Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Report: "The Dead Zone"

The key to "The Dead Zone" is the way Stephen King sets up false premises, only to knock them on their side as he takes you in unexpected directions.

With a title like that, as well as King's usual subject material, I expected a horror tale, or at least something heavily involved with the spirit world. Instead, the novel is free of ghosts, hauntings and horror and instead a matter-of-fact rumination about what it would like to be blessed/cursed with psychic powers.

The burden of foresight in the land of the blind is heavy. The protagonist has a superpower that makes him capable of winning big at roulette or tracking down a serial killer, but it shoves him into impossible ethical situations.

The politically-charged latter half of the book focuses on a charismatic Congressional candidate whose potential path to success would spell the doom of millions of people. The quandary that arises is to what degree it's beneficial to derail that candidate's career. As the stakes rise and increasingly drastic methods become visible, the story becomes a drama set nearly almost entirely within the character's mind.

"The Dead Zone" is an unorthodox King book, and allows him to show off his off-brand skills. He proves to be as strong and lively a storyteller as usual, and that's a result it doesn't take a psychic to predict.

Monday, December 30, 2019

"World War Z" Review

It's tough to find a spot to stand out in the saturated zombie genre, but "World War Z" makes an attempt as persistent and fierce as an undead creature hungering for brains.

The co-op focused third-person shooter harkens back to "Left 4 Dead," with the emphasis on communication and complementary skills and roles key to survival.

Diverse mission sets, an elegant menu system that allows players to adjust gameplay parameters and join whatever session fits their mood. You can squad up with buddies, take your chances with strangers or seek out custom games. No matter how you go about the task,

Developer Saber Interactive prioritizes ease of use and speed above all else, and still manages to craft a game with impressive visuals, sound and animation.

The community has responded in kind, creating a thriving support system that means there are always players to link up with. That X factor is key, because without that level of commitment, there would barely be a game here.

"World War Z" continues to grow month after release, with Saber distributing regular content updates to keep things fresh and vibrant. The war against the evil dead will always be a perpetual struggle, and "World War Z" is out to ensure that the fight won't turn monotonous.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, December 27, 2019

"XenoRaptor" Review

Loaded with frenzied attacks from enemies, high-powered weapons and screen-searing explosions, "XenoRaptor" keeps you hooked with its brand of wild, frenetic energy.

The twin-stick, top-down shooter from developer Peter Cleary is a callback to arcade games of yore.

Although the game brings little new to the table, it manages to fire up the nostalgia factor while sticking on the cutting edge of graphics and sound. The visceral experience into which the game hurls you wouldn't have been possible in the 1980s or 90s.

The main hook is the weapon upgrade system, which lets you scoop up remnants of vanquished enemies that you can assemble on the fly into souped-up means of attack.

A strategic facet that doesn't often show itself in other bullet hell shooters comes into play here. You may find yourself looking for specific paths to upgrades that force you to be judicious about your targets. A studied, pragmatic style will yield rewards when you acquire game-changing weaponry.

"XenoRaptor" may not break much new ground, but it does enough to differentiate itself to keep things fresh.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Top 10 Movies of the Decade

For my full list, click here.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

"She Sees Red" Review

Full-motion video games so rarely come along anymore that a new entry that pushes the technological boundaries of the genre is worth a look.

"She Sees Red" is such an example. The effort from developer Rhinotales is closer to a branching-paths Netflix game such as "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" than it is the crude origins of the game type in "Dragon's Lair."

With game-altering choices placed along the way, leading to four endings to take in, there is plenty of replay value, even though the game falls on the short side, at less than 40 minutes. Subtitles or an English-dubbed track are available,

A strong script, solid performances and professional camerawork and effects give "She Sees Red" a layer of polish that you'd expect on a film released on a streaming app.

Released on Steam earlier this year, and now on iOS and Google Play, the story is a mature dive into the dark recesses of seedy Russian nightclub culture. With choices geared to be subtle and ambiguous rather than clear-cut right and wrong, it's best to go with your gut and see where the story takes you.

