Thursday, August 30, 2018


For my written review, click here.

Book Report: "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America"

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Larson's book is half a riveting account of the sadism of the first American serial killer -- a figure of inexplicable evil and cold calculation -- and half a dull, monotonous recap of the committee meetings and political infighting that led to the creation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Having scoured libraries for primary sources, Larson's indispensable research and vivid writing recreates a lost time of juxtaposed pride, ambition and horror. He seems to be so deep in the weeds, though, that he loses sight of what makes his topic intriguing. The chapters languishing on the design and construction of the fair are bores that you suffer through only to get to more of the good stuff.

Eventually most of the dullness fades away, and Larson justifies why it was that he felt the need to spend so much time dwelling on the legwork that went into creating the beacon of science and culture that was the World's Fair.

H.H. Holmes, who built a hotel equipped with a hidden kiln and gas chamber that he used to trap and kill women throughout the fair, emerges as an unspeakably evil man, who was all the more terrifying because his murders lacked motivation. He was a doctor and businessman who sought success and stature only to facilitate the end goal of sacrificing the lives of the innocent to no known purpose.

Meanwhile, the fair that sprouted up around him was a bubbling crossroads of ideologies and the human spirit of progress. The first Ferris wheel was erected as a response to the Eiffel Tower. Chicago came into its own as global city. Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley showed off their Wild West road show, Nikola Tesla wowed the world with alternating current demonstrations. World-changing minds such as Walt Disney, L. Frank Baum and Frank Lloyd Wright sprang from the fai like flowers in a garden.

All the while, the similarly ambitions Holmes spun his diabolical web in a blind spot. His story cannot be told without also including the fair as context. Had Larson spent as much time on revision and condensation of his languid portions he could have had a masterpiece rather than something that only flirted with such a status.

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"Freedom Planet" Review

A fast-paced brawler in which a dragon girl leads her oddball friends in a spirited romp through a colorful world. Insects, megalithic androids and bizarre beasts straight out of monster movies stand ready to be dispatched by whatever wacky means necessary.

Originally released four years ago on PC and Wii U, the under-the-radar gem springs to new life on the Switch, where it fits in well with the cadre of indie-style gems that thrive on the system.

The dev team's philosophy seems to have been to prize fun above all else. In a journey that brings to mind the silliest offerings of the TurboGrafx-16 era, "Freedom Planet" excels with slick combat and energetic pacing.

True to the inspiration of its origins, the difficulty level is squarely on the tougher side of the equation. But the challenge is earned because of the way the opponents are stacked, helping you hone the sharp edges you'll need to advance to the next menaces that lie in wait.

A breezy, whimsical chase through blooming fever dreams, "Freedom Planet" sends you freewheeling through increasingly fascinating sights and experiences.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age" Review

"Dragon Quest" is one of the most revered names in RPG gaming, and also one of the most sporadic. The dev team at Square Enix had the type of crushing expectations to live up to that tend to be thrust on its protagonists.

Leave it to the heroes to come through when it counts, delivering a thunderously action-packed and emotional addition to the storied franchise.

The first numbered series release since the 2012 MMO, and the first single-player mainline experience since 2009's DS title, "Dragon Quest 9," the new addition to the series somewhat benefits from the distance from its predecessors, which sit so far back in memory and technology that the onus was on the current team to reinvent what a "Dragon Quest" RPG can be from basically scratch.

While trademarks such as the high fantasy setting, slime enemies and iconic retro sound effects remain in place, "Dragon Quest XI" obliterates what came before in terms of storytelling depth, graphical fidelity and combat flexibility.

Eschewing the turn-based battle RPG trope "Dragon Quest" pioneered back when it was known stateside as "Dragon Warrior," the new setup is a vivacious and tense game of cat and mouse that allows you to score bonus points by striking first, dodge enemy attacks in the field of play, set and adjust your party's tendencies and orchestrate magic and force attacks with healing and item use. The result is a fluid and dynamic skirmish setup that means no two battles will ever play out exactly the same way.

The writing team delivers similarly creative inspiration, spinning a miniseries-worthy tale of a child predestined as a savior since childhood. The burden placed on him plays into the emotional depth and lingering sense of fatalism, shading the bonds he forges with allies, as well as the grudges with adversaries.

Captivating from the opening moments, the saga sends you headlong on an unpredictable, violently twisting quest that takes cues from the likes of "Ni No Kuni" and "Persona."

