Thursday, December 27, 2018

"Blacksea Odyssey" Review

The sense of the vast unknown shared by the ocean and space lends to a sci-fi combination of the two. "Blacksea Odyssey" follows the formula of "Treasure Planet" to mix the two settings for a high seas/interstellar RPG adventure with roguelike elements.

The vicious spacescape teems with entities that threaten your survival. Whale-like megaliths, lithe spacecraft and grotesque beasts are gunning for you. To stay alive, you need to react quickly and search out danger-plagued depths with fearless ferocity.

Nine months after its release on consoles and PC, "Blacksea Odyssey" sets sail on the Switch. Fast-paced thrills come along with the combat, which tasks you to dismember enemies systematically, cutting them down to size so you can neutralize and eliminate them.

Customization options for your ship abound, letting you tweak and tinker with various aspects of your ship to emphasize your own offensive and defensive philosophies.

The diversity lends itself to the crafting suite, which lets you collect and fuse together resources that serve as boosts to help you, well, find and collect even more cool stuff with which to craft.

"Blacksea Odyssey" may lean a little too hard on rote basics, but manages to freshen up its array of offerings enough to seem fresh and vibrant. Packed with replayability and polished and refined from its initial platform releases, the game is ready to cast into new waters.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Uncanny Valley" Review

A dark and atmospheric puzzler, "Uncanny Valley" is a dense and circuitous survival horror title bounding with obtuse clues sheltering multitudes of Easter eggs.

It takes a studious effort and fine-tuned attention to detail -- as well as the willingness to undergo multiple playthroughs -- to uncover everything. Your choices affect the outcomes in ways many games promise but few deliver. This is a truly branching-path effort in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" tradition.

In addition to the mysteries themselves, additional difficulty comes in the form of oddball design choices and convoluted structure. "Uncanny Valley" takes pride in being out of the ordinary, so those looking for something conventional should look elsewhere.

After releasing on consoles in February, the effort from developer Cowardly Creations gets an encore debut on the Switch. The game could gain new life in the new release, with handheld mode making some of the more frustrating qualities more tolerable.

"Uncanny Valley" is far more intriguing when played in shorter, bite-sized go-rounds.

While too convoluted and burdensome for those with short attention spans, the game has the uncanny tendency to gnaw at you when you leave it, sinking into your subconsciousness in the way intriguing works of art tend to do. An overthinker's dream, "Uncanny Valley" has a way of sticking to your ribs.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Omega Strike" Switch Review

"Omega Strike" blasted its way onto the console scene in the summer, shaking up the Metroidvania concept by adding in a team of alternating character, each blessed with a particular set of strengths and weaponry. It debuts on the Switch half a year later with loads of gung-ho momentum/

You've got options to tackle every obstacle and slate of enemies, such as the block-pushing heavy, the double-jumping acrobat and the jack-of-all-trades trooper.

As with "Trine," you'll need to juidiciously select the proper hero for each task. With multiple options available for most scenarios, your options are as wide as your imagination.

Sprawling levels teem with hidden rooms, unlockable pathways forward and paradigm-shifting items that clear the way for advancement. Deciphering enemy patterns, deciding whether to run-and-gun or methodically work your way through the rooms is much of the fun.

Backtracking is an occasional burden, but retracing your path through various levels takes on fresh notes when you play as different characters. No two playthroughs are the same.

The dev team at Woblyware proves to be adept at orchestrating the Metroidvania formula to its own unique ends. "Omega Strike" is a robust, well-rounded platformer/shooter with intricate realms to uncover and explore. Made with just the right dose of 80s action flick-style cheesiness, it's a holiday treat worth sampling for Switch owners.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"Everspace: Stellar Edition" Review

You wouldn't know it from the waves of roguelikes that have come out in the past few years, but high fantasy isn't a prerequisite for the genre. Space works just fine as a substitute for dungeons, treasures and magic, and "Everspace; Stellar Edition" proves as much with its stylish take on the motif.

An open-concept space shooter with a sprawling play area that suits its title, the effort from Rockfish games slips into a rhythmic orbit of discovery, exploration and upgrades. Divided into sectors, the structure is parced to facilitate segmented gaming that helps break up your path through the story.