While it's hard to imagine going back to "She Sees Red" again and again. it's easy to imagine wanting to show it off to friends time after time. There is a clear, illuminating breakthrough here, and hopefully the game finds enough success to fund a follow-up.

Publisher provided review code.

For my full article, click here.

Monday, December 23, 2019

"Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition" Review

Some gaming classics are best left to memory.

"Neverwinter Nights," which laid the building blocks in 2002 that inspired countless games to follow, seems like one of the remakes that might have been best left as it was.

A sluggish and often jittery game that struggles to find its flow, "Neverwinter Nights" is saddled with several of the drawbacks of turn-of-the-century gaming, with too few quality-of-life improvements to make it accessible to all but the most dedicated and patient fans.

For those who want to relive one of gaming's seminal achievements, though, there is much here to enjoy. The Dungeons & Dragons"-based gameplay is sprawling and robust, with 10 separate missions challenging your skills as various characters in an array of elaborate scenarios.

The menu system remains largely unchanged from the PC games, which makes for an awkward and cumbersome fit on the Switch. Text size is less than optimal as well. You sometimes feel as though you're playing the game through a blurry pair of glasses.

The area in which "Neverwinter Nights" holds up best is storytelling. The dev team was clearly stacked with talented writers who were steeped in the legend and lore of the source material. The groundwork that eventually led to the likes of "Dragon Age" sometimes shifts into promising, if fleeting, focus, only to slip away like a miscast spell.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Shows Leaving Netflix in January 2020

For the full story, click here.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Book Report: "It"

ItIt by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It" is a young Stephen King's sprawling treatise on the connections between youth and middle age, the fragility and power of friendship and sinister monstrosities that lurk in the hearts, minds and imaginations of men.

King shows off his ear for the way the kids of the 1950s spoke, acted, played, hid and fought, as well as the ways yuppies of the 1980s schemed, maneuvered, bonded and bickered. The parallelism he uses to spin the tale is so elegant and rhythmic that it would be just about impossible for a movie to simulate. Maybe a 10-hour miniseries could do it justice, but we'll probably never see a better telling of the tale than in these pages.

The only flaws come in the scattershot nature of the antagonist's methods and origins. Awkward attempts to rationalize and explain the creature's nonsensical modus operandi just cause more confusion. He would have better served the mystery by avoiding the half measures and just leaving It as an unexplained entity.

"It" is a beautiful, dark, challenging and occasionally frustrating novel that lets King strut his stuff as a master yarn-spinner. Thought-provoking and resonant, it sticks with you like lingering memories forged in youth and saved to serve you in adulthood.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 16, 2019

"Assassin's Creed: The Rebel Collection" Switch Review

With the possible exception of Capcom, no publisher has been as gung-ho about getting its back catalogue onboard the Switch gravy train than Ubisoft. Following the likes of "South Park," "Child of Light," "Valiant Hearts: The Great War" and "Trials HD," the monolithic "Assassin's Creed" series is beginning to trickle onto the console.

The games included in "Assassin's Creed: The Rebel Collection" are rather obscure choices, and seem geared toward getting the franchise's feet wet on the Switch hardware. Rather than go with low-fi classics such as the original game, its follow-ups, the Ezio Collection, or the most recent blockbusters, "Origins" and "Odyssey," we get nearly-forgotten late last-gen entries.

The compilation includes "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" (2013) and "Assassin's Creed Rogue" (2014). As is usually the case with rereleases, both games are loaded with all previously-released DLC, and with games as microtransaction-happy as these, that means tons of extra levels, skins, weapons and items.

The games in the collection represent a turning point for the franchise, in which it branched off into naval combat in "Black Flag" and the saga through the perspective of the villainous Templars in "Rogue."

The games make an apt fit on the Switch because their guts don't do too much to stretch the hardware capabilities. Unlike the likes of "Wolfenstein" and "Diablo," these games are silk-smooth and polished on the device.

Returning to the middle games in the "Assassin's Creed" legend in 2019 is refreshing, and something of a spiritual reboot for the now grandiose games. Like the overarching storyline itself, the games are welcome jumps back in time to re-experience the sights, sounds, passions, struggles and triumph of eras bygone.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Arizona Theatre Company Review: "Cabaret"

A bold and brash rumination on humanity's capacity for freedom, joy, lust and evil, "Cabaret" is a psychosexual explosion of a musical that sets out to disrupt the status quo.

