -- which gives you a Super NES-style perspective and control scheme -- before any game against the AI. From Spring Training through the playoffs, you can opt for the complexities and precision of the current controls or revert back to grip-it-and-rip-it 16-bit-esque style mode.

Another welcome addition is the optional addition of past superstars into franchise mode, signable as free agents you can sign or face off against. From Babe Ruth and Pee Wee Reese to Don Sutton and Troy Percival, the addition of the famed players enriches the game's sense of history.

Likewise, the in-game commentary is peppered with applicable banter that touches on both real-life and in-game developments, making the between-pitches patter seem genuine and organic.

Taken as a package, "MLB The Show 18" is yet another impressive at-bat for the batter with the big stick. As much of a rite of spring passage as the smell of freshly cut grass and the giddiness of hearing it's time for pitchers and catchers to report, the game is a resonant treat for baseball die-hards and casual fans alike.
Publisher provided review code.

"Sea of Thieves" Review

Judging from my time with "Sea of Thieves," the pirate's life is not for me.

The drab, slow-moving pirate sim continues the slump from Microsoft's in-house dev studio Rare -- whose one success in the past decade was the retro throwback "Rare Replay" -- and plays like a misguided slog that should have been killed off early in the concept phase.

That "Sea of Thieves" is something of a shipwreck is all the more disappointing given the fact that Microsoft has drastically scaled back its first-party releases. The fact that the game disappoints means Xbox One owners continue to be marooned, while PS4 players have the likes of "God of War" to tide them over.

Clearly geared to serve as a multiplayer, meet-up-and-quest hub for seafaring, the servers have hit rough waters to begin with. Incessant lag and infrastructure failures have stranded players at sea, making it tough to join games. While some of the initial problems have been ironed out, the tattered fabric of the game is still far from patched up. When I started the game I had to close out and reboot it multiple times just to vault past a glitch in the loading screen.

Those who brave the high seas alone will find some rough currents stopping their progress, with little to sea and do and far too much time between interesting intervals. The game feels like a crude framework of an open-world saga that developers didn't get around to filling out with compelling interactions.

While there is some amusement to be had by taking to the high seas, anticipating the iterative battles, discoveries and trades to be had, the promise ends up empty. "Sea of Thieves" is lost amid the blue, with no rescue in sight.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"Slayaway Camp: Butcher's Cut" Switch Review

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

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

The game is an apt fit for the Switch, especially in handheld mode, which plays well into the quick-hit nature of the level design. The blocky, retro-style graphics -- if not the gratuitous gore -- also meld well with Nintendo's heritage.

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 19, 2018

"Assassin's Creed Origins: Curse of the Pharaohs" DLC Review

Ubisoft has continued to build out "Assassin's Creed Origins" with memorable swatches of story expansion DLC, following the solid yet unspectacular "The Hidden Ones" with the more adventurous, risk-taking "Curse of the Pharaohs."

Focusing on Egyptian afterlife myths, the storyline has you go to Thebes, where you confront the first of several monarchs who have risen from the dead. Jumping headlong into the supernatural rather than skirting around the concepts as window dressing.

The result is a headlong dive into increasingly bizarre and exhilarating side story that highlights the best of what the game has to offer.

While the mission structure sticks to the established recon, targeting and assassination suspects, but colors the action with spectacular flights of fancy.

While the base game was memorable for robust visuals, intricate map design and challenging objectives, the latest add-on ramps up those qualities to new heights. A worthy pickup for those who have either burned through the previous "Assassin's Creed Origins" content or anyone looking for a changeup before taking down the myriad sidequests. This "Curse" ends up as far more of a blessing.
Publisher provided review code.

"Assassin's Creed Rogue Remastered" Review

Back in 2014, Ubisoft snuck out "Assassin's Creed Rogue" on previous-gen consoles to appease fans who hadn't yet taken the leap to the Xbox One and PS4 generation, which got the far more ballyooed "Assassin's Creed Unity."

