Sunday, September 15, 2019

"eFootball PES 2020" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Borderlands 3" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sinking City" Switch Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

"NBA 2K20" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "It Chapter Two"

For my full review, click here.

"Spyro Reignited Trilogy" Switch Review

A year after his console renaissance, "Spyro" has used his adorably tiny wings to flap his pudgy purple body over to Switch. "Spyro Reignited Trilogy" is a smooth, seamless port that runs like a dream on the Switch, which easily handles the complex, remastered textures and animations in both handheld and docked modes.

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

As it did on consoles, the Switch version of the trilogy reinvents the series with wholesale modern trappings. So slick, lovingly created and invigorating are the new games that they figuratively breathe fire on the originals, leaving frayed embers behind.

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Gears 5" Review

With such a slim slate of console exclusives this year, Xbox One owners needed "Gears 5" to be a staggering success. Anything less than a spellbinding success on both the campaign and multiplayer fronts would be a crushing setback.

No pressure, right?

Luckily -- actually, it had much more to do with skill and experience -- the dev team at the Coalition was more than up to the task. "Gears 5" is good enough to draw lapsed fans of the series back into the fold. It's good enough to forge new inroads and suck new players in, setting them on the path to hardcore veteran status. It's good enough to make PS4 and Switch loyalists tremble with envy.

Following the steady, if uninspiring, success of "Gears of War 4" in 2016, "Gears 5" hews close to the spirit of its title's naming convention by powering foward as a sleeker, more economical and vigorous than any series entry since its inception. A rebirth for the franchise that pushes it forward in meaningful ways, the game slices through the burden of expectations with the ferocious vengeance of a chainsaw bayonet.

Shedding the series' dudebro past for a more serious, relatable and gender-inclusive vibe, the new entry makes a compelling case that Gears is the most stable and promising pillar of Xbox Land, looking sharp where its cohorts -- Halo and Forza -- have been showing frayed edges for years.

At the forefront is a killer campaign that powers in like a freight train after a somewhat tiresome opening training module tutorial. The voice performances and facial models lend severity and maturity to the stakes. The writers lace each chapter with memorable, paradigm-shifting twists that keep you glued to the story with the skill of a binge-worthy streaming series.

As strong as the campaign is, The Coalition doesn't step off the gas when it comes to multiplayer.

Gears is known for building a hardcore insular community that maintains such a high level of play that it's difficult for newcomers to break in. The new game makes a heroic effort to shatter the barriers to entry and making online mode far more accessible and forgiving than in games' past.

Although the out-of-the-gate offerings don't exactly bowl you over with a multitude of modes, what we get is enough to consolidate the community to keep the matchmaking working at maximum efficiency. If the series' past is any indication, players can expect a cavalcade of free updates and enhancements as the months roll by, with the Coalition adapting with nimble speed and measured empathy, adjusting to the shifting yearnings of the community with fresh, invigorating content.

"Gears 5" is a resounding success that -- judging from the sporadic drip of system-exclusive blockbusters from Microsoft over the past few years and the next "Halo" being saved for the next generation -- may well serve as the definitive high point for the Xbox One. If so, this makes for one hell of a sendoff.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 30, 2019

5 Shows to Binge in September 2019

For the full article, click here.

"Catherine: Full Body" Review

It turned out to be well worth the wait for Atlus and Sega to resurrect "Catherine," one of the haunting triumphs of yesteryear. It turns out the game has been gone just long enough to seem just about completely new again in the "Full Body" edition.

The remake of the 2011 PS3 classic adds several quality-of-life adjustments, optionally ratchets up the difficulty and changes up its puzzle game with a remixed version that adds new dimensions to the gameplay.

The story, told in hardboiled film noir-style flashback, tells the winding, sordid tale of Vincent, a disenchanted 32-year-old man whose psyche is embarking on an early midlife crisis.

As you juggle romantic interests, you get yourself deeper into trouble via dialogue trees and often find yourself stuck in deadly dreams that resemble inverted "Q*bert" puzzles with a "Jenga" touch. By pushing, pulling and scaling blocks, you collect items while frantically striving to save your own neck. The stress that the frantic minigame induces is all too effective at making you feel the stress in Vincent's life.

For those who burn through the story and are hungry for more, there are multiplayer battle arena options that will no doubt stoke the fires of a passionate community looking to engage online.

The writing in "Catherine" remains a strong point, with the inventive presentation keeping the winding tale fascinating. Stylish artistic direction melds with the top-notch script to form a resonant experience that blossoms to its full potential thanks to the touched-up visuals, tweaked gameplay and sped-up loading times.

Easily the definitive version of "Catherine: Full Body" is a treat to savor. The headspace of Vincent may be harsh, conflicted and unforgiving, and that's what makes it so compelling to return to.

Publisher provided review code.

"Control" Review

A third-person action-adventure told with confidence, masterful design and boundless creativity, "Control" tasks you with probing the secrets of a dense government bureaucracy, keeping you forging ahead by dangling the next intriguing mystery ahead of you.

With little hype, developer Remedy Entertainment delivered a virtuoso example of level construction and character building.

Ambition has never been in short supply for the developer, which wowed audiences with the likes of "Max Payne," challenged narrative conventions with "Alan Wake" and stretched the boundaries of TV and gaming convergence with "Quantum Break." At times, the available technology restricted Remedy's vision, but that's not the case here.

"Control" is a game thoroughly comfortable in its own skin, guiding you along your chosen path by presenting a linear experience with so much room to maneuver and explore that you sink into the illusion that you're taking on an open-world enterprise, shaping your journey with organic choices that you make.

To reveal much of the story or setup would be to rob the game of its ample sense of discovery. As you delve into the layers upon layers of buried intrigue, the game gradually familiarizes you with the supernatural and metaphysical sensibilities of its world.

Mastering the combat, traversal and environmental manipulation aspects is crucial to advancing. Finding that path is a joy, and the game has a masterful way at pushing you through extended tutorials that feel like organic exploration.

One of the unbridled successes of the 2019 gaming year, "Control" thrives with thrills and chills to spare. A glorious and captivating tale that makes you feel as though you're the co-author, the game shatters your expectations and shows that Remedy continues to tap dance on the bleeding edge of gamedom's evolution.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book Report: "Siddhartha"

SiddharthaSiddhartha by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mystical, thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, transformation and transcendence, "Siddhartha" is a rich and entrancing voyage through a seeker's life as he grows, reaches and ages.

