Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" Review

A fast-paced, over-the-top two-on-two basketball game in the tradition of "NBA Jam" meets the card-collecting, fantasy team-building aspects of EA's "Ultimate Team" side modes in "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2."

More freewheeling and accessible than its basketball sim counterpart, the Saber Interactive creation goes far beyond the side mode it could have been to stand alone as a formidable basketball title in its own right.

A colossal swath of current and former players are unlockable, ranging from superstars to obscure benchwarmers. Harvesting points that can be cashed in for card packs to unlock new players is an unending thrill, providing you ample reason to return to the playground. It also helps that the basketball is damn fun.

Online multiplayer is where "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" really comes into its own, taking on the feel of street ball pickup games, with all four players being controlled by people. This "we've got next" style, king-of-the-court feel is addictive and enthralling, and gives you incentive to not only hone your own skills, but refine your communication and cooperation with your teammate in order to maximize your court time, success and accompanying rewards.

Although the rewards loop is well designed and executed, there is a creeping money-grubbing, pay-to-win mentality that creeps in, feeling more in place in a free-to-play mobile title than a full-figured console release.

That said, "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" is perfectly enjoyable without spending a penny of extra money. Everything you want can be won with honest, sneaker-squeaking grinding, and the fact that it takes a while to build up to the blind-drop hoopster of your dreams somehow adds to the charm of the hustle rather than detracting from it. Like a real-life game of playground ball, sometimes the going is rough, but the thrills that await you make the struggles well worth it.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Castlevania Requiem" Review

While some argue the early NES and SNES "Castlevania" games are the series' high point, while some swear by the last-gen "Lords of Shadow" action adaptation, just about all "Castlevania" fans hold soft spots for the two iconic 1990s  entries, which managed to bridge the classic exploration aspects with the intricate flourishes of the gothic art style that had evolved with the franchise.

"Castlevania Requiem" rounds up the inseparable duo: "Rondo of Blood" and "Symphony of the Night." Both games maintain their original aspect ratio, graphical fidelity and audio tracks. Bucking the trend of re-imaginings and remasters of 1990s games that have flooded the PS4/Xbox One generation, Konami went the route of directly porting the games.

Purists will adore the choices, although some quality-of-life improvements, such as the rewind feature of "Rare Replay" or a more friendly checkpoint system, might have made the games as accessible as they are enderaing.

Both games ooze haunting charm. While neither is a stranger to rereleases -- the games have popped  up on both handheld and home console previous-gen PlayStation consoles -- there is something deeply satisfying about witnessing the old standbyes claw their way out of the grave once again to raise their particular reward loop of explore, unlock, backtrack and advance that defined the term "Metroidvania."

It's a testament to the craftsmanship of these now ancient artifacts of gamedom that they hold up so well. Both games are just as able as ever to sear their brand of horror into your psyche, challenging you to redouble your efforts to take on the tremendous challenge and see your way through the morbid, elegiac sagas. The games are still cruel and unforgiving, just as they should be.
Publisher provided review code.

"Lego Overwatch Omnic Bastion" Review

As "Overwatch" has planted its stake in various corners of pop culture, dominating eSports and streaming sites while making headway in fields such as comics, it was only a matter of time until Blizzard's dynamo was ordained with its own Lego set.

It's finally happened with "Lego Overwatch Omnic Bastion," which lets you construct a towering warrior capable of swiveling at the waist, moving its arms and aiming a humongous machine gun at all comers.

Meant to stand guard at desks, book cases, dorm rooms and lockers, the intimidating yet disarmingly adorable creature is as fun to pose as to build.

The 182-piece set, recommended for ages 10 and up, is a blast to put together, deconstruct and -- as is the beauty of Lego -- modify to your whims. Want to add a robot crane arm? Just take it off another set and snap it on. Prefer a pair of mechanical wings? Knock yourself out.

Just keep that snazzy "Lego Blizzard" exclusive placard at the front, because this is "Overwatch," after all, and you should never pass up a chance to humblebrag.
Publisher provided review set.

"Diablo III Eternal Collection" Switch Review

Since its 2012 PC release, "Diablo III" has stood as one of the most fascinating and content-rich action RPGs in all of gaming. Blizzard has taken its time to spread the game to other consoles, in each instance managing to release a bigger, bolder version of the towering adventure -- gracing PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2013, then the PS4 and Xbox One in 2014 -- that it seemed to have been coded from the ground up for the new platform.

Now the game finally makes its Switch debut. What some expected to be a pared-down version of the game instead is a robust release that makes a strong, virulent case for being the definitive version of the game. Rounding up all previously released DLC, as well as the myriad updates and enhancements that developers have trotted out over the years, this is a slickly playing, gorgeous-looking, impossibly deep version of the game that easily stands alongside the substance you'll find on the Xbox One and PS4, surpassing those versions in many ways.

Blizzard casts the template for how hardcore multiplayer co-op should have been done all along, and must be followed in the future. With lobbies that boast masterful matchmaking and friend pairing, the multiplayer aspect of "Diablo III," which is integral to its makeup, shimmers in a way that had not yet been even hinted at on the Switch. Only "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" and "Splatoon 2" have even hinted at such a level of well-honed infrastructure, and although hampered by Nintendo's insipid approach to voice communication, it smooths over the rocky roads with a satisfying suite of communication tools. 

With all modes unlocked from the start -- including the instanced rift modes that continue to dole out high-powered enemies and rare loot ad infinitum -- it's easy to jump back into the maelstrom even if you're a veteran who has poured dozens of hours into the game over the years. You're reading that right. The likes of "Reaper of Souls," "The Rise of the Necromancer" and "Kanai's Cube" are all accessible from the get-go. Seasonal additions that were previously native to the other platforms are also promised to come, along with the online challenge ladders.

Nintendo-specific enhancements are also there, including a Legend of Ganondorf armor set, Triforce portrait frame and other Easter eggs add a Zelda seasoning to the mix. Naturally, the Pro Controller is supported. The game looks gorgeous at home, but playing it on the go makes for a giddily fresh experience that seems almost too good to be true. For a frame of reference, think of that feeling you got while playing "Skyrim" on the go.