A robust and beautiful journey, "Dragon Quest XI" is a bold critical strike of an RPG that will please lifelong fans, as well as do its part to usher in a new generation of "Dragon Quest" fanatics who will join the throngs of elders who long for the next entry.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Blade Strangers" Review

A throwback 2D fighter with tight controls, well-balanced characters and flashy visuals, "Blade Strangers" is all about pitting cult favorite heroes against each other in one-on-one slugfests.

Characters largely from Studio Saizensen and Nicalis games including "Cave Story," "Shovel Knight," "Code of Princess" and "The Bind of Isaac" all appear, ready to slug it out in an incongruous but immensely satisfying arena fighter. The game thrives on setting up bizarre "what if" matches that likely only popped into the heads of the most obsessive indie gamers.

Those familiar with the likes of "Street Fighter II" and "BlazBlue" will be comfortable with the four-button control scheme, 2D fighter setup and victory conditions.

Although the game was crafted with traditional tropes, the flashy battles that emerge are anything but common. A thrilling sense of energy courses through the competition, with an appealing array of specials, breakers and finishes splashing the screen with thrilling standoffs, slugfests and comebacks.

Playing like a lost classic from the 1990s that happens to be stacked with some of the more popular under-the-radar gaming characters in recent years, "Blade Strangers" cranks out just the sort of fan service you may not have even realized you had been craving.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

"HackyZack" Review

With shades of "N+" and "Super Meat Boy," "HackyZack" is a single-room puzzle-platformer extravaganza that starts off simply before piling on stiff challenge as you advance.

It takes finely honed critical thinking, quick reflexes and a well-calibrated sense of timing to keep advancing. Many puzzlers disguise the one way to advance with window dressing, but the "HackyZack" dev team opts for a more open approach, providing multiple paths to victory.

As you orchestrate your hero's jumping skills through the increasingly complex levels, you generate a feel for the way you prefer tackling obstacles. Expect to have to re-evaluate your strategies regularly. On-the-fly adjustments help you adapt to the more agonizing challenges, thrusting you onward to take on the next task.

While Goal Mode focuses on the traditional find-the-exit objective, Target Mode has you seek out and destroy diamonds planted in various spots on the map.

No matter which mode you take on, you can appreciate the minimalist graphics, easygoing soundtrack and creative design. While suitable for all ages, "HackyZack" will cause hassles for the most seasoned puzzle gamers.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

"Shenmue" and "Shenmue II" Review

With fans of the watershed 1999 and 2001 Dreamcast gems gearing up for next year's release of a long dream-of sequel, remastered versions of the first two "Shenmue" game
s have been released. A precursor series of interactive narratives that paved the way for the likes of "L.A. Noire" and "Heavy Rain," "The Shenmue" titles opened up the realm of possibilities for sandbox titles.

Standard-def TVs of the era did games like "Shenmue" major favors by blurring some of the gaudy, crude detail of the visuals. Also harmed by the march of technology, crystal-clear audio of the horrendously-dubbed voice acting performances hit with all the more of a thud than they would in tinny audio of yesteryear.

Geared to allow its saga to breathe amid a methodical flow, the games have you explore wide areas of largely nothing as you meander toward the next cutscene. The stories, which are more rich, nuanced and mature than that of most other games of the era, are what carry "Shenmue" through its slowdowns and bottlenecks.

Realism, for all its advantages and disadvantages, is so central to the makeup of "Shenmue" that it is more or less a character on its own. You have the freedom to roam listlessly, lose track of your objectives and take part in mundane, everyday tasks. Somewhere amid the meta repetition you could possibly find your gaming zen.

For the most part, the "Shenmue" remasters will appeal only to fans of the originals with a rose-tinted rear-view mirror. Laborious and stiff, the controls and design stand as much in your way of advancement as any external enemies.

The "Shenmue" games deserve their position as landmarks of innovation in the evolution of gaming. That said, they are best appreciated at a distance rather than up close, and by sweetened memory rather than reality's bitter sting.

More fun remember than they were to play, the "Shenmue" games look better than they did before, but retain their anachronistic charms, awaiting for masochists to tread their paths.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

PHIL ON FILM: "The Happytime Murders"

For my written review, click here.

