Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"A Plague Tale: Innocence" Review

A haunting, elegiac meditation on loss, love and bravery in the face of marauding tragedy, "A Plague Tale: Innocence" takes on the barely fathomable plight of Europe amid the Black Death.

Developer Asobo Studio crafts a gorgeous and relentlessly haunting story about a pair of orphans who go on the run during the Inquisition.

The desperate, overwhelming and bleak pursuit of perseverance aptly pushes emotional buttons while remaining grounded and impactful.

No matter where you turn, rats flitter about, making their presence known as not only an actual impediment, but an internal metaphor for the plight of the human struggle.

As with "The Walking Dead," "A Plague Tale: Innocence" shows that even when confronted with outside terrors, mankind will always have the nasty tendency to present the most daunting threats to itself.

The gameplay is diverse and well-paced, with missions that mix aspects of survival, stealth, light puzzle-solving and unorthodox combat keeping things fresh and engrossing.

The reach sometimes exceeds the grasp, with occasional moments of unintentional comedy parsed among the heavy writing, as well as a few technical hiccups that tend to take you out of the moment. But overall, "A Plague Tale: Innocence" stands as a bold, ferocious effort that's unlike just about anything to come down the pike in recent years.

Arthouse gaming at its finest, the adventure takes you to places that most other games don't dare to approach, much less so successfully execute.

Publisher provided review code.

"For the King" Review

The goal of "For the King" is to simulate the dice-rolling, card-flopping, miniatures-pushing exuberance of tabletop gaming.

Whether you're taking on the game's solo campaign or partaking in online co-op, it's easy to lose yourself in the cheerfully geeky trappings of the high-fantasy roguelike.

Regardless of which mode you're playing, every time you fire up a new quest you'll take on an entirely new experience, thanks to procedural map and quest generation. The overarching goal is to heed the crown's demand that you and your party rid the overrun kingdom of marauding Chaos. You take on that task via a turn-based battle system that harkens back to the classic age of top-down RPGs.

A year after the initial PC release, the game charges onto consoles with the momentum of a solid base of fans and the polish that comes after the culmination of several months of updates.

Developer IronOak game shows off a level of sparkle and polish that belies the game's indie origins. "For the King" hums with a vivacity that tabletop games may spark in the imagination, but never approach in reality.

The ambitious, game-as-service support echoes that of a paid MMO, and players can count on months -- if not years -- of a continuous stream of new events, items and enhancements.

"For the King" in its current form already bursts with excessive value for your gaming dollar, and that investment promises only to mature as you continue to play. Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but this lighthearted game thrives with royal ambition.

Publisher provided review code.

Musical Theater Review: "42nd Street"

While no one goes looking to a classic such as "42nd Street" for something bold or edgy, there is a surprising amount of heat to the 1930s-set tale of love, loss and ambition in the golden age of musical theater.

Above all else, the show celebrates the youthful exuberance and beauty of stage performance, and shows off its wares in occasionally skimpy -- though always tasteful -- costumes and a Rockettes-style sea of rhythmically pumping bare legs.

Filmed from a grandiose 2017 West End revival that breathed modern life into what otherwise might be dismissed as a stale, less-than-relevant production, the show shines with immediacy and skill in this Broadway HD-filmed performance.

Fueled by such iconic, show-stopping numbers such as "We're in the Money," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and "Lullaby of Broadway," the show maintains its momentum with old-school charm.

The presentation crackles with the cinematographic style of a film rather than a stuffy recorded play. A mix of close-ups, aerials and balcony-view wide shots makes the show feel alive and vivid -- maybe too much so at times. The acting is often so overdone and boisterous that it devolves into self-parody, with broad delivery and exaggerated facial expressions that generate eye rolls rather than empathy.

No one watches "42nd Street" for the acting, though. This is a feast of glitz, glamor and razzmatazz, and the production cranks those out in spades.

Studio provided screener.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"Reverse Crawl" Review

Leading an army of the undead against forces even more despicable than your own, you plunge into the single-player adventure "Reverse Crawl" with the goal of dominating the battlefield with superior strategy and tactics.

Four years after its original, largely overlooked PC release, developer Nerdock Productions gives the game another go on modern consoles.

With its retro aesthetic and handheld-friendly mechanics, "Reverse Crawl" is particularly suited to the Switch, which lends itself to quick-hit missions and save states.

Duking it out with the Red Queen's monstrous minions on a turn-based hexagonal grid. you use your array of attacks, enhancements and resources to maximize your meager forces to overcome daunting odds.

Although the mission structure can be repetitive, and the characters don't have quite as much charm as they might have. "Reverse Crawl" may yet again slink into obscurity, but at least now it's got a fighting chance to crawl back from the undead.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany"

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Journalist William L. Shirer harvested his experience as a foreign correspondent who lived in Germany during the rise of Hilter to write what stood at the time as the definitive history of the chaos that plunged Europe into World War II.

Feasting on primary source materials, including journals, Nuremberg testimony and declassified documents to address the confounding question of how a megalomaniacal leader was able to dupe a nation into following him blindly into homicidal and genocidal nationalistic oblivion.

Tracing Hitler's rise from a failed artist and street tramp to political pretender, minor fringe player and eventually unquestioned dictator, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" is a humongous and caeselessly captivating observation of humanity's flaws, as well as the incalculable power of momentum and timing.

What makes the book stand out among drier histories is the personal touch. Shirer has a novelist's eye for motivation, personality and weakness, and draws them out with exhaustive research. This is a priceless and overwhelmingly addictive book, and an invaluable document to the generations that succeeded Shirer.

He ends with a stark warning -- that although the faces change, history tends to repeat itself. A look into the grim recent past is also a warning against the future. The only way fascism and intolerance can be beaten is for the right-minded to courageously oppose them at every turn. Learning about history is the best way to avoid repeating it, and there are few more exhilarating ways to learn history than to experience it through such a talented medium as Shirer.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 13, 2019

"Duck Game" Review

Absurdist, retro-flavored humor is the order of the day in "Duck Game," Landon Podbielski's offbeat blast of outrageous thrills.

Set in an alternate-future 1984, it sets ducks against one another in a battle to the death. The quackers wield every manner of found objects as bludgeons, projectiles and traps. The weaponry ranges from musical instruments and hypnotic talismans to old-fashioned rifles.

Like a twisted, updated version of "Duck Hunt," the fowls go up in feathers at a furious pace. Best enjoyed in multiplayer, "Duck Game" is loaded with emergent thrills.

Designed for rowdy parties, dorm showdowns and punch-your-brother-in-the-arm sibling rivalries, the gleefully unbalanced, momentum-given gameplay tries your luck and imagination as much as your twitch reflexes.

A 50-level single-player mode takes a backseat, but gives solo players a way to refine their skills in between PVP throwdowns. With 16-bit flavored graphics and sound, the game draws lovingly from the likes of "Joust" and "Robotron."

"Duck Game," however, takes flight for the way it surpasses its influences to waddle its own silly path. Expect passionate word of mouth to help this game find its audience, with gamers dropping it in unrelated conversations. "That sounds cool, but let me tell you about this crazy thing I'm obsessed with called 'Duck Game.'"

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

"SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" Review

Half a year after it debuted on the Switch, "SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" rambles onto the PS4 and Xbox One.

Armed with loads of classics, cult favorites and unknown curiosities, the amount of value offered in the slate is staggering. The "Ikari Warriors" trilogy, "Bermuda Triangle," "Fanguard, "Crystalis" and "Alpha Mission" are some of the main draws in the collection, which spawns the gamut of genres.

The care and precision that developer Digital Eclipse took with the slate is staggering. Although there are as many barely-playable duds as there are timeless triumphs in the anthology, just about everything involved holds up on some level.

There's a certain fascination in studying near-misses, abject failures and forgotten curiosities as you trace the lineage of gaming. From humble arcade beginnings, through the first console wars and the move into more complex graphics and sound palates, SNK was there nearly every step of the way.

