Monday, November 11, 2019

"Star Wars Pinball" Review

Pinball and "Star Wars" have always shared a Force-like link. The Saturday matinee-style sensibilities of the sci-fi monolith translate well to the pop-up unlockables inherent to the tabletop game.

Video game pinball fits on the Switch particularly well, with the system's shape replicating a miniaturized pinball table shape. Thus, it's little surprise that "Star Wars Pinball" feels so right on the Switch.

The revamped version of the 2013 Wii U game summons three new tables based on "The Clone Wars," Boba Fett and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Additional tables are promised as upcoming DLC, but there is plenty in the original package to keep you flipping your paddles in hypedrive mode through the end of the year.

A hotseat multiplayer mode lets you play couch co-op on the same console, adding an arcade-like intensity to showdowns.

These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with "The Mandalorian" releasing along with Disney+ today, the ballyhooed "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" due out this week and "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker" debuting in theaters next month. But even with those big-hitters tugging away at the attention of the franchise's fans, "Star Wars Pinball" shouldn't be overlooked.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"Death Stranding" Review

Freed from the expectations and routine of the "Metal Gear" sage, visionary developer Hideo Kojima indulges his inner muse to the extremes of the wild and bizarre limits of his imagination in "Death Stranding."

The result is a wildly clever, willfully obtuse thinkpiece that dares you to shunt your predispositions to the wayside and hurls yourself headlong down the increasingly bizarre rabbit hole. The journey is rewarding -- wickedly humorous, intellectually challenging and obstinately baffling.

Spiritual imagery and symbolism pulses throughout "Death Stranding," which thoroughly feels more like an under-the-radar indie download than a major-studio exclusive. The production quality lives up to the Kojima standard. He's always been among the most cinematic of gaming visionaries, prone to elaborate, exquisitely storyboarded cut scenes.

The exquisite voice cast, which includes the likes of Norman Reedus, Troy Baker and Tommie Earl Jenkins, helps drive home the Hollywood-level cachet. It also helps that the game is as gorgeous as any you're likely to play, with sweeping vistas that call to mind the best on offer from "Far Cry" or "Red Dead Redemption" games. There's also a healthy dose of influence from "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" lingering over the saga.

The less you know going in about the story, the better. You control a metaphysical delivery man, tasked with searching out packages and spiriting them to their destinations. Ever teetering on the bleeding edge between life and death, you carve out your own path in an open-world environment. You can toggle scanning and compass features that give you hints as to which roads you could be drawn to, but there are rewards equally as gratifying off the beaten path.

If you can, embrace "Death Stranding" as blindly as you can. Throw yourself into the persona of the protagonist emotionally as well as visually. Allow yourself to be lost, lay off the hand-holding features the game offers, avoid online walkthroughs and let yourself stumble upon the game's surprises by happenstance. The feeling of being lost and lonesome, as well as the rewarding nature of relying on your resourcefulness to forge ahead, is key to appreciating the aesthetic on which Kojima seems to be meditating.

"Death Stranding" may be dismissed as slow or flighty by some, but the fact that it's not particularly crafted to appeal to the masses only adds to its allure. This is not a game for your mom, or the beercan-to-forehead-crushing frat crowd. Even if you're a lifelong Kojima devotee, you've never played anything remotely like this, and the experience can be every bit as enriching, troubling and thrilling as you allow it to be. It's also one of the most subtly funny games I've encountered in years.

Pop-locking and moonwalking to its own bizarre beat, "Death Stranding" carries the unbridled confidence of a street performer. This is a game to die for.

Publisher provided review code.

"Midway" Review

Boasting impressive effects, a top-flight cast and a script that manages to nail a patriotic vibe while also being fair to the enemy, "Midway" is a robust, thrilling tribute to the battle that turned the tide of the World War II in the Pacific theater.

Director Roland Emmerich shies away from his usual overdramatic, exaggerated set piece tendencies to tell a measured and tight tale.

Wisely allowing the historical facts and built-in urgency of the stakes at play, the filmmaker provides one of his most mature efforts to date.

The makeup team deserves credit for making its cast of actors closely resemble their real-life counterparts. Nuanced performances from the likes of Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Patrick Wilson and Nick Jonas pay resonant tribute to the heroes of yesteryear.

While "Midway" takes the copilot seat to the 1976 classic, the update adds historical facts -- particularly from the participation of the intelligence community -- that wasn't available at the time, as well as providing a tear-jerking capstone to the Doolittle Raiders, the last of whom passed away this year.

The consummate Dad Movie, "Midway" is a well-crafted World War II film that will likely end up being one for the ages.

3.5 stars out of 4

Saturday, November 09, 2019

"Just Dance 2020" Review

Gaming doesn't have to be a sedentary, soda and chips-munching pastime. Games such as "Just Dance 2020" are the opposite, forcing you to get moving and making a fool of yourself -- fortunately away from public eyes.

If you'd like to advertise your moves, you can link up to social media and publish recorded excerpts of your awkward move-busting exploits -- provided you're playing on a system with the camera.

That's why the Kinect-friendly Xbox One version is still the best option in my eyes. The phased-out motion-sensing camera tracks your full body and records clips, allowing you to analyze your replays and make for a hilarious living room spectacle. That's the key to granting the title go-to party game status, thanks not only to the dancing, but the lyrics-providing karaoke aspect.

Most gamers -- even Xbox One devotees -- have no Kinect or camera at all. Those players sync their phones to the game, using the device to guesstimate their movements. Either way you go, you can track your workout progress by activating a sweat mode that tracks the calories you burn as you play.

The base game comes with more than 40 new songs. To get the most out of the game, though, you'll need to spring for a $25 yearlong Unlimited pass, which grants you access to more than 500 songs from previous games.

Since the game comes at a discount -- it's listed at $40, but available at $35 on Amazon -- it's easier to justify the subscription. As usual, the game comes with a 30-day free trial. The upfront cost sure beats the old system, which nickel-and-dimed you with constant microtransactions to download new tracks. Ubisoft regularly pumps out new songs to Unlimited for no extra cost.

Co-op multiplayer is the game's high point, provided you have enough space in your living room to allow as many as four people to boogie down simultaneously. You can also take your show online, competing in season-segmented competitions that pit you against worldwide opponents in single and multi-part competitions, as well as leaderboards.

With minor enhancements to visuals, menu design and load times. "Just Dance 2020" incrementally improves on a rock-solid base to maintain the franchise's standards. It will get your limbs flailing and heart pumping, allowing you to knock out your daily workout while dancing and singing safely hidden away from the outside world.

Publisher provided review code.

"Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition" Review

It's said that "Dungeons & Dragons" inspired just about every video game that hit the market, role-playing games in particular. The seminal "Baldur's Gate" titles were some of the truest synthesizers of the "D&D" aesthetic, rivaling "Final Fantasy" for the mindshare of a generation of RPG enthusiasts.

Originally released in 1998 and 2000, the RPGs paved the way for the likes of "Dragon Age" and "Elder Scrolls." The series may have fallen by the wayside, but its influence continues to reign.

Skybound Games took great care in translating the aesthetics to modern sensibilities, giving the visuals HD enhancements while staying true to the original look. Measures were also taken to bring the sound design, animations and save systems up to modern standards.

Rereleased on PC in 2012 in their current enhanced editions, the games now make their debuts on consoles, opening up their riches to a vast new segment of modern gamers.

Still, the "Baldur's Gate" games look and play very much as you remember two decades ago. What was cutting-edge technology and storytelling at the time now seems rustic and antiquated. Still, there are some fantastic adventures to be had, and you can find yourself sinking dozens of hours into upgrading your characters and venturing off on a multitude of quests.

It's hard to fire the old games up and keep a wide, dopey grin off your face. The "Baldur's Gate" games wear their geekiness proudly on their sleeves. You feel as though you have torn open a portal to the past.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Book Report: "Leaving Las Vegas"

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasFear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciated Thompson's portrait of my favorite city circa 1971. It was fascinating to sift through what has changed and what remains the same about the cross-section of desperation, glitz and excess that makes up the Entertainment Capital of the World.

