Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"Swords & Soldiers" Switch Review

Ten years after the indie sensation "Swords & Soldiers" debuted on the Wii, the game has blossomed into a franchise and now come full circle by reappearing on Nintendo's latest console.

The action side-scroller from Two Tribes Games tasks you to orchestrate the powers of four factions as they use their distinct skills and weapon sets to battle against the dark forces that stand in their way. Whether you're using ninjas, berzekers, ninja monkeys or giant boulders, you'll need your wits and reflexes to survive.

A buoyant sense of humor and freewheeling sense of pacing keeps the game flowing. Whether you're playing on TV or portable mode, "Swords & Soldiers" is tough to put down.

Unlike the original 2009 release, this version of the game is the feature-complete ,definitive edition. In addition to the base campaign and multiplayer, you also get the "Super Saucy Sausage Fest" DLC.

With "Swords & Soldiers 2" set to debut on the Switch March 1, now is an excellent time to check out the original, which has since become a bona fide classic.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Book Report: "Slaughterhouse-Five"

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rueful meditation on the trials and trauma of war, as well as an inventive rumination on the prospect of time travel, the difficulties of mental illness and the exploitation of the poor, "Slaughterhouse-Five" is a difficult but often rewarding read.

His descriptions of haunting memories, nagging lamentations and biting anhedonia that come along with age are devastating and sweetly amusing.

Kurt Vonnegut alternates between beautiful, elegant meditations and hackneyed crutches and cliches, some of his own creation. The most obnoxious of these, by far, is his tendency to end a sad statement with "so it goes." It got to the point where I winced each time Vonnegut trotted out another "so it goes," and even when he avoided the phrase, I would cringe in anticipation of him using it again. That's abusive writing, and is not OK.

His penchant for lending wacky names to characters is overly cute in the way Quentin Tarantino Diablo Cody would one day emulate. The twee effect is nowhere near as acutely annoying as "so it goes" because Vonnegut mercifully refrains from overusing them.

In the Audible edition, James Franco adds wistful, laconic depth to Vonnegut's prose. Taking on the tone of an exhausted, story-spinning drifter over drinks at a dive bar, Franco's adoration and understanding of the material shines through.

A worthy but problematic read, Vonnegut's work manages to overcome its problematic points to thrive, living in your subconscious in between reading sessions, as well as after you finish it. So it goes.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book Report: "Rasputin: The Untold Story"

Rasputin: The Untold StoryRasputin: The Untold Story by Joseph T. Fuhrmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Few historical figures are as polarizing and mythologized as Rasputin, so it was a formidable task for Joseph T. Fuhrmann to sort through the misinformation and patch together a definitive narrative about the mysterious figure.

Movies portray Rasputin as a dark wizard who cast spells and hypnotized witless power brokers into carrying out his bidding. Naysayers dismiss him as a charlatan who was more of a mentalist, exploiting vulnerabilities of those he encountered to make himself seem powerful in ways he was not.

Could it be that the truth was somewhere in the middle?

What emerges is a portrait of a megalomaniacal mystic who was the chief culprit at spreading false narratives about his powers and influence. There's little doubt that he was prone to exaggeration, if not outright lies, to shamelessly manipulate the likes of Czar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra.

Still, there may have been something otherworldly and metaphysical about him. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to diagnose ailments and fathom "cures" that managed to deliver people a measure of health or peace. Eyewitness accounts drove home the common impression that Rasputin had a Kaa the Snake-like ability to seduce and hypotize people with his gaze.

Fuhrmann sometimes gets hung up on the dryer, less fascinating aspects of Rasputin's life, but spends an equal amount of time sorting out the more sultry aspects of his existence, as well as how his sexual exploits resonated in his reputation both at court and in his own home.

Curtis Sisco's narration of the Audible version is workmanlike, if unspectacular. Robotic narration inflects an entrancing rhythm to the proceedings. Some awkward pronunciations of dates aside, the performance lends gravitas to the scholarly yet relatable work.

While far from the final word on the confounding historical figure, Fuhrmann's book goes a long way toward separating the noise from the fact to craft a believable portrait of the man, rather than just the myth and legend.

Publisher provided review code.

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"Office Quest" Review

An imaginative monochromatic point-and-click adventure game, "Office Quest" pokes fun at cubicle drone culture while interspersing absurd and fantastical elements.

Developer 11Sheep retooled the game for a Switch release several months after debuting it on PC and mobile platforms. It's a superb fit for the system. The side-scrolling, screen-tapping exploits make for an excellent use of the system in portable mode.

The gameplay may be a bit incongruous on TV, because it was designed with the intimacy of a portable screen in mind, but works surprisingly well, thanks much to the finely-tuned controls.