"Yakuza Kiwami 2" Review

Over the past few years, Sega has demonstrated an uncanny ability to produce sweeping, open-world sagas under the "Yakuza" banner with impressive regularity. Part of the reason for the prolific release schedule is the regular inclusion of remakes.

Like "Yakuza Kiwami," which dropped in 2016 and was a remake of the original PS2 game "Yakuza" (2005), the "Kuwami" sequel is a redux of the PS2's "Yakuza 2" (2006). Rebuilt from the ground up to treat the story from the original as though it were a new game using the "Yakuza 6: The Song of Life" engine, the remake lifts the original well past the trappings of the PS2 original.

Not only are myriad quality-of-life updates in place -- gone are the days of tedious memory card save points -- but countless details of the production have also improved several degrees. From combat, to the menu system, the visuals, sound and story pacing, "Yakuza Kiwami 2" lifts the source material to heights it could never approached on the original hardware.

The Golf Bingo, Virtual-On and Cabaret minigames flesh out the open world as you work your way through the seedy underworld. You shape your character's personality along with his skills and attributes. The side touches round out the character and make you feel as though you're inhabiting a genuine person rather than an archetype.

Adjustments to the main story integrate the beloved Goro Majima character more directly into the mix, making the dagger-wielding thug a playable character. Following Majima through various developments, he fits into the franchise's first two games more naturally.

A story told with depth and passion, the mob opera that "Yakuza Kiwami 2" sings a haunting and resonant song of antiheroes jockeying ruthlessly for power, money and influence. By returning to its roots, the series continues to thrive as it ages.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

"Kero Blaster" Review

Pixel's follow-up to the beloved "Cave Story" may not have set the world on fire when it was released last year, but it manages to charm and disarm by marking out its  own distinctive path. The side-scrolling shooter delivers ample challenge amid its ludicrous thrills. The setting, a world of anthropomorphic animals who whine about work, is head-shakingly relatable.

Starting off with poor weaponry, you die often, get sent to the hospital and re-emerge with revitalized gusto, equipped with more funds to deck yourself out with a more effective arsenal. As you inch your way through the game, you relish the opportunity to size up your mistakes, reload and come back for more.

An odd duck that embraces its quirks with open eyes and arms, "Kero Blaster" delivers as many smiles as it does deaths. And it deals a heck of a lot of deaths.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

"Guacamelee! 2" Review

Five years after "Guacamelee!" dropped, shaking up the indie world with its colorful battles and rollicking humor amid its Mexican culture-tinged backdrop, the sequel comes along.

The surprise factor may be gone, but the flavor is still just as strong. What "Guacamelee! 2" lacks in innovation it makes up for by outpunching and jump-kicking the predecessor. The sequel manages to one-up the original with splashier set-pieces, a more cohesive story, slicker pacing and an evolved control system that fulfills the original vision.

The game's ambition is obvious from the opening minutes, in which you review the previous plot with a mini boss rush that familiarizes you with the controls, playstyle and flash of what's already happened and what is to come.

Once again, you play as a luchador set out to redeem the soul of his lost love, slugging it out with undead and mythological enemies, interacting with quirky townsfolk and scrounging for bonuses, unlockables and upgrades.

It's surprising how fresh "Guacamelee! 2" manages to feel while innovating so little. Somehow, the past half-decade hasn't brought many imitators, as though developers were sheepish to try and replicate the panache of a game with such intimidating and distinctive flair.

Every bit the sequel superfans have been clamoring for, "Guacamelee! 2" is a vibrant, engrossing romp that goes heavy on the hot sauce and bursts with color and imagination. The sequel to one of the treasures of 2013 is one of the highlights of 2018.
Publisher provided review code.

"Flipping Death" Review

If "The Sixth Sense" were adapted into a funky, side-scrolling game with a touch of the intriguing but bungled premise of "Murdered: Soul Suspect," the best-case result would be something close to "Flipping Death."

Death has taken a vacation, letting you toggle between the worlds of the living and dead at will. You solve puzzles by swapping the realms, solving the problems of those in both planes of existence by retrieving insight and taking action on the other.

After your character has died, you get the unique opportunity to investigate the reasons you were dispatched from the land of the living. Along the way, you act as something of a ghost whisperer, allowing tormented spirits to attain the peace they desire.

A fascinating gothic art syle, accompanied with an energetic soundtrack, help bring the game to life. "Flipping Death" is packed with intriguing puzzles to chew on and an involving story that hooks you from the start. The game is a macabre delight that puts the "switch" into the Switch.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Manual Samuel" Review

"Manual Samuel" is so intent on being quirky and surprising that it almost slips into the doldrums of predictability.