It was fascinating to revisit a version of Vegas in which Circus Circus and the Flamingo were the places to see and be seen.

As for Hunter's storytelling itself, I found it lacking, strained and smacking of desperation. The sad throughline of an addiction-addled plight was meant to be funny and outrageous, but just seems painful.

The stream-of-consciousness writing is exaggerated to the point of hitting false notes way too hard. Every conversation and interaction is head-smackingly contorted and distorted to fit the oddball comedic rhythms that Thompson demands.

I respect the book for its innovation and boldness, as well as its occasional poignance in offhanded social commentary, but found the book wearing out its welcome, even though it's on the short side. It's like listening to a drugged-out, oblivios storyteller who doesn't notice or care that you've tuned out.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

"Family Tree" Review

The physics-based platformer "Family Tree" lives and dies on its charm and simple mechanics to thrive. The result is an occasionally fun, rarely challenging snoozer that puts up little resistance.

Developer Infinite State Games seems to have taken the simplistic approach to visual design, with many of the backgrounds and characters coming off as clip art.

Whether or not the aesthetic is an intentional attempt at a clean, smooth dynamic or just a way to cut corners while reducing man hours isn't clear.

"Family Tree" carries a tone something like "Doodle Jump" or a pinball machine. You continue flinging your bouncy character past platform obstacles, avoiding hazards while racking up bonuses. The effect can be hypnotic and zen, but seems more acclimated to a minigame.

Many "Kirby" titles have bonus levels that strike the feel and look of "Family Tree," and the franchise's sparing use of the mechanic goes further than Infinite State Games' overstressed efforts.

If you've got kids who are looking for a simplistic, confidence-building time-killer, "Family Tree" may be worth a look. But the Switch marketplace has too many crowded branches for the game to establish a nest of its own.

Publisher provided review code.

"Sega Ages Columns II" Review

The "Columns" games were Sega's late-1980s/early-90s response to Nintendo's "Tetris."

While the game didn't quite stack up or prove to have the lasting relevance of its rival, it was an addictive and well-crafted concoction that could stand up on its own.

The background graphics and goofy sound design, even in the more refined "Columns II" -- which is now out on Switch -- didn't age well, but that is part of the charm.

Playing "Columns II" as part of the Sega Ages throwback series is a nostalgia trip that thrives on the cheesiness factor of th 1990 title.

That's not to say Sega was content with leaving things as they were. There are a number of enhancements that modernize the game while remaining true to the goofy integrity of the George H.W. Bush-era release.

Online multiplayer, a stage select amenity and an arcade-simulating tabletop mode -- allowing players to hot-swap the device in order to facilitate simultaneous competitive action on the same device -- helps you get far more out of "Columns II" then you would have back in the Genesis days.

While "Columns II" remains a slim and shallow puzzler, it also benefits from the genius of its simplicity. Chalk up another one in the win column for Sega's retro initiative.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "A Brief History of Time"

A Brief History of TimeA Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ability to translate concepts such as spacetime, string theory and quantum physics from high-minded theoretical gobbledygook into something I can approach understanding is nothing short of wizardry.

Stephen Hawking accomplishes that masterful task in "A Brief History of Time," which summarizes mankind's eternal struggle to make sense of the rules of the universe, dating from the ancient Greeks who looked skyward and made assumptions about physics that scientists would still be struggling to rationalize mellenia later.

That's not to say the book is easy to digest. As dense and overwhelming as a crash course on theoretical physics, there is so much to sift through that it's nearly impossible to retain more than the general ideas on the first go-round. I feel like I could read the book 12 more times and take away a multitude of riches from it on each occasion.

It's a testament to Hawking's writing skill that going through the book again and again would be a pleasure rather than a chore. Leavened with astute metaphors, a smooth, easygoing pace and an easygoing sense of humor, "A Brief History of Time" is a joy to experience. An eye-opener and thought-provoker, "A Brief History of Time" is a spark that ignites your passion to sift through the mysteries of the cosmos.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

"Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 Tokyo" Review

It's hard to believe it's already time for the Summer Olympics games that lead up to the events themselves. Mario and Sonic -- ambassadors of goodwill for bridging the longstanding rivalry between Sega and Nintendo -- are back to set the tone for the athletic competition with their usual minigame compilation.

The dev team at Sega snaps the series out of its funk by adding in 8-bit retro competitions. Presented as the characters having time-traveled to the 1964 Tokyo games, the simplified activities dispense with the frills and pyrotechnics for raw, retro-style fun.

The normal events work the opposite way, continuing to push the visual fidelity for the series' debut on Switch. Convincing speed, animation and the usual quirky, oddball sense of humor permeate the wacky track and field antics.

The retro games aren't the only imaginative larks. The stylized "Dream" events ratchet u[shooting, karate and racing up a few levels on the absurd-o-meter, providing a welcome break from the standard button-mashing fare.

Oddly, and welcomely, there's also an educational aspect to the game in its story mode, with a steady drip of Olympic trivia, with an emphasis on the 1964 games. There's a pervading sense of cultural pride at play, with developers paying tribute to the full-circle dynamic of the hotbed of gaming culture hosting the games after a 56-year break.

The crossover franchise has come quite a ways from the simplistic, party game atmosphere of the 2008 Beijing games debut on Wii and DS. Still, the surreal effect of seeing Nintendo and Sega icons clash on the same screen hasn't lost its surreal pull, even with the "Smash Bros." series taking a similar tack. It's every bit as intriguing as Spider-Man setting up on the blocks for a sprint against Batman.

As many as four local players -- or eight competitors online -- can divvy up the 20 characters among the 31 events, which span the gamut from track, to surfing, canoe, boxing, equestrian, gymnastics martial arts, rugby and soccer. Basketball somehow misses the cut.

A colorful, hypercompetitive romp, "Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 Tokyo" is every bit as overstuffed and meandering as its title. And in a sense, the tone fits the Olympics themselves. This is a compilation that will keep you well entertained through the years until the 2024 Paris Olympics draw nearday.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 04, 2019

"Ichidant-R" Review

You don't need to have played a game in its heyday to have nostalgic feelings bubble up when you play it nowadays. That's what the wild anthology "Ichidant-R" proves when you fire it up on the Switch.

Released in Japanese arcades in 1994, the collection of timed mini-puzzles finally makes its way to U.S. shores.

Fans of Nintendo's old "Wario Ware" games will feel right at home. The colorful, creative challenges keep you engaged, longing to top your best scores and eager to see what comes next.

More than 20 challenges are included in the mix. One moment you could be conducting an orchestra, and the next you could find yourself winding through a labyrinth or playing hide-and-seek with adorable creatures of the night.

Developer CRI went to admirable lengths to preserve the original look and feel of the game. But maybe the package could have used some additional levels to flesh it out from beyond the original quick-hit game.

Always flowing with energy and relentless momentum, "Ichidant-R" never gives you a chance to get bored or feel stuck. While the challenge on some games is negligible, it's tough to find a more jubilant time-killer. 

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

"Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD" Review

Sega's "Super Monkey Ball" series has always thrived on a simple concept, which branched off the dynamic established by "Marble Madness."

Guiding your adorable spherical protagonist through platform and obstacle-filled mazes, you strive to achieve the best time and score possible via a combination of trial and error, twitch reflexes and sheer luck.Replayability is key, because taking on the same levels time after time would be a chore unless their design lent themselves to unbridled fun. Sega has usually succeeded at that task, and that's why the franchise continues to roll into current-gen consoles.

A high-definition remaster of the 2006 Wii game, "Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD" recaptures the hyperactive tone of the original, adding significant upgrades in visuals and sound.

At its heart, the game is a series of puzzle labyrinths with only marginal variance in the skills and routines needed to conquer them. The charm comes from the fine details. The cartoonish ambiance and the slapstick physics lead to instant gratification or comical failure, and both extremes can be equally entertaining.

In the flood of HD remasters that have come to newer consoles -- particularly the Switch -- the better redesigns have been bolstered by extras, such as historical featurettes, alternate play modes or anthologies that included past games. "Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD," which is a straight-up remake without few augmentation or extras -- save for online leaderboards and a decathlon mode -- comes up light in that regard. For better or worse, this is a game strictly for fans of the original who want to re-experience it on the Switch.