Perhaps the game's greatest triumph has little to do with "Diablo III" itself, but what it portends for the future of the Switch, as well as gaming as a whole. This is an adaptation that's likely to open the eyes and minds of other publishers and developers to see what's possible for Switch ports of top-tier games. "Well, if Blizzard can do it with 'Diablo III' then we can do it with Game X," may well become the mentality for the creative class moving forward.

If that proves true, this "Eternal Collection" will prove to be even more of a legendary drop indeed.
Publisher provided review code.

"Call of Cthulhu" Review

A haunting and eerie take on horror game, "Call of Cthulhu" is arguably the most mature H.P. Lovecraft video game adaptation to date. Cyanide Studios' first-person game blends adventure, walking simulator and branching-path RPG elements into a surreal and torturous trek into the dark resources of the mind.

Set in 1920s Boston, you play as a private detective who is haunted by traumas suffered during service in World War I. A hard drinker who struggles with mental health and tortured relationships, he struggles to keep things together as he takes on a case from a wealthy client who insists on proving that there was more to the death of his daughter than the police managed to uncover.

Your efforts to crack the mystery lead you down a long, winding road of destruction and decay. You're confronted with choices that let you decide whether to seek a short-term gain in favor of longer-term suffering. Your choices during conversations shade the inner workings and motivations of your character, leading down potentially varied paths.

As you struggle through your obsessive quest toward some measure of redemption, you face down demons both personal and actual, locked in a struggle with your own heart, mind and even eyes. You  are rarely fully sure whether your adversaries are real or hallucinatory.

Occasional hiccups in controls and visual fidelity tend to snap you out of the suspension of disbelief, separating you from engagement with the spell cast by the writing. But trudge through the shortcomings and you're in for an arresting experience that stays true to the source material while pushing the genre forward in bold and meaningful ways. It takes a lot of effort to work your way through the world, but those who heed Cthulhu's foreboding call will be rewarded in kind.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 29, 2018

"Goosebumps: The Game" Review

With the "Goosebumps" sequel in theaters and Halloween in the air, it was time to revisit the overlooked "Goosebumps" game. The Switch is just the platform needed to inject some life into the delightfully creepy, family-friendly adventure, which is occasionally more frightening than it has any right to be.

WayForward Technologies' port of the 2015 point-and-click adventure meshes well with the Switch's repertoire, making excellent use of the device's screen. The game thrives most in mobile play, in which the immediacy emphasizes the frightening moments.

True to the spirit of the novels and their TV adaptations, the horror focuses on dark, sci-fi-heavy twists on everyday life as a child and teen. You play as a student whose life goes off the rails, starting with a harrowing walk home from school. Nearby lurks wilderness plagued by deadly creatures.

Cut scenes, which play out in animations set to text, provide some harrowing moments, but the most satisfying scares come when you make a wrong choice that leads to a jump scare signaling your demise. Not only is the image itself off-putting, but the thought of having to lose your progress is equally horrifying.

"Goosebumps" plays at times like a game that came long before 2015. The lack of significant voice acting could be explained away as a conscious choice in an effort to stay true to the feel of R.L. Stine's source material, but it can more easily be attributed to the publisher's intent to favor expedience over quality.

While rough around the edges, the thrills the game provides make it well worth a pickup for "Goosebumps" fanatics in the mood for a visual novel-style feel that takes them back to their youth, reading the books late at night with a flashlight under the covers.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Just Dance 2019" Review

The "Just Dance" series continues to thrive, superseding a graveyard of rhythm games, including other dance titles that fell to the wayside. The main reasons are ease of use, as well as the novelty of seeing how ridiculous -- and if you're lucky, even how good -- you look when you're busting moves in your living room.

With "Just Dance 2019," Ubisoft continues to refine what worked for the series in the past, get rid of extraneous fluff and innovate with compelling new features. A finely curated tracklist of some of the songs that made the most memorable impact on the pop culture landscape over the past year continues to freshen up the exergaming superstar, keeping "Just Dance 2019" front and center as not only the premiere party game on the market, but also one of the most efficient and fun ways to work out daily while gaming. Games from the series have become my personal go-to. I ditched jogging in favor of dancing like an idiot in front of the Kinect sensor, and have never looked back.

If you lack Kinect, a PS4 camera or a similar console camera, you can use a mobile device to track your movements. The ideal way to play the game, though, remains with video accompaniment.

The game comes with a 30-day trial subscription for Just Dance Unlimited, which opens up just about the entire back catalogue of the series' songs  -- around 400 total. The cost is $24 a year if you decide to go with it, and is well worth it if you're a daily user.

Kids Mode is a godsend for parents, not only rounding up the most innocuous -- if also the most ear-splitting -- tunes, but covering up the dancers' faces on videos in order to prevent any accidental exposure if the video is shared online.

The choreography is as creative and cutting-edge as always, and the visuals also get a significant boost, with media such as claymation making appearances.

One of the better-kept secrets of "Just Dance 2019" is how it doubles as a karaoke machine. While the likes of "Singstar," "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" have long since faded into the background, "Just Dance" continues to be the go-to place for musicians to get their work in front of would-be performers.

It's a tribute to the game's design acumen how it manages to stay replayable even after copious use. With loads of side modes, unlockables, a calorie tracker and online shenanigans to chase after, "Just Dance 2019" is yet another crowning achievement in a series that never fails to impress. Here's to yet another memorable encore.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

"Red Dead Redemption 2" Review

I let my 11-year-old son play "Red Dead Redemption II" for a bit, insisting he start a new save file so as not to mess with my own. I usually let him hop in and out of the games I play, happy to have him score some achievements for me or see how he would react to certain scenarios as a way of cross-checking my 40-year-old point of view with his youthful perspective.

With this game, though, I wanted none of that. This is a game wrapped up in a living economy in which every choice you make has rippling affects toward everything else you will see and do as your journey unfolds. I couldn't bear to have my singular journey tainted by my boy's choices.

As he watched the majestic sequence he became antsy, wondering when exactly the action would start.