The influence the developer had on the big boys is incalculable, and the reverberations caused by many of the games in this collection are still felt today.

Although I prefer the portability of the Switch -- especially for old-school games such as this, there's something to be said for the ease of multiplayer and comfort of traditional controllers that the Xbox One and PS4 release offers. Either way you choose to dive into this dusted-off stack of virtual fascination, you're in for a wild time travel ride.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

"Deponia" Review

A wacky farce that starts off in a ludicrous manner and only ratchets up the silliness level afterward, "Deponia" is an eclectic, underground cult hit that fans hoped so hard would get a rerelease that they apparently manifested it into being.

Seven years after its initial release on PC -- and three after it was ported to the PS4 -- "Deponia" shifts to Switch, bringing along its bombastic animation style, enchanting storytelling and invigorating senses of humor and style.

Playing as the hero Rufus, who seeks to impress his lady love, Goal -- yup, it's that type of humor -- you find the plot zipping you off to one unlikely location to the next. The point-and-click puzzle solving is occasionally frustrating, yet rarely discouraging.

The key impetus to keep going is to enjoy more of the sight gags and ribald dialogue, which is inspired by over-the-top satirical stylings of Matt Groening and Douglas Adams.

Although time hasn't been kind to much of the structure -- expect plenty of choke points, lazy menu traversal and rickety pacing -- but the humor remains timeless.

From the first few moments with the game, you'll be able to tell whether "Deponia" isn't for you, or whether you're hooked for the long haul. Should you be privileged enough to join the latter group, you'll get a taste of the heedless, chuckling glee of being a member of the exclusive "Deponia" club.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

"Air Conflicts Collection" Review

Combining two memorable Kalypso dogfighting efforts, "Air Conflicts Collection" lets you take to the skies and down bogeys as a daring fighter pilot.

"Air Conflicts: Secret Wars" spans the first and second World Wars, while "Air Conflicts: Pacific Carriers" is set amid the tide-turning World War II clashes with Japan.

Both games boast online combat, a rarity for Switch titles, as well as a wide array of single-player campaign missions.

Both games not only establish striking visuals, but maintain the gorgeous looks while adding convincing senses of speed and danger amid high-intensity combat. The array of aircraft and weaponry available stays relatively true to historical accuracy while fudging just enough on physics and damage to inject an arcade flavor.

Taking to the danger-plagued skies, you get a convincing sense of aerial gymnastics as you maneuver your fighter through intense scenarios. While the mix of missions and level design is expectedly repetitive, the replay loop remains strong.

"Air Conflicts Collection" gives you plenty of airborne escapades in which to engage. The double dose of 20th century air combat manages to lift off and soar.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, May 06, 2019

"Black Paradox" Review

A fast-paced, gleefully violent shoot-em-up from developer Digerati Distribution, "Black Paradox" is a blast, even when it goes out of its way to frustrate you.

You play as the title character, a rage-fueled bounty hunter who romps across the galaxy to take down the Hellraisers, a seven-strong band of ruthless criminals who are begging to be taken down.

Armed with a plethora of ballistics -- including 20 weapons, 13 drones, 20 powerups and a slew of roll through armies of disposable cannon fodder, motoring your way through with style and force. Raw instinct takes over where strategy and patience fail you.

Bolstered by a 32-bit style pixel art graphical palate and a catchy chiptune soundtrack, the game feels like a time warp into the 90s. There's a fine art to this level of calculated goofiness, and "Black Paradox" nails it on every conceivable level. Everything comes to a head during oisterous boss battles.

The game connects with noobs and veterans alike for its accessibility, as well as difficult-to-master intricacies that truly come into play in the postgame content, which boasts a ludicrously difficult boss rush mode.

"Black Paradox" is wily and bombastic rush, with loads of personality and charm. There are plenty of games like it, but few manage to match its raw energy level. The game is more 90s than the 90s themselves, and that's the happy paradox we're working with here.

Publisher provided the review code.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

"Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age" Xbox One Review

In many ways, "Final Fantasy XII" was the culmination of the franchise's golden age when it released on the PS2 in 2006. Remade for the PS4 in 2017 with "The Zodiac Age" subtitle, the RPG once again flourished -- even clipsing the spectacular "Final Fantasy XV" in key aspects.

The arrival of "The Zodiac Age" on Xbox One and Switch helps Square Enix's franchise come full circle in its reign over all of gamedom. Finally, the full contingent of gamers can experience the seminal saga despite whatever company loyalties have held them in check.

And this version of "Final Fantasy XII" is well worth the wait.

With spellbinding visuals, fine-tuned sound design and a massive and sprawling story bolstered by an airtight party-building system, the game stands as the ultimate triumph for a generation that grew up playing the early NES releases and came of age when the dynamic trio of the seventh through 10th numbered entries continued to push the franchise forward.

The story is set in a kingdom brought to its knees by nefarious forces, with a cunning resistance seeking to restore glory -- as well as the rightful heir -- to the throne. The story unfurls in cinematic majesty, peppered with thrilling, often trying battles and numerous twists and revelations awaiting you.

"The Zodiac Age" is well worth a look for lifelong "Final Fantasy" fans who had lapsed over the years, and especially those who played the original "Final Fantasy XII" and want to re-experience it with the graces of modern technology making it far more user-friendly and better looking than it was in its original form.

Although "Final Fantasy XV" seemed to right the franchise's ship after the uncharacteristic mediocrity of the three "Final Fantasy XIII" games, it remains to be seen which direction the series continues to evolve. "Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age" stands as a monument for what the franchise once was, as well as what it could be again.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

"Days Gone" Review

"Sons of Anarchy" meets "The Last of Us" by way of "Far Cry" and "Resident Evil" in "Days Gone," Sony's lone major first-party, single-player release for the first half of the year. As a motorcycle gang member on the hunt for his missing wife, you search out the unforgiving, zombie-plagued wilderness for shreds of hope.

Following a three-month delay, the game rides in high style. Developer Sony Bend seems to have spent the extra time well. This is a beautiful-looking, well-polished effort with tight writing, top-level voice acting and satisfying riding, crafting and combat mechanics.

The virus-infected Freaker population makes for fun-to-dispatch fodder in single combat, but encounter three or more of them in an ambush and you've got nightmare fuel.

Working terrifyingly well in concert together, it takes superb recognition of your surroundings, as well as extreme command of rolling, melee and shoot-from-the-hip combat abilities, to work your way free. In a refreshing break for games of this ilk, your best option much of the time is not to decimate every enemy, but clear enough breathing room so you can scamper away, conserve resources and live to scrap another day.

The open-world game of cat and mouse is fascinating, providing loads of iterative thrills that will keep you glued to your controller late into the night. It's up to you to orchestrate your items and tactical approach to stay alive, and the multiple possible approaches provide a refreshing feeling of freedom and self-determination.

On the downside, an even greater and more dread-inducing than the Freakers begins to emerge in the form of repetition. Perhaps too much enamored with its resource-combat-reward loop, Sony Bend fails to add much variety to the proceedings.

The game thrives the most when you're on the open road, with gripping riding mechanics that make your bike feel like a character all its own. Free riding and experimentation are encouraged to a degree, but push things too far and you may find yourself dead in a wreck and forced to retrack several minutes of progress.

A challenging and often exhilarating, thoush sometimes naggingly frustrating mixed bag with far more going for it than dragging it down, "Days Gone" gives PS4 gamers plenty to chew on as the interminable wait for "The Last of Us Part II' rolls on. If you're stuck in the forest and low on bullets, the Freakers make for some decent company.

Publisher provided review code.

Musical Theater Review: "Cats"

The best way to appreciate "Cats" is to shed any preconceptions of what a musical should be and just enjoy the show for what it is -- a ballet rock opera.

Let Andrew Lloyd Weber's phantasmagorical fever dream of humanoid felines wash over you. Don't go looking for pesky things such as structure, plot or defined story beats.

Just sit back and bask in the bedazzling array of wacky costumes, acrobatic Andy Blankenbuehler choreography and wall-rattling songs.

