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.

View all my reviews

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.

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.
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