He was bored as hell and could hardly stand it.

He couldn't appreciate the majesty of the rolling, snow-sloped vistas, the way the snowflakes rested on your horse's mane, or the way the voice actors spoke as though their words were chilled by the biting nip of wind. He gave up before he saw any gun battles, looted any bodies or shivered at the sight of a wolfpack emerging from the forest to hunt him down.

As much as I respect my boy's fresh perspective of TV, movies and especially games, I was elated that he couldn't stand this one, which I hold up as my game of the year, if not decade, if not lifetime.

"Red Dead Redemption" is a game for adults only, and I would hazard to say best appreciated by middle-aged and older gamers. Its methodical, angst-ridden pace is ever plagued by the dreaded footsteps of old age and death that the young simply can't fathom. I selfishly want "Red Dead Redemption 2" for my generation alone, sparing it for those that follow to appreciate one day as a retro classic, when flecks of gray grace their own heads.

It's easy to fall into the trap of gushing with over-the-top praise for the game. I will try to restrain myself from that, in favor of analyzing exactly what it is that separates "Red Dead Redemption 2" from the work of mere mortals and elevates it to its status.

This is an elegant an elegiac journey leavened with haunting notes that reference life as well as pop culture. It's a truly great Western that should be compared to novels and films rather than games, because gamedom -- even the original "Red Dead Redemption" and especially its laughable predecessor, "Red Dead Revolver," aren't even in the same orbit as the though-provoking, soul-searching moments like the game offers. Above, all, the game favors deconstructionism of the American myth.

Its closest spiritual cousin is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" for the way it ruefully exposes how much of the myth of heroism is absolute bullshit, as well as how important it is to fan the flames of such legends, because they are what light the embers that inspire the best among us to forge on, pushing humanity to the next stages of the opera in which we all play a small part.

This is a game that revels upon the grand scale, but what I most appreciate are the small moments that form the brushstrokes that make up the masterpiece. I like that the more you pet and feed your steed, the more he is willing to do for you. And I absolutely love the heartache that comes from your horse's inevitable death, which approaches the devastation you feel when a real-life pet dies.

It takes courage and determination to begin again in your recovery from the heartache, be it romantic devotion to a love one or the passion you felt for a career that has ended in a pink slip. To rebuild, with the Kintsugi-like cracks healed stronger than they were before, is the essence of endurance and growth as a person.

As the countless hours unfold, with sidequests and the main campaign intertwining into a bittersweet, indistinguishable morass, I tried to pause to savor the intricacies of this masterwork. I strove to appreciate my failures and the lessons I gleaned from them, not only in how better to approach and rectify how I fell short in my next attempt, but in the futility of my misdirection itself, and how sometimes the act of falling short can be a victory in itself. Discovering that a door is closed is somehow a triumph on its own. The dark, closed hallway is a sometimes gentle, often brutal shift in a the next direction on a path to better things.

In some time this game will grow. Missions and items will be added, quests will be unlocked and new areas of the map will open up. And also maybe next month or the month after, but before we know it the game will open up and reshape into the online mode that will redefine what "Red Dead Redemption 2" is.

To play this game again in the future will test the maxim that no man can cross the same river twice, for not only will the river have changed, but so well have the man. Not that you need all that much encouragement, because if you are at all inclined to gaming than you have surely been bombarded with breathless endorsements for this game. But nevertheless I add my voice to that chorus. If you are old, or at least can imagine what it's like to be old, you owe it to yourself to spend some of your ever-dwindling hours on this truly fantastic, unparalleled experience.

To die in this virtual tapestry is to taste redemption.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Book Report: "The Call of the Wild"

The Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild by Jack London
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

London takes the half-crazy, half-genius idea of writing a book from a dog's perspective, and goes scarily deep into the psyche of Buck.

A St. Bernard-Scotch Shepherd mix who is torn away from his easy life as a country dog when he's sold to a brutal, unforgiving prospector who seeks gold in the Yukon. Buck endures the monotony of dog sled life, vies against rivals for leadership, analyzes the pecking order of people and, in the most brilliant moments, waxes philosophically about what it all means.

London's writing is mesmerizing and spectacular. He communicates his thoughts effortlessly and naturally, with a down-home grit that borders close to satire without tipping over the edge. You can imagine Sam Elliot making such musings when he is high or drunk.

The narration by Peter Humann on the Audible version is the next best thing to Elliott. He brings a stoic grit to the story, making you feel as though you're listening to a made-up-as-it-goes story being spun over a campfire.

A strikingly bold and original effort, "The Call of the Wild" deserves its status as a recommended student read I never managed to get around to before now. I'm glad I finally made it inside Buck's head.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: "Hunter Killer"

For my written review, click here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Report: "One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy"

Anderson's book suffers from the tedious grind of a research paper, but at times breaks free for some righteous anger, heartfelt personal stories and biting insight. The writing gets stronger as it goes, and by the end it hits such a fever-pitch tone of righteous fury that it lives up to the promise of that potboiler title.

Still, much of the writing is bogged down in copious statistics that would have been best summarized and left as footnotes. There are droll, Leviticus-style listings of places, figures and sundry statistics that hold the main thrust of the book back rather than push it forward.

Still, even in the slow parts, this book has a whole lot to teach. Packed with a master class's worth of historical perspective, incisive examples of the evolution of Jim Crow laws and their implementation over time, the book is a chilling treatise on the decay of our democracy. She also over-relies on the word "disfranchisement," saying it so often that a related drinking game would lead to alcohol poisoning every few pages.

The sone-sided argument, well bolstered, is that conservative mechanations actively seek out to prevent the poor and minorities from voting. The conspiratorial sickness is prevalent, running from poll workers, throughout local and national political machines and all the way up through federal courts. Only a mass awareness of the adversarial nature of disenfranchisement,  a strong ground game and a determination by the affected to be more stubborn than those who seek to stop them from voting can lead to victory.

The Audible narration by Janina Edwards does Anderson's writing no favors. With a grim monotone that sometimes sounds like a voice-to-text program, she too often lacks the inflection that Anderson intended. It probably would have been best to have the author read it herself.