Even though the fantasy aspect isn't required for a roguelike, quick, brutal and frequent permadeath is. "Everspace" supplies that with gusto, subjecting you to a gauntlet of dangers. The danger leads to a constant flow of  high tension, which makes your breakthroughs all the more exuberant.

Many of your encounters develop on the fly, and choice abounds. You can dive in to defend or attack sweet loot from adversaries, hang back and wait to swoop in and take what's given to you, or retreat entirely and try your luck in some other zone.

Gorgeous environments abound, somewhat hampered by stiff presentation and wonky textures. The pacing is usually so frenzied that it's tough to notice, and as a whole "Everspace" congeals into a wild, ever-shifting adventure that keeps you guessing, regrouping and adapting.

"Everspace" carves out its niche amid a stream of strong indie titles, giving you a taste of an adventure that's nothing like anything else you'll find on the system. In space, no one can hear you die over and over again and somehow find yourself happy with it.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Book Report: "Anne of Green Gables"

Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

L.M. Montgomery overcame considerable institutional prejudice to craft this delightful, entrancing coming-of-age novel, about a mischievous, hyperimaginative girl who overthinks her way through adolescence.

A female and Canadian answer to Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, "Anne of Green Gables" launched a sizable entertainment empire of its own that continues to thrive in various media today. None of the TV shows or movies can match the effervescent panache of Montgomery's writing.

Likely drawing upon her own upbringing as a brainy and rambunctious young mind scuttled by prim, proper society, Montgomery sets the stage for relatable and awkward misadventures. She talks her way in and out of trouble, forges rivalries and frenemyships and bristles against the constraints of social expectations heaped upon females.

In the Audible version, Rachel McAdams' narration perfectly synthesizes the brainy energy of a young, too-smart-for-her-own-good mind bubbling with iconoclastic ambition.

Astoundingly fun while also appreciably deep and philosophically challenging, "Anne of Green Gables" is a fun and fascinating story that's a treat from end to end.

Publisher provided review copy.

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PHIL ON FILM: "Aquaman"

For my written review, click here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

"Football Manager 2019 Touch" Review

A micromanager's dream, "Football Manager 2019 Touch" lets you wear a GM hat and delve deep into the bowels of a soccer club of your choosing, manipulating every aspect of the enterprise from concession sales and ticket prices to training regimens, transfers and lineups.

Some may be put off by the "Touch" moniker, concerned that the game is a slimmed-down, mobile version of the expansive PC edition, but instead they should see it as a value-added proposition. The additon of a touch screen makes menu manipulation quicker and more fluid than a keyboard-and-mouse setup.

The Switch edition is robust and content-rich, overflowing with team-building aspects to crunch, massage and rearrange. The fluid, aggressive AI makes it difficult to lock into any particular mode of operation to find success.

It takes an adaptive mind and a proactive mentality to find consistent success. A decent measure of luck also helps. Smart, incisive risks tend to be more rewarded than conservative minimalism. This is, after all "Football Manager" rather than "Football Passive."

New additions include tactical options that include the famed Spanish Tiki-Taka and the hyperaggressive Gegenpress method. Training has also been overhauled, adapted to real-world regimens, and the top two German Bundesliga divisions have been added as well.

Stylish presentation and an intuitive interface are key in a management-focused title such as this, and the dev team at Sega thoroughly nails that aspect. A voluminous and wide-ranging effort, "Football Manager 2019 Touch" is as exhaustive and endlessly intriguing on-the-go soccer biz sim as you could hope for.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

"Battle Princess Madelyn" Review

A true descendant of the 80s, "Battle Princess Madelyn" is drenched in retro charm.

Developer Casual Bit Games go to great lengths to make their effort look just like an arcade game you'd find 30 years ago. The cut scene visuals subtly flicker in the way a CRT monitor would, and characters are big, detailed and expressive.

The framing motif echoes "The Princess Bride," with a book-toting grandfather reading a book to a sick child who would rather be playing video games. The grandfather and girl appear in the story, of a princess-turned-knight who leads the effort to fend off evil that has infiltrated the world of the living.