Since so many Wii owners seem to look back on the game wistfully, there is probably a sizable audience eager to get rolling again. As long as they don't come in expecting more than what they remember, they'll be satisfied to guide the monkey ball once more.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

"Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville" Review

Evolving the seeds of "Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare" beyond the multiplayer arena to tend to a bountiful crop of activities, "Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville is a confident step forward for the franchise.

Developer PopCap refines the established, family-friendly FPS formula and expands it into a fuller-featured game that seems built to last.

As in the past, you take control of an eclectic array of battle-ready plants and undead creatures who annihilate each other via a dazzling array of creative attacks and zany power-ups.

In addition to the standard array of squad-based death matches, there are a multitude of co-op activities to take part in. These are such an impressive addition that it's feasible to get the game and spend so much time on these modes that you won't feel the need to go online.

Couples, parents and children or roommates -- particularly those of vastly different skill levels -- can mildly grief each other, help each other out and enjoy the giddy thrills of conquering shared challenges.

Reports of server issues have hampered the launch, but PopCap appears to have worked out many of the problems, striving for a stable online realm that offers up quick, fast-flowing action to most anyone who logs on.

Those who are familiar with the "Garden Warfare" games will feel right at home -- maybe to a fault. While there's much to be said about not messing with an established formula that has proven to work well, it could be argued that PopCap spent so much time fleshing out the co-op activities that they neglected to reimagine the standard multiplayer. That's not a fatal fault, but something that the dev team can build upon for future games.

And if "Battle for Neighborville" proves anything, it's the certainty that there will be more games. PopCap has plenty more to do and say with this series, EA continues to throw its weight behind the franchise and players continue to respond with adulation. The future for "Plants vs. Zombies" is bright, and the present is a joyful garden to tend.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 01, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Terminator: Dark Fate"

For my full review, click here.

"Citadel: Forged With Fire" Review

An open-world RPG reminiscent of "Skyrim" and "Dragon Age," "Citadel: Forged With Fire" grants you an impressive sense of freedom in a sprawling sandbox environment filled with mystery, magic and intrigue.

Originally released to solid acclaim in 2017 on PC, the game comes to consoles in the form of a finely-tuned port.

There is more than a little influence from the likes of "Harry Potter" and "Game of Thrones" at play in the dense, lore-heavy tale. As you work your way up through the realm's social strata, you tame beasts, master magical powers and earn empowering perks and abilities.

"Citadel: Forged With Fire" thrives on the way it blends aspects of various genres, including survival, crafting and PvE aspects of MMORPGs. There are also formidable crafting and building aspects.

The dev team at Blue Isle Studios has taken intensive care to improve upon the base game, evolving the menu systems, interface and gameplay aspects. The console release benefits from an impressive sense of polish.

That's important, because the learning curve is steep. Expect to spend much of your time fumbling around aimlessly, getting a sense of the rules that govern the game. Exploration and experimentation make for much of the thrill of discovery.

The more of yourself that you put into your character's appearance, your choices and abilities, the more you become invested in the quest. Yout trial by fire determines your mettle.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in November 2019

For the full article, click here.

"Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King" Review

The past few years have seen a renaissance of 1990s games based on Disney animated series.

Following the release of "Ducktales: Remastered" in 2013 and "The Disney Afternoon Collection" in 2017, "Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King" rounds out the nostalgia trip with pixel-perfect rereleases of the side-scrollers that a generation of gamers grew up on.

Wisely timed to coincide with the release of the live-action remakes on home video, the anthology not only includes the original versions, but two alternate editions that provide amusing changeups and twists on the established formula. There's also a museum mode that delves into the creation of both classics.

In developer Digital Eclipse's effort to stay true to the original aspect ratio, screen size is sacrificed. As a result, you need to squint to play the letterboxed game in the Switch's portable mode. The game fares better while docked and playing on TV, but you'll probably find yourself scooting up close to the TV to make sure you don't miss any crucial details.

Returning to the games after decades away, what stands out about both "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" is how difficult they are. Both games require impeccable timing, a dogged resolve and a stomach for excruciating jump sequences and battles. You may be shocked at how tough these games were. They're every bit as torturous as you might remember from your tween years, and as a result, conquering them is all the more satisfying.

Also surprising is how beautiful the games remain. The graphic artists in the original games did a spectacular job of synthesizing the hand-drawn models to 16-bit equivalents. The sound design is similarly impressive, with soundtracks that echo the magic of the movie scores and themes.

"Dinsey Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King" is not only an essential pillar of a retro game library, but filled with hours of fun, if trying, gameplay that hits all the right nostalgic notes. They sure don't make 'em like this anymore.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

"Pig Eat Ball" Review

Developer Mommy's Best Games latches onto a simple concept and rolls with it in "Pig Eat Ball."

The puzzle game requires you to eat, grow, puke and shrink in order to trigger levers, maneuver across platforms and dispatch enemies throughout more than 200 levels.

Pulling a page from the "Fat Princess" playbook, the top-down adventure blends a quirky soundtrack with silly, absurd visuals to conjure an anything-goes tone that keeps things lighthearted and whimsical even during frustrating bottlenecks.

Arcade-style thrills keep the action moving at a haywire pace, with the barely-controlled chaos ever teetering on the brink of a meltdown of color, action and misdirection.

The "Katamari Damacy"-style writing contributes to the idiosyncratic draw, ever ready to provide sweet, fizzy palate cleanser for whatever super-serious game from which you need a break. "Pig Eat Ball" is every bit as fun and loopy as its title implies, and that's saying something.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup"

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Carreyrou's pitbull intensity to tear down the curtain of biomedical startup fraud perpetrated by Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani is a thrilling joy to behold.

I was drawn to the book by Alex Gibney's HBO doc, "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley." Both projects take on the same urgent tone and dizzying exuberance of the meteoric rise and stomach-sinking fall of Theranos.

Carreyrou's tale is textbook process reporting, taking the reader along through the harrowing journey to exposing the truth. Battles against the firm's thug lawyers in a poker game for the souls of sources takes up much of the storytelling, with cloak-and-dagger maneuverings meant to ferret out his sources and prevent them from sharing the bread crumbs that would lead to oblivion for the company.

Hanging in the balance are the fates of trusting Theranos employees, venture capitalists, patients and doctors who put their faith in Holmes Steve Jobs-style bision of grandiosity. Somewhere along the line, Holmes shifted from eager, driven visionary to a carnival barker suckering in one investor after the next, consuming anyone who would make themselves a willing dupe to her sinister shell game.

Every paragraph of Carreyrou's decimation of Theranos is a delicious morsel. With no padding or grandstanding getting in the way of the torrentous tale, this is a tight, invigorating read that stands as an example of heroic journalism that the world needs more of.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 28, 2019

"The Outer Worlds" Review

A sprawling interplanetary adventure, "The Outer Worlds" is meant to make you feel like you're an intrepid explorer of the star-strewn unknown.

The less you take into the saga, the more you're likely to get out of it. Walkthroughs and hand-holding will restrict you rather than help you along. Relying on your inner sense of wanderlust and curiosity is the best way absorb the game on the level it was meant to be enjoyed.

As a castaway stuck aboard a ship heading to the uncharted reaches of the galaxy, you slip into cryosleep and wake up decades later, finding yourself the apex of a conspiracy involving various clashing factions.

As the X-factor in the equation, it's up to you to decide who lives, who dies, who thrives and who shrinks away into the shadows before history can be written. The level of choice at hand is intoxicating, and sometimes paralyzing. You're best off leaving second-guessing behind and forging ahead wherever your whims lead.

Developers Obsidian Entertainment and Private Division commit fully to the single-player experience, rather than fracturing its attention on shoehorned-in multiplayer.

Choice-driven gameplay is at the forefront, with branching paths leading to varied endings. The variables at play make playthroughs different for just about everyone, encouraging you to come back and launch the quest time after time to see how things might work out differently.