I spent much of the book annoyed and continuing mainly out of obligation, but found myself liking it more and more as it continued. By the end, in which Anderson gives a more incisive description of exactly how Russian hackers managed to manipulate the election via social media, I was won over. This is an important book that demands to be picked up, suffered through, appreciated and ultimately, put into action.

Publisher provided review copy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

"Nickelodeon Kart Racers" Review

Any go-kart racing game with a goofy, licensed character roster and power-up-filled tracks will seem lacking in comparison to "Mario Kart" games. The best way to appreciate what developer GameMill Entertainment has to offer is to separate such prejudices and take the game on its own merits.

But even after doing that, the racer sputters to reach the finish line. Mediocre visuals, rough controls and milquetoast design make the game average at its best moments, and mediocre at its worst.

With a decent level of polish and a solid base of mechanics, there is nothing inherently broken or unbalanced with the game but as you play you're always stuck with the nagging feeling that the execution doesn't come close to matching the promising concept.

Available on Switch, Xbox One and PS4, the game stocks its slate of racers with slim pickings. SpongeBob SquarePants, Sandy and Patrick are there, as are Angelica, Tommy and, bizarrely, the  Reptar doll from "Rugrats." The "Hey Arnold" crew also makes an appearance, as do all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The array of available racers play in distressingly similar manner, feeling like lackadaisical re-skins of one another rather than diverse competitors designed from the ground up with different strengths and weaknesses.

Best fit for the younger set who are more forgiving of the game's drawbacks and content just to see their animated favorites in action, or with friends who are willing to fill out the four-player multiplayer slate, "Nickelodeon Kart Racers" takes some effort to shift out of neutral.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Zarvot" Review

Zarvot is a quriky brawler that's meant to make you smirk and chuckle as you work your way through levels filled with enemies that include bananas, milk cartons and walking crayon boxes.

Playing as two cubes -- named Charcoal and Mustard, because why not? -- you slice, slam and shoot your way through the madness.

Developer Snowhydra LLC excels at managing to convey its list of necessary skills to advance without resorting to pandering or handholding. You are on your own, stuck in the mayhem, forced to learn to survive on your wits and reflexes.

The challenge level ramps up quickly, but each level gives you adequate training, bestowing you with skills you'll need as you move on.

Much of the game plays out like a retro-styled arena shooter, reminiscent of the likes of "Geometry Wars" or even "Centipede." "Zarvot" lifts things to the next level by dressing everything up with a charming story and disarming visuals and music.

Like some sort of Adult Swim adaptation gone rogue, "Zarvot" keeps things fresh and lively by oozing equal parts unfettered personality and adamant dorkiness.
Publisher provided review code.

"911 Operator" Review

No matter how skilled and quick to react first responders are, they are only as effective as the dispatchers who field calls, siphon key, urgent information from frantic people at the worst moment of their lives, then break that info down into something actionable.

"911 Operator" from Jutsu games may be an exaggerated, over-the-top take on the career, but it's grounded enough to serve as a fitting tribute to the unsung heroes. As you field calls, it's on you to cut through the noise to help as many people as possible by getting the authorities to the places they need to be.

You provide instructions, dispatch crews or ignore a superfluous call, not letting it distract you from something more urgent. Expect to second-guess yourself often. You work at a rapid pace, scrambling to stay abreast of the tasks at hand. The stress level is high because the simulation is so convincing.

Two years after its release on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and mobile, "911 Operator" makes its way to Switch. Optimized to work well with the Switch's touch screen and Joy-Con setup, the game takes on a new vibrance and urgency.

While possibly too dry and clinical for some tastes, "911 Operator" manages to take what some might consider a perfunctory task and bestow it with the glory and reverence it deserves. While not a "fun" game by any traditional definition, it manages to get the adrenaline flowing, sucking you into its distinctive realm.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

"Pizza Titan Ultra" Review

"Pizza Titan Ultra" is one of those "anything goes" types of games, where the off-the-charts weirdness level is so prevalent that oddity starts to become the comforting norm.

You play as a giant robot whose job it is to romp through destructible environments, bashing everything in sight in all-out pursuit of prompt pepperoni delivery.

Released in August on Xbox One, PS4 and PC, the game now comes to the Switch, where its pick-up-and-play accessibility translates well to low-intensity, on-the-go play.

Throwback visuals replicate the 16-bit era in tone and style, if not pixel count. The visuals are smoother than the finest Super Nintendo devs could have conjured.

While there is plenty of humor to enjoy, you may find that the laughs take on diminishing returns. Once the quirky trappings fade away into normalcy, what you're left with is a well-polished but perfunctory series of destructive delivery challenges.  The replay value dwindles within an hourlong session.

Still, if you're looking for a tight, charming experience that lets you take out your frustrations on hapless enemies and structures who can't contend with your wrath, "Pizza Titan Ultra" delivers.
Publisher provided review code.

"Child of Light" Switch Review

"Child of Light" is a game you sometimes just find your self staring at in admiration. Gorgeous enough to seem like a playable painting, the story follows a young girl tasked with the challenge of capturing three sources of power and defeating the evil queen, who has seized power.

It makes for a whimsical, involving journey, bolstered with clever writing and a resonant soundtrack. It finds a perfect new home on the Switch, which lets you both appreciate the gorgeous visuals and sound on your living room setup and plug away with missions while on the go.

Ubisoft Monteral's ethereal 2014 puzzle-strategy gem, emblazoned with light RPG elements, continues to shine, because many of its stylistic choices were timeless.

The characters all operate with distinct, often conflicting mannerisms, motivations and worldviews, and there are little nuggets of inspired writing and visual design lurking in every corner. I still smile when I open a treasure box, find that an enemy is hidden within, greating me with a telltale "What's inside? Homicide."

"Child of Light" is one of those games that you feel almost guilty for enjoying by yourself. You feel compelled to text all your friends and pressure them to play it as soon as possible, if only so you'll have people to chat up about the intricacies, contradictions and plot developments you experience in the deep, psychologically challenging journey.

