Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Report: "The Right Stuff"

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Exploiting remarkable access and trust from his subjects with his otherworldly insight and story-spinning voice, Tom Wolfe jimmies his way inside the heads of the first seven astronauts and their elite test pilot forerunners -- particularly Chuck Yeager -- to tell an incomparably detailed and insightful story of their heady run as the soul of the American fighting and exploratory spirit in middle 20th century.

Wolfe subtly mocks journalists of the time for accepting the military-approved, Time/Life-facilitated whitewashed public image of the astronauts foisted onto the public. Despite his snarky perspective, Wolfe also buys into the spirit of the propaganda and its ability to lift and focus the public's yearnings, channeling them toward the greater, we're-all-in-this-together, Cold War-flavored ethos of the space race.

The most righteous stuff in the book is in the first two thirds. Toward the end, when the figurative booster stages have departed and descended into splashdown, Wolfe is left with the crumbs of the inspiring and raucous narrative to patch together the disappointing end of the affair. But there is more than enough here to make this an essential piece of period Americana.

In the Audible original production, Dennis Quaid -- one of the stars of the 1983 movie adaptation -- admirably inhabits the soul of Tom Wolfe while telling the story in a smooth, conversational flow. Unfortunately, age has added an occasional slur to his delivery, but Quaid manages to overcome the distraction with an uncanny ability to nail the various accents, speech patterns and points of emphasis the spirit of Wolfe's material cries out for. It's hard to imagine any other narrator doing a better job.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Past Cure" Review


A neo noir mystery yarn, "Past Cure" follows a former soldier rattled from nefarious experimentation who struggles to maintain control of his mind and nerves. Using a combination of stealth, telekinetic and time-manipulating powers, you search out levels to stay a step of the dark internal and external forces that plague you.

Bringing your brother along for help, you seek to expose the torturous conspiracy that's ensnared you, seeking to isolate and eliminate your influence -- sweeping you away conveniently before you can cause problems.

As you advance through the story, you pick up new powers that enhance the speed and precision with which you can power through the obstacles that stand in your way. The trade-off is that as you apply the enhancements, you lose even more of your sanity -- jeopardizing your ability to gauge the reality of the horrors that confront you.

A dark and foreboding thriller, "Past Cure" is a disturbing and frenetically involving saga. A welcome surprise in the 2018 gaming year, it's this year's answer to "Hellgate: Senua's Sacrifice."
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Rally Racers" Review


Any racing title daring to make its way onto the Switch has foreboding competition revving its engine in the neighboring lane in the form of "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe."

"Rally Racers" may not be able to match the first-party behemoth in the realm of character or track selection -- nor full-featured online play -- but does manage to contend with the master in the key area of gameplay. That's because "Rally Racers" seeks not only to ape "Mario Kart," but looks to other games for heavy influences.

Taking a note from the likes of "Burnout," you're rewarded for the more collisions you can manage. Once you're airborne, you pull back the right stick to pull off tricks in the manner of a skateboarding game or "Joe Danger."

Tricked-out racing with constant mega-jumps and item-flooded sprint tracks. The controls can be a little floaty, but you get used to the arcade-influenced feel. Rubber-banding AI frustratingly means that no matter how well you master the racing, you'll always find a rival or three on your six.

While no one's idea of a "Mario Kart" replacement, "Rally Racers" excels as a palate cleanser/sidekick for one of history's greatest racers.
Publisher provided review code.

"Escape Trick: 35 Fateful Enigmas" Review


With its big, lavish touch screen, the Switch is an ideal destination for point-and-click adventure games. That makes it an apt fit for an "Escape Trick" compilation.

The closest a video game can come to synthesize an escape room, you're forced to use your critical thinking skills to analyze, investigate and move the story forward with the aid of your detective ey and knowhow.

With two combined games -- 16 episodes from "The Escape from the Sealed Room" and the 19-episode follow-up "The Escape from the Sealed Room 2," there are plenty of puzzles to keep you obsessing over.

The graphics won't win any awards, but the spartan presentation -- reminiscent of the 1990s heyday of the genre -- belies the complex, involving narrative that powers the story along.

A content-rich pickup for those looking for a low-cost diversion on their Switch, "Escape Trick" is a robust, satisfying investment for those looking to dabble in the life of a virtual detective.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Billiard" Review


As bare-bones and slim-featured as its oddly single-tense title, "Billiard" is as basic a pool game aas you're ever likely to see on a modern console.

With no online features, you are left to throw down against frustrating AI opposition. The real foe, though, is the convoluted shot system.