Author Hermann Hesse spins his tell with a timeless confidence, inhabiting the conjurer's journey to enlightenment with the intimacy of a diary. We follow along as the title character breaks away from his privileged upbringing to seek out life's truths and expose the hidden shackles that hold people back from development.

Hesse doesn't pretend to have all of the answers, or even any of them. Siddhartha's voyage emphasizes the importance of patience, observation and listening. The simple sights, sounds and presence of nature is always there to teach things to those willing to pay attention.

Harish Bhimani narrates the Audible version with a steady, easygoing presence, telling the story with poise and command.

"Siddhartha" is a joyful and rereadable experience, dense with hidden riches and subtle wonders. It's there for you as a gentle guide to coax you to wake up and take a fresh look at what surrounds you, as well as what lies within.

Publisher provided review copy.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

D23 Expo 2019 Highlights

Here are a few of my favorite moments from D23 2019:

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Report: "Mrs. Dalloway"

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A breakthrough in feminist literature, "Mrs. Dalloway" rips apart the prim facade of upper-crust 20th century British high society, revealing a torrent of angst, oppression and malaise buried beneath.

With a scattered, sometimes oppressively urgent style, Virginia Woolf sorts through the conflicting emotions and stream-of-consciousness memories bubbling inside the mind of a housewife who deconstructs her life as she sets up a dinner party. She reminisces over loves pursued and lost, life choices she regrets and the social structure that never gave her a chance to pursue her passions. She stands as a woman broken. bruised and numbed by a lifetime of coersion and compliance.

Annette Bening narrates the Audible version with seething, barely-submerged rage and a sense of festering regret that epitomizes the spirit of Woolf's writing. It's as though the author -- or Clarissa Dalloway herself -- is reciting the bubbling prose from the heart.

"Mrs. Dallaway" is slowed by poetic prose that is often too dense to pick through the first time around, as well as a sense of unnerving tumult that sometimes makes the plot points too heavy to register. But this is exquisite writing, and well worth exploring for anyone intrigued by the passionate, laconic web that Woolf weaves.

Publisher provided review copy.

View all my reviews

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book Report: "The Turn of the Screw"

The Turn of the ScrewThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Taking a stab at slow-burn horror, Henry James delivers a chilling payoff in "The Turn of the Screw."

Told from the perspective of a governess terrorized by ghosts as she cares for sweet but unruly children, the book is a chilling dive into psychological horror. The actions of the demonic spirits can't compete with the devastation the mind can wreak on itself.

After a sluggish buildup, the story really hits its stride, delivering a resonant and haunting conclusion.

Emma Thompson's narration in the Audible edition is a masterstroke, speeding up her pace and raising her sense of urgency during the more frantic moments and slowing down into somber tones during buildups.

While most of the book is a slog, it's worth struggling through the slower moments to get to the masterstroke ending. "The Turn of the Screw" is short enough to maintain its sense of urgency even when it stalls.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Book Report: "David Copperfield"

I struggle with Charles Dickens books and was hoping "David Copperfield" would have the pathos and urgency to connect with me in the way "A Tale of Two Cities" or "The Chimes" could not.

After a promising start I found myself twisting in the wind just as I did with his other books. I felt bludgeoned by his monotonous descriptions and laborious plotlines that sputter and stumble.

The story follows the struggles and triumphs of a man looking back on his life, starting off with poverty and abandonment as a child, abuse and oppression as a student and laborer and the discovery and loss of young love. Life through the lens of David is one of despair, compromise and punishment, but his steadfast self-belief and inner strength of character inch him toward grace. No matter the indignities that befall him, his inner strength continues to develop, along with his character.

Unfortunately, the trek toward redemption is onerous and slipshod, with Dickens' tedious style tugging you along by the scruff of the neck.

Richard Armitage delivers a masterful and enthusiastic performance in the Audible edition, crafting a tapestry of voices and rhythms to give each character its own presence. I respect his effort and skill, but some of the voices are so throaty and wheezy that they physically hurt to listen to. Still, without the interpretation of Armitage, the book wouldn't have been as compelling.

"David Copperfield" may be a worthy literary landmark worthy of analysis and study, but as a storytelling experience it leaves much to be desired. When the book ended I felt a sense of relief, having been set free of the drudgery.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

"Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown" Review

"Ace Combat" games date to the era when flight combat simulators were en vogue, and now it's basically the last of its kind in the skies. You could excise Bandai Namco Games for relaxing into complacency now that there's no significant competition, but instead the publisher has used the situation as a freeing opportunity for liftoff.

By far the most technically impressive game in the storied series, "Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown" is also arguably the most fast-paced and accessible. a bold and dazzling flight of invigorating fancy, the game builds on its substantial base to soar proudly above the clouds.

The publisher has supported the game well, having just released the third and final DLC pack in the form of the ADFX-01 Morgan aircraft, but even without any of the add-ons, what you get here feels like a feature-complete blast of aerial combat thrills loaded with more than enough content to keep fans satisfied for months.

Not only does Bandai Namco convincingly nail the handling and weight of the airborne birds of prey hunting for their kills, you also get a health dose of the unbridled joy that comes with aerial combat. Those who were weaned on the likes of "Top Gun" and "Iron Eagle" will find an aeronautical ballet that taps into the heart of idealized adrenaline-pumping dogfights.

Although the at-times silly, always over-the-top story won't win any writing awards, nor does it get in the way enough to catch any turbulence. The thin tale is only an excuse to get you in the cockpit as often as possible, dancing in the skies to rain hellfire on your enemies.

Months after release, "Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown" continues to gain altitude and keep its guns blazing.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

"Crystar" Review

"Crystar" applies the linear, single-player JRPG format to a tapestry that hinges on emotions. Your heroine, a high school girl named Rei, returns from a near-death experience with superhuman abilities.

Following a tragic plot twist, Rei descends back to the afterlife in order to rescue a lost soul. In a plotline that seems inspired by the Purgatorio segment of Dante's "The Divine Comedy," you wrestle with loss, anxiety and regret as you work your way through a cavalcade of conflicted spirits attempting to work through their plights as divinity prepares its final judgment.