Now there's a new opportunity to evangelize. "Child of Light" is born again on the Switch, shining as bright as ever.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 19, 2018

"Joggernauts" Review

Adorably colorful, space helmet-wearing aliens trot in a line. They hop, dodge and weave their way past an array of obstacles that bombard them as the action flows from right to left. That's "Joggernauts," which milks a deceptively simple concept for more than its worth.

Developer Space Mace's co-op-focused rhythm-puzzle-platformer has much in common with "Patapon" and, well before the time of that game, "Lemmings." Your survival depends on the effectiveness of teamwork. No matter how skilled you are, you are only as good as your weakest collaborator.

As many as four players can join in the action. Success prizes communications, coordination and especially, synchronization. If you gather with three close friends to play, expect them to become three frenemies within a few minutes.

The game seems coded from the ground up to inspire dissent and suspicion among even the tightest of squads. The difficulty level ramps up considerably, forging an arduous challenge level that's closer to "Dark Souls" than that of a typical party game.

If you lack Switch-playing friends to delve into the meat of the mutiplayer, you're left with a perfunctory solo mode that tasks you to toggle back and forth between two characters as they barrel down the paths.

"Joggernauts," like Jenga, is a giddy time with friends but has almost no point at all alone.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Halloween"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Report: "The Fifth Risk"

The Fifth RiskThe Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michael Lewis, the aficionado of data deciphering whose exhaustively researched books inspired the brainy films "Moneyball" and "The Big Short," shifts his laser focus to the buried world of federal government work for his latest opus

This is a pure, unfettered hit piece on what Lewis frames to be the incompetence and willful ignorance of the Trump regime, which has dismissed much of the groundwork laid by previous administrations to chase childish, boorish ideologies, sacrificing the safety and benefits of the public. Trump supporters, of course, would counter-argue that the goal is to trim the fat out of a do-nothing government, and Lewis is out to undermine that perspective.

The risk specified by the title is that which the public doesn't bother to imagine, and in turn hasn't prepared for. Without key chess pieces in place to fend off unimagined catastrophes, Lewis argues, Trumpism has left us vulnerable to an array of threats ranging from nature, to terror, environmental abuse, foodborne illness and crumbling infrastructure.

The book feels like it could and should have been a magazine article instead of a full-fledged book. Lewis pads out his core points with superfluous personal stories of his subjects. The point is to humanize what many people imagine to be soulless drones, but the effect turns out to be monotonous small-talk and gratuitous oversharing.

The Audible adaptation adds to the sense of urgency, thanks to Victor Bevine's passionate, often mock-bewildered narration, which lends a frantic, the-sky-is-falling pace to the proceedings.

I credit Lewis for teaching me much about what I never comprehended about what exactly the various sectors of the federal government does, the earnestness of many of those in public service, and the ruthlessness of Accuweather, which Lewis contends has infiltrated the Commerce Department in an effort to block National Weather Service data so it can co-opt it and sell it to the public under its own label.

This book is a horror story of sorts, granting you a peak inside the sausage factory of government work to show you how close society may be teetering to disaster. You get the feeling he could have done the same in a third the amount of space, but I don't blame him for stretching it out into a more lucrative commodity. Hey, a guy's gotta make a living.

Publisher provided review copy.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

"Lego DC Super-Villains" Review

Being bad in the Lego-fied DC Universe feels oh so good.

"Lego DC Super-Villains" tells an irreverant, satirical tale that hits all the right action comedy notes, appealing to adults and kids alike throughout an endearingly sardonic tale worthy of one of the DC Lego films. Any sense of series fatigue wears away quickly as the crackling pace gets underway.

Probably the best-looking, smoothest-controlling Lego game to date, "Lego DC Super-Villains" recaptures the freewheeling magic of the "Lego Batman" games, which are generally seen as the series' high point.

The plot is loosely based on the "Suicide Squad" concept. Making a deal with authorities to shave some time off your sentence if you can put a gang of mysterious new superheroes in check, you go on a journey of shattered bricks and assumptions. Nearly every notable DC bad guy makes an appearance, complete with an impressive array of special abilities.

You join in on the fun by creating and naming your own character, who goes along for the ride as Solomon Grundy and some fellow roustabouts venture to break others out of prison. You find yourself at odds with police quite often, forcing you to shatter them into tiny pieces. It's an unorthodox move for the usually law-respecting, kid-friendly franchise, but a necessary lapse in morals if you're going to step inside the villainous perspective.

Puzzle-solving remains challenging, but an in-game hint system helps you out of jams without forcing you to retreat to online walkthroughs. Scads of unlockables keep you coming back for freeplay playthroughs. The purse sense of anarchic bliss that comes with romping through the twisted take on DC archetypes is also a major part of the draw. This is a game that puts the "super" in "super-villain."
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo Edition" Review

You can't help but laugh when "Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo Edition" rolls out its world map and sends you jetting off to various corners of the globe to engage in blackjack battles with its roster of quirky, stereotype-laden goofballs. True to form, they talk smack before and after battles via single-screen quotes

The dev team at Headup Games is out to satirize "Street Fighter II," as well as 1980s and 90s gaming conventions, as well as Capcom's penchant for rereleasing a popular game again and again with increasingly absurd titles.

The problem is that once you get past all the endearing trappings, what you're left with is a shallow-by-definition game of chance. Since blackjack lacks the strategic aspects of competitive card games, including poker and its myriad variations, your skill plays little factor in your advancement.

The impetus is to go all-in on your bets and pray for good cards rather than methodically try to wear down your opponent with small, savvy wagers.

Even though the traditional arcade mode has  mild replay value due to the varied endings assigned to 10 different characters, you can presumably get more mileage out of the offline multiplayer component, which can field up to four players. The mindgames that come into play against human competitors surpass the dull pseudo-strategy you can use to plow through the campaign.

Still, the more time you spend with the game, the more you may find yourself wanting to play real blackjack, or real "Street Fighter." The nostalgia factor can't surpass its inspiration.
Publisher provided review code.

"Monster Loves You" Review

Sly, wicked humor underlines the choice-based text adventure "Monster Loves You." Along with a deceptively innocent, children's book style art design, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions that advance your character down dark paths, guiding it along its quest to hunt and exploit people.