Captivating visuals and sound design stretch Unreal Engine 4 to its limits, unveiling an impressive amount of creativity and iteration in character design, conversation flow and mission structure.

"The Outer Worlds" may not garner the mass appeal of the likes of "Borderlands 3" or "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare," but the robust experience it offers takes the backseat to no other game you're likely to play this year. To fire up the game is to transport yourself into another dimension, exploring your inner depths by reaching toward the great beyond.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" Review

A grandiose, full-featured return to form, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" works as a reboot not only to the storied for the subclassification of the franchise, but for "Call of Duty" as a whole.

Following last year's all-multiplayer experiment in the form of "Black Ops 4," developer Infinity Ward resurrects the highly-missed campaign mode. Fortified with a crackling story, spellbinding animation and adrenaline-pumping set pieces, the story is one of the strongest in years for "Call of Duty."

The saga takes you through a complicated, nuanced tale of divided loyalties and questionable policies of global military interference. Bold, tough questions come to light, including the motivations of insurgents, the collateral damage of geopolitical colonialism and the ethics of following orders versus doing what's morally right.

In addition to all the emotion and politics, the story is also a stunning and invigoratingly varied tale worthy of a summer action flick screenplay.

Multiplayer doesn't miss a step. In addition to the e-sports friendly classic multiplayer modes, elite operations allow you to forge ahead with teammates in cooperative raids.

Even more welcome, in a way, is what isn't there. The lack of a zombies mode is glaring, but not necessarily in a bad way. If it's tangles with the undead you're after, you can scoop up "Black Ops 4" for a few bucks in the used game rack for an excellent rendition of the stalwart mode. It was wise of Infinity Ward to focus its efforts on campaign and standard multiplayer modes rather than check perfunctory boxes. The narrower focus pays off masterfully.

Looming large behind the crafting of multiplayer is viability in the streaming and e-sports worlds, and the result -- rather than a stale effort that strives for balance above all else -- is a welcome return to fundamentals.

The grounded experience recalls the thrills that first made "Call of Duty" a household multiplayer name. Rather than try to blow off the roof with fever-pitched pyrotechnics, bizarre perks and outrageous weapons, most of the features you encounter feel feasible and sensible.

Taken as a whole, "Modern Warfare" is a towering achievement that feels at its core more like an indie passion project than a corporate-mandated annual release by one of gamedom's biggest publishers. Bulging with ample reasons to play obsessively into the night, then come back again for weeks and months to come, "Modern Warfare" proves that -- even in this world of splintered attention -- the blockbuster game event isn't going anywhere. Infinity Ward deserves a salute.

 Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Countdown"

For my full review, click here.

"The Bradwell Conspiracy" Review

Welcome to an escape room in video game form.

There's something sublimely satisfying about taking on a tight, well-crafted puzzle game. Developer Bossa Studios crafts just that with "The Bradwell Conspiracy," a brainy psychological thriller that has you scrambling to stretch your lateral thinking capabilities to the brink.

After an explosion disrupts a fundraiser for teh Stonehenge Museum, you find yourself trapped in and underground labyrinth, relying on your wits and deductive reasoning to help you make your way back to safety.

Fans of "Portal" will be at home here. The visually-inspired challenges that Bossa tosses at you make you twist your perspective and reassess the usual standards of logic in order to solve the issues at hand and advance. The mark of a worthwhile puzzle game is its ability to remain fair while also presenting a stiff challenge, and "The Bradwell Conspiracy" is up to the task.

Nothing comes easy in the game, and everything you need to find the answer is always in front of you. Relying on walkthroughs feels like a cop out, robbing you of the triumphant feeling of stumbling onto the solution on your own. When you find yourself stuck, looking up the answer inevitably leads to the resentment of not allowing yourself to persist with the trial and error that would have gotten you to success eventually.

Although the story is thin and content is relatively small -- with limited replayability in the mix -- "The Bradwell Conspiracy" is the ideal airport terminal or commuter game for Switch owners. Sudoku and crossword puzzles can't hang with the serpentine challenges that lie beneath.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: What's Leaving Netflix 2019

For the full story, click here.

Musical Theater Review: "Hello, Dolly!"

Few shows can touch the golden age majesty and spectacle of "Hello, Dolly!" Overwhelming the stage with brilliant dancers executing grand-scale numbers while accompanied by the thunderous accompaniment of a live orchestra, the production hammers the audience with one show-stopping stunner after another.

The challenge is to manufacture ways to keep an antiquated production relevant while staying true to the fabric of what lifted it to its legendary status in the first place.

Billed on promotional materials as "Broadway's Greatest Musical," the show has a lot to live up to. The 1964 show has been a staple for ages, and continues to thrive in revivals.

The production, spearheaded by director Jerry Zaks' creative use of screens that whisk the setting from place to place with instantaneous ease, is spellbinding. The cutting-edge tech melds seamlessly with the classical accoutrements to craft a shimmering example of how to modernize classic musical theater without ruining it.

The acting -- broad and exaggerated to the extreme -- may not fare quite as well, but the performances thrive where it counts the most. The show thoroughly belongs to lead Carolee Carmello, a three-time Tony nominee who owns the title role with magnetic gusto.

Dolly is a dynamic woman of a certain age who romps through 1860s Yonkers with a breezy, overbearing obliviousness, manipulating the satellite characters to her whims. John Bolton is a lovably cranky foil as Horace Vandergelder, a "half-millionaire" who plays the hapless dupe to Dolly's grandiose designs.

As excellent as the two leads are, they are sidelined for the show's most remarkable sequence, in which a team of high-stepping waiters pulls of meticulously coordinated routines that deliver gasp after gasp. The transcendent choreography drew riotous cheers that could match anything coming from McKale Center a few blocks away.

While the creaky old show may show some cracks, "Hello, Dolly!" remains vibrant, relevant and energetic. It's not time to say goodbye to the old standby just yet.

"Hello, Dolly!" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. To buy tickets, click here.

Monday, October 21, 2019

"The Ninja Saviors - Return of the Warriors" Review

Back in the 90s, all you needed for a game concept were side-scrolling levels, mindless thugs and giant bosses to take out with flying fists or bullets.

Somewhere along the line -- after 3D, open-world traversal and FPS point of view -- developers lost the exuberance of the old-fashioned beat-em-up.

Now that retro stylings are becoming en vogue, the reinvention of the brawler is well underway. "The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors" is a top-shelf example of the genre's rebirth.

A pick-up-and-play blast that boasts enough challenge to have you repeating levels all night, the creation from Natsume Atari is a satisfyingly frustrating blast from the past.

A reinvention of the Super Nintendo classic, "Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriros" retains the kinetic gameplay while lifting graphics, sound and gameplay to modern standards.

Playing as one of five android ninjas, you slash, chop and slice your way through marauding enemies in an urban dystopia. Co-op play opens up a new dimension to the previously single-player experience, adding shades of "Final Fight," "Contra" and "Double Dragon."

While further additions such as a boss rush mode, retro graphics options and storyboards or other historical data might have rounded out the package nicely, there's no quibbling about the amount of content included. If you're seeking a new throwback obsession, look no further than this lovingly crafted gem.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

"BurgerTime Party" Review

A reimagined version of an arcade classic, "BurgerTime Party" amps up the visuals but keeps the frantic puzzle-solving moving at a rate familiar to those who fed quarters to "BurgerTime" machines back in the day.

As you scramble to run completely over toppings, dropping them from one multilevel tier to the next, eventually piling them up as complete burgers for customers who apparently don't mind that they were stepped all over by tiny creatures.

As you build your burgers, you contend with Food Foes -- anthropomorphic munchkins with dead eyes and nightmare-fueled grins and grimaces. They chase you through diabolically crafted levels filled with ice-slicked ladders, tricky conveyor belts and flame-roasted floors.

More than 100 stages are included, and you'll have more fun taking them on if you've got between one and three friends around to engage in couch co-op.

While "BurgerTime Party" has the perfectionist feel of a trial-by-error mobile game that struggles to justify its $30 price, there's no denying that the original formula still works.

