Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Spyro Reignited Trilogy" Trailer


If you have fond memories of frolicking around grassy fields and roasting enemies as Spyro the Dragon, odds are you haven't touched the games anytime in the last 15 years. Many aspects of the creaky old games added up to make the originals all but unplayable to anyone but the most devoted fans of the franchise.

Now here comes along "Spyro Reignited Trilogy," which reinvents the series with wholesale modern trappings. So slick, lovingly created and invigorating are the new games that they figuratively breathe fire on the originals, leaving frayed embers behind.

Developer Toys for Bob, which kept the spirit of Spyro alive with the "Skylanders" series, channeled some deep love and care into the original series, released from 1998-2000 on the PlayStation. Their months upon months of dedicated labor paid off big-time.

This suite of remakes follows the template of last years "Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy" and pushes the concept even farther. These new games are what the original developers may have dreamed of but never could accomplish with late-20th century tech.

Rather than strive for a pixel-perfect recreation, Toys for bob uses the original games as base parameters for a wholesale remake. New character models, backgrounds, animations, transition screens and audio suite are all included.

There are also countless quality-of-life improvements, from checkpoints, to slick loading times and saves that make the Spyro games seem so different from their forebears that they may as well be entirely new games. Those who aren't aware that the games are remakes would see no signs of Spyro's severely outdated past.

Spyro the Dragon is very much alive and well, resurrected like a cloned dinosaur from amber. Even if you think you know Spyro, the new games prove that notion false. He's reignited as a fresh, vital character with a spirit as bright and vital as the flames that rage out from his belly.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "A Room With a View"

A Room with a ViewA Room with a View by E.M. Forster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

E.M. Forster's classic starts out slowly but steadily, subtly builds up its emotional themes until the end, when it punches you in the stomach and forces its characters into inevitable decisions that define their lives.

An early-20th century tale of moneyed social and business world climbers whose choices in love and industry weighs on their families' status as well as their social well-being. Forster works hard to populate the novel with lots of disparate characters, most who act as checks and balances on the main plotline, with their commentary and reactions spotlighting the story's leanings.

At the center is Lucy, who is courted by the free-spirited George and the wealthy, reserved Cecil. The love triangle that develops forces Lucy to frame the person she is, as well as that who she desires to become.

What emerges are themes that there may not be as much choice as you might think when it comes to matters of the heart, and to go with logical over emotional needs, or vice versa, is to shut down the other option completely.

Rebecca Halls' narration on the Audible version draws out the passion and emotional inflections of the characters, adding considerable heft to the prose with her storyteller's grace.

"A Room with A View" is a sometimes-tedious journey that justifies its length and pace with the powerful way it ends. This is a book that hits hard when it most needs to, and leaves you much to ponder after it sends you on its way.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"Heavy Fire: Red Shadow" Review


A rough-hewn turret shooter that feels rushed and underdeveloped, Mastiff's "Heavy Fire: Red Shadow" wears out its slim premise quickly, giving you little reason to return to its repetitive format in order to slog through its dense chain of unlocks.

Taking a "Homefront"-style conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, you set up turrets on a beachhead reminiscent of the D-Day storming of Normandy. As enemy ships approach from a distance, you line up shots at long distance and short range, steadily dispatching the onslaught of troops.

The shooting is thrilling at times, but success too often feels more based on luck than skill. The opposite is also true, with unseen enemies obliterating your defenses before you make much progress, ratcheting up the frustration factor to unforgivable levels.

Weak visuals and lackluster sound design can't compete with the "Battlefield" and "Call of Duty" entries of the world. Indie efforts usually disguise a lack of technical muster with throwback retro design, and that might have been an incongruous yet necessary way to go here. As it stands, the game looks and plays something like a relic from the PS2/Xbox generation.

A flimsy premise with little to build on, "Heavy Fire: Red Shadow" is an odd misfire that works only as a brief stress reliever, allowing you to let loose on a swarm of faceless enemies. The amount of stress it heaps on you due to technical deficiencies, though, negates much of what little there is that makes the game work.
Publisher provided review code.

"Rogue Legacy" Switch Review


Upon its release four years ago, "Rogue Legacy" set a standard for other throwback roguelikes to aspire to. A winning sense of humor, fascinatingly instanced levels and a compelling reward loop separate it from the pack. Now that Cellar Door Games' creation has made its Switch debut, it's as clear as ever that its innovations and attributes hold up in a lasting manner.