Rather than take advantage of the natural feel of pulling back an analogue stick to replicate a real pool shot, you tap a button to size up your power range before letting 'er rip. You can pinpoint where you're shooting at with pre-shot adjustments that allow you to shift views, target specific parts of the ball with pinpoint precision and get a read on your carom with a dotted-line predictor.

The Switch makes sense as a destination for a robust pool game. but devs can do better than the flimsy standard established by "Billiard." Chalk this one up as an unfortunate side-pocket scratch off the break.
Publisher provided review code.

"Peter Rabbit" Review


A cleverly written and finely-tuned family film, "Peter Rabbit" could have fared well enough by taking the easy, cutesy-with-just-enough snark route.

It goes well beyond that, executing a next-level script with precision to become a consistently hilarious crowd-pleaser that subverts as well as it panders.

Even the film's lone brush with controversy -- its throwaway sideplot involving the antagonist's blackberry allergy -- stands as a success. Peter addresses touch food allergy victim's rights advocates head-on, setting up the payoff sight gag to come.

Buttressed by a sweeter-than-it-needs-to-be supporting performance by Rose Byrne as the unwitting point of contention between Peter and his farmer enemy, "Peter Rabbit" is a joyous accomplishment that succeeds with ample helpings of heart, panache and humor.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"TorqueL" Switch Review


A clever shape-shifting, twisting and extending puzzler, the 2D side-scroller "Torquel" makes the jump from consoles and mobile to the Switch with aplomb.

You guide a rotating box empowered with telescoping extensions that stretch out and stop or propel your progress. You navigate below, around and in between hazards to flip your box into a destination square and move on to the next level, scored on your time and skill.

The Switch version is tricked out with HD rumble, giving you a tactile response to your mishaps, as well as get a sense of your rotation via the location of the vibrations on the hanheld.

Ingenious in its simplicity, "TorqueL" can quickly become a fevered, though consistently frustrating, addiction.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"Kingdom Come: Deliverance" Review


It's rare to see a swords-and-armor RPG that uses genuine locations, characters and medieval technology. "Kingdom Come: Deliverance" is refreshing in that regard, plopping you into 1403 Bohemia as the son of a blacksmith who becomes embroiled in deadly political intrigue.

Forced into the service of Lord Radzig Kobyla, you start with nothing and are forced to scrap by for every advantage you can manage. Fetch quests are the norm, since a the beginning you have little to offer most power players other than your willingness to do whatever it takes to survive.

You build up your capabilities and resources gradually, finding yourself thrust into deeper conflict with ever-rising states. The story plays like a sort of real-life "Game of Thrones," with backstabbing, conniving and clashing egos striving to one-up each other.

A staggeringly detailed and deep interface allows you to play you want. You can be a stealth-favoring thief, a smooth-talking power broker or a brutish tank who lets your sword do your negotiating. Taking more than a few cues from the likes of "Skyrim" and "Breath of the Wild," the game gives you more in nuance and lore depending on how much you're willing to put into it.

The main flaw is that the overall experience can be a little obtuse. Unless you are willing to dedicate yourself to exploring the outer reaches of what's possible, "Deliverance" can be an obstructive and stifling experience rather than the wide-open realm ripe for exploration and experimentation it strives to be. Not for the weak-willed or dilettante, "Deliverance" is a robust, rich experience for those looking to sink their teeth into something rich, meaningful and sometimes depressingly realistic.
Publisher provided review code.

"Crossing Souls" Review


"Crossing Souls" is the closest thing to a "Stranger Things" video game you're likely to see any time soon. Set in 1986, the game follows a group of friends who happen upon a stone that allows them to travel between dimensions.

Juggling their personal issues among a nostalgia-soaked backdrop, you guide the pals in a typical coming-of-age and save-the-world story that unfolds over the summer. If you can feel the magic in that premise, "Crossing Souls" is the game for you.

A delightful throwback in the manner of "Oxenfree," "Crossing Souls" adds in enough gameplay innovation to keep things from feeling like an actual game from the 80s or 90s. The thought and care that went into the fabric of the game is obvious in every frame, making for a joyous, sometimes terrifying and often confounding journey. Crucially, the design is solid enough to keep the intrigue flowing, so you always long to see what will happen next.

Yet another stunning indie console exclusive for the PS4, "Crossing Souls" is one of the games that makes you grateful to own the console.
Publisher provided review code.

"Dynasty Warriors 9" Review


Amazingly, this is only the ninth numbered "Dynasty Warriors" game. It only seems as though there have been 30.