What might have been a perfunctory curiosity instead generated moderately more buzz than its new-gen blowout. But those who took the leap into the new frontier never got a shot at what ended up being the last "Assassin's Creed" gasp of the PS3 and Xbox 360 contingent. That has finally changed, now that "Rogue" has gotten the current-gen remaster it has always richly deserved.

Having aged surprisingly little in the 3.5 years since its release, "Rogue" chronicles an agent of the Brotherhood who becomes disillusioned, siding with the Templars, who are usually portrayed as the villains in the saga. In a narrative that might have paved the way for the Empire-centric point of view of "Star Wars Battlefront II," you weave through the blurry middle ground in the conflict between the factions, exploring rifts and sinister forces within the ballyhooed Brotherhood while evoking the strength and order of the Templars.

The core development team behind the original release is back, and the continuity shows in the smooth, polished product on which they collaborated. Taking place in the mid-18th century, the narrative guides you through a tumultuous flashpoint in the larger saga, giving you insight into historical machinations that affected the third and fourth numbered entries in the franchise.

Mixing ground stealth and sea battles, "Rogue" conjures the happy medium between the two entries confronted with "III" while overdone a bit in "IV."

A gorgeous and steadfast triumph in the "Assassin's Creed" lineage, "Rogue" continues to earn the praise it has long harvested. More than the cult classic it has been recognized as, it's high time for the game to step into the spotlight.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Attack on Titan 2" Review

We're living in a post-movie-to-game world, but TV shows are not immune to the age-old practice of licensed adaptations. With the "Attack on Titan" series, the developers at Koei Tecmo America are burdened with the thankless task of conjuring a playable game version of the popular anime while also doling out the expected stream of fan service.

The team handled the job with aplomb in the 2016 game, and tackles the task with similar vigor and success this time out. "Attack on Titan 2" nails the look of the series while capturing the sense of movement and flow that those who loved the first game would expect.

Gameplay additions in the sequel are few but impactful. The story draws from season two of the anime, adding new protagonists, villains and settings. There's also the ability to create a customized Scout, which use unique evade-style attacks, ranged sneak strikes and hook drives while using the monocular tool to help take down the enemies who stand in your way.

While some fans may find the gaming series to be milquetoast, superfans will find plenty to sink their teeth into. This is a game for card-carrying "Attack on Titan" obsessives, and outsiders need not apply.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: The Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes I am slow to take on books that served as source material for movies I like because I think I will be too familiar with the story to appreciate the material. Yann Martel's novel is yet another piece of evidence that proves that line of thinking is wrong. The movie encapsulates just a shred of Pi's seafaring journey, leaving out the tons of context that's necessary to squeeze a story within the time constraints of a film.

Martel's book is a haunting meditation on the search for God and the way humans fit into the animal world, as well as the way they project humanlike qualities onto animals they hunt, care for and capture. Martel's material is infinitely deep and dense, while also thoroughly accessible. His shift among voices is effortless, and always conversational to the point of stream of consciousness melded with journal entries.

Martel captures the listless horror of being stranded at sea, both literally and figuratively, and confronting both external and internal fears and yearnings. This is a beautiful and incomparable book.
Sanjeev Bhaskar's narrative performance in the Audible version is as resplendent as the writing itself, shifting between the thicker accent of an Indian immigrant when speaking as Pi, and the low-key, Indian-influenced patter of the studied academic voice relaying the tale in the narrative device. His voice conjures the magic that the writing calls out for.
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"Yakuza 6: The Song of Life" Review

What used to be a sporadic series has taken on some major momentum as of late, with Sega cranking out remakes, rereleases and sequels of "Yakuza" games at a bewildering wait. Last year's excellent "Yakuza 0" and "Yakuza Kuwami" throwbacks were really just build-ups to the coupe de gras payoff, "Yakuza 6: The Song of Life."

While players who have been around since the PlayStation 2 days will doubtlessly get more out of the affair, the developers took great pains to allow "Yakuza 6" to be a jumping-in point. The game begins with a lengthy flashback that catches you up to speed on all the main characters' backstories.

As is always the case with "Yakuza" games, the streets bustle with distracting side activities. You can grab a bite to eat, try your hand at karaoke or track down collectibles.