As with all roguelikes, permadeath is an expected and accepted part of progress. Each time you give up the ghost, a descendant comes along to resume the family obsession.

Playing along a family line, you leave inheritances for future generations along the shared quest. No two generations are alike, with variants including characters with disabilities, upgraded abilities and quirks.

The action is everpresent and gripping, but it's the humor int he writing and design that  grants the game the majority of its charm. "Rogue Legacy" is at its best when thrusting a comically underpowered hero against an absurd challenge, forcing you to scramble haplessly in order to inch onward. A "they killed Kenny!" vibe permeates the fatalistic feel.

While there are few visible enhancements for the Switch version, it clearly wasn't necessary to mess with the formula. "Rogue Legacy" was polished and vibrant out of the gate, and survives the port to Nintendo's console without losing any of the luster that it had. Adapting seamlessly to both portable and console modes, this is a game that's tough to put down no matter where you are.

Four years on, "Rogue Legacy" is reborn to uphold the family name.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Theaterical Review: "On Your Feet"


Christie Prades is so good at being Gloria Estefan that it's probably impossible for the star to see the actress in the touring production of "On Your Feet" strut her stuff without a tinge jealousy. She belts out tunes while dancing and hopping up and down while pumping her fist so convincingly like a young Estefan, that you feel as though you're looking back through a Harry Potter pensieve.

A show so fully centered around the rise to stardom of a pop star lives and dies by the enthusiasm and skill of its lead, and "On Your Feet" soars because of Prades' joyous star power. Bolstered by strong supporting performances from Ektor Rivera as her husband/manager, Nancy Ticotin as her mercurial mother and Alma Cuervo as her supportive grandmother, Prades headlines a dynamic ensemble that lives up to the title over and over by forcing the audience to its feet to applaud, as though they're watching a concert.

And maybe it should have been just that. Despite some earnest efforts to glean some laughs and drama in anecdotes of Estefan's journey from Miami Sound Machine headliner to international crossover superstar -- as well as some impressive projection work -- this show is all about the music.

Whether or not "On Your Feet" needed to have a story at all is debatable. Other than a well-documented near-death experience and a two-year-long tiff with her mother, Estefan's life has lacked much of the drama and tension you typically see in biographies worthy of a play, film or book treatment. Estefan pr her handlers also presumably had far too much of a hand in the writing, because her character comes off as eye-rollingly flawless. A few warts would have turned the beat around and made her more relatable.

The dramatic moments, though well-acted, only detract from the true talents of the cast, which is unleashing their otherworldly powers of calypso/merengue/salsa dance fusion, accompanied with Prades' brilliant vocals.

"On Your Feet" may as well have dispensed with the storylines and became a full-on concert production. But the show as it stands is still a mesmerizing spectacle to behold. The rhythm is most certainly gonna get you.

The Broadway in Tucson production is playing at Centennial Hall through Nov. 18. Purchase tickets here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Road Redemption" Review


No doubt titled and timed for release strictly to ride the popularity wave of "Red Dead Redemption 2" tricking misinformed gamers into an accidental purchase in the process -- "Road Redemption" seems on the surface like a cheap cash-in.

Once you get past the title, you'll find the end product is far more than that.

A breezy, freewheeling romp, the combat motorcycle game rides its slim concept for all its worth. Racing on crotch rockets through something resembling a Mad Max-style apocalyptic wasteland, you get an edge on fellow competitors by running them off the road, side-swiping them or sending them flying with well-timed weapon swings.

Each race nets you upgrades that you can use to transform yourself into a more formidable racer/combatant, bestowed with even greater ability to turn your races into a bloody mockery of any sense of fair play.

The dev team at Dark Seas Games excelled by choosing a few specific mechanics and thoroughly nailing them. The visuals are unspectacular but functional, adequately built to give the sense of speed and fury necessary to keep the adrenaline pumping along the rough road.

