Friday, August 30, 2019

5 Shows to Binge in September 2019

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"Catherine: Full Body" Review

It turned out to be well worth the wait for Atlus and Sega to resurrect "Catherine," one of the haunting triumphs of yesteryear. It turns out the game has been gone just long enough to seem just about completely new again in the "Full Body" edition.

The remake of the 2011 PS3 classic adds several quality-of-life adjustments, optionally ratchets up the difficulty and changes up its puzzle game with a remixed version that adds new dimensions to the gameplay.

The story, told in hardboiled film noir-style flashback, tells the winding, sordid tale of Vincent, a disenchanted 32-year-old man whose psyche is embarking on an early midlife crisis.

As you juggle romantic interests, you get yourself deeper into trouble via dialogue trees and often find yourself stuck in deadly dreams that resemble inverted "Q*bert" puzzles with a "Jenga" touch. By pushing, pulling and scaling blocks, you collect items while frantically striving to save your own neck. The stress that the frantic minigame induces is all too effective at making you feel the stress in Vincent's life.

For those who burn through the story and are hungry for more, there are multiplayer battle arena options that will no doubt stoke the fires of a passionate community looking to engage online.

The writing in "Catherine" remains a strong point, with the inventive presentation keeping the winding tale fascinating. Stylish artistic direction melds with the top-notch script to form a resonant experience that blossoms to its full potential thanks to the touched-up visuals, tweaked gameplay and sped-up loading times.

Easily the definitive version of "Catherine: Full Body" is a treat to savor. The headspace of Vincent may be harsh, conflicted and unforgiving, and that's what makes it so compelling to return to.

Publisher provided review code.

"Control" Review

A third-person action-adventure told with confidence, masterful design and boundless creativity, "Control" tasks you with probing the secrets of a dense government bureaucracy, keeping you forging ahead by dangling the next intriguing mystery ahead of you.

With little hype, developer Remedy Entertainment delivered a virtuoso example of level construction and character building.

Ambition has never been in short supply for the developer, which wowed audiences with the likes of "Max Payne," challenged narrative conventions with "Alan Wake" and stretched the boundaries of TV and gaming convergence with "Quantum Break." At times, the available technology restricted Remedy's vision, but that's not the case here.

"Control" is a game thoroughly comfortable in its own skin, guiding you along your chosen path by presenting a linear experience with so much room to maneuver and explore that you sink into the illusion that you're taking on an open-world enterprise, shaping your journey with organic choices that you make.

To reveal much of the story or setup would be to rob the game of its ample sense of discovery. As you delve into the layers upon layers of buried intrigue, the game gradually familiarizes you with the supernatural and metaphysical sensibilities of its world.

Mastering the combat, traversal and environmental manipulation aspects is crucial to advancing. Finding that path is a joy, and the game has a masterful way at pushing you through extended tutorials that feel like organic exploration.

One of the unbridled successes of the 2019 gaming year, "Control" thrives with thrills and chills to spare. A glorious and captivating tale that makes you feel as though you're the co-author, the game shatters your expectations and shows that Remedy continues to tap dance on the bleeding edge of gamedom's evolution.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book Report: "Siddhartha"

SiddharthaSiddhartha by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mystical, thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, transformation and transcendence, "Siddhartha" is a rich and entrancing voyage through a seeker's life as he grows, reaches and ages.

Author Hermann Hesse spins his tell with a timeless confidence, inhabiting the conjurer's journey to enlightenment with the intimacy of a diary. We follow along as the title character breaks away from his privileged upbringing to seek out life's truths and expose the hidden shackles that hold people back from development.

Hesse doesn't pretend to have all of the answers, or even any of them. Siddhartha's voyage emphasizes the importance of patience, observation and listening. The simple sights, sounds and presence of nature is always there to teach things to those willing to pay attention.

Harish Bhimani narrates the Audible version with a steady, easygoing presence, telling the story with poise and command.

"Siddhartha" is a joyful and rereadable experience, dense with hidden riches and subtle wonders. It's there for you as a gentle guide to coax you to wake up and take a fresh look at what surrounds you, as well as what lies within.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

D23 Expo 2019 Highlights

Here are a few of my favorite moments from D23 2019:

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Report: "Mrs. Dalloway"

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A breakthrough in feminist literature, "Mrs. Dalloway" rips apart the prim facade of upper-crust 20th century British high society, revealing a torrent of angst, oppression and malaise buried beneath.

With a scattered, sometimes oppressively urgent style, Virginia Woolf sorts through the conflicting emotions and stream-of-consciousness memories bubbling inside the mind of a housewife who deconstructs her life as she sets up a dinner party. She reminisces over loves pursued and lost, life choices she regrets and the social structure that never gave her a chance to pursue her passions. She stands as a woman broken. bruised and numbed by a lifetime of coersion and compliance.

Annette Bening narrates the Audible version with seething, barely-submerged rage and a sense of festering regret that epitomizes the spirit of Woolf's writing. It's as though the author -- or Clarissa Dalloway herself -- is reciting the bubbling prose from the heart.

"Mrs. Dallaway" is slowed by poetic prose that is often too dense to pick through the first time around, as well as a sense of unnerving tumult that sometimes makes the plot points too heavy to register. But this is exquisite writing, and well worth exploring for anyone intrigued by the passionate, laconic web that Woolf weaves.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book Report: "The Turn of the Screw"

The Turn of the ScrewThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Taking a stab at slow-burn horror, Henry James delivers a chilling payoff in "The Turn of the Screw."

Told from the perspective of a governess terrorized by ghosts as she cares for sweet but unruly children, the book is a chilling dive into psychological horror. The actions of the demonic spirits can't compete with the devastation the mind can wreak on itself.

