Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Report: Washington: A Life

Washington: A LifeWashington: A Life by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chernow's founding fathers biographies are more enlightening than any docuseries or history course could possibly be. Breathing life into historical figures that might otherwise seem stale and distant -- as foreboding and unsympathetic as marble busts -- he shapes a figure of Washington as a man with resentments, foibles and idiosyncracies rather than the infallible icon that's on your dollar bill.

Chernow probes into Washington's insecurities about his lack of college education, his passion for dancing, his questionable business practices, his plague of dental issues (guy only kept one of his original teeth!), his obsession with agricultural science, his deep, near-adulterous flirtations with a couple of female friends and his complicated relationship with slavery. It's on the latter point that Washington hits the hardest, exposing him as a man willing to compromise his abolitionist morals to not only appease Southerners during the Union's unstable early days, but to prop up his bottom line.

Another theme that emerges is Washington's Kryptonian-like invulnerability -- whether due to a combination of chance and confidence or by simple divine intervention -- that kept alive and able during brushes with death during the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.

Chernow's research digests dozens of previous, no doubt less readable Washington biographies into a comprehensive equation that helps you make sense of the icon as a man rather than a Mount Rushmore carving.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Destiny's Princess: A War Story, A Love Story" Switch Review

Despite the growing legions of hardcore, lifelong female gamers in the mix, games geared toward women are infrequent. "Destiny's Princess: A War Story, a Love Story" is the exception to the norm, telling a story that eschews male bravado to appeal to traditionally feminine qualities.

Ported to Switch two years after dropping on PC, the game is something of a visual, fantasy-tinged romance novel. Set in Japan during its 15th century Warring States period, you play a princess in a beleaguered kingdom who summons five mysterious heroes from realms beyond.

The heroes are your only hope to ward of a plague of marauding demons, and it's up to you to manage the oft-conflicting yearnings and impulses of the spirited charges. As you can glean from the title, romantic battlegrounds are intertwined with those of combat.

The writers, as well as publisher D3, deserve credit for laying on the mature content thick and heavy, without regard for how it might negatively impact sales.

The game sets out to tell a decidedly grown-up story, complete with the language, nudity and intensely uncomfortable situations that entails. The story is moving and thoughtful, earning its hard M rating with romantic and thoughtful prudence.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"Paranautical Activity" Review

Those who miss the fast-moving FPS heyday of "Doom," Quake" and "Duke Nukem" may feel "Paranautical Activity" call out to them.

Whether or not that call is worth answering is up for debate.

A hit-and-miss tribute to a bygone era, the speedy, visually retro-styled throwback carries both charms and hindrances of the games to which it pays tribute.

There is fun to be had for those willing to overlook choppy movement, cheap enemy exploits and erratic hit detection. Inventive weapons satisfying methods to dispatch enemies and slick pacing helps you to overlook the problems and keep coming back for more.

Hidden items, blowout boss fights and a springy dubstep soundtrack help had pep to the affair, but the construct tends to wear thin during extended play sessions.

"Paranuatical Activity" may struggle to hold your interest, but if you're willing to revert back to the patience level you had when you were 20 years younger, you'll experience more joy than annoyance. You could do better for your gaming dollar, but you could also do plenty worse.
Publisher provided review code.

"Angels of Death" Review

You are Ray, a woman stricken with amnesia who wakes up in a concrete room with no idea how she got there. Slinking along the corridors, you take a quizzical look at your image in the mirror, then chance upon a room with a computer card lodged inside that you will need to open a door, which appears to be the only way out.

Beyond the door lies a complex web of a story that only draws you in deeper the more layers you manage to peel back.

The question of how to unlock the computer and provide access to the door is the first of many conundrums you'll encounter in "Angels of Death," a story-driven adventure RPG that calls you to navigate menus and juggle items in the vein of "Maniac Mansion." Obtuse challenges have a way of making the linear story seem sprawling and complex. You can breeze right through on intuition or find yourself wandering in the dark until a walkthrough comes to the rescue.

Based on the cult hit manga, the game is broken up into four episodes, which allow the writers to tell the saga in a traditional graphic novel structure. The fact that all four are included in the initial released rather than teased and released sporadically allows you the satisfaction of bingin.

The 16-bit visuals grant the game the sense of a lost classic. You truly get what you put into "Angels of Death" -- a game meant to be obsessed over, analyzed and deconstructed. Probing and dense, it's a game to wrap your psyche around as you plunge into the dark with only your wits and determination to guide you forward.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"Pode" Review

Built from the ground up as a co-op puzzle game meant to get two players -- each using a Joy-Con -- solving problems together.

Traveling through a whimsical yet foreboding 3-D world, you and a friend take control of characters with complementary abilities to solve the tasks at hand. Coordination is key to endure. Timed jumps, cooperative boosts and strategic placement help you make your way through the clockwork-like challenges.

While also playable solo -- a tricky task that involves alternating possession and rhythms for button taps -- the game reaches its greatest potential when played by a duo. The bickering and shared sense of triumph when you work together to overcome adversity yields rewards you just can't touch when playing on your own.

One of 12 Nindies that Nintendo has lined up in a partnership with innovative indie developers this year, "Pode" taps the quirky system in a heretofore underserved application. Now that the system has been out for more than a year, with Nintendo swinging the doors open for those with innovative ideas, "Pode" seems like a sign of not only how far the system has come in its first several months, but how bubbly the upcoming potential seems to be.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

"Pub Encounter" Review

As a young lady seeking to blow off some steam after a rough day at work, you slip into an upscale pub, where you turn the heads of a cadre of middle-aged men on the prowl for a girl like you.

Welcome to "Pub Encounter," a Dogenzaka Lab visual novel that lets you explore romantic possibilities, as well as act as a friend and counselor of sorts. Navigating the minefield ahead of you, your conversations spark jealousy among the men, unlock deep thoughts about lives well wasted, past loves squandered and opportunities seized.

The writing has much to say about the nature of romance and its function in both salving and wounding the human heart. The lonely characters, who ranged from meek to self-absorbed and predatorial, are all nursing severe damage and hoisting up fronts that mask their true yearnings and deficiencies.

While sometimes a bit too personal for comfort -- the writing has no qualms with venturing into overshare territory -- there is grace, subtle humor and quiet beauty amid the maelstrom of posturing and superficial banter. "Pub Encounter" is a rush of flabbergasting emotions in a small, unassuming package.
Publisher provided review code.

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.