If you'd think it would lose its edge after five decades, you'd be wrong.

Arizona Theatre Company's production reinvigorates playwright Joe Masteroff's artistic voice, joined with Bob Fosse's sense of electric movement. The story set in 1930s Berlin is every bit as relevant and poignant a mirror of 2019 Tucson. Or Moscow. Or Mar-a-Lago.

The tale of a dive sex club's gradual loss of spirit and soul in the backdrop of the Nazi takeover lulls you into a hypnotic flow of garish entertainment, only to sock you in the stomach with twists and revelations brought on by the knocking on the door from the outside world. It's a story of the loss of idealism and humanity's ability to rationalize any indignity as a necessity of day-to-day survival.

As thought-provoking as the show may be, it's never short of an Atomic fireball-flavored fun. Director Sara Bruner keeps every corner of the stage crackling with intoxicating movement and exhilarating sound.

Standouts among the superb cast include Michelle Dawson as the sultry Fraulein Kost, Sean Patrick Doyle as the lithe, naughty emcee, Madison Micucci as falling star Sally Bowles and David Kelly as the dark, subtly domineering Herr Schultz.

An able ensemble, which includes acrobatic performances from Shaun-Avery Williams, Tatumn Zale, Lisa Kuhnen, Spence Ford, Xander Mason and Antonia Raye, share a uniform brilliance and barely-restrained energy that resonates throughout the audience. Jaclyn Miller's seductively vigorous choreography keeps everyone busy.

A phantasmagorical explosion of sultry indulgence, boundary-blurring sexuality and cross-cultural  blending, "Cabaret" is a gasp-inducing rumination of a society's willful descent from freedom to tyranny. It's also a savage indictment against the flaccid defense of ignorance as an excuse not to stand up to the sight of liberty swirling the drain.

"Cabaret" plays in Tucson through Dec. 29, then moves to Phoenix from Jan. 4-Jan. 26. For more information and tickets, click here.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Book Report: "No Better Friend"

No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWIINo Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII by Robert Weintraub
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Weintraub crafts a story tailor-made for movie adaptation. An inspirational and often devastating tale of survival despite onerous odds, "No Better Friend" is a captivating travelogue about a British sailor and his trusty dog.

Avoiding flowery descriptions and overdramatization in favor of economical, understated storytelling, Weintraub goes beyond his considerable research to place you inside the minds of his human and canine protagonists.

Through captivity in prison camps, long, harrowing voyages via sea and marches and cutthroat combat, the heroes endure, overcoming starvation, exhaustion and flagging hope in order to strive to see the next day.

A workmanlike profile in courageous friendship and sacrifice in the face of looming doom, this is a powerful historical document that doubles as a resounding fable, the novel is a triumphant accomplishment.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Kindle Kids Edition Review

Amazon's Kindle Kids Edition is a superb gateway into the realm of e-books for young readers. Its sturdy design and accompanying case makes it stand up to the rigors of careless youth.

Parental controls help keep a cap on overzealous readers, limiting use to preset parameters. And the most significant addition has nothing to do with traditional reading at all.

Bolstered by a recent update that allows the device to access Audible titles, the device now is a full-fledged audio reader.

The Kindle Kid's Edition, which is actually a standard 10th-gen Kindle, is built to hook kids on books in all their forms, encouraging skill-building via built-in vocabulary builders, pop-up word definitions and achievement badges that celebrate progress.

Adjustable, kid-friendly fonts and text sizes remove the intimidation factor in traditional adult e-reader setups. While battery life and brightness levels may not be ideal, the devices perform well under most conditions.

Built to foster a love of exploring and expanding the horizons of imagination, educational and explorative aspects that reading can grant to developing minds, the Kindle Kids Edition is fuel for bookworms in the making.

Manufacturer provided review sample.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Broadway in Tucson Review: "Jesus Christ Superstar"

You can't go wrong with "Jesus Christ Superstar" during Christmas season.