With the ghost of her slain puppy in tow, Madelyn wears armor and jumps in the manner of Arthur in "Ghosts 'n Goblins" and "Ghouls 'n Ghosts." Just as in those classics, there's more going on than the standard beat-em-up it appears to be.

As creepy monstrosities pop up from behind trees and walls, you slay them, speak to NPCs, track down hidden items and unlock new paths. The light Metroidvania flavor keeps things from growing stale.

The game is beautiful and inventive, with visuals that simulate the look and feel of 8 and 16-bit fare of the era. The throughline of subtle humor mocks conventions of the time, while sticking enough to established customs that it could pass for a genuine creation of the 80s, vacuum sealed until it could be released today.

"Battle Princess Madelyn" is a heartfelt and comedic lark with charm to spare. While not as sadistically frustrating as its forebears, it retains a similar sense of joyful discovery. Its spunky hero is truly one for the ages.
Publisher provided review code.

"Mini Metro" Review

A piece-shifting puzzler in the vein of "Pipe Dream," "Mini Metro" takes a simple premise and quickly heaps on complexity. The difficulty ramps up significantly, forcing you to adjust your thinking and tailor your tactics to the level at hand.

You shift and rotate paths from one station to another, with a limited amount of track to use. To advance, you need to make the most efficient use of limited resources, adjusting on the fly to keep your mini metro track paths tight and reliable.

Different colored pathways enter the fray, forcing you to make a chain reaction of changes when you adjust something that is out of place. A tinkerer's dream, "Mini Metro" gives you plenty to adjust and rejigger in order to sort out the ideal solution. The array of track permutations available to you is staggering, but also liberating.

It often takes a bit of trial and error to stumble onto the right solutions, but the longer you play, the greater sense you have of how to manage the tasks set before you.

"Mini Metro" isn't spectacular, but its meat-and-potatoes execution is admirable. An ideal for on-the-go Switch gamers looking to engage their minds in a productive, deductive pastime while killing time, the game puts you on the express route to puzzle game bliss.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Below" Review

With the roguelike genre having made a strong comeback to prominence, developers have outdone one another in an effort to distinguish themselves from the pack. Leave it to Capy Games to push the genre's unforgiving aspects to their limit.

With "Below," Capy has unleashed a punishing, adamantly old-school take on roguelikes. With no ability to pause, one-hit permadeath coupled with forced restarts and zero handholding in the form of tutorials.

Even with the archetypes from older games firmly in place, there are still technological improvements, even if some are a bit anochranistic. Kinect owners on the Xbox One version can monitor your room surroundings to adjust procedural iterations of the levels.

Much of the allure comes in feeling your way through the formidable systems. To get the full effect, avoid online walkthroughs and go into the game blind. The less you take into it, the more you'll get out of it.

The story involves a grim power known as the Darkness that has put the realm in a chokehold. You arrive at a beachhead and can light a campfire, scrounge for items, spelunk in caves and find and utilize incongruous items.

Feeling your way through the inventory and action system is rewarding, providing an immense sense of discovery that empowers you as you go through. Although death is frequent and harsh, you're meant to learn harsh lessons from your failures, coming back with redoubled efforts hardened by the wisdom granted by gameplay experience rather than artificial statistical buffs of standard RPGs.

"Below" doesn't hold back when it comes to giving gamers an authentically brutal experience, and that motif allows some of the game's rougher edges to seem forgivable. Capy Games didn't strive for perfection, but thrives in the way it sets gamers up against obtuse, borderline unfair challenges. If you're up to the ordeal, you'll be intrigue in what lies "Below."
Publisher provided review code.

"Katamary Damacy REROLL" Review

The concept was so simple it was a surprise that it was never copied. The concept was so insane that it's a wonder it was ever even conceived, much less executed. "

Katamari Damacy" was a wacky action/puzzle/collect-a-thon that had players manipulate a ball around various levels, gathering objects in its wake that made it bigger and bigger.

As the Prince, you do all this to please the sardonic, eccentrically domineering King of All Cosmos, who demands that you craft giant Katamari balls to replace stars that have fallen out of the sky. The goofy setup was a starting point for a cavalcade of nonsensical jokes and non sequiturs.

Fourteen years after its original release, the relentless charmer has tujmbled back into public consciousness, popping up in a remake on PC and Switch as "Katamari Damacy REROLL."