Oftentimes, developers ruin a good thing by getting too cute with their retro reimaginings, but the dev team at G-mode realizes that there's no sense in messing with a proven formula. "BurgerTime Party" serves up the goodness you remember fondly from the 80s.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II"

Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War IIChurchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Mukerjee has excellent illuminating points to make, backed up by tremendous research, but he blows just about all of his payload early on.

He tells the salacious and devastating story of how Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes to keep the Indians subjugated under the grip of the British Empire as he publicly faced down the Nazi threat. The sinister, greed and race-driven motives add a disturbing shadow to Churchille's lionized image as a staunch defender of freedom and foil to tyranny.

The messy, obfuscated history of India and Pakistan bubbles to light in Mukerjee's writing, which highlights genocides, famines and exploitation that were overshadowed by the grand opera of World War II, and thus escaped the level of global public consciousness they otherwise would have earned.

As stirring as the beginning of the book is, it fails to extrapolate the seeds to a grander vision, instead dallying on piles of academic citations and monotonous listings of obscure, irrelevant statistics. The message begins to get lost in the weeds in a series of lectures meant to put students to sleep.

In the Audible version, narrator James Adams delivers the findings with appropriate distaste, barely hidden by a prim, proper British congeniality. His words bubble with a sense of embarrassment and resentment of the despicable imperial past of his nation.

"Churchill's Secret War" ends up being too much like a textbook to rise to the level of essential storytelling. Its most staggering points could have been summarized in a lengthy article in the Atlantic or New Yorker. But its lessons are stark and true, and deserve a better mindshare than that which books like these will be able to elevate them.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 19, 2019

"Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered" Switch Review

There have been multiple awful "Ghostbusters" game adaptations, but the best one yet created is back, with proton packs charged up in order to exorcise haunting failures of the past.

"Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered" brings the overlooked classic to current consoles. I played the Switch version, which benefits mightily from the ability to play either at home in docked mode or on the go with native visuals and framerate intact. The game thrives as a double-barreled blast from the past.

Back in 2009, the original "Ghostbusters" gang got back together for a video game that served as a sequel to the two films, revisiting several memorable events and scenes from the films. The film hit nostalgic notes in a satisfying way that neither the 1986-1991 animated series nor the 2016 reboot could never approach.

In one of his last notable projects before his 2014 death, Harold Ramis penned the game script with Dan Aykroyd. Both lent their voices and likenesses to the game as well, joining Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson.

The actors' quips and chemistry is nearly as strong as the game as it was in the movies, making for a fascinating follow-up that bursts with fan service. The game is far more entertaining in co-op mode, but still manages to captivate as a single-player experience.

Developer Saber Interactive wisely stuck to the PS3/Xbox 360 version of the game, ignoring the inferior Wii edition.

Gone is the lackluster online multiplayer mode, which added little to the initial package and likely wouldn't have enough community backing to provide regular games had Saber bothered to include it.

Looking and playing as good on the Switch as it did the consoles of yesteryear, "Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered" is a welcome blast from the past, and well worth crossing your streams for.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

"Overwatch" Switch Review

Having established itself as a prime force in e-sports and embedding itself into pop culture, the "Overwatch" phenomenon continues to spread, now allowing Switch owners to get in on the FPS, MOBA-style action.

Following a 2016 release on PC and consoles, the game comes to Switch in impressively full-featured form, with integration players on other platforms have come to expect.

Whether docked to the TV or in handheld form, the game's visuals can hang with the PS4 and Xbox releases in most meaningful aspects. The ideal way to play the game on Switch seems to be to dock it and use a Pro controller, but there's also something to be said for the competitive advantage that the intimacy of handheld mode offers.

The fast-moving, often frenzied gameplay is somewhat hampered by sluggish performance. It's uncertain whether the culprit is on the server side or the responsibility of underpowered Switch hardware. While not the optimal form of the game, it's empowering to be able to get some "Overwatch" rounds in on the go, whenever WiFi or a speedy hotspot exists.

Just as "Overwatch" has evolved on other systems over time, with Blizzard always pushing boundaries, smoothing out glitches and giving players more incentives to return, it's reasonable to expect the Switch version to continue the upswing.

Whatever lies in the future, the Switch version of "Overwatch" is off to a promising start. Like a lithe, mobile character in the game that benefits from fast plug-and-play action and the ability to play just about wherever and whenever. The sacrifice is stability and reliability. But things can only improve from here.

Publisher provided review code.
Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 14, 2019

"Darksiders II Deathinitive Edition" Switch Review

"Darksiders II" roars back from the dead, insisting on getting its due.

Taking control of Death, a lithe, elusive force of nature as opposed to the lumbering, slash-and-hack antics of War in the initial game.

Seven years after initial release, the game comes to Switch in a remastered edition that includes all previously-released DLC, swelling the total gameplay up to 30 hours. In addition to the remastered visuals running in 1080p, there are quality-of-life and balancing adjustments, such as altered loot distribution.

Light puzzle-solving and RPG aspects abound, leavening the action and storytelling to add up to a full-figured experience.

Amid the torrent of remastered games from yesteryear -- nearly every worthwhile game from the past decade seems to be getting a Switch treatment -- the "Darksiders" games are among the better fits.

With slick combat, popping graphics and a surprisingly emotionally resonant store, the sequel stands the test of time and is thriving in its Switch rebirth.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Book Report: "The Testaments"

The TestamentsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thirty-four years and three seasons of the pop culture-dominating Hulu series after her seminal feminist dystopian saga was released, Margaret Atwood returns to the franchise with youthful vigor.

Ignoring the canon that developed in the series, Atwood leaps ahead several decades to tell the definitive tale of the fall of Gilead through a compilation of historical documents. It would spoil things to give away the identities of most of the narrators, but it doesn't vie anything away to reveal that the driving force behind the story is Aunt Lydia.

A sinister, domineering force of dominating invasiveness, Lydia's acid-dipped observations and spider-like cunning spins a web of a plot that permeates the story.

Atwood keeps the narrative varied and agile, introducing plotlines through differing perspectives of various characters, coaxing the reader to piece together a sense of what's happening by deducing a reliable throughline.

As is the case with "The Handmaid's Tale," Atwood peppers her story with fevered, poignant observations about social and gender dynamics, as well as the dangers of mob politics and cults of personality.

A thoroughly satisfying and relentlessly challenging wrap-up to the saga, Atwood's novel is a triumphant storming of the Gilead gates.

View all my reviews

"Disney on Ice: Mickey's Search Party" Review

As the years pass, "Disney on Ice" paints itself into a corner, grasping at ways to try to top itself. Instead of being content with recycling the same plot devices and moves, the choreographers and effects designers continue to push the paradigm further and further.

Some years show more advancement than others, but the latest edition is on the edgier side, making the audience gasp with riveting gymnastic spectacles. The quality of performances continues to impress. Despite the kid-friendly trappings, this is top-level dance theater, with all roles going to highly capable performers.

The challenge year in and year out is to integrate the same characters and movie storylines into a different overarching story. Although the narrative remains as stretched and silly as ever.

Pan characters pop in and out of the movie re-enactments, telling the audience that they're looking for clues as to the whereabouts of Tinker Bell, who has gone missing.

The narrative is just an excuse for a Reader's Digest version of the most iconic scenes from the likes of "Aladdin," "Toy Story," "Frozen," "Coco," "The Little Mermaid" and "Moana." Oddly left out of the mix was "The Lion King."

Breathtaking set pieces abound, many involving silk aerials, trampolines, ramps and flexible poles. Among the standout moments are "Toy Story" army men backflipping on trampolines, Belle elevating dozens of feat off the ground in "Be Our Guest," an elevated Ariel pantomiming swimming in "The Little Mermaid" and giant puppets in "Coco."

A dazzling spectacle for all ages, "Mickey's Search Party" reinforces the notion that no matter how many "Disney on Ice" performances you've been to, you're cheating yourself if you miss this year's go-round.

For information on the tour, click here.

Studio provided review tickets.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

"Sega Genesis Mini" Review

Building off the retro-appealing success of Nintendo's NES Classic and SNES Classic, the Sega Genesis Mini is a plug-and-play console that's preloaded with several of the most memorable games for the seminal device.

