Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHIL ON FILM: Five shows to binge in March

For the full list, click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

"Trials Rising" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"DreamWorks Dragons: Dawn of New Riders" Review

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

Exactly how worthwhile that thing ended up being is debatable.

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Unexplored: Unlocked Edition" Review

Two years after its original PC release, "Unexplored" comes to consoles in a revamped edition, accompanied by three DLC packs.

The overhead view roguelike, with procedurally generated levels, loads of items to discover and craft, as well as varied enemy types with distinct styles you need to adjust to on the fly, the game provides plenty to chew on.

A simplistic, 16-bit art style belies complex challenges. "Unexplored" is accessible from the get-go, but its cicuitrous dungeons hide multitudes of secrets and discoveries to unearth.

Although the tank-like traversal takes some getting used to, once you've adjusted to the quirks, it becomes second nature. A deep and involving RPG, "Unexplored" packs in loads of replayability, with no two runs playing out the same way. Developer Ludomotion outdid itself when synthesizing retro charm with modern aesthetics.

An especially apt mesh with the Switch in handheld mode, "Unexplored: Unlocked Edition" is the definitive version of one of the more distinctive indie gems of recent years. Don't overlook the diamond in the rough.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Aragami: Shadow Edition" Switch Review

Lurking in the shadows, you hunt you slip undetected through courtyards, corridors and alleyways. You play a slain hero who has been summoned back from the dead, and is now on the hunto to collect fragments of his past.

After a slow start, the momentum picks up steam as it goes. The slow-moving opening is key to indoctrinating you in the rhythm and flow of the game, helping you adapt the skills you'll need to thrive later. Once things get going, you'll find yourself hooked as you sink deeper into the tale.

The dev team at Lince Works crafts a gorgeous backdrop for your exploits. Intricate challenges force you to time out your movements and attacks with precision. This is not one of the stealth-oriented games that you can go through with wanton disregard for methodical care. Make a wrong move and you'll only mount frustration.

The Switch release comes half a year after it debuted on Xbox One and PS4, arriving in a faithful port that manages to starkly recreate a console experience in handheld mode. Previously released DLC comes along, giving you the full experience at an entry-level price.

"Aragami: Shadow Edition" may not be a traditional take on the stealth game, but the breaks from the norm it delivers manage to freshen up the template enough to make the experience seem fresh and captivating. There are treasures to be had in these shadows.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Far Cry: New Dawn" Review

What happens when a doomsday cult's dire predictions turn out to be right? That's the post-apocalyptic, "Fallout"-like question that "Far Cry: New Dawn" tackles.

The discount follow-up to last year's "Far Cry 5" is set 17 years after nuclear war has ravaged society, leaving pockets of survivors to coble together the pieces. The chaos blossoms amid a "superbloom," in which a burst of flora and fauna begins to thrive amid the rubble, painting the world with bright, wild brush strokes.

Hope County, Montana is at the epicenter of the power vacuum. "Far Cry: New Dawn" tasks you to lead a loosely-knit confederacy of survivors as they scrounge for resources and territory.

True to the "Far Cry" tradition, crafting, hunting and armed capturing and control of strategic epicenters shapes your experience along the way, setting up an evolving, back-and-forth metagame as you advance through the campaign.

Expertly constructed on the solid bones of "Far Cry 5," the experience of "New Dawn" echoes the events of the last game, while also striking off in brave new directions. The reshaped American West opens up as a dark, hyperviolent reimagining of 1800s frontier lawlessness, with more than a few echoes of "Red Dead Redemption 2" coming into play in a society robbed of technology.

Bolstered with involving RPG elements, "Far Cry: New Dawn" emerges as a single-player sandbox with layers of exploration, emergent discoveries and tense, thrilling encounters. While the story elements may not quite live up to the brooding, mind-control obsessions of "Far Cry 5," what we get is a resonant sequel that does the last game proud.

It may not be quite a new dawn for the "Far Cry" brand, but there are enough twists and advancements on the established formula to keep the franchise feeling fresh and vital.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"The King's Bird" Review

Momentum is life's great X-factor, capable of amplifying success by multiplying exertion. Like Mario with an invincibility star, there is no limit to what can be accomplished when everything is going in the right direction.

The physics-based flight adventure the "The King's Bird" is all about manipulating, exploiting and preserving momentum as you soar throughout its levels. Using a mixture of on-the-fly acrobatics, lift, drag and drifting.

After the game released in August on PC, it now takes flight on the Switch, bringing with it developer Serenity Forge's ethereal level design and visual conceptualization. The freeing, spiritually uplifting tone goes a long way, helping you to overlook some of the game's flaws. "The King's Bird," even at its slowest and most frustrating, is always a joy to play.

Obstacle placement seems geared to make you pull your hair out or slam your controller in frustration. Sometimes your success hinges less on skill or mastery and more on blind chance. The myriad variables at play often make it feel as though you're trying to will the wind in a different direction. If you're playing in portable mode on a bumpy commute, forget about precision.

Despite its setbacks, "The King's Bird" excels on its chosen artistic level. Like an arthouse indie flick that has everyone talking, it feels as though it accepts you into an exclusive club -- one with the shared pleasure of feeling the virtual wind in your hair as you dive, loop and glide while striving for elusive thrills.
Publisher provided review code.

"Defense Grid 2" Review

A robust, sci-fi take on the tower defense formula, "Defense Grid 2" packs challenging, multi-layered gameplay into a tight package. Hidden Path Entertainment's rapid-flowing gameplay keeps things fluid and invigorating, and a solid menu interface keeps things accessible.

The Switch port of the 2014 console game, "Defense Grid 2" takes advantage of the console's handheld mode to provide an impressive on-the-go experience. Whether you take the game with you or play on your couch, "Defense Grid 2" is an engrossing experience that encourages you to keep tinkering and refining your setup.

With robust online multiplayer supplementing a rock-solid campaign, the game offers an intense and distinct experience every time you fire it up. There are 21 maps on which to slug it out.

The music adapts to the scenario with a procedural adjustment, providing a backdrop of fascinating tunes to amplify your trials, triumphs and defeats. Not only does each battle play out differently, it also carries a distinct sound.

An addictive and refined experience, "Defense Grid 2" is an RTS extravaganza that boasts loads of reasons to keep coming back. You'll find yourself defenseless to its onslaught.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince" Review

"The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince" has such a weird premise that it seems like it was taken from one of those bizarre, morbid ancient fairy tales that had to be whitewashed for modern consumption.

A wolf with a crush on a prince she blinds on accident. Then she gives up her singing voice in exchange for the ability to transform and spirits him off on a quest to restore his vision.

Whimsical and often brutal storytelling melds with a gorgeously eclectic visual style to create an otherworldly adventure that seems at once timeless and innovative.

While the gameplay is outpaced by the story, developer Nippon Ichi Software is no slouch in that department. Some obtuse puzzles tend to make the going rough in patches. But the key is that the reward loop stays compelling/

The writing is strong enough to pull you through the choppier parts, convincing you to keep plugging through when things slow down and the frustrations mount.

One of the more masterful touches are collectible petals that fill in the backstory, gradually piecing together a grand-scale tale of love, loss, regret and hope. "The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince" sticks with you, lingering like a memory carved into your spirit.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

"Etrian Odyssey Nexus" Review

The 3DS ain't dead yet. Thanks to the determined efforts of Atlus, Nintendo's warhorse handheld gets yet another top-shelf RPG. Teeming with fan service, rich dialogue and robust collection, customization and combat content,

"Etrian Odyssey Nexus" feels like a grand sendoff for the system that proves the 3DS will continue to merit a spot in gamers' pockets for months -- if not years -- to come.

A royal decree sets a heroic party in motion to a mysterious floating city. As the intrigue deepens and stakes rise, you're tasked to build up a party of protagonists that span the entire series.

What might have come off as a perfunctory, quick-and-dirty best-of album instead emerges as a grand finale that manages to tie together the grand saga, rendering previous entries as preambles for the main event.

"Etrian Odyssey" games have always made expert use of the system's two screens, maximizing menu interfaces while providing as much real estate as possible to the visuals, and the latest entry continues to excel in that category. A complex game becomes manageable in bite-sized chunks thanks to a pragmatic design that always makes the tasks needed for efficient, optimized progression.

Bolstered by a story that packs as much range, emotion and humor as the best moments of past "Etrian Odyssey" titles, "Nexus" provides a convincing reason for lapsed 3DS gamers to dust off their old devices, charge them up again and head off on one last, grand ride into the sunset.
Publisher provided review code.