Struggling through battles with demons inside and out, Rei works her way through the evil forces manipulating her plight. Unraveling the mysteries awaiting her, Rei evolves and develops in unexpected ways.

Developer FuRyu orchestrates the tale with introspective confidence, unpacking layers of psychological insight with minimalist touches. As you fight, you manipulate torment and grief to your advantage, parsing your strategy through the lens of available attacks in order to time your opportunities to seize the greatest advantage.

Throughout the game, the theme set to the forefront is that emotional expression -- even crying -- is a strength rather than a setback. The ability to process and react to adversity with physical manifestations is something of a superpower.

There isn't much out there that compares to "Crystar," which works hard to distinguish itself with its insightful dynamics and paradigm-changing combat system. For JRPG fans looking for something fresh that's dressed in familiar trappings, this is an experience worthy of making your eyes well up with joy.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 02, 2019

"Omega Labyrinth Life" Review

A roguelike RPG geared toward a mature audience, "Omega Labyrinth Life" mixes character advancement and iterative challenges with wacky, often uncomfortable romantic scenarios and a seemingly proud lack of maturity.

Set in an "academy of fair maidens," you alternate among characters who pick up where the last one left off. Your attack abilities are related to your bust size, which expands as you advance. It's a concept seemingly geared to 14-year-olds, even though you have to be an adult to purchase the game.

The dressing of the concept could be a significant roadblock for a major portion of the audience, which is a shame because the combat, enemy design and traversal are so tight and well-calibrated. This is a robust and intricate game as well as a wacky excuse to indulge in repressed sexuality.

Each time you take on a dungeon, its room layout, enemies and items change, leading to a different experience each go-round. Combined with the "Animal Crossing"-like ability to rearrange decor, keeps things fresh and invitingly replayable.

Developer Matrix Software knows its stuff, and has crafted a worthwhile experience that succeeds in spite of its art style and writing. Best enjoyed as a oh-no-it-didn't comedic lark, you may be surprised how much fun you wind up having once you let the game sink its hooks in you.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

"Zombie Driver: Immortal Edition" Review

When the zombie apocalypse hits, those behind the wheel of zombie-steamrolling vehicles will be king.

That's the premise we're working with in the top-down road rager "Zombie Driver: Immortal Edition" which opens up the road for you to ratchet up highway mayhem. You smash through fences, utility poles and zombie hordes, racking up as much destruction as you can.

Developer EXOR Studios brings to mind the original "Grand Theft Auto" games, as well as its DS spinoff, "Chinatown Wars."

The more chaos you create, the more funds you rack up, which lets you upgrade your vehicle and retool your arsenal to up your destructive capabilities.

Racing, rescue and survival modes vary up the gameplay objectives and give you plenty of reason to keep turning the ignition and slamming on the gas.

Intricately detailed graphics and smooth, slick controls keep the arcadey gem at full throttle. Although the material may be on the shallow side, the varied modes and iterative thrills make up for any shortcomings.

If you're in the mood for a drive as mindless as the undead you're slaughtering, this is one for you.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

"Super Mega Baseball 2: Ultimate Edition" Switch Review

The makers of "Super Mega Baseball" franchise don't let their lack of a Major League Baseball license hold them back.

Instead, they see their plight as a freeing mechanism for their over-the-top baseball sim, allowing them to take outrageous liberties with the game, emphasizing fun and spectacle over trifles such as rules, physics and decorum.

The newest release, dubbed "Ultimate Edition," is the latest refinement of a formula conjured with the innovative 2014 original and its riotously superior 2018 sequel. Along with the base game of season and pennant modes filled with fictional slate of wacky-named coed teams, you get all previously released DLC and action that flows in 60 FPS in both handheld and docked modes.

Aside from an initial loading sequence that calls to mind the frustration of batters calling time out, unnecessary manager visits to the mound and procrastinating pitchers checking the runner at first, this is the same free-flowing game of augmented baseball that has rocked the indie sports game scene for the last half-decade.

Online play is also here, even though it's questionable whether the Switch community will be active enough to make games easily available around the clock. Probably the more useful multiplayer feature is single JoyCon support, which lets gamers play the field either cooperative or competitively without the need to spring for additional controllers or Switches.

As fitting an addition to the Switch lineup as an ace pitcher is to a contender's rotation at the trade deadline, "Super Mega Baseball 2: Ultimate Edition" wields a big stick and yells loudly. It's now officially baseball season on Nintendo's latest console.

Developer Metalhead Software

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, July 26, 2019

"Pawarumi" Review

"Pawarumi" takes the bullet hell shmup concept and blows it out into screen-filling chaos.

Your Chukaru ship can toggle among different weapons, each with a distinct paradigm that's best suited to a particular type of swarm you're facing off against.

It takes a nimble eye to know which weapon is best equipped to help you live another few seconds before the looming threat of swift, violent demolition once again pins you to the back of your seat.

After a successful 2018 run on PC, Developer Manufacture 43 delivers its wacky shooter to consoles with boisterous aplomb. crafting a vigorous cavalcade of barely controlled chaos that may have the tendency to send gamers throwing up their hands in frustration.

The difficulty level is harsh and unforgiving from the get-go, and continually manages to throw increasingly crueller twists at the poor Chukaru.

While the enemy designs are creative and bold, precision is often sacrificed in favor of keeping things weird. You'll be excused if you need to tap out via the pause button frequently, just to shake off the dizziness and frayed nerves that the action induces in you.

The thrills in "Pawarumi" lean on the simplistic side, but there's no arguing with its ability to conjure a blistering arcade-style fever that will no doubt masochistic shooter fans crawling back for more.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

For my written review, click here.

"Date a Live: Rio Reincarnation" Review

Rich in culture and fan service, "Date a Live: Rio Reincarnation" is a well-written and visually stunning visual novel set with minimal gameplay and maximum storytelling.

The loopy story is wild yet somehow relatable. You see the world through the eyes of Shido, an earnest young man blessed and cursed with the ability to seal powers of spirits. To accomplish that task, he completes a series of social experiences, which tend to be PG-13 versions of "dates."

