Sunday, July 28, 2019

"Zombie Driver: Immortal Edition" Review

When the zombie apocalypse hits, those behind the wheel of zombie-steamrolling vehicles will be king.

That's the premise we're working with in the top-down road rager "Zombie Driver: Immortal Edition" which opens up the road for you to ratchet up highway mayhem. You smash through fences, utility poles and zombie hordes, racking up as much destruction as you can.

Developer EXOR Studios brings to mind the original "Grand Theft Auto" games, as well as its DS spinoff, "Chinatown Wars."

The more chaos you create, the more funds you rack up, which lets you upgrade your vehicle and retool your arsenal to up your destructive capabilities.

Racing, rescue and survival modes vary up the gameplay objectives and give you plenty of reason to keep turning the ignition and slamming on the gas.

Intricately detailed graphics and smooth, slick controls keep the arcadey gem at full throttle. Although the material may be on the shallow side, the varied modes and iterative thrills make up for any shortcomings.

If you're in the mood for a drive as mindless as the undead you're slaughtering, this is one for you.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

"Super Mega Baseball 2: Ultimate Edition" Switch Review

The makers of "Super Mega Baseball" franchise don't let their lack of a Major League Baseball license hold them back.

Instead, they see their plight as a freeing mechanism for their over-the-top baseball sim, allowing them to take outrageous liberties with the game, emphasizing fun and spectacle over trifles such as rules, physics and decorum.

The newest release, dubbed "Ultimate Edition," is the latest refinement of a formula conjured with the innovative 2014 original and its riotously superior 2018 sequel. Along with the base game of season and pennant modes filled with fictional slate of wacky-named coed teams, you get all previously released DLC and action that flows in 60 FPS in both handheld and docked modes.

Aside from an initial loading sequence that calls to mind the frustration of batters calling time out, unnecessary manager visits to the mound and procrastinating pitchers checking the runner at first, this is the same free-flowing game of augmented baseball that has rocked the indie sports game scene for the last half-decade.

Online play is also here, even though it's questionable whether the Switch community will be active enough to make games easily available around the clock. Probably the more useful multiplayer feature is single JoyCon support, which lets gamers play the field either cooperative or competitively without the need to spring for additional controllers or Switches.

As fitting an addition to the Switch lineup as an ace pitcher is to a contender's rotation at the trade deadline, "Super Mega Baseball 2: Ultimate Edition" wields a big stick and yells loudly. It's now officially baseball season on Nintendo's latest console.

Developer Metalhead Software

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, July 26, 2019

"Pawarumi" Review

"Pawarumi" takes the bullet hell shmup concept and blows it out into screen-filling chaos.

Your Chukaru ship can toggle among different weapons, each with a distinct paradigm that's best suited to a particular type of swarm you're facing off against.

It takes a nimble eye to know which weapon is best equipped to help you live another few seconds before the looming threat of swift, violent demolition once again pins you to the back of your seat.

After a successful 2018 run on PC, Developer Manufacture 43 delivers its wacky shooter to consoles with boisterous aplomb. crafting a vigorous cavalcade of barely controlled chaos that may have the tendency to send gamers throwing up their hands in frustration.

The difficulty level is harsh and unforgiving from the get-go, and continually manages to throw increasingly crueller twists at the poor Chukaru.

While the enemy designs are creative and bold, precision is often sacrificed in favor of keeping things weird. You'll be excused if you need to tap out via the pause button frequently, just to shake off the dizziness and frayed nerves that the action induces in you.

The thrills in "Pawarumi" lean on the simplistic side, but there's no arguing with its ability to conjure a blistering arcade-style fever that will no doubt masochistic shooter fans crawling back for more.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

For my written review, click here.

"Date a Live: Rio Reincarnation" Review

Rich in culture and fan service, "Date a Live: Rio Reincarnation" is a well-written and visually stunning visual novel set with minimal gameplay and maximum storytelling.

The loopy story is wild yet somehow relatable. You see the world through the eyes of Shido, an earnest young man blessed and cursed with the ability to seal powers of spirits. To accomplish that task, he completes a series of social experiences, which tend to be PG-13 versions of "dates."

You gently guide the story by making romantic choices. Despite the romantic aspect, there's little that's steamy about the encounters. The emphasis is placed on the dramatic and whimsical aspects of the interactions, with the writing geared toward the middle and high school levels.

Despite the youth focus, there's a disarming nature to the storytelling rhythm. One of the best ways to enjoy the game is to save yourself the constant button-tapping and place the game on auto mode by tapping the touchpad to engage autoplay mode, which pauses when you need to prompt personal choices.

Bolstered with loads of extras that expand the play time, as well as alternate paths that make the storylines replayable, "Date a Live: Rio Reincarnation" is also a bounty for trophy hounds, who can rack up loads of trinkets with minimal effort. The light, relaxing experience is a welcome break from the usual gaming grind.