The premise is unsurprisingly odd. A trust fund baby who has taken his wealth and position for granted but is knocking on death's door after a car accident, Samuel is given a one-day challenge worthy of Instagram. If he can make it through a full day while controlling every part of his body manually, he'll get another shot at life.

On paper, it might seem fascinating to try to control a character's every function -- down to breathing and blinking -- with button presses, but in execution, the challenge is much more tedious than fascinating. Making Samuel do even the most basic tasks is an arduous chore, which is sort of the point. As a a result, "Manual Samuel" is all or nothing. Either you dig the setup and want to see it through, or you tire of it almost immediately and would rather delete the game than forge on.

Released two years ago on PS4, the game now comes to the Switch, where it has a better chance of catching on with an audience more accepting of its rough patches. If you're intrigued by the setup, you may want to give it a shot. Everyone else can just move along.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Shoeless Joe"

Shoeless JoeShoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the grand scheme of baseball media history, Kinsella's novel boils down to a promising but sometimes frustrating rough draft for a masterwork of a film. Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson's adaptation is a water-into-wine creation of divinely inspired brilliance akin to Ray Kinsella's carving of a time-traveling ghostly baseball field out of Iowa corn stalks.

Robinson pruned away intriguing but extraneous characters, honed B+ monologues into A+ rainmakers, and lopped off the gratuitous down-home metaphors Kinsella crams into every other line as though he were writing his book by Midwestern-fried Mad Lib.

The lone way the book has one up on the movie is its bold inclusion of a then-living J.D. Salinger as a main character, rather than the movie's understandable cop-out at making its recluse author fictional. At least that choice allowed the casting of the legendary James Earl Jones in probably his finest performance of his career.

Kinsella's book also dazzles for the way it drips with obscure baseball knowledge. In pre-internet days, Kinsella made himself into a walking Baseball Reference, and it's doubtful a book was ever penned by a man who loved the game more.

I could have done without the late-book speech by one of the characters excised by the film that comes off as lunatic ranting rather than the baseball scripture-drawn homily that Jones enunciates in the movie. I was also put off by the way Ray buys a gun and uses it in his "kidnapping" of Salinger. For a protagonists already well on the verge of insanity, the move made it tougher to cheer him on as he followed his Joan of Arc-like vision to parts unknown.

I admire the book, but I truly love the movie it became. That's the difference between goodness and greatness. Between W.P. Kinslla and J.D. Salinger. Between Moonlight Graham and Shoeless Joe.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"The Amazing Shinsengumi: Heroes in Love" Review

The Switch has proven to be a go-to destination for visual novels, particularly the few that come along with romantic themes. "The Amazing Shinsengumi: Heroes in Love" falls squarely into the latter category, telling a choice-based saga of love-influenced political power plays in 19th century Japan.

Released two years ago on smartphones and Steam, the game takes a new life on the Switch, which gives the story's visuals and words more space to breathe than on mobile devices.

You play as a woman who juggles potential romances with several political and militaristic power players who tangle, team up and bicker as they seek to keep the realm safe.

Elegant dialogue and richly detailed narratives and character shading help breathe life into the methodical affair. Your character is a cypher you can infuse with your own personality and predilections, shaping the story as you see fit.

While a bit slow and dense for some tastes, those with patience and a fascination for the material will enjoy what "Heroes in Love" has to offer. Its riches are well worth exploring for those intrigued by the premise.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 16, 2018


For my written review, click here.

"Red's Kingdom" Review

"Red's Kingdom" is a push puzzle reminiscent of minigames in the "Professor Layton" series. You push your hero vertically or horizontally, and he doesn't stop until he runs into an object standing in his way.

The challenge is deceptively simple, but making your way through the levels is nevertheless satisfying.

Developer Cobra Mobile has a knack for constructing intricate levels that often baffle you with solutions hidden in plane sight. You work your way through the possibilities, trying out theories unsuccessfully, then doubling back and regrouping, collecting items and treasures along the way.

A slight, rhythmic palate cleanser that makes for a light break away from more arduous fare on the Switch, the game's difficulty ramps up considerably once you make your way through the early, training wheels levels.