While the content may be thin, the replayability and amplification of the mechanics in both offline and online multiplayer modes lifts the game to a different plane than what it appears to be on the surface. That's how this game with the hokey, wannabe name finds its redemption.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Home Sweet Home" Review


Now that standby franchises such as "Silent Hill" and "Fatal Frame" have seemingly gone dormant, it's up to indie developers to fill the gap in the horror genre. Developers are rewarded for taking chances, shaking up formulas and leaning hard into experimentation.

Sometimes the results are wild successes, but oftentimes, as with "Home Sweet Home," they're decidedly mixed.

Based on Thai mythology, "Home Sweet Home" strives for violent jump scares that punctuate a creeping sense of dread. Packing its share of off-putting atmospheric fright into its diminutive package, the team at Mastiff has created a game with moments that stick with you when you step away from the console, left in the dark to mull over what you've experienced.

They've also generated a game that's so frustrating at times that you think twice about whether or not you'll come back for more.

It's become en vogue to ratchet up the difficulty level to draw comparison to the likes of "Diablo" and "Dark Souls," but there's a blurry line between effective and fair punishment and outright negligence. The controls and camera tend to be as difficult to contend with as the foes.

While "Home Sweet Home" is worthwhile for those who want to flip off the lights, lose themselves in the convoluted fiction and get their hearts racing, gamers who demand more cohesion and polish may want to avoid the freak show altogether.
Publisher provided review code.

"GRIP: Combat Racing" Review


A revved-up arcade racer that's fueled on the understanding that assaulting your opponents is more fun than breezing past them, "GRIP: Combat Racing" is "Mario Kart" by way of "Twisted Metal."

Choosing from among 15 cars decked out with armor, as well as upgradeable arsenal capabilities, you take to circuits of nearly two dozen tracks teeming with environmental hazards, wild jumps and inhumane turns, many of which have ledges designed to knock your rivals over.

Caged Element Inc. not only has the know-how to craft a rock-solid racer, complete with highly-calibrated balance, immense replayability and a stacked upgrade system, they also have conjured the special sauce to tie it all together, making the cohesive hole greater than the sum of its parts.

As solid as the standard racing is, the atmosphere truly shifts into overdrive in multiplayer. "GRIP" is a game geared for mayhem, and the satisfaction of blasting away AI bots can't come close to comparing against the unadulterated glee of reigning doom upon a real-life foe.

True to the spirit of a garage tinkerer, the game is nearly as much fun off the track, with loads of customization options available to get your ride looking and riding its best. Hints of the likes of "Forza" and "Gran Turismo" abound, without the requisite slate of tweaks that are there only for show, and have little results on the track.

While more vehicles, weapons and tracks could lift the game to an even higher plane -- expect plenty more of each in DLC on the horizon -- the base package that "GRIP: Combat Racing" ships with already feels feature-complete, and is enough to keep you occupied for countless hours of staying up way too late trading paint and projectiles with your combat racing frenemies.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Valiant Hearts: The Great War" Switch Review


In the great race to port just about every significant -- or insignificant -- release from the past few years to the Switch, Ubisoft has been among the most dutiful. Some of the best fits have been the titles in the short-lived UbiArt Framework, which conjured several classics in the first half of the decade. "Rayman Legends" and "Child of Light" have had their moment in the Switch sun, and now it's time for perhaps the greatest UbiArts title of them all.

One of the shiniest of those gems was "Valiant Hearts: The Great War," the 2014 Ubisoft Montreal adventure masterpiece. Set during World War I, the narrative shifts among the perspectives of various characters ensnared in the conflict.  Civilians, soldiers and even pets, deal with the moral angst and deep-cutting tragedy that resulted from what was then known as the War to End All Wars. Combat and reflex-oriented gameplay slip to the wayside in favor of puzzle-solving.

You run across someone with a need, and seek out the means to solve that person's problem by finding someone else that can help that person, and doing what it takes to satisfy that person in order to proceed. This chain of favor-swapping and paying it backward with the goal of the benefit eventually circling back to you marks out the playing field for immensely satisfying solutions. There's something soothing about seeing all the pieces fall into place after you've put in all the effort to set things just right.

There is usually only one correct path to proceed, making it tempting to fall back on walkthroughs whenever you find yourself stuck. But using your own wits to patch together your solutions is much more fulfilling.