With an authentic-feeling controller, pixel-perfect 16-bit graphics and 40 games, including entries from the Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star, Virtua Fighter, Earthworm Jim, Mega Man and Street Fighter series, there is more than enough here to justify the $79 cost.

Despite the adherence to retro charm, the quality-of-life features abound. The light, slim form factor makes it easy to move around, and there's a home button that lets you trigger a save state, pick another game, then hop back into your old game to resume your session.

On the downside, the wired controller forces you to scoot up near the TV to play, just like when you were a kid, and there's no option to rewind gameplay in order to help you easily get past some of the more trying challenges of yesteryear. The ability to connect online to take on other gamers with the Sega Genesis Mini would have been a tremendously thrilling addition, but it's not included.

Of course, it can be argued that any of the perceived drawbacks are simply methods to stay true to the charm of retro gaming, when the only multiplayer was the slug-your-brother-in-the-shoulder joys and frustrations of couch co-op.

A mini time machine that zaps you back to the late 1980s and early 90s, the Sega Genesis Mini nails the modest goals it sets out to accomplish. Blast processing is back, baby.

Publisher provided review sample.

Friday, October 04, 2019

"Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint" Review

Moving away from traditional real-world locations, Ubisoft's Ghost Recon franchise deploys to new horizons in "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint," but keeps its political commentary and believable near-future military gadgets front and center.

A sprawling, rich multiplayer-focused production, "Breakpoint" has you scurrying around for resources while clashing against human and drone adversaries. Emergent chases, tactical mindgames and pulse-pounding firefights fill out the relentless action, pushing the franchise confidently in new directions while staying true to the series' trademarks.

Set on the fictional, remarkably biologically diverse island of Aurora, the game provides ample settings for cooperative clashes.

The dev team at Ubisoft Paris borrows freely from other Ubisoft franchises to buttress its already compelling base. Wildlife and natural resources lend a "Far Cry" feel, while the open-world campaign owes a debt to the past two "Assassin's Creed" games.

While the single-player mode is robust and compelling, multiplayer remains king. The modes out of the gate provide compelling matchmaking, diverse -- albeit in a slim out-of-the-gate selection -- of maps. Microtransactions abound, but largely stick to cosmetic buffs, spurning the dreaded pay-to-win model in order to keep combat balanced.

The lush vegetation of the jungles, dizzying crags of the mountains and icy realms of the tundra throw different wrinkles into the combat dynamic, forcing you to adjust your schemes on the fly.

While the true measure of "Breakpoint" will come in the following months, during which Ubisoft Paris promises to support the initial offering with a slew of steady updates and additions, it's hard to ask for much more out of the gate than what's here.

Tactical gamers can buy in without reservations, confident that they've found their next obsession with which to clan up for the next several months. "Breakpoint" forges ahead in all the right ways.

Publisher provided review code.


For my written review, click here.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

"Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" Switch Review

"Star Wars" games have always scattered across the spectrum between excellence and garbage, and that trend continues to this day. The advantage of being a gamer today is the advantage of cherrypicking the best of the best.

Such an example of a cherry is the recently-released remastered version of the 2002 GameCube and Xbox classic, "Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" holds up reasonably well despite plenty of expected creakiness.

You play as Kyle Katarn, a Jedi hero who takes on an intergalactic threat. At your disposal are a full range of force powers, lightsabers and blasters.

What amounts to a linear open-world shooter with enough trappings to make it seem as though it's open world, "Jedi Outcast" truly is a trip back to a galaxy far, far away. Although its continuity has been destroyed by the post-Disney takeover canon reboot, the story rings true because of the way it sticks to the fundamentals of what make up a stirring "Star Wars" tale.

Due to its age and now wacky story trappings, the game will doubtless appeal more to older gamers than youngsters, who may well find its controls and interface stale and awkward.

If you're willing to look past the rough patches and somewhat stiff controls, you may well find yourself as entranced as ever by the swashbuckling, ever-empowering thrill of wielding your light saber and force throws.

With its grand return to modern consoles, "Jedi Outcast" emerges from the shadows and is no longer a forgotten lark from the past. Its rebirth points to a new hope that other memorable moments from the franchise's past will reappear.

Combat variety and execution is where the gameplay continues to thrive the best. In the nearly two decades since the game's release, few titles have matched the level of precision and excitement found in the swordplay here. Exhilarating lightsaber battles require skill and versatility to conquer.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in October 2019

For the full post, click here.

"80 Days" Switch Review

There's something intrinsically appealing about the idea of handlebar-moustached Victorian gents making grand, globe-trotting bets. "80 Days" takes the premise and runs, rides and flies with it.

A mix of Jules Verne source material buttressed with cyberpunk trappings, "80 Days" is all about resource management, tough decisions and measured risk. Much as with the choice-driven text adventures in the 1980s version of "The Oregon Trail," your selections lead to surprising and often comical results.

Following a 2014 iOS debut and a 2015 PC port, the game makes its Switch debut, with the dev team at Inkle using the console's technology as a broad canvas to sketch out its grand plans.

Set in 1872 London, you scramble to maneuver your way across the world via numerous transportation methods. You jockey your inventory, making necessary sacrifices by leaving behind some key items while doubtlessly bringing some with you that will prove a hindrance. Along the way, you encounter a series of obstacles and setbacks that ratchet up the urgency of your bold, brash race against the calendar.

Along the way, you can encounter romance, sci-fi wonders and horros, thievery and even space exploration. There's no way to see and do all the remarkable wonders in a single playthrough, so you're encouraged to play the game again and again to explore it from different avenues and perspectives. The more you play, the more scenarios unlock. The game is designed to show you only three percent of the total available content on each go-round.

Slim and efficient and bolstered by a clean, appealing look, "80 Days" is a whimsical travelogue that stokes the flames of boldness and derring-do that personified the 19th century origins of the material. A breathless lark, "80 Days" brims with intrigue and discovery.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 30, 2019

"Fight'N Rage" Review

A side-scrolling beat-em-up that recalls the glory days of "Streets of Rage" and "Final Fight," "Fight'N Rage" is a boisterous, kinetic button-masher with charm and energy to spare.

The stylized graphics from developer Sebagamesdev lend the games an anime-style feel

The fun ratchets up in three-player co-op mode, which allows you to toggle on a "friendly fire" mode that creates all sorts of mayhem, recalling the likes of "Battletoads," "Double Dragon" or -- better yet -- "Battletoads & Double Dragon."

The ability to accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose brain your pal in a tense moment adds a wild dimension to the proceedings that will have you chuckling at yourself when you let yourself fly into blind, vengeful flurries.

As the story unfolds, your choices can unlock different cut scenes and developments. The branching paths elements encourage replayability.

Unlockables abound, with new speeds, game modes and bonus characters abounding.

A blast of nostalgic glee, "Fight'N Rage is a well-calibrated, blissful blast of fist-flying antics.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

"Mable & The Wood" Review

As a warrior resurrected to fulfill a prophecy, you stroll through an interconnected realm in "Mable & The Wood," shaping your destiny with your choices in service of your vision. Your quest is open-ended and your path circuitous.

Triplevision Games' take on Metroidvania has a touch of "Mega Man," allowing you to take on the form and powers of bosses you defeat.

Non-lethal options abound, but the temptation to slay enemies abounds. The more you kill, the more abilities come to your disposal, but you also risk losing humanity in the exchange. The weighty take on morality lends an urgency and ups the intensity to the decisions you make.

Intense, melodic visuals meld with a haunting score and economical writing to craft a distinct experience that rewards you more in proportion to what you invest.

Occasional glitches and rough patches tend to disrupt the flow, and more direction and urgency could have given the game more of a narrative thrust. But what's here is an entrancing and creative package worthy of exploring.

Games like "Mable & The Wood" don't come along frequently. Here's hoping the game manages to find enough of an audience to give it the analysis and disucssion it deserves.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

"Deadly Premonition Origins" Switch Review

Back in 2010, "Deadly Premonition" released with a thud on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Initially dismissed as an awful game, it slowly gained a cult following through internet memes and fan theories. Eventually, the game cemented itself in the fabric of gaming culture as a critical achievement in offbeat humor and out-of-the-box gameplay.