As a corporate slave used to the same routine, your world is thrown into a tizzy once you encounter bizarre magic that transforms your everyday surroundings into monster-like threats. You'r enot much for combat, so you have to think your way out of harried situations, calling upon the right items and proper times.

Whenever you run into a road block, the game doesn't leave you hanging or force you to trudge off in shame in search of a walkthrough. Subtle, helpful hints help you advance.

The fact that the dev team keeps the flow moving is key, because "Office Quest" thrives on its fluid momentum. Bubbling with wit and ingenuity, "Office Quest" is an ideal way to kill off your lunchbreak or commute in your own office drone existence.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

"Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes" Review

Back in the heyday of the Wii, developers bubbled with wild ideas in an effort to steal the console's massive, largely casual audience toward more eclectic fare. Visionary developer Suda51 and his Grasshopper Manufacture led the charge with the subversive action extravaganza "No More Heroes" (2007) and its follow-up, subtitled "Desperate Struggle," released three years later.

And for the next decade, crickets.

It took similar innovation and hot sales numbers to revive Suda51's bizarro dream for a Nintendo console. Here comes the third game in the series, "Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes," seemingly out of nowhere, with the devastating force of a hurricane and every bit as much vigor. Somehow, the nine years that have passed between the last game and the new one seem like nothing at all.

The "No More Heroes" games tie together the oddly parallel phenomena of the Wii and Switch. Like the previous games, and nearly all of Grasshopper Manufacture's oeuvre, a wicked sense of humor permeates every pixel. Self-aware, sardonic and sassy, the narrative abounds with pop culture, film, music and gaming references, never missing an opportunity to wink and nod, down to the title font that echoes "Stranger Things."

There are countless strange, stranger and strangest things to encounter in Travis Touchdown's latest adventure. Unspooling via a retro-tinged, top-down view rather than the slick yet somewhat forced and disorienting over-the-shoulder view of the original games, "Travis Strikes Again" steps back and lets its light saber-fueled combat speak for itself.

Zipping along with a sense of forward momentum that the previous games tended to lose in awkward bottlenecks, "Travis Strikes Again" hardly pauses for breath, ever surging ahead with an invigorating sense of wacky, iconoclastic glee.

With the villainous Badman out to get revenge on Travis for the murder of his psychotic daughter, he's sucked into a 1990s-style video game realm. Long since having gone into a depressive, gaming-fueled hermetic exile, Travis's obsession pays off well. As he romps through the gaming world -- which stands as a funhouse mirror reflection of the highs and lows of gaming culture over the past two decades -- his skills pay off well.

Beloved aspects from the previous games come back into play. The pump-action act of maintaining the charge on your weapon has a nagging yet distinguishing feel, helping you stay on edge for battle. Enemies barrage you with the relentless swarm of a bullet hell space dock, and it's on you to orchestrate your offensive and defensive skills to slash them into bits and unlock the next checkpoint.

More linear in nature than previous "No More Heroes" games, Suda51's latest maintains the series' rich history while also writing its new chapters in irreverent freehand. You never quite know where the story's twists will take you next, and the unpredictability makes for a fascinating, endlessly engaging ride.

Travis Touchdown re-emerges as the quintessential -- if not essential -- antihero Switch players deserve, even if they may not quite need him.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Book Report: "Frankenstein"

I wonder if any other literary classic has been as thoroughly bastardized, maimed and arbitrarily altered as “Frankenstein.” 

The lumbering, monosyllabic, parched-together zombie that movies and TV have pushed out into society have nothing in common with the monster in the book, an eloquent, monologue-reciting student of Milton and Plato who moves with the stealth of a ninja, makes his kills with swift, purposeful precision and badly needed a therapist or some Prozac.

The ultimate bitter teenager, the monster is a fascinating villain because of his hatred of existence itself and resentment of his creator. His obsession with bending Frankenstein (a neurotic, ever-lamenting ness rather than a wacky mad scientist) to his will, tormenting him in increasingly sadistic ways, makes for the crux of the cat-and-mouse game at the center of the plot.

Dan Stevens’ narration of the Audible edition was crucial to my appreciation of the book. Not only does he capture the frenzied paranoia of Frankenstein, but the obliviously evil whininess of the monster. His is now the voice I associate with the creature, rather than Boris Karloff’s grunts.

The book is a deep, philosophical dive into scientific ethics, the plight of creation and godship, as well has humanity’s innate tendency to shun the unfamiliar and unsightly. 

After a rough, slow-paced opening segment, Shelley hits her stride and tears at her themes and story with overwhelming passion. This is a work or near genius, and I was often floored at its majesty. Her work, ahead of its time and now out of control and debased, is much the same as the monster she writes about.

