Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book Report: The Godfather

The Godfather (Mario Puzo's Mafia)The Godfather by Mario Puzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first two Godfathers are about as perfect as movies can be, and the book on which the movie's based is at least as good. Puzo's storytelling style is as conversational as barbershop chatter.

He tells his sprawling opera of gangland influence, intimidation and execution with deceptive ease, lacing his saga with psychological battles and poignant philosophical observations. In a style George R.R. Martin would come to imitate, he shifts perspectives among the main players, injecting empathy into to the plights of characters who at first appear to be cold, detached villains and turn out to be people who made hard decisions out of self-preservation and advancement, choosing to transform into monstrous versions of themselves in the name of protecting their interests.

At the core is Don Corleone, whose shadow looms over every corner of the kingdom he rules. He is a figure who inspires awe in all he befriends, controls and contends against, as well as the reader and Puzo himself, who based the character on a composite of mid-20th century mob kingpins.

Puzo holds up a mocking mirror to the mobsters' lifestyle of rationalized savagery, but also holds a deep respect for the customs, mannerisms and cultural fabric, and lulls his readers into a similar fascination. His novel and the movie it inspired are both shimmering and glorious triumphs.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

"1979 Revolution: Black Friday" Review

Following the Telltale Games template, the tense. somber adventure game "1979 Revolution: Black Friday" hurls you into chaos into the chaos of the Iranian Revolution.

Working against machinations on all side that can take you down, you need to think quickly, making the right dialogue choices and physical actions to buy yourself some time. A wrong move could find you in a chair being tortured, locked up in prison or snuffed out entirely.

After a 2016 release on mobile platforms and Steam, the game comes to Switch. The bigger screen makes it easier to read the text and follow the QTE prompts. The gameplay holds up well to the likes of "The Walking Dead' and "Batman: A Telltale Adventure," which it imitates.

The stylized visuals pop with vibrant, expressionistic flair, making you feel as though you're playing through an interactive graphic novel. The writing is taut and unpredictable, making for a fast-paced narrative that plays out various ways depending on the quick, often ill-advised choices you find yourself pushed into making.

Intelligent and poignant, "1979 Revolution: Black Friday" knows its subject matter well and makes history come alive in all its ugly, bustling tension. 
Publisher provided review code.

"Code of Princess EX" Review

The latest effort from developer Nicalis, "Code of Princess EX" is yet another rock-solid RPG to grace the Switch. An HD upgrade to the 2012 3DS title, the game is a natural fit on the Switch.

A stirring story set to a sweeping score, the game will give fans dozens of hours of material in which to lose themselves, captivated by the stirring dramatic arcs, intense battles and head-spinning twists that fit together as puzzle pieces to form the entire picture. While not all aspects of the game have aged well in the past six years, its retro feel helps it hold up surprisingly well.

Visceral combat is the order of the day, tasking you to maraud opponents in the button-mashing manner of "Diablo" or "Gauntlet," plugging your way through battles with twitch reflexes and timing rather than turn-based dice rolls.

With more than 50 characters to mix, match send out into the fray, level up and use to strategize, the amount of options to choose from is dizzying. The myriad options allow you to get the most out of the game by tinkering with your tactical options as you try, fail, regroup and come back a bit more knowledgeable and powerful.

While not a title for everyone's tastes, "Code of Princess" manages to satisfy most of the checkmarks that enthusiasts long for. The remake is easily the definitive version, so those who have harbored interest in the game but never taken the leap will find the best time to do so is now.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Report: "V for Vendetta"

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At this point I shouldn't be shocked at Alan Moore's genius, but "V for Vendetta" somehow managed the task. I read it in one sitting and cursed myself for having taken so long to get to it.

The good-not-great 2005 movie probably kept me from getting to it sooner. Silly me, not to realize that Moore's artistic vision is best expressed via words blended with still images, the shifting narrative forms of horizontal presentation and interspersal of non-verbal frames that only the comic book medium can provide. Just as with "Watchmen," there is no way a movie can compare to an Alan Moore comic book.

Shards of stirring -- and also disturbing -- hope streak through his dystopian tale, which makes an insane anarchist of a terrorist as the hero. The Guy Fawkes mask-wearing V is a haunting phantom who somehow grows more ethereal and mysterious as the story goes on. The fact that his identity remains a secret throughout only adds to his mystique.