Nearly a decade later, a sequel is on the horizon, and the original has gotten a remastered release on the Switch. Wisely aware that smoothing out all of the game's rough edges would have robbed it of its charm, developer Toybox games keeps many of the original flaws and idiosyncrasies intact.

The result is an expectedly mixed bag, but still a crucial component of any library for gamer with offbeat interests. Visuals that were already behind their time in 2010 look even more blocky and rough, backtracking annoyances abound, and yet the game retains every bit of its appeal. This is a clunky car that takes three times for its engine to turn over, yet still manages to get you there, giving you a joyfully bumpy ride all the way through.

You explore a bizarre town, meet its quirky characters and solve a series of interlocking mysteries that hover like a musty haze. Non-sequiturs and red herrings abound, which makes up much of the charm.

The survival horror mystery has much in common with "Twin Peaks." The village feels alive in the way most gaming settings fail to approach, swirling with culture and personality.

Expect to rely on walkthroughs to push you through the many obtuse bottlenecks that develop, but as long as you stay committed to powering through the story, there's little doubt you'll be enthralled by the multitude of dark, sardonic twists that abound.

"Deadly Premonition" is a wild one, and something that must be experiences firsthand to fully apprciate. Ever the riveting conversation-starter, the game manages to thrive in its rough-hewn, homespun state. Truly a trip, "Deadly Premonition Origins" deserves to be taken seriously, if only because it doesn't take itself seriously.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 27, 2019

"Contra: Rogue Corps" Review

The "Contra" aesthetic has always played best in 2D and top-down paradigms, but struggled to blast its way into 3D. "Contra: Rogue Corps" is the latest awkward effort to shove the fist-pumping, 1980s shoot-em-up aesthetic into a more modern realm, but settles for moderate success, falling short of outright triumph.

A frenetic but slippery twin-stick shooter with attitude to spare, "Rogue Corps" gets into trouble when it tries too hard to be edgy and surprising. Developed by Konami and Toylogic, the cigar-chomping, bullet-splattering heroism has a tendency to get in its own way.

Inventive enemy types and big bads, as well as limitless ammo and easy weapon upgrades grant the game an authentic throughline that dates back to the franchise's NES and SNES heyday. The option to go it alone or via online or offline co-op enriches the experience.

Still, there's something forced and cynical about the affair. While care has clearly been put into enemy and weapon design, there's a haphazard feel to the level design that gives the game a rush-job, cash grab feel reminiscent of a quick-and-dirty mobile game.

If you're jonesing for a more authentic "Contra" experience, better options abound, including Konami's exquisite "Contra Anniversary Collection" and "Blazing Chrome," both of which dropped in the past few months.

"Contra: Rogue Corps" is something for those who look back on the old "Contra" style fondly but want to push forward into new realms. If you've got a reliable multiplayer squad, you'll have plenty of fun here. If it's a solo experience you're after, you may feel like you're firing blanks.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership"

Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American LeadershipTheodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership by Jon Knokey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A masterful book about the building blocks that made Teddy Roosevelt into the leader he was, Jon Knokey's biography tells a rich and compelling story by focusing on his upbringing and rise to power.

Roosevelt had a genius for empathy, with a specialty for drawing together people from disparate backgrounds and points of view toward common ground. A great uniter, Roosevelt's leadership helped heal a divided nation that still bristled with resentment and mistrust in the decades after the Civil War.

Of his countless endearing qualities, Roosevelt's most appealing and convincing trait was the willingness to get his own hands dirty, sacrificing his comfort to prove his work ethic and commitment to others.

With a pirate's mentality, Roosevelt spurned the establishment and disrupted embedded processes. In accomplishing his goals, he established an end vision, then worked ferociously to destroy anything that stood between him and his desire.

In taking on the Audible edition, narrator Brian Holsopple adds a vigor and passion to Roosevelt's words and deeds that captured the essence of Teddy himself.

Bulging with exhaustive research melded with an easygoing storyteller's momentum, Knokey's writing is an exquisite match for Roosevelt's bravado and manner. His respect and admiration of Roosevelt's philosophy and life force seep through in his writing, but there's also enough distance for occasional astute criticism.

Teddy Roosevelt is clearly Knokey's favorite president, and it's nearly impossible to get through is book without Roosevelt becoming your favorite as well.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: "Abominable"

For my full review, click here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"The Long Journey Home" Review

A procedurally-generated resource management survival travelogue, "The Long Journey Home" is crafted to test the mettle of even the most dedicated players. To succeed, you'll need to play with smarts, precision and selective risk management.

Following a 2017 PC debut and a 2018 port to Xbox One and PS4, the game makes its way to the Switch.

Developer Daedelic Studio West may have gone a little overboard in making "The Long Journey Home" as punishing as it is. The challenge level may be the main draw, but it's also the main cause of its frustration.

A strained menu system leaves you fighting against the interface as well as the environmental challenges, causing strain and misery that often makes extended play stations Sysiphean efforts.

At least it's a moderately varied slog every time out. With varied environments and item locations on each homeward voyage, there's always something fresh to take on.

On each voyage, you'll face a combination of several alien races, each of which presents its own set of challenges, as well as disparate ways to confront, manage and work with.

What "The Long Journey Home" lacks in polish and calibration it makes up, to a degree, in variety and panache. A mixed bag with plenty to digest -- as well as suffer heartburn over -- it brings the struggle of interstellar travel to brutal life.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series" Review

The fall and rise of the seminal Telltale Games adventure series "The Walking Dead" resembles that of one of its undead minions. Following the sudden, unceremonious closure of the studio a year ago, the core team reassembled to finish the final season.

As a result, the seven-year, genre-defining legacy established by the ill-fated yet influential developer got a second life. Now developer Skybound Games, sticking to the spirit established by Telltale, wraps up all the mainline series with all four seasons, as well as the "400 Days" and Michonne-focused spinoffs, into a grand, epic package.

All told, there are 50 hours of gameplay spread out across 23 episodes. Also added are 10 hours of developer commentary, background featurettes, a making-of documentary and soundtrack.

Through point-and-click, mild puzzle-solving and dialogue trees, you make choices that affect whether characters live or die, as well as the direction of the plot and the moral makeup of your protagonists.

At its core, "The Walking Dead" is the transcendent journey of a heroine, Clementine, from defenseless little girl to full-grown, destiny-controlling badass. The fourth season dovetails magnificently with the themes and plot points of the opening frame, creating a staggering, resonant journey that wouldn't have the same impact in any other medium.

Although the work of some other developers may have surpassed Telltale's work over the years, there's no denying the lasting influence and continuing relevance of this magnificent take on "The Walking Dead." As popular as the TV and comic series are, the games will always hold a place as the purest, most emotionally impactful franchise's stories.

"The Walking Dead" has risen from oblivion, and it's doubtful we'll ever see anything quite like it again.

Even more impressively, choices chain from one episode to the next, leading to distinct experiences on different playthroughs that drastically redefine the themes and storylines you experience.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Shows Leaving Netflix October 2019"

For the full list, click here.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Book Report: “Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator”

Stalin: New Biography of a DictatorStalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oleg V. Khlevniuk writes with passion and purpose in unearthing the festering corpse of one of his country's most notorious tyrants. From the outset, and especially with his watershed conclusion, he makes it obvious that he fears that Russia is drifting toward the blindly despotic cult of personality in the Putin era that it found itself sucked into in the mid-20th century.

With strong-armed rule, senseless violence and a self-serving, humanity-devoid obsession with stature and optics over practical benefits, Stalin engineered and steered the Soviet apparatus toward his twisted vision of glory.

A burning obsession with dominance and ruthless authoritarianism flew at the top of Stalin's figurative freight train. An obsessive student of history and analyst of processes, personnel and procedures, Stalin was the consummate overthinker, envisioning threats where there were none. In a paranoid effort to snuff out all challenges before they could arise, he stoked a culture of surveillance, nudging informers to expose their neighbors.