You gently guide the story by making romantic choices. Despite the romantic aspect, there's little that's steamy about the encounters. The emphasis is placed on the dramatic and whimsical aspects of the interactions, with the writing geared toward the middle and high school levels.

Despite the youth focus, there's a disarming nature to the storytelling rhythm. One of the best ways to enjoy the game is to save yourself the constant button-tapping and place the game on auto mode by tapping the touchpad to engage autoplay mode, which pauses when you need to prompt personal choices.

Bolstered with loads of extras that expand the play time, as well as alternate paths that make the storylines replayable, "Date a Live: Rio Reincarnation" is also a bounty for trophy hounds, who can rack up loads of trinkets with minimal effort. The light, relaxing experience is a welcome break from the usual gaming grind.

The adaptation of the Japanese light novel series

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"Hunt: Showdown" Review

Blending survival horror with battle royale principles, "Hunt: Showdown" drops 10 players into a "Deliverance"-like setting, separated into two-person teams attempting to unearth and slay a target.

The fastest and smartest team isn't necessarily the winner. Once the kill is made, the game shifts into a wild free-for-all in which the other teams all turn against the others in an all-out manhunt to stop them from turning in the bounty.

Developer Crytek takes a novel premise and stretches out into an engaging and gripping spectacle, crafting a violently-shifting dynamic that keeps raising the stakes while giving every player a reason to continue to scrap.

The visuals and sound lend themselves to the haunting and often terrifying sense of place. With weapony rustic and hard to come by, hand-to-hand combat rises to the forefront. Battles are awkward and lumbering, which adds to the sense of grueling reality. Kills aren't effortless breezes as they are in many other shooters, and the need to get your hands dirty and expose yourself to bloodshed ups the intensity factor.

If a critical mass of a community manages to line up behind "Hunt: Showdown," the game has the goods to take off as the next viral multiplayer phenomenon. Much of that responsibility will fall on the heads of the dev team, which will need to curate the experience to keep it growing and developing. No matter what the future holds, it's exciting to see the game make such an impressive start in the hunt for sustainable success.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Dragon Quest Builders 2" Review

"Dragon Quest Bulders 2" is a triumphant and captivating quest on two different levels. Not only is it a dynamic, creative and joyous RPG, it's also a deep and involving sandbox, with the only limits on what you can create set in place by your imagination.

Three years after the original release blended light JRPG and "Minecraft"-style construction and crafting, Developer Omega Force expands on the foundation laid by the original.

Drawing upon decades of "Dragon Quest" heritage and pushes the franchise forward in many ways, conjuring an alchemy that bridges the gap between the fan bases of the two game types.

Not only is "Dragon Quest Builders 2" an essential component of the "DQ" mythos, but it's also one of the most advanced and accessible construction toolsets available in the construction subgenre. The multiplayer mode allows for collaboration and iterative innovation that ratchets up the satisfaction to an even higher level.

While the storyline and art style is geared toward child gamers, the game is equally enchanting to gamers of all ages, penetrating hardened shells to reach the young at heart. Although the challenge level may be low compared to other "Dragon Quest" games, the writing is as strong as that of any recent entry.

Now a full-fledged spinoff franchise in its own right, "Dragon Quest Builders" expands the possibilities of what can be expected from the side series. After the mastery on display here, fans of the mainline DQ series can't be blamed if they're more eager to see the next installment of "Builders" than the next numbered series entry.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, July 19, 2019

"Etherborn" Review

Puzzle games walk a fine line between unchallenging busywork and depressingly unforgiving bottlenecks. Both are equally likely to stop players cold, sending them on to a more rewarding diversion.

"Etherborn" trends violently toward the tougher side of the equation. After a few warm-up puzzles, you're thrown into an increasingly hellacious fire, stuck way over your head with only your hyperstressed wits to push you forward.

Gravity, momentum and perspective can be twisted and manipulated to your advantage, with each successive challenge building on what came before to add considerable depth and complexity, upping the rewarding struggle each time out.

Developer Altered Matter deserves praise for its creativity and scene-setting, with a stunning art style that connects with its themes of inner struggle and outer validation. The melding of the psychospiritual aspects in the writing are hit and miss, but the overall tone rings true to the intent.

Many players who brave the stinging gauntlet that is "Etherborn" will find themselves giving up in frustration or over-relying on walkthroughs. Those who play things straight, however, will find the effort they put in returned in kind, with a cleansing feeling of satisfaction drifting in with each triumph.

"Etherborn" could have benefitted from a more even buildup, but it also deserves credit for not wasting players' times and getting right down to business. A bold and vigorous puzzle that seeks out bold and vigorous players, "Etherborn" unapologetically weighs in, agitating all comers into a mental slugfest.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "The Lion King"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"Senran Kagura: Peach Ball" Review

It's hard to get a read on the "Senran Kagura" franchise. Equal parts exploitation and satire, the games feature scantily-clad girls as unapolagetically stereotypical tropes. While the games play to base urges of undersexed gamer geeks, they pack in just enough to be taken as mockery of their crass immaturity.

As embarrassing to write about as it is to play, "Senran Kagura: Peach Ball" cruises through a light, inconsequential story mode to get to a core game of surprisingly playable pinball. With two base tables serving as dressing for interactions with the heroines.

The on-table dynamics, while immature and exploitative, are fun to play and as challenging and rewarding as any digital pinball game can be. What's harder to rationalize is the side mode that posts up the characters as objects to be sprayed with water, touched and manipulated at will.

Whether the mode exists simply for its boundaries-pushing shock factor or to serve as a genuine outlet for sexual frustration of its players is hard to say, but  had the developers chosen to cut it, the addition by subtraction might have increased the game's appeal and strength as a voice of mocking immature sexual attitudes rather than encouraging them.

Had the time creating that mode been spent on releasing the game with more tables and gameplay variety, "Senran Kagura: Peach Ball" might have been more of an engaging package than an eye-rolling curiosity.

Publisher provided review code.

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

For the article, click here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"Blazing Chrome" Review

Playing "Blazing Chrome" is like stepping into a warp zone that takes you back to 1992. A Super Nintendo game through and through, it pits you alone against a nest of alien creatures, robots and ninjas with a constant auto-fire gun and the ability to sprint and cling to wires at will.