There's also a clan-building minigame that complements the main storyline. After mob boss Kiryu is released from prison, he comes to the aid of his ward Haruka, who has slipped into a coma following an accident. He moves to a small town to investigate what led up to the accident, as well as battle for control of Haruto.

With an operatic,winding narrative that more than lives up to what's come before, "The Song of Life" is the deepest, most meditative "Yakuza" journey to date. What would serve as an apt finale for the beautiful crime saga may be nothing of the sort. Maybe "Yakuza" isn't ending at all, but just getting started.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

"The Men of Yoshiwara: Ohgiya" Review

A bold and intense visual novel with plenty to say about gender norms and sexism, "The Men of Yoshiwara: Ohgiya" objectifies male sex workers while making female characters their leering, depraved exploiters.

Over one long night, you navigate the underbelly of the courtesan world by speaking with several of the escorts, making choices that play them off of one another while advancing your own interests, which are somewhat depraved.

The characters and visuals are drawn with distinctive flair, carving out niches as compelling figures to follow throughout the twist-filled journey. Romance, which seems to be on the backburner, surges to the forefront, with the elegantly told story threads intertwining in surprising ways.

The game makes for a solid fit on the Switch due to its ability to pause into sleep mode at any time. The effect is a bookmark-like pacekeeper that allows you to come back to renew the narrative.

Best enjoyed in isolation, with distractions minimized, "The Men of Yoshiwara: Ohgiva" is a surreal and thought-provoking journey of the kind too rarely found in gamedom.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

"I, Zombie" Review

Thankfully unrelated to the CW comedy about the crime-solving zombie detective, "I, Zombie" is an overhead-view strategy game that tasks you to control hordes of the undead who take on groups of humans.

A welcome twist to the zombie game formula makes you appreciate just how much thought and care goes into what everyone presumed are braindead, blind assaults on the living.

In control of one lead zombie, you work your way around structures to do some recon, then bark out commands to your troops to follow you or attack. The short, bite-sized levels go by quickly, challenging you to take them down with trial, error and adaptation.

The 16-bit style graphics play well into the retro feel of the enterprise, which is a superb fit on the Switch's interface. A fun, challenging game to take on the go, "I, Zombie" challenges your twitch skills while munching away at your brain. 
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Book Report: "An Acceptable Time"

An Acceptable Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #5)An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Madeleine L'Engle's 1980s time travel books that extended her time trilogy into a quintent are a proof that demanding more of something great can lead to diminishing returns. George R.R. Martin fans take heed.

L'Engle goes back to the well, blending particle physics with biblical characters as a setting for a coming-of-age teen tale. Like "Many Waters," "An Acceptable Time" gets off to an extremely slow start, finding its rhythm in the middle chapters before wrapping everything up in a conveniently forced manner and sending everyone on their way.

A weird, off-putting overtone justifies the human sacrifice rituals of the Druid culture from 3,000 years ago. The moral equivalency is jarring, and while adding a sense of urgency, seems more like a red herring because it's obvious that she would never go that dark with her main characters.

I'm glad I experienced the latter two books of the unfortunately finished series, but in my mind the original trilogy stands alone.

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"Red Sparrow" Review

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

"Toki Tori 2+" Review

A colorful, charming, upbeat puzzle-platformer that makes for an excellent fit on the Switch, "Toki Tori 2+" lets you guide its bird-like creature over, around and under varied obstacles, with the final destination being your heart.

Adorable without pushing too forcibly into cutesy territory, the family-friendly adventure tasks your reflexes as well as your ability to learn from trick design with a healthy dose of trial and error. Expect to die often, even in the early levels, which use a stern hand to teach you the tricks you'll need to survive.

Innovative level design, in-game achievements and collectibles up the replay value. Not that you need much of an excuse to keep coming back to a game that's such a joy to play. Even at its most brutal, "Toki Tori 2+" is heedless joy to play.

If you're interested, it would be a good idea to pick up the gamer sooner rather than later. It's on sale for $9.99 until March 9, after which the price shoots up by $5.
Publisher provided review code.