Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"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.