With style and savvy, Moore manages to get you to -- if not root for -- at least appreciate with fascination what otherwise would be a villain in any other story by pitting him against a totalitarian 1990s British government. Eerily prophetic about the willingness of society to give up privacy to a fear-mongering, hyper-aggressive faction of government and corporate interests, the setting stands as a worst-case scenario warning of what society can come to without vigilance.

Moore's storytelling ability is at the peak of its powers here, having constructed a shimmering example of inspiration meeting technique and drive on equal planes.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

"Ultra Space Battle Brawl" Review

Marrying the fighting game formula with an "Arkanoid" concept, "Ultra Space Battle Brawl" pits two floating combatants against one another, both protecting a base of fortified blocks.

Using a repertoire of basic attacks and specials, they bat a ball back and forth, trying to sneak it past the opponent and wear down the blocks guarding the opponents' base. You win not by knocking out your enemy, but by destroying what he's trying to protect.

The concept is clever in its simplicity, making every battle a frantic fray of ricocheting projectiles, dramatic momentum shifts and brutally decisive finishes.

Graphics that hearken back to the 16-bit days of the 1990s, as well as a chiptune soundrtrack, enhance the nostalgic tone, making the whole package seem like a lost arcade classic.

"Ultra Space Battle Brawl" no doubt would have munched up mountains of quarters had arcade developers dreamed up the concept a quarter century ago. Even if that had happened back in the day, the Switch version would be the optimal way to experience its thrills and spills.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

"Banner Saga 3" Review

The final chapter of the Viking-themed RPG series builds upon the first two games with confidence and relish, advancing the narrative in meaningful ways while staying true to the foundation on which it was built.

From the opening scenes, "Banner Saga 3" proves to be the most cinematic entry in the trilogy, setting up its story with sweeping animations and gripping writing.

While playing the first two games enriches your experience, you can also use the third game as the entry point. A helpful catch-up gets you up to speed before you dive into the fray. Equally helpful to continuing players is a save import that allows you to relay your choices from the first two games to shape the final chapter.

Combat remains a strategic tour de force, with several tactical paths to pursue as you look to outmaneuver your enemies. The scale and precision of the battles are every bit as compelling as the well-crafted story segments.

Taken as a whole, the product reaches the storytelling momentum of a TV miniseries, with rich characters interacting in dense scenarios with sprawling thematic implications. In addition to being the most profound of the trilogy, "Banner Saga 3" is also arguably the most replayable entry. A seminal sendoff to one of indie gaming's greatest triumphs, the game carries its banner proudly.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"Iro Hero" Review

Fans of "Galaga" and "Ikaruga" will be all over "Iro Hero," the latest in a long line of bullet hell shmups that blast away at each other for Switch gamers' attention.

As in "Ikaruga," you're given the power to shift polarities mid-battle, granting yourself an edge on the endless bombardment of formation-attacking baddies.

Your task is not only to ramble your way through the increasingly hellish levels, but to do so with enough style and precision to help you claw your way up the leaderboards.

Although most games of this ilk are light on brainpower, "Iro Hero" doesn't let you check out mentally. Puzzle-style challenges are packed into each level, challenging you to out-think your surroundings rather than rely on simple firepower to get you out of every jam.

"Iro Hero" is a short, arcade-style game meant to be played through multiple times in single sittings, always challenging you to step up your game and match the intensity that the AI and your phantom leaderboard rivals are hurling at you. Be prepared to wear out your JoyCons and scream at your Switch screen in agony and delight.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

"The Banner Saga 2" Switch Review

While most developers would be satisfied with equaling the resonant feel of a game such as "The Banner Saga," Stoic sought out to do what might have seemed all but impossible with the sequel. Somehow, some way, they managed that accomplishment.

Building on the epic sweep of the story and frantic combat action of the original, Stoic made everything bigger, bolder and more inventive in the 2016 follow-up, which rolled out on the Switch shortly after the port of the original game.

Just as Switch players managed to power their way through the final touches of the 10-to-14-hour first game, the bigger, badder follow-up popped up to reignite the embers of battlefield challenges and epic twists once more.

Few games instill you with the burdens and triumphs of being a field commander as this series. You make tough choices that make for excruciating sacrifices that come as the cost of victory. You meet betrayal head-on and seek to stay a step ahead of your adversaries at every turn. You try out wild stratagems, fail spectacularly and regroup to tinker with your tactics and re-up once more.