The art style sounds similar notes of approachable intricacy as the level design. Polished and approachable, "Red's Kingdom" provides an escalating challenge that works nicely in the quick-hit, play-and-pause portable style that on-the-go gamers crave.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Book Report: "The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made"

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever MadeThe Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sestero and his ghost writer tell the sometimes sad, sometimes inspirational, always weird story of perhaps the worst movie ever made with passion, enthusiasm and a studied eye for detail. Tommy Wiseau emerges as a tragically comic character of immense triumph.

He is at the same time a maniacal stalker, a pathetic loner, a delusional moron and a tribute to the American Dream. Despite a lack of talent and age, he wills his insane vision into being, refusing to let the roadblocks that stop most others before they can even get started.

The book and the movie on which it's based give me a deeper appreciation for the art of novel and screenwriting, as well as the film industry as a whole. Like "La La Land," it challenges you to stoke the flames of your artistic visions, even in the face of almost certain failure. This is a magical story and one I was sad to see end.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

"Unexplored: Unlocked Edition" Review

As the roguelike genre has risen over the last several years, developers have stepped up with their own unique takes on the genre, continuing to top one another.

Less is more when it comes to "Unexplored: Unlocked Edition," which slinks onto the Switch with retro-flavored visuals and sound design.

Like so many roguelikes, no two playthroughs will be the same, with level design, monster placement and treasure drops changing up from one session to the next, making for the sense of a mysterious new world every time you venture into the game.

This game stands out from the pack by nailing the basics, making them seem new again.

Three DLC packs from previous releases come to the Switch version, making it the definitive way to experience the iterative design and wild happenstances that emerge.

While maybe a little too punishing and unforgiving for some tastes, those who relish the difficulties of exploring without handholding and scrapping for every inch of progress willl appreciate what "Unexplored: Unlocked Edition" has to offer.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, August 06, 2018

"Dead Cells" Review

Combining the brutal difficulty of "Dark Souls" games with the 2D action/exploration sensibilities of the Metroidvania genre, "Dead Cells" puts you through a gauntlet of unforgiving platforming challenges, just-out-of-reach upgrades and dastardly enemy placement.

Economical storytelling courses through the game's chilled veins. As with "Castlevania," the monsters you face are a rogues gallery of eclectic horror archetypes. You inch your way through vertically dense levels, making leaps of faith through platforms that give way below, climbing down ladders and searching out hidden pathways to guarded upgrades.

Item juggling is key to survival. You rack up funds to buy items from shops you discover along the way. The best stuff, though, you'll need to put your neck on the line for. It takes your wits and dexterity to work your way through the layers of tribulations that stand between you and the prize you seek.

A whimsically gothic art style accompanied by an entrancing soundtrack adds a modern touch to the retro-styled gameplay. At its core, "Dead Cells" is the type of game that was common in the 1990s but is rarely seen these days. With no hand-holding or kid gloves, the devs hurl you into a colossal challenge, forcing you to use trial, error and experimentation to make your way through.

Death creeps around every corner, ready to deal out harsh lessons you'll use to regroup and incrementally improve. As you learn the game's hard lessons, you find that some things are worth dying for.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

"The Inner World" and "The Inner World -- The Last Wind Monk" Switch Review

Over the last half decade, German developer Studio Fizbin has done its part to keep the adventure/puzzle genre alive. "The Inner World" series, which turned heads in the indie PC game community, seeks a new audience on the Switch.

Making ample use of the controller layout and screen real estate, the exploits of Robert and Emil, the respective protagonists of "The Inner World" and "The Inner World -- The Last Wind Monk" come to life. Intricate menu systems make it easy to juggle items and actions, and those meld with the "Adventure Time"-like animation to conjure an ethereal aura of intrigue and discovery.

Both games, sold separately, are set in the oddball, clockwork-like realm of Asporia, which is locked away from general society and shrouded in a mesh of intermeshed oddballs, with conspiracies and conflicting agendas abounding. Lurking beneath the simplistic facade are dark, mature themes that explore serious psychological depths.

You'll get the most out of the games by taking your time and exploring the hidden corners in which the devs have lodged assorted Easter eggs and non sequiturs. "The Inner World" games thrive on their sense of assured eccentricity, blossoming to vibrant life in their own insular realm of exploration-based brain teasers. If you're a Switch owner looking for something methodical and breezy, you should do yourself a favor to seek out these "Inner Worlds."
Publisher provided review copy.