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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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

"MLB 19 The Show" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

"Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"The Princess Guide" Review

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Valley" Review

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Golf Peaks" Review

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Tom Clancy's The Division 2" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Captive State"

For my written review, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

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

"The Caligula Effect: Overdose" Switch Review

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Report: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

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

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Braveland Trilogy" Switch Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Book Report: "The Color Purple"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review copy.

View all my reviews

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

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

"Sudden Strike 4: The Pacific War" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 04, 2019

"Dead or Alive 6" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 03, 2019

"The Way Remastered" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

"YumeNikki: Dream Diary" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

"Metro Exodus" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.