This is "Contra" but through the dream lens that those who first encountered it with the wide-eyed expectations of a youthful love for run-and-gun shoot-em-ups.

Developer JoyMasher pays loving homage to the likes of "Contra" and "Metal Slug" with reverent glee, as well as a determined will to push the genre forward while keeping it true to its roots.

Everything from the graphics to level design and character animations sticks strictly to 16-bit limitations -- at least on the surface. Underneath the nostalgic facade lies a robust tapestry of circuitry that makes the game more stable, inventive and intense than Konami developers at their peak could ever approach.

A pure joy to play, "Blazing Chrome" is also unfettered hellfire. Even at its lowest difficulty level, there are stiff, unforgiving challenges in the game that will frustrate you so much you'll slam your controller down on the couch in frustration. Only, of course, to end up picking it back up a few minutes later once you've concocted a new strategy.

You play as either a robotic insurgent or a human resistance fighter, but no matter who you choose your survival will depend on your sense of timing, ability to just on the fly to demands of stress and overwhelming odds, as well as your ability to time out your gun upgrades and adapt them to the needs of whatever obstacles confront you.

The successes in "Blazing Chrome" may not come easy, but they come in such a thoroughly satisfying manner that you become filled with the resolve it will take to march on to the next seemingly impossible deathtrap.

They sure don't make 'em like "Blazing Chrome" anymore. Hell, they never really did make 'em this good anyway.

Publisher provided review code.

"Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition"

Guiding spirits of fallen samurai warriors to sweet vengeance, you put your turn-based strategy skills to the test in "Skulls of the Shogun."

A comic book-influenced art style, slyly humorous writing, a classic martial arts film-inspired soundtrack and a slick, engaging combat system makes the game hard to put down.

Originally released on the Xbox 360 in 2013, "Skulls  of the Shogun" proved enthralling enough to merit a rerelease on current-gen consoles four years ago in the "Bone-A-Fide Edition."

Now it's out on Switch, which makes excellent use of the game's RPG lite sensibilities in both handheld and docked modes.

Developer 17-Bit changes little in the structure and look of the solid foundation, adapting the game to the Switch's control setup with elegance and precision.

Multiplayer is at the forefront, with up to four players able to throw down in network matches. For those who'd rather go solo, the standard campaign is there to help you hone your skills.

Arguably the strongest of the "Skulls of the Shogun" iterations, the Switch version makes the game seem somehow as fresh and vital as it was upon original release. The sassy death-obsessed game has found new life yet again.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

"Sea of Solitude" Review

There are purposes for games that are higher than simple entertainment. "Sea of Solitude" marks a mature new direction for gaming as a whole. The fact that an experimental indie such as this was released by EA shows the level of innovation at play in the industry.

Set inside the damaged pscyhe of a woman suffering through mental issues, "Sea of Solitude" is an emotionally challenging voyage. It shatters preset conceptions of what a game should be by revealing what a game should be.

Freeform and meditative as you drift along the point-and-direct adventure finds you scampering among dilapidated buildings, rowing a boat through flooded streets or confronting tentacle-waving beasts.

Symbolism abounds, with many on-the-nose messages mixed with a smattering of obtuse riddles. Taken as a whole, the voyage makes up for what it lacks in challenge by adding an all-consuming dramatic narrative.

Developer Jo-Mei Games has an empathetic command of its touch subject matter. orchestrating elegiac voiceover blended wtih haunting visuals amd somber music. The mix, combined with a freeform stroll on a guided path, makes for a fascinating and unique trip, albeit a bleak one.

The role of a video game as therapy has rarely come on display in greater effect than it does here. "Sea of Solitude" is a shuddering yet critical walk on the long, slow path to change and redemption.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Book Report: "The Caine Mutiny"

The Caine MutinyThe Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With passionate storytelling, an easy command of complex military detail and an effortless sensitivity for power dynamics and emotional exchanges, Herman Wouk spins a devastating and tense tale internal and external conflict brought to a head while at war on a Naval vessel.

"The Caine Mutiny" is an example of a tale best known as a classic movie that is blown out of the water by its literary source material. Woulk's story covers far more ground than the film, transplanting the reader into the dark, conflicted minds of its power players. The book also takes a far broader look at the mental conditions afflicting the infamous Commander Queeg, who writes the almanac for incompetent management with each of his controlling, obsessive quirks.

At the same time a harsh, unforgiving wartime satire, a gritty tale of maritime survival and an awkward coming-of-age opus, the book navigates the dark, squall-plagued depths of the human psyche. As the crew conspires to overthrow their cruel, incompetent commander, there are no wholesale victories or defeats, but shades of triumph laced with painful sacrifice burdened with sprawling consequences.

Kevin Pariseau's narration in the Audible version is note-perfect. His trembling unease inside Queeg's skin rivals Humphrey Bogart's Oscar-nominated turn, and the subtle ways he differentiates each character's delivery infuses the story with layers of depth and nuance.

Endlessly captivating and thoroughly intriguing, "The Caine Mutiny" is an essential exploration of bureaucratic obedience, command, coping and rebellion. It docks in your psyche and sets your intellect on a chillingly thrilling course.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"Contra Anniversary Collection" Review

Such was the magic of the "Contra" games that it simply wasn't enough of a thrill to beat them once, even if you needed the legendary Konami code to scam enough extra lives to hump your way through.

Repeated, refined runs were the order of the day. Either solo or with a buddy in innovative multiplayer, it was every bit as exciting to spread-blast your way through the nests of alien soldiers and megaliths.

Konami's "Contra Anniversary Collection" brings back the sadly neglected franchise, resurrecting the run-and-gun action that entranced a generation of gamers into the ultra-macho, mano-a-alieno shootouts.

Included in the anthology are 10 games, the highlights of which include North American, Japanese and arcade versions of the original "Contra," the incomparable SNES gems "Super C" and "Contra III: The Alien Wars," the Genesis releases "Contra: Hard Corps" and "Probotector." Each of the entries is an exact replica of their original 1980s and 90s releases.

Each of the entries sticks to the same glorious formula: You play as a muscled hero who wields an upgradeable blaster, jumping, rolling and ducking as you lay waste to increasingly tough and aggressive enemies.