It's easy to see why the show has generated such lasting appeal. Few productions go to such lengths to have cast members connect -- sometimes on close to a physical level -- with the audience. The aisles become back alleys through which the cats prowl, often setting feet on armrest for improvised flourishes.

Performers routinely bask in the glow of appreciative post-number applause, only to ham it up by greedily beckoning for still more adulation. Combined with expressive stagecraft that has the characters soaring, shimmering and sliding in a nonstop audiovisual onslaught, "Cats" is an ebullient ball of infectious energy.

The eager Centennial Hall crowd devoured every opportunity to reciprocate the interaction, responding with McKale Center-level applause to the succession of show-stopping numbers. Solos from the likes of Timothy Gulan (Bustopher Jones), Tion Gaston (Mistoffelees) and Ethan Saviet (Skimbleshanks) -- as well as dance breaks by Rose Iannaccone (Rumpleteazer) -- drop jaws and raise paws.

On the downside, the show is almost too energetic, potentially leading to a glazed-over exhaustion. It's hard to connect emotionally with the characters, since it's hard to know what anyone is doing, why they're doing it or what anything means. But anything approaching logic is best avoided. There are two types of people who will come out to see "Cats" -- those who are all-in and those who were dragged there by the true believers.

Even for the most cynical dogs in the audience, "Cats" is an arresting and giddy and shallow romp that's a sugar rush of feline fanaticism.

Cats is playing through Sunday at Centennial Hall as part of Broadway in Tucson. Buy tickets here.

Monday, April 29, 2019

"Konami's Arcade Classics" Review

A throwback to the 1980s and 90s glory days of coin-munching thrillers, "Konami's Arcade Classics" rounds up eight of the most memorable and influential arcade games in one tight package on the Switch.

Perhaps the package is a little too tight. Retro roundups are frequent these days, with standards setters such as "Sega Genesis Classics" bulging with 50 games, "Rare Replay" packing in 30 titles and "SNK 40th Anniversary Collection" checking in with 21.

While strict quantity isn't the sole measure for value in an anthology, the modest numbers in this Konami roundup make it all the more crucial that the included titles bring the thunder.

While there are some excellent selections in the bunch -- To my 10-year-old self, "Life Force" alone is nearly worth the price of admission -- most of the included games are shoot-em-ups. As a result, the title is a tad misleading, since the selection doesn't come close to capturing the breadth of genres that lifted the publisher to success in the olden days.

Nowhere to be found are the umpteen war and sports games on which the brand was built. Konami is making no bones that it's holding back "Contra" and "Castlevania" titles for separate releases. Since file size isn't an issue, the move seems like a cynical strategy to soak nostalgic games for as much money as possible -- just as the arcade games themselves were designed to siphone allowance money out of pimpled teens.

What's here, at least, is excellent. "Haunted Castle" was the darker, more insidious forerunner to "Castlevania," and "Nemesis" paved the way for the success of its relaunch as the start of the "Gradius" franchise. Lesser-known greats such as "Typhoon" and "TwinBee" hold up well, and the likes of "Scramble" and "Vulcan Venture" remain capable time-wasters.

As long as you size up the offerings before you forge ahead with the purchase, "Konami's Arcade Classics" is a square deal. But if you're spending blindly based on Konami loyalty alone, you may feel as bilked as you did when a premature "Game Over" screen flashed before you in days of yore.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in May

For the full article, click here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Truberbrook" Switch Review

A sci-fi tinged, point-and-click adventure mystery with more than a little "Twin Peaks" and "Deadly Premonition," "Truberbook" is a psychologically challenging and thought-provoking journey into darkness.

The dev team at Merge Games took an offbeat, unorthodox approach to storytelling, setting you into its awkward, eclectic story without context or explanation. You're left to your own devices, blindly stumbling about scene after scene, tinkering with environmental objects until you're able to trigger progress.

Owing much to the links of "Maniac Mansion" and "Tales of Monkey Island," the 1960s-set saga places you in the shoes of an American scientist who sets off to a quaint German town, with the objective to use his nerdy skills to save the world.

Got all that?

Much of what you're tangling with in "Truberbrook" comes in the obtuse format of the game. An ornery menu system, complex navigation and a mocking sense of humor pervades the game. Every joke seems to be at least partially on you, and every step is a nerve-fraying elongation of suspense in waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

While the mounting frustration may discourage many gamers from pressing on, those who are hooked by the off-kilter premise will find themselves enduring the myriad obstacles just to see where the crazy train takes them. With the aid of online walkthroughs, the path forwards is navigable, though unnecessarily difficult.

"Tuberbrook" makes you pay the price for its residency, but for those looking for something that will throw them off their beaten path, it's a trip well worth taking.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Super Blood Hockey" Review

A throwback to the ancient and brilliant NES "Ice Hockey" and "Blades of Steel" games, developer Loren Lemcke brought back everything that worked in the pre-EA Sports era, while removing all the technological frustrations of the 80s.

Bursting with fast-paced, arcadey action, as well as gloriously gratuitous hyperviolence that lives up to the title, "Super Blood Hockey" is an exaggerated take on the sport that seems geared to give siblings cause to slug one another during intense couch co-op sessions.

Exhibition, challenge and franchise modes highlight the offerings, which allow you to play as the national team of your choice and engage in -- to borrow from the old joke -- brawls that occasionally break out in hockey games.

The passing, shooting and checking controls are precise and finely tuned, allowing for a competitive balance that's key in a sports title.

Player types range from sluggish bruisers to lithe attackers, allowing you to gear up your lines to facilitate the tactics you prefer.

A delightful chiptune soundtrack by Shawn Daley adds to the retro ambiance. As you indulge in the over-the-top action, you feel as though you're getting away with something. That's the charm of "Super Blood Hockey," which resurrects the spirit of video game hockey from its earliest, most rambunctious days.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Avengers: Endgame" Preview

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"SteamWorld Quest" Review

The "SteamWorld" brand has come to stand for innovation, quality and humor over the years. In games that started on the DS and spread across several platforms, they caught fire with gamers of all ages and proclivities, building up anticipation for each new release.

After two action/exploration "SteamWorld Dig" games and the strategy-oriented "SteamWorld Heist," the turn-based card battle RPG "SteamWorld Quest" is the most dramatic departure from developer Image & Form.

Set in a steampunk realm, you guide your party through an adventure that satirizes fantasy and sci-fi conventions while gradually building up an emotionally resonant story of its own.

You build your deck of attacks, spells and defense buffs through an array of 100 punch cards, gearing your toolset to the needs of the challenges that lie ahead.

Unlike some other games of its ilk, combat flows at a rapid pace, with cards serving as something like a quick menu bar that allows you to draw and deal out your attacks as rapidly or methodically as you choose.

While the leap to the new genre won't bring all "SteamWorld" fans with it from previous entries, the new horizons opened up by the entry refreshes the possibilities for the indie franchise turned mainstream success.

"SteamWorld Quest" is likely the most robust and lengthy -- if not the most replayable -- game in the sprawling franchise yet. Taking a machete to the brush standing in the way of the new path, the game opens up promising new possibilities. The future of "SteamWorld" is every bit as bright as its past.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"Feather" Review

More of an elegant and visually striking proof of concept or meditative experience than a game, "Feather" has you take control of a bird that soars through a lavish environment.

And that's about it.

Slim on content but loaded with emergent gameplay, the project from developer Samurai Punk stretches the arthouse game concept to its limit.

Its experimental, ephemeral nature of the gameplay is meant to entrance and relax you. There are sights and experiences to seek out and explore, but there's little structure to progression.

Then again, progression isn't the point. You can adjust your speed, pitch and altitude, and the effect truly allows you to lose yourself in the flow. Like one of the early PC flight simulators, "Feather" is all about granting you the virtual gift of flight, letting you take to the skies in a way with a sense of control you could never approach in real life.

Unlike the endless blue skies in which it frolics, a title like this does have its limits though. Working best in short burts or meandering wind-downs at the end of the day, "Feather" ends up being the gaming equivalent of a stress ball.