The game doesn't reinvent the wheel, or Katamari for that matter, and that's just as well, because the mechanics that entranced gamers in 2004 remain every bit as alluring.

The latter's dual analogue sticks make for an ideal control setup, allowing you to use one for directional force and the other to change the angle at which you address the Katamari. If you're playing on your TV, you don't need to manipulate the sticks at all, using wrist twists to direct your Katamari.

An all-ages romp, "Katamari Damacy REROLL" is a relentlessly paced lark that, like a Katamari, only gathers stature and momentum as it rolls along. Playing it on the Switch feels just right, as though the PlayStation 2 version was just a beta for its eventual ideal landing spot. The King of All Cosmos would be pleased to see the new star hoisted into the skies.
Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went through phases of appreciation, satisfaction boredom, annoyance, and outright resentment. Bradbury's stab at a sci-fi YA adventure is worthwhile due to its thought-provoking monologues and interesting depiction of evil's influence and utility in mankind.

Will and Jim are 13-year-old boys who are sucked into the bowels of a traveling, Mephistophilean carnival that is run by a tattooed devil incarnate who intends to harvest their souls, as well as any other small-town bumpkins they can manage. They ignore their parents' wishes and take it upon themselves to expose the demons on their own, Hardy Boys style.

The teen empowerment fantasy fuels the narrative through its most ridiculous moments. I could tolerate the many needed logical stretches to stay present in the story, but Will's twerpiness drove me over the edge. It got to the point where I cringed whenever the next idiotic phrase came out of his mouth, and I rooted for his failure and death.

His dad, who becomes a major part of the story later on, is more tolerable, but at times equally annoying. How he comes to know everything about the carnival, where its denizens came from how to neutralize the operation and what its future held, is head-smackingly dumb.

Christian Rummel's narration in the Audible version does Will no favors, deploying a whiny voice that makes him even harder to stomach. A more straightforward reading would have salved the irritation a bit.

The ending is almost laughably insipid, as though Bradbury has no idea what to do with his endgame and just went with the first, dumbest idea that occurred to him.

Even on a somewhat off day, Bradbury is a brainy, thought-provoking writer with much to say that's worth pondering. This is not the author at his best, but the good moments manage to redeem the awful.

Publisher provided review code.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"Escape Doodland" Review

Playing like a sprint through the hyperactive imagination of a 14-year-old, "Escape Doodland" stands out with its distinctive artistic flair.

Every corner of the screen looks like freehand pen or colored pencil sketches. The backgrounds and characters bubble with miniscule grotesque, intricate details that emerge from idle sketching.

It's impossible to play the effort from flukyMachine without a big smile on your face. Giant monsters chase you down through the outrageous 2.5-D, endless runner platformer stages.

Balance and precision were not on the table during the conception stage. This is a mean, nasty and often hilarious game that is purely out to get you.

Sticking to the juvenile motif, you use farts as diversionary weapons and boosts for speed and jumps. What the character ate to generate all this fuel is worthy of NASA research.

Expect to die early and often, through increasingly sadistic means. You find yourself chomped, chewed, swallowed whole, splattered and ground to bits. The trick is that the game manages to keep you eagerly coming back for more instead of scaring you off. That's the mark of precision conceptualization and design disguised as a haphazard mess.

Publisher provided review code.

"Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP" Switch Review

Inventiveness is the currency in which Capybara Games and Superbrothers traffic in "Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP." The wildly creative narrative reinterprets action/fantasy and puzzle game tropes, all set to a distinctive score by Jim Guthrie.

The 2012 blast of fresh indie game air, which made an impression on the scene when it debuted on PC and Smartphones, re-emerges on the Switch.

The less time spent explaining/rationalizing the loopy plot the better. There are plenty of oddball story beats to digest, but "Sword & Sorcery" is more about emergent gameplay that occurs when you tinker with the odds and ends of the design.

Zany humor pulses from every facet of the gameplay. Still more surprising is the heart that emerges. A brainy, artful creation, "Sword & Sorcery" is challenging in more than one respect. Like an engaging portrait or novel, there is plenty to sift through and discuss.