The adaptation of the Japanese light novel series

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"Hunt: Showdown" Review

Blending survival horror with battle royale principles, "Hunt: Showdown" drops 10 players into a "Deliverance"-like setting, separated into two-person teams attempting to unearth and slay a target.

The fastest and smartest team isn't necessarily the winner. Once the kill is made, the game shifts into a wild free-for-all in which the other teams all turn against the others in an all-out manhunt to stop them from turning in the bounty.

Developer Crytek takes a novel premise and stretches out into an engaging and gripping spectacle, crafting a violently-shifting dynamic that keeps raising the stakes while giving every player a reason to continue to scrap.

The visuals and sound lend themselves to the haunting and often terrifying sense of place. With weapony rustic and hard to come by, hand-to-hand combat rises to the forefront. Battles are awkward and lumbering, which adds to the sense of grueling reality. Kills aren't effortless breezes as they are in many other shooters, and the need to get your hands dirty and expose yourself to bloodshed ups the intensity factor.

If a critical mass of a community manages to line up behind "Hunt: Showdown," the game has the goods to take off as the next viral multiplayer phenomenon. Much of that responsibility will fall on the heads of the dev team, which will need to curate the experience to keep it growing and developing. No matter what the future holds, it's exciting to see the game make such an impressive start in the hunt for sustainable success.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Dragon Quest Builders 2" Review

"Dragon Quest Bulders 2" is a triumphant and captivating quest on two different levels. Not only is it a dynamic, creative and joyous RPG, it's also a deep and involving sandbox, with the only limits on what you can create set in place by your imagination.

Three years after the original release blended light JRPG and "Minecraft"-style construction and crafting, Developer Omega Force expands on the foundation laid by the original.

Drawing upon decades of "Dragon Quest" heritage and pushes the franchise forward in many ways, conjuring an alchemy that bridges the gap between the fan bases of the two game types.

Not only is "Dragon Quest Builders 2" an essential component of the "DQ" mythos, but it's also one of the most advanced and accessible construction toolsets available in the construction subgenre. The multiplayer mode allows for collaboration and iterative innovation that ratchets up the satisfaction to an even higher level.

While the storyline and art style is geared toward child gamers, the game is equally enchanting to gamers of all ages, penetrating hardened shells to reach the young at heart. Although the challenge level may be low compared to other "Dragon Quest" games, the writing is as strong as that of any recent entry.

Now a full-fledged spinoff franchise in its own right, "Dragon Quest Builders" expands the possibilities of what can be expected from the side series. After the mastery on display here, fans of the mainline DQ series can't be blamed if they're more eager to see the next installment of "Builders" than the next numbered series entry.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, July 19, 2019

"Etherborn" Review

Puzzle games walk a fine line between unchallenging busywork and depressingly unforgiving bottlenecks. Both are equally likely to stop players cold, sending them on to a more rewarding diversion.

"Etherborn" trends violently toward the tougher side of the equation. After a few warm-up puzzles, you're thrown into an increasingly hellacious fire, stuck way over your head with only your hyperstressed wits to push you forward.

Gravity, momentum and perspective can be twisted and manipulated to your advantage, with each successive challenge building on what came before to add considerable depth and complexity, upping the rewarding struggle each time out.

Developer Altered Matter deserves praise for its creativity and scene-setting, with a stunning art style that connects with its themes of inner struggle and outer validation. The melding of the psychospiritual aspects in the writing are hit and miss, but the overall tone rings true to the intent.

Many players who brave the stinging gauntlet that is "Etherborn" will find themselves giving up in frustration or over-relying on walkthroughs. Those who play things straight, however, will find the effort they put in returned in kind, with a cleansing feeling of satisfaction drifting in with each triumph.

"Etherborn" could have benefitted from a more even buildup, but it also deserves credit for not wasting players' times and getting right down to business. A bold and vigorous puzzle that seeks out bold and vigorous players, "Etherborn" unapologetically weighs in, agitating all comers into a mental slugfest.
Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "The Lion King"

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"Senran Kagura: Peach Ball" Review

It's hard to get a read on the "Senran Kagura" franchise. Equal parts exploitation and satire, the games feature scantily-clad girls as unapolagetically stereotypical tropes. While the games play to base urges of undersexed gamer geeks, they pack in just enough to be taken as mockery of their crass immaturity.

As embarrassing to write about as it is to play, "Senran Kagura: Peach Ball" cruises through a light, inconsequential story mode to get to a core game of surprisingly playable pinball. With two base tables serving as dressing for interactions with the heroines.