The latest entry continues the gradual evolution in visuals and presentation, working to add more of a methodical, reasoned pace in between massive-scale slaughterfests. Of course, those slaughterfests still remain in effect, because without them there would be little reason for these games to exist.

Developer Omega Force is liberal with the carnage, pushing the hardware to fulfill visions of mass destruction that couldn't quite be fulfilled in previous generations. You juggle three combat systems -- Trigger, Flow and Finish attacks -- applying each to situations that merit varied approaches.

Tracking the Yellow Turban Rebellion through ten chapters, the game is bursting with unlocks and upgrades. Granted, the gameplay loop is as thing as ever. Once you've hit your button-mashing fill during a session, continuing to play feels like drudgery. At least when "Dynasty Warriors 9" is tedious, it manages to be beautiful, visceral tedium.
Publisher provided review code.

"The Fall Part 2: Unbound" Review


An exploration-based, Metroidvania-based adventure with point-and-click elements, "The Fall Part 2: Unbound" makes ample use of the Switch's strengths to suck you into its dystopian world.

You play as A.R.I.D., a rogue android who can hack into hosts, controlling them to her own ends. Upgraded programming since the first outing allows her new abilities and powers that add twists to the gameplay.

Moody visuals and atmospheric music help drive home the tone. Much of the experience is backtrack-heavy and based on trial and error, but the experience lends to the feel of of the obsessive quest of the character more than it does stifle your momentum with frustration.

"Unbound" has the most to offer to hardcore fans of the original, but the uninitiated will still find plenty to enjoy and appreciate. Truly a game that establishes its own distinct feel and genre, the game has a way of lingerng with you in between sessions that go longer and leave more of an impact than you might anticipate.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Report: Many Waters


After a clunky start, L'Engle edges closer to recapturing the magic of what had been known as her time trilogy. Zapping her protagonists into pre-flood Noah era presented some logistical challenges -- including a language barrier -- that she chose to gloss over for literary expedience rather than address. Once things get rolling, the book manages to establish some convincing and interesting characters while exploring biblical and quantum physics questions. By the time it ends, you wish the story would have stuck around more rather than finishing so abruptly. Overall, the book is a labored, moderately well-executed fable that gives me hope the fifth book in the series can live up to the first three in the series.

Monday, February 05, 2018

"Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology" Review


Even though developers are falling over to push out games for the Switch, Nintendo's other handheld is still getting some heavy hitters. "Radiant Historia: Perfect Chonology" is the latest example.

A remake of the memorable 2010 DS saga, the new version not only reimagines every significant aspect of the design and presentation -- including new voiceovers and animations -- but adds significant new characters and storylines. Fans of the original seem to be the target audience, with so many new facets to appreciate in a second go-round.

The hero of the old school "Final Fantasy"-like JRPG is Stocke, an agent who gets ahold of a relic that allows him to hop between two branching realities, frantically altering fate in order to keep the world from plunging into oblivion.

One of the most notable new additions is Nemesia, a mysterious character who unlocks a third timeline, further clouding and adding to the mainline narrative while tacking on some intriguing additional options.

Easily the definitive version of the game, "Perfect Chronology" plays like the full realization of the developers' original vision. Ironically playing out as a second, better version of the original. Those who own the first game will probably be drawn to it after playing this version, skipping back and forth to check out the myriad alterations.

Unlike in the game's story, there's no way you can lose whether you stick with the original or jump to the new version. Those who take the latter path will be well rewarded.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

"Black Hole" Review


Members of the Dufgames dev squad are clearly fans of "Asteroids" and "Geometry Wars." Their take on the twin-stick shooter adds progression and upgrades, expanding the age-old single-screen bullet hell formula to add nuance, strategy and long-term planning.

What starts off as a sleepy, slow-rolling blast-and-collect routine quickly ramps up to a frenzied, laser-spraying whirlwind of desperate survival. Key early choices in upgrade trees pay off or backfire down the line. It's important to calibrate your choices to your play style.

Do you prefer to be a predator, snatching up power-ups as you hunt down enemies and obstructions standing in your path, or veer toward a more conservative route, slinking in the shadows as you plot out the ideal time to strike and advance.

Originally released for the long-forgotten Ouya and Razor Forge TV platforms, "Black Hole" finally may see the light of day now that it's fallen out of the vortex and onto gamedom's hottest platform.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, February 02, 2018

"Railway Empire" Review


"Railway Empire" has the feel of an early 1990s PC sim that existed only to show that it could replicate an activity in the most simplistic manner.