The summer of 2018 is a "Banner" season for Switch owners, and as spectacular as the sequel is, it only leaves enthusiasts wanting more. Luckily for them, the wait for the trilogy finale won't be long.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"Hungry Shark World" Review

"Hungry Shark Evolution" bared its teeth and tore through the sea of unsuspecting free-to-play mobile games, using the Ubisoft marketing machine to get a fin up on similar shark attack titles to draw the most attention. Now swimming onto the Switch as "Hungry Shark World," the spirit of the original remains.

Making for hours of sea life-stalking fun, the setup has you chase down smaller fish while avoiding larger ones, the reward loop tasks you to strive for incremental upgrades, gradually working your way up the food chain by unlocking larger, faster and more vicious beasts.

Those who wanted to plug in funds to cut down the wait times for unlocking the good stuff could turn the game into a costly pay-to-win affair. Frugal gamers could plug their way through without spending a penny, using their skills and patience to inch their way through the progression path.

What works as a free-to-play lark doesn't necessarily translate to a $10 console/handheld entry. It would have sweetened the deal had developers unlocked -- if not all the sharks -- at least enough of the higher-level creatures to justify the cost. There is little you can do in the Switch version that you can't in the free mobile version, and although the look and controls are better, that hardly justifies the $10 ante.

"Hungry Shark World" makes for a dive into plenty of seafaring fun, but a full-scale remake rather than a simplified port would have given the game a chance of being more than a small fish in a big sea.
Publisher provided review code.

"Vertical Strike Endless Challenge" Review

Planes and ships just can't seem to get along in "Vertical Strike Endless Challenge." It's just too much fun for one to blow the other one into sinking smithereens.

The game plays up both phases of air-to-ship combat, allowing you to choose a swoop-and-destroy jet fighter or a sky-stalking ant-aircraft warship.

With no recognizable endgame in site, the draw is to rack up as many stylish kills as possible. To help you achieve that end, the controls are slick and reactive, the weapons bombastic and speedy and the game of naval battling cat-and-mouse ever compelling.

While the arcade thrills are ample, there is plenty of technical wizardry to master. Post-stall dives, thrust vectoring barrel roles and thrust and pitch control swapping make for aerial acrobatics. In the drink, it's all about spraying the clouds with 20mm deck guns or leveling the hardware with 37mm anti-tank cannons, mitigating your lack of agility with raw firepower.

While somewhat one-dimensional, "Vertical Strike Endless Challenge" is a pick-up-and-play delight for those looking for simplistic combat. Whether by air or sea, the action rolls on in waves.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Frost" Review

Dressed with minimalistic monochrome backgrounds, "Frost" is a card deck management game meant for methodical, cerebral gaming sessions that provide a break from action-oriented fare.

Without a compelling story backing up the organizing, "Frost" would amount to a stolid game of solitaire. But the writers came to play, crafting a saga of a lonely struggle against the elements.

With the frost ever nipping at your extremities, you lead a group of nomads through a trek in an arduous tundra. Wolves and cannibals stalk you as you struggle in an "Oregon Trail"-like voyage of attrition, maximizing minimal resources to stave off hunger and fatigue.

You feel a little something like Jon Snow leading the Wildlings on an ill-advised march north of the wall.

"Frost" may leave you feeling as lonely and resourceless as your characters, but it does manage to fulfill you with a robust challenge and compelling endgame. The icy "Frost" is a chill way to stave off summer heat on the Switch.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Report: "The Shining"

The Shining (The Shining, #1)The Shining by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first three quarters of this book are jaw-dropping. The final quarter is a silly, bizarre rush job. King seemed to focus so much on crafting his characters and setup, conjuring gorgeously poetic writing that tore into the souls of his tortured characters, that he had nothing left in the tank to fashion an endgame.

Taken as a whole, the book is better than the movie in most ways, but falls short of the cinematic adaptation in the categories of narrative cohesion, terrifyingly haunting payoffs and iconic moments. The ball-bouncing twins and "Here's Johnny" Kool-Aid Man moment were all Kubrick.

King is always revered as a storyteller, but rarely praised for his poetic eloquence. The majority of this book is a collection of moving and exasperating short stories that build his characters and their quandaries in an inspired manner. He searches out themes of alcoholism, abuse and pre-middle age ennui that cut to the marrow.

The demons King builds up inside of Jack Torrance are meant to blow their tops as much as the heavy-handed metaphor of the boiler that festers in the bowels of the Overlook Hotel. The transformation from troubled recovering alcoholic and professional failure to sadistic madman, though, could have been more convincing -- or at least less jarring and forced.

The showdown with the possessed hedge animals is head-scratchingly absurd, and the final battle is like something out of a sloppy 1980s video game. When the Overlook takes its inevitable fall, it does so just as King has decimated the glorious story he set up. "The Shining" is a brush with greatness that self-sabotages when it might have soared.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

"Runbow" Switch Review

One of the few indie bright spots on the oft-neglected Wii U was the 2015 sensation "Runbow," a party-friendly platformer that tasked players to time jumps to shifting color palettes that made platforms disappear and reappear.

An upgraded version hit the 3DS, and now the game continues its natural path along the Nintendo pipeline, popping up on the Switch -- as well as the PS4 -- in what could be called its definitive form.

Although its base campaign is solid, multiplayer is where the game truly takes flight. Jockeying for vanishing platforms and anticipating when and where they will rematerialize in order to get the drop on as many as seven other local opponents is unending fun.

With hundreds of levels to romp around in, "Runbow" provides a staggering level of content to romp through. The bright, frenetic backgrounds are a joy to traverse, providing a strong sense of reward for creative solutions you conjure on the fly.

Longtime Nintendo fans may already own the game on one of its previous platforms, but those who have put the dated systems to rest will feel the urge to plunge in once more, grabbing the game in its finest form to date to taste the "Runbow" once again.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

"Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy" Switch Review

For the last decade, Crash Bandicoot had devolved into the Pauly Shore of gaming icons, having lost his relevancy and become more of a historical curiosity than an enduring gaming icon.

That all changed last year with the release of "Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy," which remade the three original PlayStation games from the ground up, using the original assets as guidelines rather than porting them over.

After a year of PlayStation 4 exclusivity, the trilogy has dropped on the Xbox One and the Switch. The latter is perhaps the most inspired landing space for the compilation, because the game seems naturally broken up into bite-sized missions geared to be played on the go.

The games retain the feel and hints of the looks of the originals, but are more user-friendly and evolved than their ancient counterparts, which were burdened with interminable load times and a haphazard save system.

The remade trilogy plays more smoothly and faster than ever before, with the spirit of the originals remaining intact. The jumps, collectibles and combat all combine to make as appealing a package as ever.

While "Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy" may pave the way for the hero's re-emergence on the gaming scene in the form of a true sequel, it also hails as a love letter to the franchise's past, and a more innocent, unassuming time for the platformer genre. Playing the old games in new form feels like looking at a rose-colored rear-view mirror.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, July 02, 2018

"The Crew 2" Review

Whether by land, air or sea, "The Crew 2" is filled with ways for you to seek racing and trick-executing thrills as you seek to amass followers and rise to fame.

The motif has you as a fledgling multidisciplinary racer who takes part on a reality show. With fans gawking at your every move, the setup feels like a benevolent version of the all-consuming social network that enslaves the populace in Ubisoft's "Watch Dogs" series.

With four years to refine and add on to concepts from the original, the dev team at Ivory Tower has taken intensive care to fill in the holes left by the 2014 original, which tended to devolve into progress bottlenecks, with little inducement to return other than a compulsive completionism.

With loads of unlockable courses, boats and aircraft models to unlock, there's always a reason to plunge back into the fray. Everything you do on the track contributes to your ongoing quest to tack onto your fame.

The visuals, sound and presentation get ample upgrades, making it even tougher to go back to the original. If you were a fan of "The Crew," you'll find the sequel superior in just about every way.

If you tried "The Crew" and lost interest, you'll find the newer game much tougher to peel away from and all but impossible to trade in. A vibrant, vital effort that fulfills your racing needs on several fronts, "The Crew 2: is an all-around impressive effort that makes you feel the thrills and speeds it seeks to simulate.
Publisher provided review code.

"No Heroes Here" Review

The Brazilian indie dynamo "No Heroes Here" may sound like a sequel to "No More Heroes," but it's nothing of the sort.

A tower defense hybrid set inside a 2D castle, you scramble to plug the caps, fortify defenses and distribute blockades in order to keep marauding enemies at bay.

Either solo or with as many as three friends in co-op, you venture into the playfield and set out to stave off all comers. With 54 castles distributed among nine kingdoms, there are plenty of adjustments you'll need to make to maintain your defenses.

There's a normal mode to get you acquainted with the game's functions and challenges, as well as a Nightmare mode that throws everything the game's got at you, forcing you to put everything you've used into action in order to survive the onslaught.

With ample balance and an intriguing slate of skills to learn, execute, refine and master, "No Heroes Here" loads you up with heavy, rewarding challenges that prove soccer and coffee aren't Brazil's only imports to reckon with.
Publisher provided review code.