Stalin ferreted out his trumped-up threats through sadistic purges that cost the lives of millions and destroyed the livelihoods of countless others. Those who weren't snuffed out were often relocated or ruined. Only a life of strict adherence to the party line held a chance of success, and even then only by the grace of happenstance. A venom-soaked jealous whisper from a rival could trump up preventative punishment in a society that presumed guilt.

Narrator Peter Ganim recites the prose of the Audible version with a steady, professorial authority blended with a storyteller's enthusiasm. With excellent pacing and poignant pauses, he marches through the smoldering anecdotes with gripping urgency.

Exhaustively researched and graced with effective context, this Stalin biography is a fascinating display of applicable history. A chilling reminder of the past is a sobering portent of the present, as well as its near-future implications.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 15, 2019

"eFootball PES 2020" Review

For the past decade, Konami has exercised as much of a stranglehold on soccer superiority as Virtual Concepts has with its "NBA 2K" series. Although "PES" has always trailed in team licenses and player likenesses, its on-field action has managed to maintain its lead without being content to park the bus and wait for EA to catch up.

With such impressive advancements in areas such as its career and franchise mode in recent editions, the main challenge for "PES" was to evolve its public profile and establish a foothold in the realms of streaming and competitions. And that's just what the team at Konami has targeted as it starts a fresh decade at the top of the table.

Konami figuratively shifted its midfield and defenders forward in an all-out assault on the goal of becoming the premier esports destination for soccer gamers. Exhaustive efforts were given to balancing, server integrity, accurate physics and minimized perfunctory animations to strip the game of happenstance and place the emphasis on skill, tactics and reaction time to determine success.

Also benefitting from a boost in pomp, presentation and replay integration, "PES 2020" might have risked danger of losing its sense of fist-pumping fun on the pitch. From the first kickoff, though, any worries that the game would lean in too mechanical a direction are dashed. This is still very much a game designed, broken down and rebuilt by a team obsessed with the thrills, absurdities and goofiness of the game. As a result, the on-field action plays with a brisk, set piece-emphasizing vigor that retains the adrenaline of schoolyard and pickup matches.

While legacy AI hiccups linger, this is easily the smoothest and most logical match flow anyone has managed to craft to this point. Strategizing against the computer continues to evolve into a game of overreactive cat and mouse, with creativity and craftsmanship rewarded over monotonous spamming of safe, basic routines.

The next realm Konami can set out to conquer is online mode innovation. If esports continues to be part of the modus operandi, it will be important to craft minigames and overall progression that make online soccer as vital a part of a gamer's agenda as the likes of "Call of Duty" or "Fortnite." A three-on-three mode, skills competition or micro-challenge subcategory could fit the bill, and no doubt the squad behind the generation's most complete soccer game is hard at work envisioning the future.

For now, this fresh and vital edition of eFootball is more than enough to keep the soccer-obsessed enthralled.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Borderlands 3" Review

Boasting an embarrassingly rich loadout of weapons, ammo, characters and personality, "Borderlands 3" feels like the missing puzzle piece to the modern gaming repertoire that had been missing for far too long. From the opening screen, every move the game makes feels effortlessly spot-on.

That's a testament to 2K's refusal to accede to gamers' demands and crank out current-gen "Borderlands" sequels on the regular. Taking a route that other stalwart franchises would be wise to follow, the brain trust didn't release a third "Borderlands" until it was good and ready.

Developer Gearbox Software took its time in bringing its storied franchise to current-gen consoles, generating excitement with "The Handsome Collection" in 2015 but not a whisper since.

The time spent tinkering in the garage has paid off. "Borderlands 3" resurrects the best of the franchise while also joyriding along the edge of current technology. With seamless multiplayer integration, gorgeous stylized visuals, a compelling loot-dripping economy and an abundance of diverse missions, the game is a wild, raucous sandbox.

There are a thousand ways to approach every objective, with creativity, nuance and happenstance making no two throwdowns seem similar.

Most satisfying of all, there is no punishing penalty for experimentation and failure -- and nor is there a reward for mindless grinding. When you fall, you find yourself injected back into the action before your blood car reach a steady boil, with various opportunities bubbling in front of you, tempting you to adjust your tactics in the pursuit of sweet victory.

While the true test of the game's longevity will come from Gearbox's resolve to support it as an ongoing service -- and some players have griped about some early systemic hiccups -- it's tough to fathom a more impressive blast of exhilaration and promise out of the gate.

With a dearth of first-party blockbusters on the docket this holiday season, and only a couple cross-platform rainmakers in the offing, it's easy to see that "Borderlands 3" will have the shooter community's prime attention well into 2020. If that's the case, then players are in for some glitzy, wild times delving into this project's myriad treasures.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sinking City" Switch Review

A brooding and gripping horror tale, "The Sinking City" is the latest in a wave of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired games that have hung issues such as mental health, hallucinations and vague morality in the balance.

The dev team at Frogwares doesn't shy away from the more embarrassing, outdated aspects of Lovecraft's perspective. The world of "The Sinking City" exists in a prejudiced perspective untouched by evolved political correctness. The game makes its move to the Switch after a June debut on other consoles.

Set in the partially sunken city of Oakmont, you play as a private investigator who seeks to unravel the mystery of a supernatural entity that has wrapped its tentacles around the city.

Gameplay elements mix sleuthing with occasional survival horror aspects. The mix is a somewhat jarring combination, with the writing momentum sometimes stalling when shoved up against frustrating game flow bottlenecks.

For a game that thrives on tension and atmosphere, the disruptions are nagging and frustrating. I rarely advocate for walkthroughs on first playthroughs, but this is a game in which I'd make an exception. It would be a shame to let rough, obtuse moments stop you from enjoying the dark tale.

Though decidedly a mixed bag, the game benefits from a steady hand and authoritative interpretation of the source fiction. A mature, nuanced take on horror, "The Sinking City" manages to inflict a sense of dread that few other games or films manage to even approach. There's something to be said for the captivating story halfway buried in the clunky morass.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

"NBA 2K20" Review

Forget about preseason. The NBA year truly starts when the annual "NBA 2K" entry drops. With no realistic competition around, the series continues to own the feel and thrill of hoops culture and gameplay. It's a credit to developer Visual Concepts that the series isn't content to rest on its accolades and is always striving for brilliance.

While there are few game-changing additions to "NBA 2K20" to set it apart from the past few entries in the series, the steady addition of new features, gameplay options and window dressing easily makes this year's entry feel captivating and cutting-edge.

The MyCareer mode is one of the most appealing go-to destinations. It allows you to live out your failed athletic dreams, grabbing attention from scouts, jockeying for draft position and working your way into the starting lineup. Juggling your business, image and basketball responsibilities makes you feel like an up-and-coming player dealing with a machine eager to chew him up.

You can use the NBA 2K20 app to upload your face onto your player, even though the accuracy of the scanning leaves much to be desired, and the name restrictions are ratcheted up to counterproductive levels.

The game provides real-time coaching and evaluations, judging every assist, shot selection and swipe at a ballhandler to give you a running grade of your performance.

In addition to MyGM and MyLeagye, there's also MyTeam a card-based fantasy game reminiscent of EA's Ultimate Team modes. Although the microtransactions and loot box-like card packs are wallet-drainers, there is much to be said about the steady satisfaction of putting together a roster made up with past greats and current phenoms and dominating the competition.

I played "NBA 2K20" on the Switch, and was particularly impressed with the visual fidelity and smooth animations on the underpowered system, as well as an evolved online infrastructure that hangs with what's available on PS4 and Xbox One. Connecting the app to my game was as simple as logging onto the app with my Nintendo ID. The ease of use expands the interface and allows you to shepherd your creations while on the go.

Continued enhancements including expanded, relevant commentary and a TV show with player interviews and relevant updates help sell the comprehensive feel of the package.

A dynasty that -- unlike the recent fall of the Warriors -- shows no signs of buckling, "NBA 2K20" reaffirms the franchise's stature as an integral pillar of what makes the game and its trappings so fascinating and compelling. The game makes you feel like you're in the club, and membership has its ever-satisfying privileges.

Publisher provided review code.