It will be interesting to see if Samurai Punk -- or another developer -- takes the controls and visual style here and expands it into something grander and with more focus. Even when enjoyed on its chosen level, "Feather" is as light, aimless and adrift in the wind. The question of whether you see something like that as worthy of a landing spot on your Switch is up in the air.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: What's leaving Netflix in May 2019

Here's a look at what's leaving Netflix in May.

Monday, April 15, 2019

"Silence" Review

A gorgeous, hand-drawn point-and-click adventure, "Silence" stands out on the Switch for its adherence to storybook-style visuals.

Playing as 16-year-old Noah, who searches for his lost sister, Renie, in a limbo, twilight realm between the living and the dead.

Directional cues send Noah from one area of the screen to another, moving in an organic way to interact with objects you click on, sparking often amusing sequences.

You feel more as though you're orchestrating an animated tale rather than spamming your way through a list of command checkpoints.

Developer Daedalic Entertainment spins an elegiac, whimsical tale that takes place in a hybrid of dreams and reality, with inventive, yet logical puzzles that keep the story momentum flowing forward without stumbling on awkward bottlenecks that have plagued adventure games since their inception.

Even the "wrong" choices manage to keep the story going, filling in the edges with background and color that add depth and clarity to the mainline tale.

The story tracks a battle between a tight-knit band of rebels and a grim confederacy of dark forces that plague the realm.

"Silence" is a showpiece game that makes awe-inspiring use of the Switch's graphical capabilities, looking just as impressive in handheld mode as it does on TV. An indie effort created with skill and panache, it could make some noise in a crowded field of new releases on the console.

Publisher provided review code.

"Heaven's Vault" Review

"Heaven's Vault: is one of those games that instantly entrances you, charming you with its flat pastel animation style and swaying your soul with an engrossing score.

The feel is a cross between the more methodical moments of "Prince of Persia," blended with a sense of slow traversal across a vacant plain in the manner of "Journey."

The changeup is your companion, Six, who mutters precocious, nagging comments that you can choose how to respond to via a dialogue tree.

The text is imprinted on the screen, with lines that trace back to the character speaking, granting the visuals a visual novel effect.

The presentation is half the winning battle in the dazzling and intellectually challenging creation from developer Inkle. The story is the other half.

You play as archaeologist Aliya, who is in on a desperate, lonely hunt for a skilled robotics inventor. You use your archaeological skills to decipher glyphs, traverse ruins and deduce the mysteries buried within a sprawling, interplanetary map.

As you sail to different sectors of the cosmos, you dig deeper into the tapestry, plunging into a twist-filled, winding story that delivers surprise after surprise.

A rich and thoughtful game with enchanting layers to sift through, break down and appreciate, "Heaven's Vault" is a rare slice of indie-dev heaven that you feel like savoring, appreciating and discussing with a friend. A dreamy pleasure, the game is a work of tremendous heart and artistic exuberance that's all too rare on the current game scene.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Musical Theater Review: "Fiddler on the Roof"

"Tradition!" is the refrain that rings throughout "Fiddler on the Roof," which passionately deconstructs the notion of what it means to adhere to pomp and ceremony, as well as how crucial it is for each generation to renew and break away from the routines of the past.

Yehezkel Lazarov carries the show as Tevye, the seriocomic force who leans into inevitable tragedy. His monologues, one-liners, physical comedy and fourth wall-breaking talks with God drive the humor and heart of the lengthy, bustling production.

Strong supporting performances by seasoned veterans Matie Uzal (Golde), Mel Weyn (Tzeitel), Jonathan Von Mering (Lazar Wolf), Ruthy Froch (Hodel), Natalie Powers (Chava) and Carol Beaugard (Yente) help sell the cachet of the production, which thoroughly has the feel of an authentic Broadway production.

From brilliant stagecraft in floating set pieces and fog screens to scintillating acoustics, edgy choreography and a shimmering level of polish, this is as professional a production of the musical as you're ever likely to see. The bottle dance, in particular, is a physics-defying spectacle that drops jaws and raises hands in triumph.

The first act serves as a rom-com, with the duties of adhering to grim historical accuracy left to the more tragic second act, with the disastrous march of antisemitism gradually emerging to rear its revolting head to wreak havoc on the fatalistic townsfolk.

There is much to dissect and chew on in this intellectually challenging and thoughtful script. The challenge of life is to appreciate the fleeting moments of joy, while managing to endure through the harsher aspects, emerging with your character defined, your faith intact and your heart's limits tested.

The cast, crew and brain trust of this touring "Fiddler on the Roof" production takes the role of its metaphorical subject, precariously performing its precarious act, inspiring and inspiring awe in its bedazzled onlookers.

"Fiddler on the Roof" is part of Broadway in Tucson. Buy tickets here.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

"Croixleur Sigma" Review

Since its release on PS4 three years ago, "Croixluer Sigma" has spread its reputation as one of the finest indie arena brawlers. Peppy anime visuals, a thumping soundtrack and free-flowing combat test your strategic and improvisational twitch skills to the limit.

Inspired by the Bloody Palace mode from "Devil May Cry," developer Souvenir Circ sets up a hack-and-slash brawler with four female protagonists.

A bizarre array of monsters awaits your jump kicks, uppercuts and sprinting dive attacks. The varied weaknesses of the enemies requires you to adjust your tactics on the fly, forcing you to master the different attacks, as well as the way they chain together, in order to stay upright.

While slim in content, the design encourages you to keep coming back in order to strive for high scores and faster runs. The quick-hit style works well for the Switch's handheld mode, which enhances the look and feel of the visuals and combat with a tighter, more intimate experience.

With precision and jubilance, "Croixleur Sigma" excels on its chosen path, lathering up a bouncy feel that keeps drawing you back in for more.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

"Yet Another Zombie Defense HD" Review

At this point, it's safe to say that zombies will remain the default stooge in gaming. They're mindless, bloodthirsty fodder whose deaths don't offend anyone. So here we go again, with "Yet Another Zombie Defense HD," which debuts on Switch less than a year after its rough start on Xbox One.

Developer Awesome Games Studio adapts the single-screen "Geometry Wars" concept to a battle with the undead, adding in some tower defense attributes to freshen things up.

As the title indicates, it's not the freshest of concepts, but the self-awareness of redundancy doesn't translate into a cheeky meta vibe that it might have. As you dispatch wave after wave of the undead, a monotony starts to set in.

That feeling is eventually followed by anger and frustration -- if not from the gameplay itself, but because you become all too aware that you'll have to slog through an interminable ordeal just to return to the point to which you'd made it.

With lackluster visuals and sound design, the game relies solely on gameplay for its appeal. Tight controls and slick pacing notwithstanding, the monotonous nature of the game makes it tough to play for an extended length of time without throwing your hands up in frustration.

"Yet Another Zombie Defense" isn't the worst of its ilk by a longshot, but there is too little here to differentiate it from a crowded field. The game itself is all too much like its subject matter -- lifeless and brainless, existing just to take up space and siphon away your life force.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

"Cirque du Soleil Corteo" Review

From the opening number, any fear that a traveling arena show might deliver some sort of cut-rate Cirque du Soleil performance drifts away like one of the aerialists dangling from a rising chandelier.

Packed with two hours of effortlessly-performed feats of remarkable creativity, athleticism and finesse, "Corteo" delivers an authentic Cirque experience.

The hard-to-follow story involves a dead circus performer who looks back at a life well wasted in debauchery, performance craft and loves won and lost as angels elevate him to heaven.

That conceit is an excuse to deliver a frenetic and endlessly dazzling parade of mesmerizing set pieces, including trapeze artists tossing one another from one side of the stage to the other, acrobats spread out in spinning rings, tumblers vaulting over one another on teeter totters, a little person attached to helium balloons traipsing across extended palms of audience members and... remote-controlled Eiffel Towers.

That's just a taste of the wonders jammed into the astoundingly imaginative "Corteo." Costume changes, set shifting and comedic pantomime interludes flow in a seamless chain of eclectic wonder. The sheer level of energy reverberates through the arena, with performers who either take heedless joy in their routines or are good enough actors to convince you that they do.

The difficulty in enjoying "Corteo" comes in separating the analytical side of your mind from the sheer joy of the spectacle on display. The less time spent wondering how much training time they put in, what -- if anything -- these performers allow themselves to eat to stay in such ideal condition, and what types of injuries they subject themselves to during training, the better.

Just sit back, marvel like a child and let the angels lift your spirit away from your body, straight up into the glimmering ethereal lights above.

Cirque du Soleil Corteo plays through Sunday at Tucson Arena. Buy tickets here.

PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the "Joker" Trailer

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

"Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid" Review

A natural fit for a "Marvel vs. Capcom" style fighter treatment, the Power Rangers face off against one another, as well as a slew of enemies, in "Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid."

Developer nWay crafts a capable 3-on-3 slugfest, which draws from the likes of "Tekken Tag Tournament" in addition to the famed Capcom brawlers. Tight controls, slick visuals and rapidfire gameplay makes each battle an entertaining romp.

At the heart of the gameplay is the rock-paper-scissors nature of attack arrays, which grants a psychological dimension to the twitch reflexes that dominate each battle. A variety of ranged, close-quarters and team-up moves lather up pyrotechnics that grant a "wow" factor to the fights.

Lacking much of an impetus for single players, much of the game's draw comes from multiplayer. Several modes let you slug it out online, and while the character roster may be on the thin side, the combinations you can stack together give the matchups plenty of variety.

Although the game feels thin, there are strong bones here that could mark a refreshing new direction for the franchise, which has been painfully bereft of many playable games over its quarter-century history. Paired with the successful 2017 movie, the new fighter game has the Power Rangers looking more formidable than ever.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, April 01, 2019

"Stories: The Path of Destinies" Xbox One Review

In a former life, Reynardo was a swashbuckling pirate, plundering booty and making his way from port to port.

Now having reinvented himself as a hero, he makes a stand against an evil empire, using his skills in magic and combat to right past wrongs, leading a revolution.

Hacking, slashing and casting your way through gated areas, you collect and upgrade loot, expanding your offensive and defensive capabilities on the path to becoming a formidable force in this steampunk-influenced realm of airships, cannons and spells.

Three years after it released on PC, "Stories: The Path of Destinies" washes ashore on console waters.

The move from mouse and keyboard to a controller setup goes as smoothly as could be expected, with developer Spearhead Games taking cues from other successful isometric action game adaptations, including "Diablo III."

Though the combat can be rickety, and the menu system unwieldy, an earnest, well-calibrated story helps pull you through the combat and reward loop.

Satifying writing and traversal makes you feel empowered and adventurous, making the game easy to come back to session after session. Setting sail on these stranger tides is consistently engrossing.
Publisher provided review code.

5 Shows to Binge in April

It's a big month for Game of Thrones fans.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

"Windscape" Review

"Windscape" takes on the Chicken Little premise. The sky in an ethereal land of floating islands is falling. As a young farm girl who decides to investigate the problem, you search out the land for clues, delving into the mystery as you evolve into a hero.

Developer Magic Sandbox goes with a visual design that echoes "Minecraft," and the lighthearted approach serves the tone well.

You interact with locals, search out hidden corners for inventory items, solve light puzzles, battle enemies and complete an array of fetch quests as you work your way through the family-friendly material.

"Windscape" sets out to echo the likes of recent "The Elder Scrolls" and "The Legend of Zelda" and overcomes a general lack of polish to keep the narrative moving with an array of engrossing quests. The sense of whimsical fun rarely fades as you work your way through the evolving storyline.

Although some gamers may long for more of a challenge, there is much to be said for the way the game refuses to get in its own way, prioritizing pace and user-friendliness above all else.

This is a game that a beginner can thrive at, and although veterans may find the hand-holding emasculating, there's enough disarming charm to break down such hangups.

"Windscape" is a fresh take on a tried and true concept, and a welcome addition to the Switch's thin RPG slate. The sky may be falling, but as far as this unique and entrancing game goes, that's cause for exhilaration rather than concern.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book Report: "Wuthering Heights"

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At its best, "Wuthering Heights" is elegant and contemplative. Grim and seductive. Brutal and casually indifferent to suffering.

At its worst, it's a tedious bore.

Emily Bronte's novel wavers from the highs to lows, occasionally lathering up enough momentum to justify its status as a beloved, relentlessly deconstructed literary classic.

Groundbreaking for its time, the prose pushed boundaries of propriety, including grotesque scenes of psychological torture and violence that paved the way for gothic novelists of the future.

Joanne Froggett's spirited reading in the Audible version adds some heft to the material, but no matter how hard she tries, there isn't much urgency to the storytelling.

Through the lens of time, "Wuthering Heights" may continue to tower over British literature as a phenomenon to be appreciated. As a modern read, though, it stumbles rather than soars.

Publisher provided review code.
View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

"MLB 19 The Show" Review

Without genuine competition to demand innovation, the "MLB The Show" franchise needs to rely on its own standards as benchmarks. Thus, SIE San Diego Studio never feels the heat of a rival chasing it in the standings and tends to stay more conservative than innovative.

"MLB The Show 19" isn't afraid to shake up the established formula, but its improvements are small and safe enough to go unnoticed by all but the most observant baseball-obsessed gamers.

Like cover star Bryce Harper, the game is flashy and packed with potential. And at times, frustratingly erratic.

Leading off is one of the most comprehensive and genuinely helpful tutorials in any recent sports title. After selecting your favorite team and choosing "experienced" or "beginner" as your difficulty level, you play through an entire World Series game between the Dodgers and Red Sox.

A flow of pop-up boxes guides you through the finer points of pitching, fielding and hitting, subtly mentioning breakthroughs in gameplay that allow you to refine your skills, taking advantage of the new systems in place to grant you more influence than ever before on gameplay mechanics.

Continuing to build on successes of the past, SIE San Diego Studio channels numerous upgrades into its single-player, franchise and season modes.

Gameplay refinements make it possible to plow through a standard game in a half hour or less, and a fascinating "Moments" mode lets you play through some of MLB's watershed scenarios. Lavish period detail goes far toward selling the authenticity of the period presentation. With the promise of new moments replicating 2019 season highlights, there is plenty to love and look forward to here.

As is the case with most sports games, there isn't much of an impetus to coax casual players to re-up year after year. Maybe a narrative-driven RPG or adventure game-style side mode like that of "Madden" or NBA 2K" would have done the trick.

What you get here, though, packs loads of mid-lineup punch and won't leave any serious baseball fans caught looking. A celebration of what makes baseball great, "MLB 19 The Show" is crafted lovingly and crammed with enough delights to keep you coming back all season. From the crack of the bat to the cut of the virtual grass and roar of the crowd, the game manages to deliver that "play ball" smile to your face.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

"Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice" Review

Refusing to be pigeonholed after taking over the world and defining a new genre with its "Souls" series, From Software opens up a new chapter with "Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice." As elegant and methodical as its previous games were rigid and urgent, "Sekiro" seems like From's attempt at a storytelling magnum opus.

Set amid the hyperviolent strife of 16th century Sengoku Japan, "Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice," the game employes every bit as much devastating challenge as the likes of the "Dark Souls" franchise, but the difficulty enhances the story rather than bottlenecking.

Narrative and emotional storytelling rise to the top, with freedom of movement taking precedence over restrictive control schemes. The ways to attack, scale and traverse are open, enriched with a "Hitman"-style sandbox nature that allows you to decide how to approach each challenge.

As you advance through the game, you'll find yourself adapting to varied playstyles and rhythms depending on the demands of the area. Skills such as stealth, platforming, measured assault and defense-favoring skillsets fall in and out of favor depending on the demands of the environment and mission, as well as your chosen approach.