The creative team could be excused for soft-pedaling and hitting the easy marks, well-established by decades of success.

Director Timothy Sheader, however, isn't content with the status quo, and instead adds a fresh take on the classic, injecting it with fresh, vibrant energy that makes it seem as new as it must have during its initial run.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is peak Andrew Lloyd Webber. Thumping, rhythmic music pulses through the audience, and the performers expend maximum energy, leaving every ounce of their exertion on the floor with beet-faced abandon.

The latest touring production does away with the 70s rock opera aesthetic for a grungier, 1990s mosh pit-style feel. Drew McOnie's raw, charismatic choreography gives the tone a rustic elegance that blends with the aesthetic.

Above all, the refreshed take on the production makes the story Judas's personal story of anguish, divided loyalty and resentful fatalism. James Delisco Beeks commands the show in the role, belting out his songs with the gusto of Aaron Burr in "Hamilton."

Not to be upstaged, topknot-donning Aaron LaVigne thrives in the given lead role, leveling the audience with a rockstar performance that adds a welcome masculinity to the traditionally milquetoast interpretations.

Jenna Rubaii completes the masterful lead trio as Mary, delivering heartbreaking renditions of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's Alright."

A passion play in both the traditional and emotional senses, the production revitalizes "Jesus Christ Superstar," somehow making the show even better than you remembered with a vigor that could be described as heaven-sent.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Monday, December 02, 2019

"Where the Water Tastes Like Wine" Switch Review

"Where the Water Tastes Like Wine" speaks to a sense of cultural fabric that makes up Americana, the joy of road trips and the historical texture that blends together to coalesce into culture.

Less a video game than a branching-paths graphic novel, the narrated text-heavy journey provides a barebones narrative structure to a succession of short stories. You travel an overworld, meeting eccentric characters along the way who spill their yarns, which you collect and deploy in the manner that you would currency and items in a traditional RPG.

After releasing on PC in February, the adventure game makes its way to Switch, where it's a natural fit for handheld mode. You can practically feel the dog-eared pages yellowing in the virtual paperback, and can just about taste the dust kicking up from the trail, as well as the pleasant sting of sunshine as you meander along your rocky paths.

Developer Serenity Forge takes an eccentric concept and plays it out to the defiant extreme, caring little about pacing or a cohesive plot. The threadbare narrative hook places you on the losing end of a poker game to a diabolical yet sagely wolf figure, who commands you to collect yarns from the road in order to redeem your freedom.

The joys of the game come not in advancing the storyline, but from bathing in the eclectic tales the game is stuffed with. A short story showcase disguised as a game, "Where the Water Tastes Like Wine" is every bit as poetic and obtuse as its title.

I crave offbeat experiences such as this, and if the premise intrigues you, you'll no doubt find yourself just as entranced by the strange marvels the game offers. Just a few sips will work up a fine buzz that will only have you craving more.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in December 2019

For my full post, click here.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

"Strange Telephone" Review

Since the telegraph introduced the prospect of long-distance communication, humanity has wrestled with the juxtaposition of isolation and instant connectivity.

The advent of the telephone and internet brought different media into the equation, further muddying the landscape, and presenting opportunities for romance, exploration and horror.

Developer HZ3 Software's "Strange Telephone" uses the awkward communication conundrum and mines it for its branching storytelling potential. A port of the 2D adventure game released on PC in January, the oddly entrancing "Strange Telephone' dials up the Switch.

Taking on the role of Jill, you are trapped in darkness. Her one outlet to the outside is Graham, a sentient digital assistant and telephone she uses to solve, cause and ruminate on all her problems.

You use Graham to enter various realms, each of which contains puzzles that unlock items you can use to unlock new passageways. With the end goal of finding your way through the dark labyrinth to make your way home, you sink into the increasingly murky cross-dimensional catacombs.

While the puzzle difficulty ranges from insultingly simplistic to find-me-a-walkthrough-right-now impenetrable, the storytelling remains consistent enough to keep pulling you along.