The on-table dynamics, while immature and exploitative, are fun to play and as challenging and rewarding as any digital pinball game can be. What's harder to rationalize is the side mode that posts up the characters as objects to be sprayed with water, touched and manipulated at will.

Whether the mode exists simply for its boundaries-pushing shock factor or to serve as a genuine outlet for sexual frustration of its players is hard to say, but  had the developers chosen to cut it, the addition by subtraction might have increased the game's appeal and strength as a voice of mocking immature sexual attitudes rather than encouraging them.

Had the time creating that mode been spent on releasing the game with more tables and gameplay variety, "Senran Kagura: Peach Ball" might have been more of an engaging package than an eye-rolling curiosity.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: What's leaving Netflix in August 2019

For the article, click here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"Blazing Chrome" Review

Playing "Blazing Chrome" is like stepping into a warp zone that takes you back to 1992. A Super Nintendo game through and through, it pits you alone against a nest of alien creatures, robots and ninjas with a constant auto-fire gun and the ability to sprint and cling to wires at will.

This is "Contra" but through the dream lens that those who first encountered it with the wide-eyed expectations of a youthful love for run-and-gun shoot-em-ups.

Developer JoyMasher pays loving homage to the likes of "Contra" and "Metal Slug" with reverent glee, as well as a determined will to push the genre forward while keeping it true to its roots.

Everything from the graphics to level design and character animations sticks strictly to 16-bit limitations -- at least on the surface. Underneath the nostalgic facade lies a robust tapestry of circuitry that makes the game more stable, inventive and intense than Konami developers at their peak could ever approach.

A pure joy to play, "Blazing Chrome" is also unfettered hellfire. Even at its lowest difficulty level, there are stiff, unforgiving challenges in the game that will frustrate you so much you'll slam your controller down on the couch in frustration. Only, of course, to end up picking it back up a few minutes later once you've concocted a new strategy.

You play as either a robotic insurgent or a human resistance fighter, but no matter who you choose your survival will depend on your sense of timing, ability to just on the fly to demands of stress and overwhelming odds, as well as your ability to time out your gun upgrades and adapt them to the needs of whatever obstacles confront you.

The successes in "Blazing Chrome" may not come easy, but they come in such a thoroughly satisfying manner that you become filled with the resolve it will take to march on to the next seemingly impossible deathtrap.

They sure don't make 'em like "Blazing Chrome" anymore. Hell, they never really did make 'em this good anyway.

Publisher provided review code.

"Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition"

Guiding spirits of fallen samurai warriors to sweet vengeance, you put your turn-based strategy skills to the test in "Skulls of the Shogun."

A comic book-influenced art style, slyly humorous writing, a classic martial arts film-inspired soundtrack and a slick, engaging combat system makes the game hard to put down.

Originally released on the Xbox 360 in 2013, "Skulls  of the Shogun" proved enthralling enough to merit a rerelease on current-gen consoles four years ago in the "Bone-A-Fide Edition."

Now it's out on Switch, which makes excellent use of the game's RPG lite sensibilities in both handheld and docked modes.

Developer 17-Bit changes little in the structure and look of the solid foundation, adapting the game to the Switch's control setup with elegance and precision.

Multiplayer is at the forefront, with up to four players able to throw down in network matches. For those who'd rather go solo, the standard campaign is there to help you hone your skills.

Arguably the strongest of the "Skulls of the Shogun" iterations, the Switch version makes the game seem somehow as fresh and vital as it was upon original release. The sassy death-obsessed game has found new life yet again.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

"Sea of Solitude" Review

There are purposes for games that are higher than simple entertainment. "Sea of Solitude" marks a mature new direction for gaming as a whole. The fact that an experimental indie such as this was released by EA shows the level of innovation at play in the industry.

Set inside the damaged pscyhe of a woman suffering through mental issues, "Sea of Solitude" is an emotionally challenging voyage. It shatters preset conceptions of what a game should be by revealing what a game should be.

Freeform and meditative as you drift along the point-and-direct adventure finds you scampering among dilapidated buildings, rowing a boat through flooded streets or confronting tentacle-waving beasts.

Symbolism abounds, with many on-the-nose messages mixed with a smattering of obtuse riddles. Taken as a whole, the voyage makes up for what it lacks in challenge by adding an all-consuming dramatic narrative.

Developer Jo-Mei Games has an empathetic command of its touch subject matter. orchestrating elegiac voiceover blended wtih haunting visuals amd somber music. The mix, combined with a freeform stroll on a guided path, makes for a fascinating and unique trip, albeit a bleak one.

The role of a video game as therapy has rarely come on display in greater effect than it does here. "Sea of Solitude" is a shuddering yet critical walk on the long, slow path to change and redemption.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Book Report: "The Caine Mutiny"

The Caine MutinyThe Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With passionate storytelling, an easy command of complex military detail and an effortless sensitivity for power dynamics and emotional exchanges, Herman Wouk spins a devastating and tense tale internal and external conflict brought to a head while at war on a Naval vessel.

