Tuesday, May 28, 2019

"Trover Saves the Universe" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book Report: "The End of the Affair"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"American Fugitive" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher provided review code.

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 combinations.you 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.