On the downside, the commitment to an eclectic sense of style may scare off gamers used to more traditional experiences. Strictly for those who lean toward the unconventional, "Sword & Sorcery" hints at what mobile gaming could have become had it not plateaued during the middle of the decade.

Finding a welcome landing spot on the Switch is a welcome and fitting next act for a game that might have otherwise faded into oblivion.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"R-Type Dimensions EX" Switch Review

Resurrecting two of the greatest shmup titles ever created, "R-Type Dimensions EX" rounds up the first two space shooters into one remastered package on the Switch.

With 14 levels filled with megaships, screen-filling beasts and side-scrolling obstacles to blast your way through, the game ratchets up the difficulty to levels that were acceptable in the 1980s but are rarely seen in this era.

The replay value comes in embracing the intense challenge and gradually working your way toward mastery. Ultimately, you'll find yourself losing yourself in the heat and flow of the game, dodging and destroying enemies as second nature, without even focusing.

Two-player co-op makes the challenge heaped upon you easier to deal with, and a slow-motion mode lets you break down your mistakes and adjust accordingly.

Graphics have been considerably upgraded, but those who are fans of the original, pixelated visuals can swap back and forth between the current and old visuals at any time. Customizable controls allow you to rejigger and tweak the options to your liking.

Whether you're a series veteran or a newcomer, "R-Type Dimensions EX" has plenty to offer you. It's an apt fit for the Switch, thriving on your TV, as well as in handheld mode. The ticket to deep space shenanigans works as a time machine as well, transporting you back to its 80s heyday.
Publisher provided review code.

"Ticket to Ride" Review

The beloved railway-themed board game evolves in "Ticket to Ride," which delivers all the frenzied, competitive gameplay and removes the tedious setup, piece management and cleanup.

Another in a series of local multiplayer-focused PS4 exclusives, including the quiz game "Knowledge is Power" and murder mystery "Hidden Agenda," "Ticket to Ride."

After the initial hassle of having all players download the game-specific app and connecting to the same local WiFi network as your console, you dig in to the fast-paced rail building. The necessity of using phones or tablets rather than controllers makes it easy for larger groups to get in on the action without making the host splurge on hardware.

While the visuals are less than spectacular, they are adequate and don't get in the way. Developers Days of Wonder and Asmodee Digital , which are cognizant that the airtight gameplay is the main drawn, prioritize functionality above all else.

Like other PlayLink games, the more players who get involved, the better time you're in for, with the game acting as a conduit to elicit the ribbing and inside jokes that emerge when friends gather and set their wits on the line against one another.

"Ticket to Ride" is at its best when it goes off the rails, setting the room afire with angst, stress and laughs. It takes the party game concept to a new level, and makes you think twice before cracking open the old board game.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" Review

These are relative boom times for Lovecraftian horror games, with the combat-focused strategy title "Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" following the measured narrative stylings of "Call of Cthulhu."

The newer game, an action-packed turn-based effort in the tradition of "XCOM" and "Valkyria Chronicles," explores the universe's bizarre creatures and their spellbinding powers and abilities, crossed with the trappings of World War II.

This will all seem familiar to tabletop RPG enthusiasts, because developer Auroch Digital adapted the card and miniature setup to conjure the game.

Maintaining the dice-roll sensibilities of combat odds, as well as the sense of progression that allows you to bend those odds to your favor, the result is a balanced effort that taxes your willingness to gauge opportunistic aggression with measured defense.

Those who go in with heedless guns blazing are likely to find themselves repeating levels, as will those who fail to press their advantage when it arises. Multiple variables come into play as things develop, with light and dark powers to orchestrate, shifting senses of momentum that tweak the circumstances and a psychological health dynamic that wears your forces down as they're exposed to further trauma.

The game doesn't do much in the way of holding your hand, but does deliver fair, constructive lessons along with your failures. When you suffer setbacks, you come back stronger and more capable. Heeding the call of battle in "Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics" is a brutal, unforgiving affair that never fails to get your adrenaline flowing.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Theater Review: "The Music Man"

"The Music Man" tends to be one of the classic musicals that is too much taken for granted to be regarded as lively and poignant. Leave it to Arizona Theatre Company to breathe fresh life into its creaky bones of Meredith Wilson's opus.

