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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews