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.
View all my reviews

"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.

View all my reviews

"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.

"Guilt Battle Arena" Switch Review

A multiplayer-only fighter with simplistic graphics and controls combined with speedy, intuitive gameplay, "Guilt Battle Arena" is a refreshing change of pace from standard, hypercomplex arena battle throwdowns.

With adorable visuals juxtaposed with delightfully brutal combat, "Guilt Battle Arena" delivers an unexpected level of intensity.

Two, three or four players can slug it out in various backdrops, leading to hot potato party game thrills. Indie developer Invincible Cat proves adept at synthesizing old school style charm with new innovations.

The sense of pacing is enthralling, requiring twitch reflexes and psychological mastery to dominate your opponents. The balance is also superb, with advantages of various character setups and loadouts making for varied setups that cater toward your playstyle and inclinations.

Until a "Smash Bros." adaptation comes along, this is about the best Switch owners can do in this genre.
Publisher provided review code.

"Subsurface Circular" Review

The visual novel "Subsurface Circular" could have been released in any era, but maybe is the best fit for 2018 because there are so few games that are anything like it.

With perhaps the closest analogue being the "Hatoful Boyfriend" pigeon-schoolyard-romance series, the game tells a "Mass Effect"-twinged sci-fi story, with your dialogue choices opening up new branching gameplay paths while closing down others.

Credit goes to the Bithell Games writing team for conjuring a narrative that forces you to examine the text uttered by you and the rest of the characters rather than numbly tap your way through. The reward truly is the journey here, with background visuals serving as the only reminders that you're playing a game rather than reading a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure e-book.

Working as a detective investigating the disappearance of robotic workers, you feel out witnesses, nudging them to cough up key information without losing your cool or causing them to lose theirs. Every choice you make can snowball and drastically change not only the outcome of your dialogue tree, but the story as a whole. You'll find yourself having to make tough decisions with inadequate information onhand, dealing with pangs of regret the rest of the saga for opportunities missed.

A compelling crime yarn through and through, "Subsurface Circular" is a welcome literary change of pass in an action-heavy medium.

Publisher provided review code.