Released on Switch five years after it debuted on PC, the Dejobaan Games product goes all-in on its eclectic design choices. Love it or hate it, there is almost no chance you've ever played a similar game.

You're presented with decisions that shape and alter your character's philosophy and personality. The natural instinct is to button-mash your way through the proceedings, but doing so will rob you of the experience of the writing and story arc.

The problem is that the design is so repetitive and insular that it practically dares you to barrel through it. With little variance or pace changes, there is little to keep you engaged if your focus slips.

Those who crave the absurdity and satirical qualities of the writing will find much to appreciate in "Monster Loves You," but gamers who lack the patience to commit to the bizarre story may find the game too much of a beast to handle.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Space Hulk: Tactics" Review

Developers have long struggled with the challenge of translating the mouse-and-keyboard tactical setup to consoles, to varying degrees of success. The numerous ideas included menu wheels, hot keys and busy HUDs, but no matter how effective the jury-rigging was, players always missed the original setup.

"Space Hulk: Tactics" -- a beloved spawn of the  "Warhammer 40,000" universe -- runs into the same problems. Despite the valiant efforts of the dev team at Cyanide Studios, every move, maneuver and scroll is just a whisper more tedious than it could be if you weren't bound by the rigors of analog sticks, buttons and bumpers.

Once you spend some time with the game, the distractions fade away and you can better appreciate the skill, vision and forethought that went into the mission design. Wearing its board game heritage proudly, the rich building, unit and weaponry selection, along with diverse environmental enhancements and commander boosts making no two encounters unfold the same way.

The campaigns are well-calibrated and intertwined, with an ongoing metagame that plays out apart from the mainline story, as well as a macro-map that shows you the overall progress. With a finely-tuned matchmaking system governing the conflict between the Terminator Space Marines and Genestealers alien race, the challengers are stiff, engrossing and numerous. And also present in the controls as well as  the code.

Publisher provided review code.

Mark of the Ninja: Remastered" Review

A stylish take on stealth ninja action, "Mark of the Ninja" set the bar so high when it was released that scores of imitators haven't been able to match its mastery of the genre.

Klei Entertainment's 2012 Metroidvania masterpiece fell through the cracks because it was released at the end of the last generation. A remaster is the ideal way to reintroduce the game to current audiences. Those who have never played it are in for a treat, and enough time has passed since release to make the game seem new again to fans of the original who may not have touched the game in years.

In a move that bears repeating amid the flurry of current-gen remasters, those who own the original base game on Steam or Xbox 360 need only to pay a nominal $5 to upgrade. The re-up is well worth it. Not only are the already-superb visuals -- which get a hefty boost to 4K from the original 720p -- and tight controls upgraded, but the previously-released DLC is there. Those who already sprung for the DLC on Steam and Xbox 360 get the remaster for free.

Environmental manipulation and a hefty dose of trial-and-error are needed to advance. Even when you run up against one of the game's many bottlenecks, you feel challenged rather than frustrated.

Even when you fail, you can appreciate the devious craftsmanship that went into engineering your comeuppance. Also, it makes your sweet retribution that much sweeter. That's the mantra of the ninja.
Publisher provided review code.

"Starlink: Battle for Atlas" Review

It turns out there's still plenty of life in the ailing toys to life genre.

Years after the likes of "Skylanders," "Disney Infinity" and "Lego Dimensions" have swirled down the proverbial gaming fad drain. Ubisoft draws upon its deep Nintendo heritage to conjure a Switch exclusive that brings back the concept with a vengeance.

Bolstered by a wallet-terrifying fleet of physical ships, weapons and plilots you can buy and use in the game, "Battle for Atlas" feels like the confident, cunning launch of a new platform. The cherry add-on is the "StarFox" Fox McCloud & Arwing pack, which lets players act out their interstellar shootout fantasies they have been harboring since the Nintendo 64 days.

Other ships available as physical toys include the hawkishly angular Nadir and the sleek. lithe Neptune. With the intricately articulated ships doubling as eye-popping desk or bookshelf decorations -- not to mention imagination-sparking battle props for youngsters -- the pull of buying a package or two to enhance your gameplay is a simple choice.

Set in the Atlas star system, which acts as a treasure trove for alien technology begging to be reverse-engineered, the story pits you against the nefarious Grax, who vies to use the weaponry to enslave and exploit the denizens of the system.

You guide a loose-knit, Rebel Alliance-style network of squadmates take to the skies to engage the enemy and push through high-risk missions. You can speed through the cosmos, skim planet surfaces and execute skilled maneuvers to avoid enemy fire and return devastating shots of your own. The worlds-colliding  range of characters and weaponry toes the line between fan service and forward-thinking engineering.

"Starlink: Battle for Atlas" feels less like a one-shot and more of a wholesale rediscovery of a lost genre, which is built to sink roots and expand on the galaxy's hottest-selling system. Like its heroes, it soars, shoots from the hip and looks slick while doing it.
Publisher provided review code.

Review: "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4"

With a well-placed metaphorical headshot, Treyarch uses "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" to shoot down any reservations that gamers had. The thinking went that a large portion of its fan base would feel excluded because of the elimination of a single-player campaign, as well as the supposition that the Battle Royale-style "Blackout" mode would be a disingenuous imitation of "Fortnite" and "PUBG."

Within minutes you see that the reality is that Treyarch doesn't follow -- it reinvents. "Black Ops 4" is a daring, wildly successful redefinition of what a modern shooter can and should be. The three multiplayer pillars are so robust, well-rounded and enthralling that the wonder becomes not that the single-player campaign has been jettisoned this year, but how surprising it was that it took so long to get here.

Recognizing that the bulk of the "Call of Duty" draw comes from its armies of multiplayer competitors, Treyarch made a savvy gamble that paid off by plunging all its resources into innovation, refinement and polish of its standard multiplayer, "Blackout" and zombie modes.

Those yearning for story and lore points should spend time in zombies. Narration and visual cues fill out the backstory as you and your squadmates fend off wave after wave of hypractive conjurings of the undead, making you feel like a tight-knit team who bands together to fend off the evil hordes.