Appealingly offbeat, the one-note tale leans on its intrigue to draw you back for multiple playthroughs to see where different choices take you. A slim, spirited package, "Strange Telephone" keeps you guessing as you meander your way through its sprawling telephonic web.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 29, 2019

"FIFA 20" Review

Racking up more club and player licenses than rival PES, "FIFA 20" continues its steady march forward. "FIFA 20" may not reinvent the series, but does manage to push it forward in many significant ways.

Chief among the advancements is a mode that has nothing to do with the soccer game proper.

Street soccer takes a step to the forefront in the form of Volta, a side mode that encourages stylish, wild play. Whether you're knocking passes off the walls, pulling off ludicrous spin moves or slamming balls into the goal from the area around your own goal slot, Volta provides fast-paced fun that allows players' personalities to shine.

Player Carer mode, which plays it straight, marks the franchise's continuing direction away from story-heavy narratives of the past. The upside is you get more freedom to select your team, rather than play through a preset, cheesily-written story with fewer variables.

FIFA Ultimate Team continues to be EA's cash cow, as well as an addictive obsession for virtual card collectors. Patching your squad together from a bare-bones roster, scoring major upgrades along the way with big players and savvy chemistry upgrades until you can dominate both in offline challenges and online play is a rewarding enterprise. Those who prefer to avoid being bombarded by pay-to-win microtransactions, though, could be turned off.

The base game provides the smooth, entrancing brand of soccer that EA has had down pat for the past decade. With convincing physics, top-notch presentation and fluid strategy-shifting adjustment capabilities that put you in full control of your offensive and defensive philosophies, "FIFA 20" continues to replicate the beauty of the beautiful game.

While franchise mode could use more of a touch-up in next year's edition, and even more player likenesses would continue to drive home the sense of realism, "FIFA 20" offers up a package that's tough to beat. There's a reason the series continues to dominate the mindshare of video game soccer fans year in and year out.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book Report: "Journey to the Center of the Earth"

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Extraordinary Voyages, #3)Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the pioneers of sci-fi, Jules Verne blended the state of scientific research in the mid-19th century along with what then seemed like plausible leaps in order to extrapolate dizzying tales of daring and exploration.

A visionary who was far ahead of his time, Verne's powers are at their peak in "Journey to the Center of the Earth." It helps that the core protagonists generate a strong emotional core. A flighty, duty-before-reason professor leads his skeptical nephew and a hired hand to do the grunt work. Using a hidden volcanic passageway, they hurl themselves headlong into parts unknown, discovering hidden oceans and continents beneath the surface, and tangle with prehistoric beasts sheltered within.

Verne keeps the pace forging ahead with the urgency of the journey itself, while always taking care to keep the flights of fancy grounded with in the realm of feasibility. The trio's struggles with nourishment and exhaustion makes up much of the tension, and their sense of possible doom always looms over the voyage.

An excellent read for all ages, the Verne classic has lost nothing over the past century and change.

View all my reviews

Monday, November 25, 2019

"Need for Speed: Heat" Review

"Need for Speed" is at its best when it lets you roll with abandon through wild city streets, trading paint with opponents and cops alike. "Need for Speed: Heat" is a welcome return to the origins of a series that, as a whole, may have lost its fresh-on-the-lot luster but still has plenty of gas -- and nox -- left in the tank.

There's little doubt that "Need for Speed" would be served by scaling back from its near-annual release schedule. There's only so much you can say and do artistically with the series year after year, and since it rarely goes away, gamers don't get the chance to miss it. But "Heat" seems like something more than a perfunctory fulfillment of a corporate mandate. With a new set of tires, a fresh coat of paint, a thorough detailing and a new car smell air freshener, this is a ride you can cruise the hood with in style.

Developer Ghost Games does the "Need for Speed" name proud by blending arcade-friendly race mechanics with subtle sim elements, including customization, car builds and damage.

The seamless integration with online play catches the series up with the likes of "Forza Motorsport," and the gritty, exuberant street racing can match anything you'll find in, say, "Grand Theft Auto Online."