Ancillary to the mainline gameplay, but just as enchanting, are the loads of historical facts that pop up as you play. "Valiant Hearts" is based on intensive research, not only of the war itself, but the daily lives of people of the era, and quirks that arise are explained by full-screen explainers that are fascinating to devour. Collectibles also abound, incentivizing you to sniff around every corner of the screen in your travels.

An apt fit for the Switch, due to its beautiful and big portable screen, "Valiant Heart" is a war game unlike any other. More than any other game, and even any book or movie based on the war, it places you into the psyches and minds of those forced to find out what they were made of when unspeakable uncertainty and violence tore their sense of normalcy to shreds. This is a treasure of a game that cries to be sought out, and it warms my heart that it's found its way to the hottest platform in gaming, where it will doubtlessly capture a new block of devotees.
Publisher provided review code.

"Hitman 2" Review


"Hitman 2" builds off of the impressive foundation laid by its predecessors to reach bold and satisfying new heights for the franchise. It takes equal parts of tactical preparation, precision execution and on-the-fly improvisation to succeed. The foreboding difficulty level makes it all the more satisfying to come out on the winning end, usually after more failures than you'd care to admit.

The dev team from IO Interactive follows up their underrated episodic 2016 reboot with an effort that impresses both technically and artistically. The sandbox that Agent 47 has to work with is an open-ended playground for creative assassination, with multiple, equally valid paths available to approach each objective. The impressive mission variety is equaled only by the dizzying amount of options at your disposal.

As you traverse the globe, taking on varied settings and circumstances that never let you get too comfortable with the methods and stratagems that have worked to you before, you start to count on the unexpected. Working your way through the campaigns, you face so many variables that your experiences are almost certain to be different than those of your friends. The iterative stories that emerge match the permutations that emerge in series such as "Grand Theft Auto," "Red Dead Redemption" and "Just Cause."

If you pick up the $20 Legacy Pack DLC, there is plenty more waiting for you. The pack rounds up six locations from the last game, enhancing them with the trappings of the sequel. It amounts to something close to the feel of a brand-new game, and is exactly that if you missed out on that one. This sort of revisionism sets a welcome standard for other developers to follow when rereleasing old work. It's amazing how just a few tweaks can vastly improve the gameplay experience, and that's just what we see here. Playing "Hitman 2," with its countless upgrades, enhancements and adjustments, makes it all but impossible to return to the last game with any gusto.

At their best, "Hitman" games have always tapped into players' dark sides, tempting them to search out their minds for their brutal inner selves that are bent on searching out the cruelest, coldest ways to snuff the life out of targets. And that's exactly what you'll find here. This is "Hitman" at its best.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Book Report: "Sense and Sensibility"

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jane Austen could have swapped the titles of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" and it wouldn't have made any difference, because the terms apply just as well to both novels. Her characters, storylines and plot twists are just as interchangeable. She could have written her books by Mad Libs.

In her dry, matter-of-fact way, Austen explored heavy, inconvenient truths about love and relationships that ring as profoundly now as they did 200 years ago. Her heroines were Kardashians of the era. Young, outgoing women who sought to remake the world in their image, with nothing but money and free time. The difference is that life expectancy and social expectations forced them to be obsessed with marriage in their teens. Family pressures forced arrangements upon them that their hearts rebelled against, creating boundless sources of smoldering conflict.

Austen invented the template for the modern romantic comedy with her work, and her breakthrough as a feminist literary icon deserves respect and reverence. But as Yoda would say of her work, "page turners, they were not." This is dense, often rough material to trudge through, feeling more like homework than breezy reads for the sake of fun. Austen tends to repeat words and phrases, and spends too much time lingering on pointless detail when she could be moving the molasses plot forward.

Still, this is homework well worth hacking your way through. Her thesis, that true love isn't always enough in the face of practical needs, and that romantic idealism isn't built to withstand the long haul, remains relevant.

In the Audible version, Rosamund Pike delivers a passionate performance, injecting the necessary vigor and flair into Austen's words, and adjusting her voice masterfully to define each character. "Sense and Sensibility" is the sort of book made for audio. It's a far more staisfying listen than a read.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

For my full review, click here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" Review


In this age of copious remasters, rereleased and throwback anthologies, it's no longer enough to slap a quick-and-dirty group of ports onto a release and call it a day. The likes of "Rare Replay," Capcom's "Mega Man" compilations and Nintendo's Switch suite of NES games for Switch online users have considerably upped the ante for what's expected in such releases.