That squad-based storytelling mechanic flows into the base multiplayer, which does away with traditional classes in favor of archetypical, 'The A-Team"-style heroes. Choosing your player -- each who packs a distinctive look, sense of charisma and special weapon set is like falling into positions in a pickup basketball game. The symbiotic relationships the team assumes emphasize communication, coordination and on-the-fly teamwork to succeed.

Treyarch truly shifts into full throttle in "Blackout" mode, which makes previous Battle Royale efforts seem like little more than cobblestones along the path to this evolutionary destination. Decked out with gorgeous backgrounds, complete with rolling hills, flowing rivers and staggering outposts, the map works as a character unto itself. As players engage in the mad scramble to avoid the shrinking maps while gearing up and battling it out for supply drops, you can't help but marvel at the colossal playground that sets the stage for the carnage.

With each mode equipped with its own slate of progression, unlockables and weapon economies, "Call of Duty" Black Ops 4" forges the bridge to the new normal of online-only shooters with overwhelming skill and bravado. The future is bright, bold and thrilling.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 12, 2018

"Disney on Ice: Dare to Dream" Review

Stepping up its game considerably from years' past, the new touring "Disney on Ice" touring show marks a considerable improvement in nearly all aspects of the production.

Reimagined at every level, from set design to special effects and the acrobatic range of performance pieces, the latest edition is a dazzling thrill ride that gains momentum as it rolls, culminating in a stunning second act.

The show begins with a "Coco"-themed prelude that goes miles in upping the cultural inclusivity factor, then follows with SparkNotes versions of classics including "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tangled." The kid-friendly interludes involving silly antics from Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald are downplayed, making way for more focus on rehashing the animated films.

Each movie segment shows off fresh props and backgrounds and costumes. Particularly impressive are Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and the transformable "Beauty and the Beast" mansion, which opens up to reveal the library that coaxes Belle to fall for her captor.

Rapunzel pulls of some jaw-dropping moves with silks that serve as metaphors for her dangling locks

Overall, the philosophy seems to edge away from the traditional kid-pleasing factor in an effort to appeal equally to all ages. This confident move trusts the audience to appreciate the finer points of the difficulty level involved, and assumes the kids will be just as hooked as the older crowd.

It's after the break that the show truly flexes its muscles, with robust mini-productions of "Frozen" and "Moana" thrusting the show's energy level to fever pitch. Retooled and tweaked to include the trademark songs without sacrificing too many story beats, the stories are awe-inspiring explosions of exquisite lighting, gargantuan props and massive, finely-tuned song-and-dance numbers.

The new "Disney on Ice" is something any Disney fan can wholeheartedly appreciate, without the need to qualify that love or reduce their expectations for what had been a glorified kid's show.

As Maui would sing, "You're welcome."

The show plays through Sunday at the Tucson Convention Center. Click here to see the rest of the tour stops.

PHIL ON FILM: "First Man"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Report: "Lord of the Flies"

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Golding's sense of immediacy is what makes "Lord of the Flies" a classic. He sticks to prose that matches the education levels and worldviews of his protagonists, a group of schoolboys who crash land on an island and disastrously attempt to forge a society of their own.

He seeks to unearth the depths of greed, domination and inhumanity that are hardwired into even the most seemingly innocuous among us.

The experiment is a success. The novel is fast-paced, accessible and thought-provoking. There are a few nagging faults that weigh it down a bit, though. His characters alternate from behaving like devious, cruel adults in one scene and helpless overgrown toddlers the next.

The range is jarring, conveniently shifting to suit the changing needs of the narrative. This causes the tone to run all over the place, and veer toward crass emotional manipulation. But that doesn't stop it from hitting hard. His gripping, brooding tale of innocence loss strikes the stark reveal that innocence was never really there.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Guacamelee: Super Turbo Championship Edition" Review

Embracing the charming absurdities of Luchador and Dia de Los Muertos lore, the "Guacamelee" series is an exquisite example of just how engaging and gripping storytelling can be in a genre that often dispenses with narrative as it focuses on combat. "The game predates "Coco" by telling a grim, engrossing story of lost love divided by the realms of the living and the dead. Unlike "Coco," it's not afraid to laugh at itself.

Developer Drinkbox Studios continued to refine and expand its 2013 sensation -- eventually following it up with a glorious sequel -- and the ludicrously named "Super Turbo Championship Edition" marks a capstone on what will go down as the definitive version of the game.

With updated and expanded levels, upgrades and unlockables, the game oozes with things to chase, do, see and punch in the face. There is a decidedly Metroidvania tone to the platforming, which often has you double back over area you have previously covered in order to chase down new skills that will help you as you advance through the story.

The Switch makes an apt home for the game, which benefits from the on-the-go play options -- including quick-save states and short missions that are well-designed for mobile gaming -- while still looking stunning when played at home on your TV. If you're a lapsed "Guacamelee" fan who decides to give the game another shot, you'll find it will grip you in its colorful headlock once again.
Publisher provided review code.

"Vampyr" Review

"Vampyr" sinks its teeth into a fascinating concept. As a streetwalking creature of the night who stalks the alleyways of 1918 London, you are a threat to everyone you encounter. And in many ways, you are more of a threat to yourself than any of your adversaries.

You can give into your urges and take the easier way out, upgrading your skills by indulging in your thirst for blood and power. Or you can make things harder on yourself by avoiding killing those who stand in your way and enhancing your abilities by taking the non-lethal options.

The game dropped in June, but has been reborn with its latest update, which adds two new difficulty modes, making the game both more accessible and more challenging, depending on the amount of bloodlust that courses through your cold veins.

Those who just want to appreciate the writing and visuals, without letting the stress of combat get to them, can take on Story Mode, which requires minimal skill to make your way through the dark, engrossing saga.

Hard Mode, on the other hand, grants you less experience from straight-up kills, forcing you to "embrace" -- sucking the blood out of victims -- in order to make your character more viable.