After a sluggish buildup, the story really hits its stride, delivering a resonant and haunting conclusion.

Emma Thompson's narration in the Audible edition is a masterstroke, speeding up her pace and raising her sense of urgency during the more frantic moments and slowing down into somber tones during buildups.

While most of the book is a slog, it's worth struggling through the slower moments to get to the masterstroke ending. "The Turn of the Screw" is short enough to maintain its sense of urgency even when it stalls.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Book Report: "David Copperfield"

I struggle with Charles Dickens books and was hoping "David Copperfield" would have the pathos and urgency to connect with me in the way "A Tale of Two Cities" or "The Chimes" could not.

After a promising start I found myself twisting in the wind just as I did with his other books. I felt bludgeoned by his monotonous descriptions and laborious plotlines that sputter and stumble.

The story follows the struggles and triumphs of a man looking back on his life, starting off with poverty and abandonment as a child, abuse and oppression as a student and laborer and the discovery and loss of young love. Life through the lens of David is one of despair, compromise and punishment, but his steadfast self-belief and inner strength of character inch him toward grace. No matter the indignities that befall him, his inner strength continues to develop, along with his character.

Unfortunately, the trek toward redemption is onerous and slipshod, with Dickens' tedious style tugging you along by the scruff of the neck.

Richard Armitage delivers a masterful and enthusiastic performance in the Audible edition, crafting a tapestry of voices and rhythms to give each character its own presence. I respect his effort and skill, but some of the voices are so throaty and wheezy that they physically hurt to listen to. Still, without the interpretation of Armitage, the book wouldn't have been as compelling.

"David Copperfield" may be a worthy literary landmark worthy of analysis and study, but as a storytelling experience it leaves much to be desired. When the book ended I felt a sense of relief, having been set free of the drudgery.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

"Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown" Review

"Ace Combat" games date to the era when flight combat simulators were en vogue, and now it's basically the last of its kind in the skies. You could excise Bandai Namco Games for relaxing into complacency now that there's no significant competition, but instead the publisher has used the situation as a freeing opportunity for liftoff.

By far the most technically impressive game in the storied series, "Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown" is also arguably the most fast-paced and accessible. a bold and dazzling flight of invigorating fancy, the game builds on its substantial base to soar proudly above the clouds.

The publisher has supported the game well, having just released the third and final DLC pack in the form of the ADFX-01 Morgan aircraft, but even without any of the add-ons, what you get here feels like a feature-complete blast of aerial combat thrills loaded with more than enough content to keep fans satisfied for months.

Not only does Bandai Namco convincingly nail the handling and weight of the airborne birds of prey hunting for their kills, you also get a health dose of the unbridled joy that comes with aerial combat. Those who were weaned on the likes of "Top Gun" and "Iron Eagle" will find an aeronautical ballet that taps into the heart of idealized adrenaline-pumping dogfights.

Although the at-times silly, always over-the-top story won't win any writing awards, nor does it get in the way enough to catch any turbulence. The thin tale is only an excuse to get you in the cockpit as often as possible, dancing in the skies to rain hellfire on your enemies.

Months after release, "Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown" continues to gain altitude and keep its guns blazing.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

"Crystar" Review

"Crystar" applies the linear, single-player JRPG format to a tapestry that hinges on emotions. Your heroine, a high school girl named Rei, returns from a near-death experience with superhuman abilities.

Following a tragic plot twist, Rei descends back to the afterlife in order to rescue a lost soul. In a plotline that seems inspired by the Purgatorio segment of Dante's "The Divine Comedy," you wrestle with loss, anxiety and regret as you work your way through a cavalcade of conflicted spirits attempting to work through their plights as divinity prepares its final judgment.

Struggling through battles with demons inside and out, Rei works her way through the evil forces manipulating her plight. Unraveling the mysteries awaiting her, Rei evolves and develops in unexpected ways.

Developer FuRyu orchestrates the tale with introspective confidence, unpacking layers of psychological insight with minimalist touches. As you fight, you manipulate torment and grief to your advantage, parsing your strategy through the lens of available attacks in order to time your opportunities to seize the greatest advantage.

Throughout the game, the theme set to the forefront is that emotional expression -- even crying -- is a strength rather than a setback. The ability to process and react to adversity with physical manifestations is something of a superpower.

There isn't much out there that compares to "Crystar," which works hard to distinguish itself with its insightful dynamics and paradigm-changing combat system. For JRPG fans looking for something fresh that's dressed in familiar trappings, this is an experience worthy of making your eyes well up with joy.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 02, 2019

"Omega Labyrinth Life" Review

A roguelike RPG geared toward a mature audience, "Omega Labyrinth Life" mixes character advancement and iterative challenges with wacky, often uncomfortable romantic scenarios and a seemingly proud lack of maturity.

Set in an "academy of fair maidens," you alternate among characters who pick up where the last one left off. Your attack abilities are related to your bust size, which expands as you advance. It's a concept seemingly geared to 14-year-olds, even though you have to be an adult to purchase the game.

The dressing of the concept could be a significant roadblock for a major portion of the audience, which is a shame because the combat, enemy design and traversal are so tight and well-calibrated. This is a robust and intricate game as well as a wacky excuse to indulge in repressed sexuality.

Each time you take on a dungeon, its room layout, enemies and items change, leading to a different experience each go-round. Combined with the "Animal Crossing"-like ability to rearrange decor, keeps things fresh and invitingly replayable.

Developer Matrix Software knows its stuff, and has crafted a worthwhile experience that succeeds in spite of its art style and writing. Best enjoyed as a oh-no-it-didn't comedic lark, you may be surprised how much fun you wind up having once you let the game sink its hooks in you.

Publisher provided review code.