"Heat" is just as much fun under the hood, with loads of options that let you tinker with your ride by adding enhancements and tweaking with its tuning. Just about all the mayhem you cause on the streets results in reputation and financial buffs that arm you with more options to tweak your car in the garage.

The story may still have shades of a half-baked "Fast & Furious" ripoff, but the unabashed dorkiness of the characters and dialogue takes away nothing from the gameplay.

"Need for Speed: Heat" gets your adrenaline pumping with the intensity of singed rubber. To play is to visit a fantasyland free of traffic jams, consequences or mandatory sentences. This is just the sort of game that reminds you why the "Need for Speed" engine first started humming.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

"The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Complete Edition" Switch Review

With the Netflix series set to launch, there's no better time to sink your teeth into "The Witcher" saga than now. The Switch may not be the ideal platform to take in the grand, sweeping adventures of Geralt of Rivia, but it's certainly the most accessible.

Those who don't have the time or discipline to hunker down in front of the TV for an adventure spanning 200 hours may more feasibly find time to chip away at "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt" saga in quick bursts on commutes, in waiting rooms and in spare moments seized unwinding in bed to blow off steam during the holiday season.

The crown jewel of CD Projekt RED's repertoire, "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt" works as an excellent entry point for those unfamiliar with Geralt's previous anithero misadventures, as well as those who have been there for every battle, spell and seduction. The 2015 game, which grew with a pair of monumental expansions, comes to Nintendo's console with all previously released DLC included.

A winding story bursting with hidden layers, branching paths and flourishing beauty, the game pushes the Switch's technological capabilities to its limits and then some. As long as you take precaution to save early and often in order to lose significant progress during crashes.

Playing "Switcher" in portable mode is an ethereal thrill, and a showpiece for those who are unconvinced in the console's magic. The game is an outright stunner, and gains something in the intimacy of up-close portable play that it lacks even on large TVs with surround sound.

Maybe the way to get the most out of the game graphically is to play it on a souped-up PC, but I wouldn't trade this "Switcher" experience for any other setup. The hunt is wild indeed, and it's liberating to be able to join the chase either on the go or at home.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

"Creepy Brawlers" Review

When a spectral hand reaches out from the great beyond and pulls you into a world of monster pugilists slugging it out in an underground boxing circuit, you've got no choice but to lace up your gloves and sock it to them.

"Creepy Brawlers" lifts the ropes and saunters into the Switch ring with panache. To survive, you need to observe the attack patterns of your opponents, then dodge and counter accordingly.

It's all about timing and rhythm, with the increasingly complex patterns and shrinking reaction windows significantly ramping up the difficulty as you climb through the ranks.

Developer Mega Cat Studios takes what is basically a reskinned NES "Punch-Out!!" and applies horror sensibilities. The feel and flow of the original game, which was tweaked in subsequent SNES and Wii follow-ups, remains intact. Certain enemies even seem to follow the design philosophies of "Punch-Out!!" counterparts, laying in wait as Easter eggs for superfans.

Although the gameplay may be one-dimensional, "Creepy Brawlers" makes for a captivating "fail and try, try again" obsession. It's satisfying to suffer endless beatdowns from the same archenemy, only to incrementally forumlate a strategy for success, then finally achieve dominance in the ring.

The concept may be absurd, but that doesn't dampen the fun. Those looking for an NES "Punch-Out!!" remake can jump and raise their fists in triumph.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

"The Surge 2" Review

Having crash-landed on the lonely outskirts of a megalopolis, you're taken captive and socked away inside a chaotic holding facility, you have only your wits -- along with a burning desire to thrive -- to help you regain your bearings and scrap your way back to prominence.

The dilapidated urban hell of Jericho is the unforgiving sandbox in which you dig in. With storms sweeping through encampments, half-cocked, sentient war machines raging unchecked, you patch together your resources and gradually build up your strength and capabilities until you become the hunter rather than the hunted.

Developer Deck13 follows up its 2017 success with a worthy follow-up. The sequel nails the basics that the original thrived on, and expands on nearly every aspect in meaningful ways.

The survival action aspect once again takes center stage, with your affinity for collecting scrap, building out your arsenal and upgrading your abilities is every bit as important as your skills in combat.