"The Caine Mutiny" is an example of a tale best known as a classic movie that is blown out of the water by its literary source material. Woulk's story covers far more ground than the film, transplanting the reader into the dark, conflicted minds of its power players. The book also takes a far broader look at the mental conditions afflicting the infamous Commander Queeg, who writes the almanac for incompetent management with each of his controlling, obsessive quirks.

At the same time a harsh, unforgiving wartime satire, a gritty tale of maritime survival and an awkward coming-of-age opus, the book navigates the dark, squall-plagued depths of the human psyche. As the crew conspires to overthrow their cruel, incompetent commander, there are no wholesale victories or defeats, but shades of triumph laced with painful sacrifice burdened with sprawling consequences.

Kevin Pariseau's narration in the Audible version is note-perfect. His trembling unease inside Queeg's skin rivals Humphrey Bogart's Oscar-nominated turn, and the subtle ways he differentiates each character's delivery infuses the story with layers of depth and nuance.

Endlessly captivating and thoroughly intriguing, "The Caine Mutiny" is an essential exploration of bureaucratic obedience, command, coping and rebellion. It docks in your psyche and sets your intellect on a chillingly thrilling course.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"Contra Anniversary Collection" Review

Such was the magic of the "Contra" games that it simply wasn't enough of a thrill to beat them once, even if you needed the legendary Konami code to scam enough extra lives to hump your way through.

Repeated, refined runs were the order of the day. Either solo or with a buddy in innovative multiplayer, it was every bit as exciting to spread-blast your way through the nests of alien soldiers and megaliths.

Konami's "Contra Anniversary Collection" brings back the sadly neglected franchise, resurrecting the run-and-gun action that entranced a generation of gamers into the ultra-macho, mano-a-alieno shootouts.

Included in the anthology are 10 games, the highlights of which include North American, Japanese and arcade versions of the original "Contra," the incomparable SNES gems "Super C" and "Contra III: The Alien Wars," the Genesis releases "Contra: Hard Corps" and "Probotector." Each of the entries is an exact replica of their original 1980s and 90s releases.

Each of the entries sticks to the same glorious formula: You play as a muscled hero who wields an upgradeable blaster, jumping, rolling and ducking as you lay waste to increasingly tough and aggressive enemies.

There's a balletic grace and well-choreographed rhythm to each of the levels. This is the sort of game design that wrote the textbook on pacing, enemy placement and power-up distribution.

Even tougher than the stubborn, half screen-sized bosses is the decision to choose which "Contra" game to play first. "The Alien Wars" has a soft place in my heart, and was a regular play-through from middle school through college for me. Now that this collection has deployed the game on my radar once more, it's earned a spot in my regular rotation again.

Publisher provided review code.

"Castlevania Anniversary Collection" Review

Before Metroidvania was a thing, there were just the Metroid and Castlevania series. If you play the old "Castlevania" games, you see the pieces slowly fall into place, as the series evolved from a grim platformer to an exploration-based pseudo-RPG with upgrades, branching paths and rich storylines.

To play those old games these days, it took the patience and bravery of a Belmont to go hunting for antique cartridges and consoles. Now it's gotten a whole lot easier -- and cheaper.

Part of the ongoing series of releases that pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of Konami, "Castlevania Anniversary Collection" rounds up the old-school console and handheld releases on which the series' legacy was built.

Though some may gripe that the PlayStation-era games aren't included, what's here is more than enough to satisfy those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s and happily spent their childhood struggling to inch their way through the notoriously difficult whip-wielding adventures.

You get eight games in the collection, including the NES trilogy, the groundbreaking "Super Castlevania IV" from SNES, two GameBoy spinoffs and the never-before-released-in-English "Kid Dracula."

As an added bonus, there's also the illustrated e-book "History of Castlevania: Book of the Crescent Moon."

Each of the games is a pixel-perfect replication of the original, complete with occasional scan lines and a 4:3 aspect ratio. A nostalgic blast from the glorious past, the games are every bit as challenging, intimidating and inviograting as they were upon release.

Modern gamers may be shocked to find just how unforgiving and cruel the first "Castlevania" games were. Even those who don't blink at the likes of "Dark Souls" games will find their going tough. Trial-and-error, studiously practiced reactions and uncanny strategic adjustments are required to avoid swift death.

In many ways, of course, it's good that game design moved well past the old "Castlevania" models. While it may be easier and more satisfying to live in the era of autosaves, checkpoints and tutorials, it's a thrill to travel back to an era before such compromises existed and it was just a grudge match between you and a pixelated Drac.

Publisher provided review code.