There's a balletic grace and well-choreographed rhythm to each of the levels. This is the sort of game design that wrote the textbook on pacing, enemy placement and power-up distribution.

Even tougher than the stubborn, half screen-sized bosses is the decision to choose which "Contra" game to play first. "The Alien Wars" has a soft place in my heart, and was a regular play-through from middle school through college for me. Now that this collection has deployed the game on my radar once more, it's earned a spot in my regular rotation again.

Publisher provided review code.

"Castlevania Anniversary Collection" Review

Before Metroidvania was a thing, there were just the Metroid and Castlevania series. If you play the old "Castlevania" games, you see the pieces slowly fall into place, as the series evolved from a grim platformer to an exploration-based pseudo-RPG with upgrades, branching paths and rich storylines.

To play those old games these days, it took the patience and bravery of a Belmont to go hunting for antique cartridges and consoles. Now it's gotten a whole lot easier -- and cheaper.

Part of the ongoing series of releases that pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of Konami, "Castlevania Anniversary Collection" rounds up the old-school console and handheld releases on which the series' legacy was built.

Though some may gripe that the PlayStation-era games aren't included, what's here is more than enough to satisfy those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s and happily spent their childhood struggling to inch their way through the notoriously difficult whip-wielding adventures.

You get eight games in the collection, including the NES trilogy, the groundbreaking "Super Castlevania IV" from SNES, two GameBoy spinoffs and the never-before-released-in-English "Kid Dracula."

As an added bonus, there's also the illustrated e-book "History of Castlevania: Book of the Crescent Moon."

Each of the games is a pixel-perfect replication of the original, complete with occasional scan lines and a 4:3 aspect ratio. A nostalgic blast from the glorious past, the games are every bit as challenging, intimidating and inviograting as they were upon release.

Modern gamers may be shocked to find just how unforgiving and cruel the first "Castlevania" games were. Even those who don't blink at the likes of "Dark Souls" games will find their going tough. Trial-and-error, studiously practiced reactions and uncanny strategic adjustments are required to avoid swift death.

In many ways, of course, it's good that game design moved well past the old "Castlevania" models. While it may be easier and more satisfying to live in the era of autosaves, checkpoints and tutorials, it's a thrill to travel back to an era before such compromises existed and it was just a grudge match between you and a pixelated Drac.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

"Slender: The Arrival" Switch Review

Fan fiction and viral memes helped spread the bizarre, upstart legend of Slender Man online, spawning video games and a film. The aloof sense of mystery and plodding sadism of the grim apparition is enough to give you shivers, but he's still looking for a project that captures the sense of dread he's capable of instilling.

Developer Blue Isle Studios places you in a murky, dreamlike forest that's reminiscent of the early "Silent Hill" games. Survival horror titles need to hit just the right tone to stay chilling without devolving into obtuse exercises in frustration.

While "Slender: The Arrival" does pack its share of emergent scares, it struggles to stay grounded enough to send chills down your spine. Many Switch games execute just as well in handheld mode as they do on TV, but "Slender" comes  off as cheap and flimsy when played portably.

To truly appreciate the game, you need to switch off the lights, sink into the couch and lose yourself in the dank, labyrinthine paths in which the game finds its more frantic, sudden moments of satisfying horror.

As with many Switch ports, though, the effort seems too cramped and forced to do justice to the original vision. Choppy movement and muddy visuals stand out more than they did in previous iterations, making it feel as though you're stuck with a copy of a copy plagued with compromises.

You resent Slender Man not for his uncanny ability to stalk and kill you, but because is such a droll , lifeless affair that you become bitter that he doesn't show up often enough to liven things up. "Slender" is too slim to be the robust horror experience Switch owners crave.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, June 24, 2019

"Outer Wilds" Review

An open world game based on exploration, experimentation and instanced drama, "Outer Wilds" is just the console exclusive Xbox One gamers need to inject some energy into a slow year.

As a recruit in the Outer Wilds Ventures Space Program, you delve into the mysterious Dark Bramble on a quest to disrupt a continuous time loop.

After a stodgy start, the game kicks off in earnest. Once you get a handle on navigation, controls and traversal, you begin to appreciate the game's finer points and find yourself immersed in the rhythms and flow of the quirky, wondrous adventure.

Progress comes in a gradual drip rather than sweeping advances. This is not a game for rapid dramatic buildup and thrilling boss rushes. The pleasure of "Outer Wilds" lies in its lengthy uphill struggles that culminate in revelations of grand discovery.

The concept echoes that of "No Man's Sky." You set off on an ominous, often lonely yet somehow upbeat and wondrous journey to parts unknown. Also like "No Man's Sky," the structure can become a bit unwieldy as your trek rolls on.

Even though you'll get more out of the game if you fully buy into the exploration aspect and force yourself to stumble blindly until you happen along the right path, but the frustration that can result from going nowhere for too long can turn you off of the game entirely. If you're one to be discouraged, you're best off finding an online guide and using it to spring you onward in moments of desperation.

Regardless of how hardcore you choose to make your own experience, "Outer Wilds" is well worth the trials and frustration it puts you through.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled" Review

One way or another, Crash Bandicoot is going to become relevant again. Following up the spectacular "Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy," is the vigorous cart racer reboot "Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled."

While the gameplay, courses and power-ups are admittedly derivative, there are so many raw, overpowering thrills in the racing that you get caught up in the excitement and never find yourself looking in the rear-view mirror at other racing experiences.

Dating back to the original PlayStation "Crash Team Racing" in 1999, the series has always been a shameless imitator of "Mario Kart," but in most cases the gameplay was more competitive than lesser also-rans.

Developer Beenox channels its energy into making the racing vigorous and vital. Your fortunes can shift on any mis-timed turn, a well-placed weapon attack or a spree of fortuitous happenstance.

A well-honed mix of online and offline modes makes for a somewhat spartan yet effective mix of play choices. Once you burn through the single-player slate of courses, you'll probably find yourself trading paint and projectiles online. Rigorous matchmaking and a slick interface keeps you racing more than waiting.

While the character choices and backdrops are no more near as iconic as those of Mario or even the world of Sonic and friends, "Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled" nails what's far more important -- the quality of the gameplay and ease of access.