Bill English plays title character Harold Hill with the necessarily heedless devil-may-care panache to keep him likable even as he deceives the town's innocents. He heads up a superb cast of rambunctious performers, elegant singers and athletic dancers.

Standouts include Danny Scheie in an unrepentant hammy tour de force as dopey villain Mayor Shinn, drawing a slew of belly laughs with ludicrous monologues and one-liners. Manna Nichols delivers show-stopping vocals as Harold's bookish love interest, Marian. Amy Button, Carly Natania Grossman, Jay Garcia and George Slotin anchor an outstanding ensemble.

Before the performance, Arizona Theatre Company's brain trust took the stage and revealed that this is the most expensive production in the organization's 52 years. The bulk of the expense seems to have gone into the elaborate sets, which switch out and flow into the narrative in seamless transitions and impressive mobility. Director David Ivers orchestrates the impressive pieces with aplomb.

The synchronicity of the sets and performers is obvious from the outset, with the opening number, "Rock Island," in which traveling salesmen gossip on a train ride. The standout number is the second song in act two, "Shipoopi," an exhausting couples routine that pushes the ballroom and stunt talents of the dancers to the limit. Choreographer Jaclyn Miller and her charges deserve a mid-show standing ovation for that number alone.

Passionate and poignant messages keep the 1957 writing relevant. The show preaches the urgency of financial support of community arts, as well as the innate need for artistic expression that often lies dormant in the heart. The metaphorical song "The Music Man" belts out rings heartfelt and true through the decades.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of "The Music Man" plays through Dec. 30. Buy tickets here.

Book Report: "Fahrenheit 451"

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You would think a book like this would be dated, but it holds up astoundingly well. Now the story of a world without physical books is alarmingly prophetic, if a little misdirected in its alarmism.

The dystopian portrait Ray Bradbury paints is chilling, if a little perfunctory. The cliches it established have been copied to the point that they play like white noise. Bradbury leans away from his weaknesses in descriptive storytelling, delving more into philosophical debates that stem from dueling monologues of its conflicted characters.

Bradbury ultimately arrives at the point that it's not the medium that matters, but the thirst for knowledge and exploration of thought that keeps the human mind vital. Oral tradition, public discussion and the expansive reach that digital distribution delivers in the form of audio and e-books makes physical volumes all but obsolete.

Even more poignant is the book's "Handmaid's Tale"-like message that fascism doesn't always come by violent revolution, but by a methodical chipping away of civil liberties and public curiosity.

In the Audible version, Tim Robbins provides brainy, insightful narration that shades Bradbury's thoughts with depth and nuance, infusing the book's polemics with fevered angst.

The slippery slope grows steeper the longer it remains unchallenged. It's important for thought-provoking works like this to spark people into checking the temperature before things get out of control.

Publisher provided review code.

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Thursday, December 06, 2018

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey: Legacy of the First Blade Episode 1 - Hunted" Review

Upon release in October, "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" was already a staggeringly large game, with a vast world bursting with sidequests to explore. "Legacy of the First Blade Episode 1 - Hunted," the first of three scheduled expansions, continues to ratchet up the depth and reach of one of the year's most impressive open-world titles.

Flowing naturally from the base campaign, the saga is a bite-sized addition to the mythos, taking pains to connect the sprawling Ancient Greek opus with the fiction of the series proper, as well as last year's "Assassin's Cred Origins."

Back from that game is the Order of the Ancient, which is fated to evolve into the Templars -- future antagonists of the assassins.

It's on you to investigate mysterious figures who pull strings from behind the scenes. The M.O. stays the same: Investigate, infiltrate and execute your targets, vaulting you toward the next branching path.

Set in the Macedonia sector of the map, "Hunted" is a tight, interlocking series of missions with satisfying ties to the rest of the series and hints of what's to come. This is single-player DLC done right, giving gamers distracted by the likes of "Red Dead Redemption 2" an excellent reason to dive back into the fray.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

"Just Cause 4" Review

Wherever Rico Rodriguez goes, chaos erupts. The grapple-shooting, parachute-dropping one-man revolutionary army overturns governments, blasts away thugs in firefights and sneaks into strongholds for espionage ops. "Just Cause 4" finds the brash protagonist in deep once again, thriving in his element of mass destruction.