Publisher provided review copy.

PHIL ON FILM: "The Upside"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Double Cross" Review

The makers of Runbow are back at it in "Double Cross," a mashup of "Mega Man" shooting, platforming, level selection and combat with a traditional side-scrolling brawler concept.

You play as an interdimensional agent who hops among planes of reality to maintain the balance of power. Harvesting a power-building resource dubbed "upgradium," you gradually build your character into a formidable force of spastic, justice-dealing destruction.

Character customization options allow you to deck out your hero with an increasingly impressive selection of offensive accoutrements, and the ability to take down levels and accompanying bosses in whatever order you choose grants a sense of freedom along with an urge to discover the ideal order to take them down.

Each level brings something new to the forefront, drastically twisting the mechanics to keep you adjusting and recalibrating your skills and techniques.

Bright, colorful and slickly paced, the peppy art design matches the freewheeling feel of the fisticuffs. "Double Cross" may or may not hit as big as "Runbow" did, but if it falls short it won't be for lack of vigor.

Those in need of a fun, slick alternative to "Mega Man 11" and the "Mega Man X Legacy" series will find a megadose of thrills here.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Book Report: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all Mark Twain's considerable gifts, perhaps the greatest was that which allowed him to remember just what it was like to be a kid.

Childhood is not the time of whimsical innocence that adults tend to revise it as, but a plight of constant stresses, unlimited analysis and grandiose plans constructed, obliterated and reformed. His portrait of Tom Sawyer is of a troubled young genius longing to find his place in the world, bristling against the unnatural restrictions society thrusts upon him.

Twain revels in the elaborate rituals and flighty superstitions of his small-town, mid-19th century youth. He treats Sawyer, Huck Finn and their orbit of pals with respect and dignity, while casting the adults who surround them as hapless stooges. In a sense, he sees the world just as he did as a child, and just as children continue to do. Kids have a fresh-eyed way of breaking down the nonsense that adults surround themselves with, and Twain never lost that sense of incisive deconstruction.

As he does in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," Audible narrator Nick Offerman channels the late author's sly wittiness and thick, Southern-fried bravado. Offerman's existence is a compelling argument that reincarnation exists, and Twain's voice has come back in the form of his thick baritone.

As beautifully descriptive as it is wickedly funny, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" transcends its genre of young adult literature and takes its place among the ranks of glorious fiction. Its lessons and philosophical observations are as timeless and golden as the ephemeral, daring glow of youth.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2019

"Coffee Crisis" Switch Review

It's safe to say that you've never played a beat 'em up quite like "Coffee Crisis." A barista with a penchant for metal music is the lone hero who can stop invadian aliens from stealing coffee, WiFi and music from earthlings. His solution: romp 'em.

A simplistic side-scroller that owes a debt to the likes of "Streets of Rage" and "Double Dragon," "Coffee Crisis" thrives in its point A to point B pragmatism. Your objectives are laid out in front of you, and you know it will take a whole lot of oddly-shaped skulls.

While rough around the edges, "Coffee Crisis" overflows with attributes that stick to its core competencies of heedless momentum, raw energy and a blistering soundtrack. Wearing its references proudly, the creation from developer Mega Cat Studios toes the line between tribute and mimicry.

A game that was lost in a sea of similar genre releases when it debuted on Steam 10 months ago, the game is far more likely to find its groove on the Switch, where games of its ilk thrive and are eagerly welcomed into the ever-expanding fold of retro throwback larks.

"Coffee Crisis" is a decidedly niche effort, but it picks its spots and excels in the categories that matters most. It goes with Nintendo's console like coffee does with metal.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

"The Last Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human" Trailer

The Metroidvania renaissance continues to thrive as the decade nears its end, with "The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human" becoming the latest to take the torch.

Sifting through the discarded embers of a trashed society submerged in the depths of the ocean, you explore dark caverns, unearth lost artifacts and open up paths that allow you to inch your way forward as you get your bearings and acquire the means to unlock more sectors of the undersea labyrinth.

Exquisitely designed and hauntingly brooding moments await you as you advance. The dark recesses of the ocean hide some nasty, often gargantuan beasts that seek to reel you in and filet you.

More than a seek, find and advance adventure, heady themes emerge that haunt you in between play sessions. A nagging sense of dread permeates much of the game, and the visual style emphasizes the feel with subdued, washed-out notes of faded color.

While limited resources seemed to restrict the scope and technical precision the developers seemed to have in mind, the raging ambition that pulses within "The Last Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human" sticks with you well after your play sessions. It's a dank and lonely world out there, and a sea of discovery awaits your discovery.
Publisher provided review code.