A spree of sensory overload online or off, with couch multiplayer or solo racing, this is a game that straps you in and flings you back into your seat as it slams on the gas. "Crash" is racing done right, and it continues to make headway into resurrecting its iconic star.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"Boxing Champs" Review

Boxing games, be them arcade-style or serious sims, are rare to the point of near-extinction these days. With the "Fight Night" and "Punch-Out" series having gone on indefinite hiatus for nearly a decade, there was a massive opening for a new contender.

"Boxing Champs" takes advantage of the opportunity with a flurry of jabs and uppercuts. With far more in common with "Punch-Out" than "Fight Night," its cartoonish characters take big swings, bite the canvas hard and get back up with a "Rocky"-style gusto.

Despite the exaggerated animations, rapidfire punches, counterpunches and blocks, there is quite a bit of strategy nad technical mastery at play. With multiple, simultaneous control options available, you can adapt your technique to whatever feels right to your style.

Outrageous character models, names and mannerisms draw joyous inspiration from the likes of Glass Joe and Piston Honda. You'll need to adjust your playstyle to the various exaggerated techniques of your opponents, turning each match into a pseudo puzzle.

Australian dev Raz Games sweetens the deal with dozens of customization options, an extensive career mode and a swift tempo, thanks to three-round bouts.

Couch multiplayer comes day one, with online multiplier promised in a future update. While I'm never a fan of a game releasing without its full intended feature set, there is plenty to sink your gloves into before the update comes along.

"Boxing Champs" may not make people forget about either "Punch-Out" or "Fight Night," but until Nintendo or EA find the ability to pull their franchises off the canvas, "Boxing Champs" gets to raise its gloves in undisputed triumph.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"Citizens of Space" Review

"Citizens of Space" is a game for control freaks. Built to give you a grand sense of power and command -- all while maintaining an easygoing sense of humor -- as you flex your muscles in strength, creativity and ingenuity.

Developer Eden Industries follows up the acclaimed "Citizens of Earth" (2015) with a bigger, bolder follow-up that expands on the concepts of the original while embracing new frontiers.

You hop from one planet to the next, engaging in satisfying combat while keeping your charges happy. The larger metagame builds as you advance, making you feel like you're a master of your destiny.

Earth has gone missing, and it's up to you and your ragtag group of minions to track down the pieces and reassemble them, uncovering the mystery of why it went missing to begin with.

There are 40 characters to choose from, and you can mix and match your party to suit your preferences. Micromanaging isn't as much of a factor as it was in the first game, with preset tendencies freeing you up to focus on the big picture.

While some may crave may miss the depth and intensive involvement of "Citzens of Earth," the new effort should manage to please most fans while drawing in a new audience, helping the series forge ahead. "Citizens of Space" seems to be a launchpad to bold new frontiers.
Publisher provided review code.

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

Click here for the article.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

"Super Neptunia RPG" Review

The Gamindustri Goddesses are some of the goofiest and most sensationalist heroines in gaming. Their bubbly and indefatigable personalities are the hook for every "Super Neptunia" game. Coupled with subversive writing, it's the draw of the personas that pull gamers through the slower "Neptunia" moments.

Filled with self-aware references and ruthless mockery of online culture, gaming tropes and over-the-top sexuality, "Super Neptunia RPG" does the series proud by stretching it out into a new genre.

A hand-drawn 2D style gives the game a throwback feel, and side-scrolling dungeons recall the likes of Metroidvania and "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link." The turn-based battle system, meanwhile, follow the "Persona" template.

Seeking to discover why the world had warped from three dimensions to two, you set out on a quest to ferret out the manipulative forces behind the reality shift. As the story advances, a meta debate begins to emerge -- whether 2D or 3D gaming is superior.

While developer Artisan Studios seems to be taking the path of least resistance in order to adapt the Neptunia scheme to the RPG format, the results are more than enough satisfying to hook longtime fans, while converting newer followers to the cult.

"Super Neptunia RPG" thrives as well in the new format as it did in previous iterations. With ethereal visuals, skilled writing and the prototypical Neptunia vibe, there is plenty here to adore.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

"Radiation City" Review

A smaller-scale "Fallout," "Radiation City" lets you run free through a wasteland ravaged by nuclear waste. You start out weak and hapless, scavenging for whatever resources you can muster while scampering away from mutated beasts.

As you gradually build up your clout, the game opens up along with your growing confidence. Any initial concerns about muddy visuals and clunky gameplay fall to the wayside as you find yourself sucked into the distinctive rhythms and tones of the dilapidated playground.

Set in the town of Pripyat 40 years after the Chernobyl disaster, "Radiation City" is Atypical Games' follow-up to "Radiation Island," which was released on iOS in 2015 and came out on Switch last year.

Two years after it released on iOS, the game feels somewhat underpowered on the Switch. You get out of the game what you get into it, and the more you can commit to the setting and atmosphere the more urgency you will find in the emergent moments.

You may find yourself slogging along through a mundane trek to your next objective, when suddenly you shift into an impromptu chase, hustling away with your life on the line. There are moments of subtle humor and relief that emerge for the taking, and whether or not you seize them or overlook them is up to you.

While somewhat slow and stodgy for some tastes, "Radiation City" is an acquired taste that opens up more with the freedom of the Switch than it possibly could on a phone or tablet. Thought-provoking and intimate, the game gives you something to chew on during its slow moments, while jolting you with sudden, unexpected bursts of action. The grim setting tends to yield strange joys.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Book Report: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness”

The rise of James Monroe from farmer to leader of a fledgling empire paralleled that of his country. His risk-taking, ability to undergo hardship in pursuit of bold visions was fueled by that of the country, and also inspired those he governed to reach and achieve.

The most interesting parts of the book dive deeper into the textbook thesis, finding nuggets that color Madison’s quirks and shortcomings. Hot-tempered and egotistical times, he generated such a rivalry with Alexander Hamilton that it nearly came to a duel, spared only by the intercession of Hamilton’s future Murderer, Aaron Burr, of all people.

He also suffered major falling outs with mentors Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that drove him to near disgrace and left him out of politics for interminable stretches.