"Tangledeep" Review

A throwback dungeon crawler that harkens to the Super Nintendo days, "Tangledeep" is a light, accessible RPG that also manages to conjure significant depth.

Boasting more than 100 hours of gameplay, the game is a collector's delight, with dozens of monsters to defeat, tame and recruit to your party. You can also plant magical trees and tinker with equipment and enhancements to amplify your play style preferences. There are also skills to mix and match.

A whimsical, high-fantasy visual and sound design makes you feel as though you're playing a lost classic from years gone by. Gorgeous 16-bit pixel art and chiptunes suck you back in to the early 90s.

Several months after "Tangledeep" was released on PC, it comes to Switch with Pro Controller support, a boosted user interface, new monsters and a new Riverstone Walkway area, adding considerably to the already rich slate of content at the ready.

With adjustable difficulty levels that make the game as accessible or harsh as you like, the game can be a brutal roguelike or free and easy, story-focused run through.

If you have a taste for the classics of yesteryear, you'll want to get yourself tangled up in this.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Stage Review: "Something Rotten"

As I laughed and tapped my feet through the ludicrously brilliant "Something Rotten," my mind couldn't help but drift toward wondering how William Shakespeare would have felt if he had the opportunity to watch his life's work be relentlessly mocked.

I want to believe he would have hated it. The musical had me buying into its take that Shakespeare was an egotistical blowhard who scavenged, pilfered as much material as he could, made it a point to be his own biggest fan, reveling in his own celebrity. I want to believe that he would have scuttled "Something Rotten" the way he did "Omelette: The Musical."

Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell's masterwork is a blistering satire of Shakespeare, with just the right amount of love and appreciation to authenticate the scholarship behind the bawdy jokes.

The only drawback to the ridiculously inventive, stunningly choreographed and deliciously poison-penned musical is the difficulty of competing against itself.

The first act is almost too wonderful for the show's own good. With a relentless procession of blisteringly brilliant numbers such as "Welcome to the Renaissance," "God, I Hate Shakespeare," "The Black Death" and a tap-rap battle, it's impossible for the second act to hold serve.

A capable touring cast, led by Matthew Baker as Shakespeare, Matthew Michael Janisse as disgruntled stage producer Nick Bottom, Greg Kalafatas as Nostradamus's hapless nephew and especially Jennifer Elizabeth Smith, who is a Kristen Chenoweth-level revelation as Portia, the spunky, Puritan star-crossed lvoer of Nick's nebbish writer brother, Nigel (Richard Sitaletta).

With an oeuvre of Shakespeare's work, as well as popular Broadway hits to draw from, satirize, plagiarize and glorify, "Something Rotten" feels like a cherry-picked bouquet of incredibly entertaining references. A treasure from start to finish, "Something Rotten" is an essential watch for anyone with an interest in musical theater, Shakespeare or laughter. Watch it, then bring a friend and see it again.

The Broadway in Tucson production of "Something Rotten" is playing at Centennial Hall through Sunday. Purchase tickets here.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Book Report: "The Handmaid's Tale"

"The Handmaid's Tale" subtly mulls over the slippery slope of compromised freedoms and integrity that gives way to zealotry forcing society into totalitarianism. The absurd, barely fathomable hyper patriarchal dystopia of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel stands as a warning of how important it is to protect civil liberties with ferocity at every turn.

If you're familiar with the flashback and grim slice-of-life rotation of the series, you'll find welcome familiarity in the pattern of Atwood's storytelling. You're inside the head of state-supported prostitute Offred, who rebels against her plight with subtle words and actions that blossom into brazen disruption of the social fabric that constricts her.

The show adds much more psychological and background detail. The advantage of the book is that it keeps you guessing and requires you to fill in the gaps with your own speculation.

Claire Danes' narration of the Audible version is a revelation. She recites the story with a simmering rage that makes me imagine that her performance as Offred in the series might have surpassed the Emmy-winning turn by Elisabeth Moss.

"The Handmaid's Tale" leaves you with a nauseous feeling, lacking much of the sense of empowerment of the Hulu series. The book sets you on a rough, bruising journey that rewards you by igniting discomfort and outrage in reaction to the gauntlet to which it subjects Offred. It's a chilling slice of horror that may be too much for some to handle.

Publisher provided review copy.