While standby attributes of "Souls" games remain -- including an at-time arduous checkpoint system that requires you to backtrack through some trying portions -- there is so much new here that there's no mistaking "Sekiro" with anything lurking in From's past. The signature feel and touch of the skilled developer continues to thrive, making "Sekiro" feel like a grand evolution rather than a serendipitous one-off.

"Sekiro" is not only a new direction for From Software, but a bold and adventurous new direction for the action RPG in general. Shadows of the past fall to the wayside for a thrilling new vision, basking in its opportunity int he limelight.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"The Princess Guide" Review

It seems like the setup for a high fantasy reality show. Four princesses from various corners of the kingdom are summoned to take part in the legendary Princess Knight training sessions.

You take one of the princesses under your wing as an apprentice to your knightship, with the goal of training her and her followers to become the best defense against a sinister force that threatens to tear the land apart.

The unique training-focused aspect of the setup adds depth to the storyline and gameplay. Combined with a peppy anime visual style, the NIS product has all the trappings to become your next Switch obsession. Not everything is going in the game's favor, though.

Rickety combat and a convoluted story hold the game back from the level of fascinating JRPG that the Nippon Ichi developers were striving for.

On the whole, "The Princess Guide" is a rich, lengthy adventure that gives fantasy combat-focused RPG fans a bounty to digest. There are more grounded and compelling choices out there, but the game excels at its chosen goals, thriving where it matters msot.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Valley" Review

"Valley" is an ethereal first-person Switch game that has you explore a mysterious, fog-laden mountainside realm. Mysterious sights and sounds abound, and there's little context to explain the odd encounters.

One more twist, and it's a doozy: Early on, you unearth a crate that yields a L.E.A.F. exosuit that grants you abilities with shades of Iron Man, Titanfall of Apex Legends.

The suit allows you to run at super speeds, execute incredible jumps and even alter the life and death states of organisms surrounding you. You need to exploit all of your abilities to their utmost in order to take on the light traversal and puzzle challenges that await you.

Unfolding more like an interactive storybook than a traditional FPS, "Valley" drapes you in its scene-setting trappings to suck you into its wildly creative world. The dev team at Blue Isle Studios went out of its way to craft an emotionally resonant experience that has a way of sticking with your subconscious in between play sessions.

I recommend avoiding walkthroughs or speedrun attempts when it comes to "Valley." A slow burn that gives you more if you're willing to take your time with its methodical ways, the game overflows with unorthodox riches. This is yet another example of the Switch hardware opening up offbeat possibilities for savvy developers.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Golf Peaks" Review

Thriving in its simplicity, "Golf Peaks" is a miniature golf minigame for those who didn't know they were fans of miniature golf.

Single-screen puzzles based on putt-putt courses make up the charming and addictive game. The design by the dev team at Afterburn revels in economical design, minimalist sensibilities and a precise physics system.

The sequence of golf-based puzzles tasks you to line up shots, determine the power level, visualize the outcome and decide how best to approach your multiple putts to nail your shot.

As you advance, the levels grow more complex, adding ricochets, inclines, hazards and barriers. Trial-and-error is the method you find yourself falling back upon repeatedly, blended with critical thinking and anticipation.

A golf ball-solid addition to the Switch's puzzle game repertoire, "Golf Peaks" is an ideal time-killer, as well as an engaging, thought-provoking brain teaser. If only golf itself were this satisfying.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Tom Clancy's The Division 2" Review

Set in a near-future Washington D.C. ravaged by invasion, "Tom Clancy's The Division 2" has you join a crack team of tactical supersoldiers who become the last guardians of Western democracy.

Set seven months after a deadly biological weapon ravaged New York City, the covert ops unit seeks out strongholds, infiltrates enemy choke points and establishes footholds to hold off the enemy.

Subtle visual upgrades and sweeping gameplay adjustments distinguish the sequel from the 2016 original, which survived a rough start to evolve into a multiplayer standby, particularly in Xbox One and PC circles.

Although the campaign is a solid foundation, it's mulitplayer that will grant the game its legs in the coming months -- and judging from the exhaustive support Ubisoft gave the first game -- possibly even years. The pipeline of free DLC is a compelling inducement for players to invest their time and effort into scoping out the game's finer points.

Although squadding up, executing missions and harvesting the rewards is a main draw from online play, one of the more intriguing aspects is the PvP-oriented Dark Zone, which tasks players to put prime loot on the line as they size up their skills and loadouts with high stakes on the line.

"The Division 2" keeps the adrenaline pumping, thanks to slick pacing and a smooth menu interface that helps you make your adjustments and dive back into the action without suffering through much of a waiting game. Geared from the ground up to hook you in quickly and keep you playing for hours into the night, the game builds off a superb base and reaches substantially more impressive heights.

Enrolling in "The Division 2" feels worthwhile because every action -- particularly collaborative work -- leads to more links in a chain that forms a reward loop, inducing you to keep coming back for more with refined weaponry and gadgets that will make you that much more effective as you seek glory on the monumental battlefield.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 15, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Captive State"

For my written review, click here.

Book Report: "The Pole Vault Championship of the Entire Universe"

The Pole Vault Championship of the Entire UniverseThe Pole Vault Championship of the Entire Universe by Conor Lastowka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a slow, dad joke-filled start I was wondering whether I had found myself in a mire of bland, unfunny madcap shenanigans that would never manage to right itself.

But Conor Lastowaka manages to step up his game once he makes it past the awkward introductions to his "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"-like intergalactic goof, he's able to interject occasional strings of hilarious, belly laugh-erupting writing.

Comedy novels are among the toughest to write, so a certain measure of inconsistency is expected, but Lastowka's work extends the full range of comedic success and failure to a degree I've never seen.

The story follows two threads: One of an eccentric, self-fashioned dictator of a platform-country the size of half a football field he calls "Hawall" in order to trick Hawaii-bound tourists into visiting by accident. He recruits his estranged granddaughter to visit and compete, while also continuing the family tradition of wearing a dirty, ruined and mind-manipulating costume. The other is about a megalomaniacal alien who dreams of shedding his race's reputation for garbage collection in favor of conquering the Earth and proving his athletic dominance.

The writing sometimes comes off as a 10-year-old snickering to himself while filling out Mad Libs. But at times, Lastowka is funny enough to emerge as something of a creative mastermind.

A capable Audible cast, which includes Eliza Skinner, Janet Varney, Weird Al Yankovic and Mike Nelson, assembles for something close to a full-featured, extravagantly produced radio play. It's easy to imagine the play working as a stage musical. I could also see it becoming a really awful animated movie. The future of this franchise is as mercurial and unclear as that of Hawall itself.

Publisher provided review code.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 14, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the new "Avengers: Endgame" trailer

"The Caligula Effect: Overdose" Switch Review

Set in a world created by a sentient virtual doll, in which people can relive an idealized version of their high school life, "The Caligula Effect: Overdose" explores the downside of shrugging off real-life problems in favor of a virtual world.

Lost in artificial bliss, you need to work your way through numerous insecurities, hang-ups and virtual barriers to return to some semblance of real life. Elegant, observant writing, ethereal visuals and pragmatic design are the game's high points. Pacing, controls and menu systems tend to hold it back, and that hasn't changed since the game's initial release.

Three years after its debut on PS4, Vita and PC, the game re-emerges on the Switch in a slightly revamped form. While the basics remain intact, there are minor adjustments that optimize the game for the portable/home console hybrid.

The game remains mainly for those interested in an artistic, intellectually challenging experience rather than a more common, action-oriented adventure. An imperfect but undeniably engaging spectacle, it's worth seeking out and getting lost in its world.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Report: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Arthur Conan Doyle made himself the all-seeing Sherlock and his readers the dumbfounded dupes Watson. His stories set up obtuse, unsolvable puzzles, then make the solutions seem obvious, even though they were impossible to solve by the reader, given the information presented to them.

His storytelling is economical and smooth, cutting from one key conversation to the next, with no superfluous flourishes and never any exposition. His narratives always take place in the moment, with alternating flashbacks set up by monologues from Watson or Sherlock's clients.

Doyle plays to his strengths in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," emphasizing short-form storytelling over the need to set up an elaborate setup and payoff. The format lets him leap from one topic to the next, wrapping things up and moving on whenever his attention span demands. It plays out something like a collection of short stories linked together by the common device.

If you've never read a Sherlock Holmes book, this is the one to start with and compare all others against.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the new "Aladdin" trailer

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Braveland Trilogy" Switch Review

A fantasy-inspired hex grid combat epic, "Braveland Trilogy" tests your tactical skills amid increasingly hectic challenges.

Five years after it was released on PC, the game comes to Switch in a mildly refined form. The game fits well into the console's slate of strategy-minded games.

Stylized, hand-drawn visuals lend a timeless feel to the presentation, and the controls have held up well, ably adapting to the Switch's twin-stick format.

The overarching story is a tale of redemption. You guide a warrior's son whose village was decimated by a raid. You seek retribution by rising through the military ranks, taking command and grinding your way to prominence in the land.

Loading up your party with archers, footmen, healers, scouts and the like, you can adjust your forces to your play styles, leaning into your proclivities, whether they be loaded up in an attack-focused mindset and aggressive, risk-taking stance or well-balanced and conservative.

You'll often find the need to adjust your technique on the fly, deploying your skills to take advantage of the scenarios that emerge.

With a user-friendly interface that makes the game easy to pick up and play but may frustrate veteran gamers who long for the difficulty to ramp up, "Braveland Trilogy" works as something of a starter strategy title, as well as a welcome, nostalgia-tinged throwback for those who grew up with games like this.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Book Report: "The Color Purple"

The Color PurpleThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A challenging and linguistically innovative novel, Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is an effortlessly intellectual think piece wrapped in a gloomy historical drama.

With a Steinbeck-like urgent optimism, Walker shows off a boundless sense of rhythms and flows of poverty-ridden country life. Her protagonist, Celie, maintains an earnest sense of self-affirmation as she tells her tumultuous life story via letters to God.

Celie's backwoods vernacular becomes a poetry in the way it weaves and stumbles its way through deep philosophical thoughts. The writing dares you to overcome your own ingrained social prejudices to truly hear the message at play.

Walker's vigorous messages cry out for justice for women, people of color and homosexuals, who are forced to bear burdens thrust upon them by the powers that be. Her message of love and understanding sings out proudly.

Walker's choice to narrate the Audible adaptation was crucial. No matter how studied the voice performer, there's no one who could even pray to come close to matching Walker's command of the spirit and commitment to the downtrodden characters she carves out.

"The Color Purple" is a cleverly written and consistently emotionally overwhelming fable. Walker's shrewd, sense-of-place sorcery makes you feel and think what its characters do. As if you were reading your own stack of letters rather than those of Celie.

Publisher provided review copy.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the final "Game of Thrones" trailer

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

"Sudden Strike 4: The Pacific War" Review

Tactical combat has a way of bringing war to life on a grand scale. The isometric RTS "Sudden Strike 4" impressed hardcore World War II fans upon its 2017 release with invigorating gameplay, detailed visuals and satisfying ease of use.

The game's high points were able to neutralize some of the shortcomings, including a jumbled interface and awkward point-and-click controls that made a rough transition to consoles.

A well-designed mission structure and rich breadth of varied content went miles toward stoking the fires of its community.

There just aren't many games of this ilk around anymore, and diving into the game brings back the "just one more mission" draw that keeps you playing long into the night.

"The Pacific War" DLC freshens up the game by adding the Pacific Ocean theater. Replacing tanks, paratroopers and infantry with warships, fighters and bombers. 

With historically accurate scenarios and the vivid scene setting that's become the franchise's trademark, "Sudden Strike 4" continues to grow and evolve in the years since its initial release. Playing the game is a bit like opening up an interactive history book or documentary. 

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 04, 2019

"Dead or Alive 6" Review

In many ways, fighting games will always play like retro throwbacks. The charm of quarter-munching arcade fighters will always stick with certain, accepted formulas, such as health bars in the upper corners, special moves and round-by-round formats.

In that sense, the games are time machines to fever-pitched competitive scenes of the 1990s or early 2000s. "Dead or Alive 6" holds onto the now all-but-forgotten era of 3D fighters, pioneered by the likes of "Virtua Fighter."

Games of this mold prioritize approach angles, momentum and evasion, with routines such as the stick-and-move taking priority over traditional combos. A rock-paper-scissors metagame of strikes, throws and holds emerges, with players psyching each other out to gain the upper hand.

"Dead or Alive 6" stubbornly sticks in its chosen era of arrested development, and any knocks on the game for its retro sensibilities are tone deaf. Team Ninja's creation bursts with all the trappings that fans of the series desire, from anime-style sexuality complete with outrageously goofy, breast-jiggling physics, exaggerated move sets and melodramatic music.

Stage design is as elaborate and stylized as those of the characters, with destructible aspects of levels begging players to ram one another through structures, creating a dazzling display of barely-organized chaos.

The online suite is still a work in progress, with only ranked matches available at launch, and lobby play planned for introduction later in the month. As of now, that aspect is the weak link of the gma'es suite of modes, but a slow rollout is preferable to a sloppy and forced bug-filled launch.

Still, it's a fair question why Koei Tecmo felt the need to push the game out now rather than wait until it was feature complete until release. The chosen pattern amounts to using hardcore gamers as paid public beta participants.

There's no denying how much fun there is to be had in the game as it stands now. With its ample humor, dazzling pyrotechnics and pulsing entertainment factor, "Dead or Alive 6" stands alongside the likes of "Street Fighter V" and "Injustice 2" and the upcoming "Mortal Kombat XI" in the new generation of fighters that thrive for their dedication to the old ways. This game launches you forward by taking you back.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

"The Way Remastered" Review

A somber and elegiac tone poem, "The Way Remastered" tracks the lonely quest of a space explorer who is tormented by the death of his wife.

Obsessed with uncovering the secret to eternal life, he makes increasingly high-stakes risks as he scavenges for clues he believes will lead him to the path of reunion with his resurrected love.

Releasing on the Switch three years after its PC debut, the new version of "The Way" retains the rustic, cobbled-together look of the original. Its character models look something like the original-release "Sims," with polygonal blockiness that reeks of simplistic, early-2000s stylization.

What unfolds is a mildly challenging, often confounding, puzzle platformer that tasks you to stretch your lateral thinking in order to inch your way through the interconnected world.

Stiff, sometimes inconsistent controls and obtuse solutions sometimes mess with the flow of the narrative, but when "The Way" is rolling, it's nothing short of captivating. Its methodical pace works to its advantage, allowing its themes to set in and take hold of your emotions.

While not a fit for all tastes, "The Way Remastered" opens up layer upon layer of inner and outer exploration. "The Way" may never be clear, but the winding nature of its paths make up much of its charm.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

"YumeNikki: Dream Diary" Review

Dreams are our mind's way of digesting all the sights, sounds and emotions that we experience during waking hours.

The process provides ample material for exploration in gaming, but the premise has been largely untapped. "YumeNikki: Dream Diary"

A slumbering little girl sorts through her hang-ups, stressors, longings and fears, and your task is to adapt to the disparate circumstances, navigate your way through logic-defying circumstances and work to resolve lingering problems by making sure the dreams unfold in satisfying ways.

Reminiscent of the 1996 Sega Saturn classic "Nights into Dreams," the game skips among diverse settings, each one based on the little girl's subconscious visions.

Developer Active Gaming Media excels in orchestrating varied visual and gameplay styles, synthesizing them all into a seamless narrative. The work is a reimagining of the original "YumeNikki," a PC horror game released in 2004. The dev team doesn't settle for a simple retracing of footsteps with augmented visuals, instead opting to reinvent the concept while still staying true to the psychological horror concept.

A triumphant fit on the Switch, "YumeNikki: Dream Diary" gives you plenty of fascinating material to explore. A dark series of dreams come to life, the haunting and often dark series of manifestations make for often enthralling gameplay

Publisher provided review code.