A slave owner who arguably laid the groundwork for abolition by standing fast against the demands of southern industrial giants who sought to spread their inhuman ways westward, Madison rose from heroism during the Revolutionary War to orchestrate the Louisiana purchase and hold European forces in check with a mixture of diplomacy, intimidation, cooperation, and when it came to it, dogged, ruthless war.

The narration in the Audible version is somewhat stiff and dry, but expressive enough to expand beyond the realm of bland historical narration. The production value is spare and limited, but takes nothing away from the author’s gripping narrative.

Monroe was not only the last of his kind - the line remaining giant to have stood tall against the British in the 1770s and 80s — but in many ways the first of his kind. Not only a second, universally beloved Washington, but a precursor to bold, enterprising heads of state who eagerly and casually took their seat at the table at the head of the free world. America still operates under the Monroe playbook.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Book Richardson sentenced

Discussing the implications of the Book Richardson sentencing with Jason Barr.

Monday, June 03, 2019

"Redout" Review

Tight turns, roads lined with power-ups and sci-fi-flavored tracks pules "Redout," the latest challenger to try to take the wheel away from the incomparable "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe."

Developer 34BigThigngs prioritizes blazing speed above all else, sacrificing realism and nuance in favor of forward momentum. The result is a slick, easy-maneuvering futuristic arcade racer that recaptures the feel of "F-Zero."

Three years after it released on PS4, "Redout" drifts to Switch with scarlet-eyed ferocity.

The setting is 2560. With 28 vehicles at your disposal, each offering varying road grip, recharge speed and steering. You take to the track to earn medals, refine your technique and prepare for the next big throwdown.

While the experience "Redout" provides doesn't exactly burts with depth, there is plenty there for racing fans to tinker with and obsess over.

The visuals may struggle to keep up with the blistering speed of the proceedings, but overall, the Switch makes a fitting home for the off-kilter, high-intensity races. While the "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" spot at the lead of the pack, "Redout" proves to be worth a pit stop.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

"Trover Saves the Universe" Review

Building on the comedic breakthrough of the "South Park" RPGs, "Trover Saves the Universe" proves once again that a game can be just as funny as an animated series, as long as the entire production prioritizes the artistic vision above all else.

From the jump, it's obvious that Justin Roiland channeled his unadulterated comedic genius into "Trover Saves the Universe," and the payoff comes in the same flow of constant next-level laughs infused in the DNA of "Rick and Morty." As with that show, Roiland voices the characters. He grants the lead character the same whiny, Marty McFly-style as Morty, making no effort to change what works so well in the first medium Roiland came to dominate.

The advantage that "Trover Saves the Universe" has over "Rick and Morty" is that you're an active participant in the mayhem. At times, you're the instigator of the jokes, and often you're the butt of them. Every step of the way, the tone and pace of the humor is a sharp, astute reaction to your subtly manipulated influence, and the result is nothing short of a comedic masterwork.

In an effort to reach out to the widest possible audience, developer Squanch Games provides the option to play a version of the game with toned-down vulgarity. Some may dismiss the mode as a copout, but I see it as a Trojan Horse that will lure in timid players who think they're not ready for Roiland's brand of satirical, sci-fi savagery. Few will play the game and wilfully pass up the opportunity to experience the comedic genius in its pure, intended form, and even those who play through the PG-rated version of the game will no doubt re-up with the vulgar mode in order to see what they missed out on.

As you play through the game, you almost feel guilty for pushing the story forward. Standing around, doing dumb things and backtracking is a way to trigger some of the most incisive material, sparking banter that makes you glad you spun your wheels rather than forged ahead.

"Trover Saves the Universe" is a sucker punch of precision, impossibly brilliant and effortlessly clever and observant writing. It's one of those rare treasures that comes along all too rarely, and more than enough justification for the interminable wait in between seasons of "Rick and Morty."

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book Report: "The End of the Affair"

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A penetrating and undoubtedly deeply personal dive into the emotional tumult of a man who has wrecked several lives by engaging in a reckless affair, Graham Greene's novel tells a dark and agonizing story of lust lost.

Greene spends much of his time inside the head of the main character, a novelist who is ruminating over having chased and attained the wife of a friend, only to have lost her by closing himself off emotionally.

With occasional shifts into the mindsets of the woman and her husband, the theme is that there is a wide, blurry line between love and hate.

Examining aspects of control, insecurity, desperation and the relentless and the self-destructive pursuit of romantic vigor, Greene ups the stakes by tossing in some escalating twists that force the characters to re-examine their traditional roles as they scramble to recoup their dignity.

Most of his characters actively work against presuppositions Greene imagines the readers carry in. His book is punishing and agonizing, but the pacing is fluid enough to carry it through. This is a bold and daring novel, especially considering it was written in 1951.

Colin Firth's narration in the Audible version is exquisite, with a trembling voice during particularly impactful moments that make it seem as though he's reading from his own diary. Occasional quirks, such as a whistling lisp that creep through, add more texture to the words.

"The End of the Affair" may be punishing, but it's thought-provoking enough to justify the emotional wounds it creates.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"American Fugitive" Review

A breezy, top-down sandbox romp, "American Fugitive" gets away with a considerable amount of darkness because of its jubilant, satiric tone.

Developer Fallen Tree Games draws heavy influence from the 2008 DS and mobile classic "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," setting you loose to wreak mayhem in a cheesy 1980s setting.

You play as Will Riley, an innocent man suspected of killing his own father. You break out of jail driven by a two-pronged mission: To clear your own name while tracking down and exacting vengeance on your dad's real killer.

Although an unimaginative mission structure tends to stifle the momentum, the free and loose structure allows you to take on the somewhat tedious story at your own pace.

"American Fugitive" is just as fun when you're freelancing as it is when you're plowing through the story. The ability to stir up trouble and deal with the escalating iterative consequences keeps the game's thrills feeling fresh and vibrant.

The world pulses with nefarious activities such as sticking up stores, stealing cars, infiltrating stash houses and going on impromptu shooting rampages. It's easy to busy yourself with welcome distractions, losing yourself in the mayhem that awaits you.

"American Fugitive" may be willfully rough around the edges, but it manages to retain a consistency in tone and excitement that keeps pulling you back in. It's a hell of a lot of fun to go on the run with Will.

Publisher provided review code.