Some may gripe that "The Surge 2" is simply more of the same, but those who poured dozens of hours into that game and are aching for a fresh challenge won't find much to complain about.

"The Surge 2" may suffer from its inability to stretch out in new directions, but for those who crave the original formula and are on the hunt for a meaningful expansion, this will hit the spot with a marksman's precision.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Broadway in Tucson Review: "Anastasia"

A technological tour de force with exquisite stagecraft and a masterful deployment of projections and LED displays, "Anastasia" is more than a standard stage musical. It's a paradigm-pushing multimedia experience that blurs the lines between cinema and theater.

Those expecting a twee, kid-friendly show may be surprised by the density of the material. This is a thoughtful and resonant historical study, treating the material and culture with care and reverence.

A voyage into a particularly touchy period of Russian/Soviet history in the first third of the 20th century, it's an inspirational yet carefully cynical tale of mistaken identity, self-deception and socioeconomic presence. We're taken to a Leningrad, and -- in the second act -- Paris struggling to come to grips with their cultural identities and geopolitical visions. At the center of the fracas lingers the at times literal ghosts of the slain Romanov family, which has been assassinated in the name of progress.

Rumors abound that the young heiress Anastasia has survived in hidden exile, and is poised to re-emerge and stake her claim of inheritance of the last slivers of Russian oligarchy, as well as a tidy monetary inheritance. Anastasia mania has swept the world, sparking an untold number of 20-somethings to step forward as pretend Anastasias. The story follows Anya, an amnesiac who buddies up with two opportunists who are only two happy to push forward her claim to the shattered throne.

Lila Coogan thrives in the lead role, blending the required naivete with a burgeoning self-confidence and drive. It also helps that she can belt out tunes with a pop star's exuberance, and has the dance moves to match.

She's supported well by the likes of Jake Levy and Jason Michael Evans, conjuring a playful triangle of deception and mild jealousy. The raspy Joy Franz delivers a resonant, workmanlike performance as Dowager Empress, whose emotional connection with young Anastasia and grown-up Anya is the emotional key to the story.

The creative team of director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey keeps the story flowing with urgency and momentum, making for a crowd-pleasing enterprise that thrives on emotion, personality clashes and unpredictability.

"Anastasia" is an eye-popping joy to behold, a benchmark in the evolution of its storytelling medium and just plain fun as well. Unlike the questionable identity of its main character, this one is no imposter.

"Anastasia" plays through Sunday at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

PHIL ON FILM: What's Leaving Netflix in December 2019

For the full story, click here.

Monday, November 18, 2019

"Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" Review

These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with wildly exciting projects sketching out new areas of the universe in movies, TV and video games. "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" is among the most thrilling of the offerings.

On the polar opposite of the spectrum of the hit-and-miss, multiplayer-focused "Star Wars Battlefront" series, EA's new game sticks with tight, linear single-player tale. Filled with sweeping action, engaging combat and poignant emotion, it's a tale that touches on the strongest aspects of the franchise's legacy.

Set after "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," you play as a Jedi on the run as the Galactic Empire's minions seek out and destroy every Jedi to fulfill the dreaded Order 66. The single-player, linear narrative has you band with a small, loosely-knit group of fleeing Force-users who strive to re-establish the Jedi order.

You play as a knight with only partial training and plenty of room to grow and develop. Light RPG elements coax you to pursue various unlockable powers and upgrades via a skill tree.

Branching off from their efforts in the multiplayer arena, developer Respawn Entertainment returns to its Infinity Ward, "Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare" storytelling roots, spinning an entrancing tale that pushes the narrative forward at a breakneck pace.

There is plenty of influence from the likes of "Uncharted" at play as well, with cliff-climbing and jumping, traversal across the tops of speeding ships and intricate combat coming into play. Juggling a spectrum of Force abilities, including lightsaber combat and telekinesis, you feel like a powerful, yet always vulnerable mystical warrior.

"Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" opens up new possibilities of what fans can expect from an EA "Star Wars" effort. With this type of care, reverence and bold willingness to forge new paths, the prospects for interactive storytelling stretch as far and wide as galaxies unknown.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Haunted: Halloween '86 (The Curse of Possum Hollow)" Review

If you're digging the retro horror aesthetic of "Stranger Things," "Castle Rock" and "American Horror Story: 1984," "Haunted Halloween" is the next goody you need to go trick-or-treating for.

Developer Retrotainment Games, which is made up of Pittsburgh-based NES enthusiasts, started on the homebrew hobbyist scene but makes a foray into the big leagues here.

Its latest game is a brutally funny, thoroughly captivating throwback, which draws influence from the likes of "Ghouls & Ghosts" and "Castlevania," with a healthy mix of "Final Fight" and "River City Rampage" thrown in.

From the energetically composed chiptune soundtrack, to the lovingly crafted 8-bit visuals and the sly, satirical writing, "Haunted Halloween '86" feels oh so right on the Switch. Whether you're playing in handheld or docked mode, it time-warps children of the 80s back to their youth. For younger gamers, it's a window into the origins that seeded the basic grammar and tropes that would stretch and evolve into gaming's current state.

There's a reason there are so many throwback indie efforts these days -- the gameplay and storytellng mechanics thrived in the days when visual, audio and memory restrictions were so tight. Players were forced to fill in the technological gaps with their imagination, and that added to the legendary air of charm.

"Haunted Halloween '86" nails that aesthetic with resounding authority. Retrotainment Games captures just the right pitch, feel and delivery, and it will be a joy to watch their continuing efforts in recapturing gaming's glory days.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Anthill" Review

Lording over a society of scurrying insects is an intoxicating power trip. "Anthill" puts you in charge of an ant colony, charging you to sketch out pheromone trails that guide your insects to destinations to harvest food, defend the nest from predators and shore up the integrity of the hill.

An enhanced port of the 2011 mobile game, the offering from developer Image & Form makes the transition to the Switch with its pick-up-and-play charm intact.

The real-time strategy antics force you to keep your focus. Any misstep could trigger a cascade of mishaps that lead to disaster and derail all your hard work.

While a wholesale reimagining -- rather than a moderately upgraded port -- of the concept would have better taken advantage of the Switch's capabilities, the game makes for an apt fit on the console. Fans of the Pikmin series, in particular, will find much to enjoy here while Nintendo takes it sweet time advancing that series.

 Since the source material is so old and relatively obscure, chances are most games have never even heard of the predecessor, let alone played it. That adds to the sense of newness, and "Anthill" falls in line neatly with the Switch's already massive and rapidly growing stable of indie gems.

There's nothing much groundbreaking here, but the satisfying rhythm and flow of "Anthill" -- coupled with a steady, significant sense of challenge and accomplishment, keeps you scurrying with the frantic pragmatism of your little minions. This is a game well worth digging into.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Charlie's Angels"

For my full review, click here.

"Mary Skelter 2" Review

Emboldened with style to spare and a sly, subtle sense of humor, "Mary Skelter 2" is a headlong jump over the rainbow to a strange and disturbing realm overrun by a swarming evil. It's up to the kewpie-like Blood Maidens, who are as adorable as they are fierce, to turn the tide.

The roguelike RPG has you play as characters inspired by twisted versions of fairy tales, you take part in turn-based battles against enemy parties.

There's an urgency to the combat, due to Nightmares that pursue you in real time, spurring you to be efficient with your attacks in order to hasten the blood-based transformation system. You also have to take into account the mental status of your group, which is always threatened to be shaken by the horrors they face.

The sequel includes "Mary Skelter: Nightmares" (2016), so you can forge through the entire dungeon-crawling saga. Developer Compile Heart stuck to the themes and gameplay that served them well in the first game, stretching the battle structure to come up with scenarios that shove you out of your comfort zone.

Whenever you think you've got a foolproof routine established, the paradigm shifts and you're forced to recalibrate.

Elements of anime, manga, satirical horror and social commentary pulse through every aspect of the game, from the visuals and writing to the combat. It's all part of the package that makes "Mary Skelter 2" a nightmare worthy of your dreams.

Publisher provided review code.

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.

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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.