"Metro Exodus" Review

4A Games' "Metro" series has established itself as a bleak, brooding survival horror franchise with a distinctly Eastern European flavor. The saga is set in a depressed, post-apocalyptic society that has driven humanity underground, left to scurry around amid the ruins of the technological marvels in which it once thrived.

"Metro: Exodus" strives to be the most somber and claustrophobic of the franchise. As with the previous games, the capstone to the trilogy broods in its somber, contemplative mood. Many first-person shooters play on a power fantasy, but in this game, the aspiration is just to endure and scrape by, surviving encounters with mutated beasts or ruthless scavengers with just a sliver of health and a few spare bullets.

The setting for the third game moves largely from the decayed Russian metro to the sprawling, yet equally corroded and constrictive Russian wilderness. The story spans a year, evolving the saga as political factions rise and fall, semblances of hope flicker, die and spark up, and dread-inducing threats continue to rise from oblivion.

With a palpably raw ambition pulsing through every pixel, "Metro Exodus" feels like an expertly designed marvel. Displaying a polish and production level that the earlier games lacked, this seems to be the entry that will vault the franchise from cult status to mainstream prominence.

While the narrative continues to be patchy and confounding, the gameplay remains varied and vigorous. You rarely face challenges that seem repetitive or contrived. Although some action sequences lead to set pieces that feel a little forced and overproduced, the general effect is a cinematic flow that always packs a punch.

Single-player-focused experiences seem to be a dying breed, but the likes of "Metro Exodus" show that a dogged commitment to traditional survival horror values can pay off in a major way. The twists that 4A adds to the formula continue to pay off, and "Metro" continues to chug along, siphoning its dystopian angst as fuel.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight" Review

When "WW2 Warplanes: Dogfight" released on mobile platforms with its vivid visuals and slick gameplay, it seemed as though it begged for a console release.

Now that it's made its way to the Switch, the game seems like it was more at home on phones and tablets.

Still a stunning visual delight, the pick-up-and-play shooter's flaws shine through when stacked up against other indie dynamos on the platform.

Although the battles in the clouds continue to fascinate as a compelling game of back-and-forth, cat-and-mouse one-upsmanship, the lack of a compelling progression loop or robust narrative give you too little season to continue taking to the unfriendly skies.

The dev team at Home Net games sweetens the deal by offering a bonus aircraft -- the P-40 Warhawk -- to the mix. Completionists will appreciate the authenticity and detail granted to that plane, as well as the rest of the fleet at your disposal.

With European, Asian and African maps at play, as well as British, Soviet and Nazi campaigns available, you feel as though you get to experience a sizable breadth of the World War II experience. You truly get a sense of the wind at your back, the bullets whizzing by and the ominous buzz of approaching bogeys.

The bottom line, though, is that there isn't much here to justify the $10 cost to play the game on Switch, where you can get the mobile version for half the price.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Five shows to binge in March

For the full list, click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Book Report: "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders"

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson MurdersHelter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In between long interludes of self-congratulation, attorney Vincent Bugliosi gets around to telling the sordid tale of Charles Manson and his followers that obsessed him for the better part of a decade.

The lead prosecutor responsible for convicting and securing a short-lived death penalty for the killers, Bugliosi breaks down the bungled investigation and scattershot trial that became a media circus that drew worldwide attention to the mass murders that became nightmare fuel.

Bugliosi writes almost reverently of Manson as he describes his philosophies, musical fascinations and methods of exerting control over his harem and hangers-on, dispatching them to rob and murder innocents at his whim. The psychological study skims the surface, but includes enough detail to let you pass yourself off as a Manson expert in casual conversation.

Bugliosi lauds his dogged prosecution methods, but also shows a soft side for the female suspects who fell under Manson's control when they were lost, unloved drifters looking for a cause to cling to. His grim tale of twisted Americana and the hippie movement gone sideways is captivating and well-researched.

Scott Brick's narration of the Audible version is a stirringly staccato that aptly suits the potboiler, true crime nature of the material. You feel as though you're listening to Bugliosi relay his war stories over drinks at a dive bar.

"Helter Skelter" is essential reading on one of history's most notorious killers, and fascinating from beginning to end. It may suffer and gains from Bugliosi's personal touch in equal measures, but the bravado has a charm and self-reference that tends to pay off more than it makes you wince.

Publisher provided review code.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

"Trials Rising" Review

As you play "Trials Rising," you feel like you're chasing the edge of excellence, ever on the verge of nailing the trick it will take to vault you to a chart-topping score.

You speed through courses loaded with ramps, obstacles, inclines and declines, hurling your rider into the fray with what would appear to an onlooker like reckless exuberance. In reality, it's precise, studied intricacy that leads to a dream run. Every slice of perfection is preceded by copious failure and incremental advancement.

Developer RedLynx adds new modes while maintaining the level of visual excellence and smooth gameplay from the previous games. The concept that started as a browser game in 2000 and was refined for console release with "Trials 2" in 2007 now continues to thrive on current-gen consoles.

Playing the game that looks this good and plays so swiftly on the Switch's handheld mode seems like a marvel, much the same as some of the most particularly dazzing PS Vita games seemed at launch. The Switch, however, ratchets the visuals and sound to a more impressive plateau. This is a true showpiece with which to wow friends.

From the robust soundtrack to the deep customization options and varied modes and tracks, "Trials Rising" is a punishing crucible disguised as a adrenaline-juiced thrill ride. The climb toward excellence is a speedy, trick-filled glory road.
Publisher provided review code.

"RemiLore: Lost Girl in the Lands for Lore" Review

A sassy, fast-paced dungeon crawler, "RemiLore: Lost Girl in the Lands of Lore" follows the adventures of a spry, book-obsessed girl.

She romps through isometric catacombs, hacking and slashing at enemies and crates with aplomb as a sarcastic, hovering book of magic follows her to bark words of wisdom or derision.

Dubbed a "rogue-lite," the breezy, whimsical adventure takes you through procedural, anime-styled challenges. Text-heavy interludes provide entertaining breaks from the action as you swap out among nearly 200 weapons, seek upgrades and scamper down hallways with reckless aplomb.

The dev team at Pixellore wear their "Diablo" influences on their rolled-up sleeves, but are savvy at avoiding unnecessarily dark moments by sprinkling in levity at every turn. Remi is a sprightly, magnetic persona who is easy to rally behind. Imagine Belle of "Beauty and the Beast" fame with an attitude and penchant for kicking ass.

With its strong female lead and accessible combat and exploration, "RemiLore: Lost girl in the Lands of Lore" is the rare adventure that's just as suitable for tweens as it is grizzled middle-aged men. Whether you're on the PS4 or Switch, you'll find yourself entranced by this digital, interactive page-turner.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"DreamWorks Dragons: Dawn of New Riders" Review

Well, at least you can't call this game a quick and dirty movie tie-in. With backgrounds characters who have more in common with the first two films and Netflix series than the new film -- and fresh frontline protagonists --  "DreamWorks Dragons: Dawn of New Riders" is determined to be its own thing.

Exactly how worthwhile that thing ended up being is debatable.

A clumsy, awkward top-down RPG lite, the game cuts corners at every opportunity. Where you'd hope for detailed character models and varied backgrounds, you get bland avatars and a cookie-cutter, blandly linear world.

Most distracting, where you'd hope for voice acting with a cast of at least star sound-alikes, you get "Zelda"-style grunts and text windows of dialogue.

Bearing more in common with a mobile game than a robust console release, "Dawn of New Riders" does manage to craft a passable adventure once you get over the cut-rate quality of the presentation. Inventive puzzles, satisfying battles and a compelling item collection system keep you coming back for more, in spite of the rough edges.

"Dawn of New Riders" doesn't dazzle in the ways the movies do, but nor does it disappoint in the way old video game tie-ins used to. You could do worse, but you could also do a lot better.

Publisher provided review code.