Set in the fictional South American nation of Solis, the game is the most vertical in the series, giving Rico ample opportunity to get the drop on enemies from hidden crags and towering nooks.

"Just Cause" games have always thrived on giving players a sense of exuberant freedom, and the fourth entry follows suit. You may find yourself grappling behind a vehicle in one moment, vaulting over a wall the next, deploying a chute to catch a draft up a 50-foot building, then BASE jumping alongside a waterfall shortly after.

Like an absurd action movie fever dream come to life, "Just Cause 4" lets you live out your wildest impulses with little regard for the consequence. Developer Avalanche Studios rewards you time and again for brashness and daring, discouraging you from playing it as safe as you might in, say, "Black Ops 4."

There is clear influence from the likes of "Fortnite" and other Battle Royale releases. The combat and traversal tactics, as well as on-the-fly environmental cover, that players pick up in the other games will apply well here. Enemies are largely hapless and dumb, but that doesn't detract from the glee in taking them out.

Some may gripe that this is just more of the same, but since it's been three years since "Just Cause 3," and there's really no other game out there that matches the "Just Cause" sensibilities, that's no drawback at all.

"Just Cause 4" seeks out its niche and exploits it for all its worth. Its sense of freedom, intensity and rapidfire adrenaline rushes never ceases throughout its well-designed campaign. A welcome release of breezy entertainment, it's an ideal release valve from the pressures of the holidays.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Theater Review: "Waitress"

"Waitress" is just about as upbeat a musical as you could possibly have about such dark things as spousal abuse, infidelity and minimum-wage work.

Much of the credit goes Sara Bareilles's music, which infuses a bouncy pop sound into the song-and-dance numbers. But every aspect of the production, from the minimalist, matte painting sets, to the efficient, complementary movements of the choreography and the 1950s-chic diner costumes is calibrated for maximum buoyancy.

The magnetic lead is Christine Dwyer, as the pregnant-and-trapped waitress Jenna. She belts out her songs with Bareilles-style fervor, effortlessly carrying the audience through her narrative, a succession of bad-to-worse choices.

She struggles with a loveless, abusive marriage to backwoods bumpkin Earl (Matt DeAngelis), and an ill-advised affair with her slick, yet subtly creepy gynecologist (Steven Good).

The beating heart of the production, Dwyer nails her solos, delivering show-stopping emotional moments.

Jeremy Morse steals the entire play as Ogie, the Irish step-dancing suitor who pursues Dawn (Jessie Shelton), and Maiesha McQueen rises to the occasion in her solo, belting out her songs with operatic resonance.

"Waitress," which was adapted from Adrienne Shelly's 1997 film starring Kerri Russell, not only pays homage to its source, as well as its Bareilles-influenced Broadway reinvention. A stark, gorgeous and invigorating production, it's something you need a fresh, hot slice of.

The Broadway in Tucson production of "Waitress" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. Purchase tickets here.

Book Report: "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Louis Stevensons' dark, disturbing tale of duality thrives because of its innovative narrative format and incisive psychological expiration.

Told from alternating perspectives in what is now known as "Rashomon" style, a police procedural-like murder mystery from witnesses gives way to a fevered tale of internal conflict, in which the mad scientist central character faces off with the alter ego that he wrestles with for control of his physical body.

What emerges by the end is that the struggle Jekyll and Hyde endure is something everyone goes through to a degree. Jekyll is not some foreign entity, but a heedless id who indulges his dark impulses. It's possible to argue that Hyde is his true self, and Jekyll is the mask that he's crafted to make himself presentable to society.

Parallels with alcoholism and addiction emerge, with Jekyll suffering physical withdrawals as well as moral conflicts when he considers whether or not to continue to enable his alternate personality.

Richard Armitage delivers a heartfelt, frenzied reading in the Audible version, infusing the story with the harried passion that Stevenson seems to have intended. His fevered delivery helps insert you into the conflict.

There is a lot to consider and sort through in the tight, efficient tale, and it's easy to see why the story has been echoed and repeated, most prominently in "The Incredible Hulk." This is a true essential.

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