It may not sound like it, but that's a compliment... sort of. A true, no-frills throwback with nothing more under the hood than what you'd imagine by looking at the cover. As expected, "Railway Empire" is all about, well, building railroads.

An easy-to-manipulate interface, taught by a largely unnecessary but at least uncombersome tutorial, lets you plop a station where you like, build some tracks and lay out a selection of train cars, all while sticking within set budget and mission parameters.

Whether or not a feature-poor package like this justifies its $60 price tag depends on how many hours you see yourself tinkering with your pretend train set. I'm guessing those who manage to table their excitement for a few months will be rewarded with a hefty discount and be able to board the train for the $30 or $40 it probably always should have been priced.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: The Origin

Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Brown is now 3 for 5 on his Robert Langdon scavenger hunt series, with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demon's as the other successes and Inferno and The Lost Symbol as lifeless failures.

Brown gets back to the root of what made his earlier books so appealing, avoiding ludicrous action scenes for the most part and interspersing fun facts throughout the silly adventure. While Great Big Secret Thing his characters are risking their lives and killing each other is as dumb as ever, the journey is entertaining and fulfilling.

Sticking to his well-established formula, his book makes a thought-provoking and somewhat frightening case for the eventual singularity between humanity and artificial intelligence. Part anti-organized religion screed and pro-faith think piece -- as all his books are -- The Origin gives you plenty to contemplate and mull over as you wait for the Tom Hanks movie to come along.

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"Winchester" Review


For my written review, click here.

"Dissidia Final Fantasy NT" Review


A remake of a cult hit 2015 Vita title, "Dissidia Final Fantasy NT" is an online-heavy, squad-based brawler that packs in a metric ton of fan service into a tight, user-friendly package.

With characters available from every numbered "Final Fantasy" entry, as well as several spinoffs, your dreams of having Onion Knight clash with Shantotto can finally come true. The remake even adds characters from XIV, XV Tactics and Type0.

There's a story mode available with a requisite obtuse plot that works as something of an extended tutorial, but the true draw here is online play. You form up teams of three and take on the opposition in lavishly designed levels, taking control of one character and leaving AI to handle the other two.

You survive by playing to your party's strengths, juggling your HP, stamina and summon meters. Mixing and matching complementary strengths and weaknesses through success and failures, adapting strategies and styles that fit your inclinations, makes up most of the challenge and fun available in the near-infinitely replayable clashes.

The PS4 upgrade paves the way for stunning visuals that match the look and flow of XV on the PS4. There's something special about seeing characters you haven't thought much about since the 8 or 16-bit days blossom to HD glory.

The online arenas are full of cutthroat devastation, so be ready to fail consistently. Luckily the game is well-designed enough to keep you willing to come back for more.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

MyCharge AdventureUltra Portable Charger Review


Here's a way to get everyone at the airport jealous of you.

An ideal pickup for gamers on the go, the MyCharge AdventureUltra portable charger frees you from electrical outlets during travel. A heavy-duty alternative to pocket chargers, the device packs two USB-A ports and a USB-C port into a diminutive brick that is less than six inches wide by four inches thick and weighs in at less than a pound.

Capable of juicing up any device that charges at less than 45 watts -- this encompasses any smartphone or the power-hungry Switch -- the AdventureUltra can provide several full recharges. The sense of being free from plugging into the wall for stretches of days at a time makes it an ideal tag-along for camping voyages or road trips.

Sturdy design and an accessible form factor make it easy to pack. You can also just charge it up and leave it in your trunk, to be called upon when needed on a spontaneous need to hit the road arises. 

Manufacturer provided review sample.

"SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt" Switch Review


After the other two games in Image and Form International's "SteamWorld" series made such successful debuts on the Switch, it was only natural that the original 2013 game would make a similar impact.

To the surprise of no one and the adulation of many, "SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt has made it to Nintendo's new console, and has lost nothing in translation. Purists will appreciate the fact that the game is a straight, no-frills port.

Anyone anticipating upgraded graphics or controls or new content might feel burned, but you can identify with the developer's confidence in the original product, not feeling the need to mess with a good thing.

It's not likely that Switch owners who have played the other two games have yet to experience the original, so this release seems more like fan service for completionists -- perhaps those who ditched their 3DSs and are longing for the comforting thought of having the exploration-based thrills of "A Fistful of Dirt" available whenever they like. To that sector of superfans in particular, this game is quite the find to unearth.

Publisher provided review code.