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" meets that bar and surpasses it with innovations of its own.

A robust gathering of old-school arcade and console classics stretching over four decades of SNK excellence, the titles alone would make owning the 13-game collection (with 11 more titles coming via free DLC) essential for any history-appreciating gamer. The likes of the renowned "Ikari Warriors" franchise, lost arcade classics such as the bullet hell "Prehistoric Isle" and cult favorites such as "Victory Road" make up the lineup. Pixel-perfect adaptations that maintain the original aspect ratios are there, and tight, responsive controls make the transition.

The dev team doesn't stop there, though. A remarkable measure of passion went into the curation of the games, as well as the slate of special features. Present is the "Rare Replay"-like ability to rewind action at any point, making excruciatingly difficult titles more tolerable by letting you correct mistakes in short order rather than make the walk of shame back to the beginning of the level like you had to in the olden days.

Even more impressive is the innovation of "watch" mode, which contains perfect speedruns of each game. You can either sit back and watch in awe, or jump in and take over at any point. The mode is liberating and adds a new dimension of appreciation that future dev teams who make retro compilations should follow.

Equally as fascinating as the games is the "museum" category, which doles out a treasure trove of concept art, promotional materials and factoids about SNK history, including the games in the collection, as well as those that didn't make the cut. Looking through these archives helps lend an appreciation not only of SNK's past, but of the publisher's role in gaming history in general.

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" feels like a hands-on grad school class in gaming history. School is in session not only for gamers, but developers looking for pointers on how a retro collection can be done right.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 05, 2018

"Johnny Turbo's Arcade: Heavy Burger" Review


A fresh twist on the retro compilation trend. "Johnny Turbo's Arcade: Heavy Burger" brings back a gaggle of classics in all their old glory, but allows you to play inside of them without quite playing the games.

The old games, which are fully operational scenes, complete with flying bullets, fists and other deadly projectiles, are simply hazard-filled backgrounds for the main event.

Like Wreck it Ralph, you infiltrate old-school games in an arcade, hopping from one to the next, reshaping and blowing up old concepts as you go.

Rounding up classic arcade Data East arcade titles, such as "Burger Time," "Bad Dudes," "Night Slashers" and "Heavy Barrel," you hop through active levels, trying to move a bag of cash from one end of the screen to the other while stopping your opponent from doing the same.

Once you make your way through the edge of one screen, the action starts over in the adjacent game in the arcade.

With one-on-one or two-on-two battles -- the latter which considerably ratchets up the chaos factor -- it's all you can do most of the time to keep from laughing as you engage in the wild back-and-forth, which often compares to the momentum swings of "Rocket League" matches.

A simple concept executed with expert precision and a wily sense of irreverence, "Heavy Burger" hammers home its goofy charm. You may have played all these games before, but never like this. "Heavy Burger" comes loaded with new toppings that shake up the paradigm and make for a fascinating new dish.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Book Report: "Dirty Sexy Games"

Dirty Sexy Games (Dirty Games Duet, #2)Dirty Sexy Games by Laurelin Paige
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was a colossal disappointment, failing to live up to its intriguing title. I went in expecting a "Cruel Intentions"-style tale of manipulation, lust and deceit, but got a bland tale of rich people dealing with rich people problems.

The lone intriguing conflict -- a man discovers on his wedding day that he has a two-year-old son he never knew about and conceals it from his wife on his honeymoon -- peters out about halfway through, turning this into a milquetoast tale of a couple working out marital difficulties.

Author Laurelin Paige spends copious time describing steamy sex between the couple in extreme detail. While eye-rollingly cliched, these passages are no doubt the most crowd-pleasing to its target audience, which is no doubt made up of readers who revel in having such pictures painted for them. Trashy, sure, but at least it's honest.

Paige could not have conjured a more pointless and unsatisfying story to weave her softcore porn around. Groan-inducing dialogue and dopey plot twists wait around every corner, and no real tension grows or twists emerge.

While Elena Wolfe and Jacob Morgan do an admirable job of narrating the insipid prose in alternating-perspective chapters in the Audible version, their efforts aren't close enough to making this worth your time.

Neither dirty nor all that sexy, these games aren't worth playing.



View all my reviews