No matter which way you choose to take on "Vampyr," there is a rich tapestry to enjoy. Developer Dontnod is at the peak of its skills, delivering and refining a masterful, largely unsung think piece on the burden of monsterhood. The latest update pumps some new life into its undead saga.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

"Velocity 2X" Switch Review

A shoot-em-up platformer that rocked the PS4 and Vita indie scene in 2014, "Velocity 2X" gets a welcome rebirth on the Switch, where it fits in nicely with the console's stable of retro-minded concepts.

Alternating between side-scrolling traversal and top-down bullet hell mayhem, the game from FuturLab puts your twitch skills to the test. But reflexes alone won't keep you going. Ample puzzle challenges and varied combat structures keep you guessing, adjusting and adapting.

To survive and thrive, you need to be able to think on the fly and recalibrate not only your tactics, but the pace at which you think, operate and react.

Staying true to its name, much of the game boasts a relentlessly raw speed that would make Sonic dizzy. The forward momentum courses through the entirety of the game's makeup, from the sleek visuals to the thumping soundtrack. There's nary a moment of downtime in the escapade, with the action kicking into high gear from the early moments, rarely pausing to take a breath.

Many games show their age quickly, but the polish and energy of "Velocity" keep the game's look and feel relevant, easily managing to keep pace with current offerings. If you missed out on "Velocity 2X" on its first go-round, the Switch makes an excellent landing place for its second tour of duty.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Book Report: "Artemis"

ArtemisArtemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Weir comes close at times but can't quite recapture the alchemy he conjured in "The Martian." He follows the template he set in that book, sticking us in the head of an ultra-nerdy protagonist who solves extraterrestrial problems with exhaustive knowledge of engineering and science.

The setting shifts from a botanist marooned on Mars to a smuggler attempting to make a big score by undermining a megacorporation on a moon colony.

But the formula doesn't quite translate. The hero this time out is a woman in her mid-20s who happens to think, talk and act like a geeky 45-year-old.

Her stream of consciousness and outlook are overly manufactured, undermining the humor and making her thoughts and actions seem forced and calculated, rather than natural. It also doesn't help that she tends to make awkward pop culture references to 20th and 21st century American pop culture, rather than futuristic moon culture in which she was raised.

It's also annoying how Weir gets hung up on the minutiae of scientific explanations, over-narrating scenes that easily could have been pared down.

I liked the book at the beginning, but it wore on me as it droned on. "Artemis" sputters rather than flows, ending as barren and desolate as the barren satellite on which it's set.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

"Rise & Shine" Review

Nearly three years after releasing the run-and-gun platformer "Rise & Shine," Adult Swim games has given the game another shot on Switch.

Feeling more at home on the system than it did on other systems, the fast-paced side-scroller is an apt fit for handheld mode, with its bite-sized missions lending themselves to on-the-go play.

Set on the planet of Gamearth, the robotic overlords of Nexgen have a stranglehold on the remnants of society.

Playing as a gun-toting child named Rise, you double-jump, dash, duck behind cover and aim your weapon and fire away. Rolling through inventively designed levels, with clever platform and enemy placement, you work your way through increasingly frustrating obstacles.

With a steep difficulty ramp-up, you need to glean survival lessons thrust upon you in order to prepare for the next challenges.

With the highly meta story unfolding in stylishly rendered cut scenes, the action-packed levels keep the adrenaline flowing. "Rise & Shine" is well worth a look for those who are looking for an action platformer to add to their Switch stable.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey" Review

Through the years, the "Assassin's Creed" series has taken gamers on a guided tour of world history, spiced up with a fascinating web of conspiracy theories and a sizable dose of historical fiction poetic license. But underlying all the gaming and storytelling trappings always rested a bedrock of historical authenticity. You truly felt like a time traveler, seeing the world through the eyes of an assassin ancestor.

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey" marks a new highwater mark for the franchise because it embraces its history to such an obsessive degree that even its exhaustively researched predecessors can't match. Ancient Greece comes alive in ways a textbook or even a film couldn't hope to approach. Every detail, from the ways the clouds roll over Mount Olympus to the manner in which townsfolk react to the way you brandish a dagger or swipe some loot channels lifelike realism into the experience. The game not only makes you feel as though you live and breathe inside a Peloponnesian War-era Greece, it grants you the sense of powerful freedom to manipulate the land to your goals.

Ubisoft Quebec prioritized player choice above all else for "Odyssey," which is by far the most RPG-like entry in the series to date. Taking a cue -- whether consciously or not -- from the direction in which "God of War" moved, you can adorn your hero with upgradable, craftable armor, unlock abilities by distributing points along the branches of a skill tree, and make meaningful choices in dialogue and actions that have ramifications on the way the story unfolds. The first, but not least of those choices, is whether to play as a man or woman.

That sense of choice and the empowerment it represents echoes throughout the world. More than ever before in an "Assassin's Creed" game, you are at liberty to take non-lethal routes toward your goals. You can also forgo the usual HUD setup that tracks your progress and quest goals, freeing you to explore without inhibitions. Regardless of what you choose, the narrative is written in a manner to justify and de-gamify your selections.

Whether you choose to pursue the main path or allow yourself to be sucked into the many side quests that you encounter, you get a rich, thrilling escapade into times of yore, getting an up-close, full-bodied dose of Ancient Greece in its prime. Along for the ride are a pair of animal friends -- one series veterans are used to and the other which is new, yet familiar to those who have played titles with similar tropes.

There is a bird of prey you can summon to give you aerial recon and mark locations of adversaries, and there is also a horse you can call whenever you like to help speed your travel, trample enemies or navigate harsh terrain. Much like "Red Dead Redemption" and the "Zelda" games, you form a stark, emotional bond with your steed, adding yet another layer of depth to the experience.

Bolstered by crackling dialogue, a sweeping and enrapturing story, as well as boundaries-shattering visuals that fulfill promises the series has long hinted at but never fully delivered, "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" shines in free running, naval combat and stealthy slinking. This is an "Assassin's Creed" to sink into and savor. There is a bright, big world of history there for the seizing, and exalting in it makes you feel like a Greek god.
Publisher provided review code.