Monday, September 30, 2019

"Fight'N Rage" Review

A side-scrolling beat-em-up that recalls the glory days of "Streets of Rage" and "Final Fight," "Fight'N Rage" is a boisterous, kinetic button-masher with charm and energy to spare.

The stylized graphics from developer Sebagamesdev lend the games an anime-style feel

The fun ratchets up in three-player co-op mode, which allows you to toggle on a "friendly fire" mode that creates all sorts of mayhem, recalling the likes of "Battletoads," "Double Dragon" or -- better yet -- "Battletoads & Double Dragon."

The ability to accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose brain your pal in a tense moment adds a wild dimension to the proceedings that will have you chuckling at yourself when you let yourself fly into blind, vengeful flurries.

As the story unfolds, your choices can unlock different cut scenes and developments. The branching paths elements encourage replayability.

Unlockables abound, with new speeds, game modes and bonus characters abounding.

A blast of nostalgic glee, "Fight'N Rage is a well-calibrated, blissful blast of fist-flying antics.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

"Mable & The Wood" Review

As a warrior resurrected to fulfill a prophecy, you stroll through an interconnected realm in "Mable & The Wood," shaping your destiny with your choices in service of your vision. Your quest is open-ended and your path circuitous.

Triplevision Games' take on Metroidvania has a touch of "Mega Man," allowing you to take on the form and powers of bosses you defeat.

Non-lethal options abound, but the temptation to slay enemies abounds. The more you kill, the more abilities come to your disposal, but you also risk losing humanity in the exchange. The weighty take on morality lends an urgency and ups the intensity to the decisions you make.

Intense, melodic visuals meld with a haunting score and economical writing to craft a distinct experience that rewards you more in proportion to what you invest.

Occasional glitches and rough patches tend to disrupt the flow, and more direction and urgency could have given the game more of a narrative thrust. But what's here is an entrancing and creative package worthy of exploring.

Games like "Mable & The Wood" don't come along frequently. Here's hoping the game manages to find enough of an audience to give it the analysis and disucssion it deserves.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

"Deadly Premonition Origins" Switch Review

Back in 2010, "Deadly Premonition" released with a thud on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Initially dismissed as an awful game, it slowly gained a cult following through internet memes and fan theories. Eventually, the game cemented itself in the fabric of gaming culture as a critical achievement in offbeat humor and out-of-the-box gameplay.

Nearly a decade later, a sequel is on the horizon, and the original has gotten a remastered release on the Switch. Wisely aware that smoothing out all of the game's rough edges would have robbed it of its charm, developer Toybox games keeps many of the original flaws and idiosyncrasies intact.

The result is an expectedly mixed bag, but still a crucial component of any library for gamer with offbeat interests. Visuals that were already behind their time in 2010 look even more blocky and rough, backtracking annoyances abound, and yet the game retains every bit of its appeal. This is a clunky car that takes three times for its engine to turn over, yet still manages to get you there, giving you a joyfully bumpy ride all the way through.

You explore a bizarre town, meet its quirky characters and solve a series of interlocking mysteries that hover like a musty haze. Non-sequiturs and red herrings abound, which makes up much of the charm.

The survival horror mystery has much in common with "Twin Peaks." The village feels alive in the way most gaming settings fail to approach, swirling with culture and personality.

Expect to rely on walkthroughs to push you through the many obtuse bottlenecks that develop, but as long as you stay committed to powering through the story, there's little doubt you'll be enthralled by the multitude of dark, sardonic twists that abound.

"Deadly Premonition" is a wild one, and something that must be experiences firsthand to fully apprciate. Ever the riveting conversation-starter, the game manages to thrive in its rough-hewn, homespun state. Truly a trip, "Deadly Premonition Origins" deserves to be taken seriously, if only because it doesn't take itself seriously.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 27, 2019

"Contra: Rogue Corps" Review

The "Contra" aesthetic has always played best in 2D and top-down paradigms, but struggled to blast its way into 3D. "Contra: Rogue Corps" is the latest awkward effort to shove the fist-pumping, 1980s shoot-em-up aesthetic into a more modern realm, but settles for moderate success, falling short of outright triumph.

A frenetic but slippery twin-stick shooter with attitude to spare, "Rogue Corps" gets into trouble when it tries too hard to be edgy and surprising. Developed by Konami and Toylogic, the cigar-chomping, bullet-splattering heroism has a tendency to get in its own way.

Inventive enemy types and big bads, as well as limitless ammo and easy weapon upgrades grant the game an authentic throughline that dates back to the franchise's NES and SNES heyday. The option to go it alone or via online or offline co-op enriches the experience.

Still, there's something forced and cynical about the affair. While care has clearly been put into enemy and weapon design, there's a haphazard feel to the level design that gives the game a rush-job, cash grab feel reminiscent of a quick-and-dirty mobile game.

If you're jonesing for a more authentic "Contra" experience, better options abound, including Konami's exquisite "Contra Anniversary Collection" and "Blazing Chrome," both of which dropped in the past few months.

"Contra: Rogue Corps" is something for those who look back on the old "Contra" style fondly but want to push forward into new realms. If you've got a reliable multiplayer squad, you'll have plenty of fun here. If it's a solo experience you're after, you may feel like you're firing blanks.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership"

Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American LeadershipTheodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership by Jon Knokey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A masterful book about the building blocks that made Teddy Roosevelt into the leader he was, Jon Knokey's biography tells a rich and compelling story by focusing on his upbringing and rise to power.

Roosevelt had a genius for empathy, with a specialty for drawing together people from disparate backgrounds and points of view toward common ground. A great uniter, Roosevelt's leadership helped heal a divided nation that still bristled with resentment and mistrust in the decades after the Civil War.

Of his countless endearing qualities, Roosevelt's most appealing and convincing trait was the willingness to get his own hands dirty, sacrificing his comfort to prove his work ethic and commitment to others.

With a pirate's mentality, Roosevelt spurned the establishment and disrupted embedded processes. In accomplishing his goals, he established an end vision, then worked ferociously to destroy anything that stood between him and his desire.

In taking on the Audible edition, narrator Brian Holsopple adds a vigor and passion to Roosevelt's words and deeds that captured the essence of Teddy himself.

Bulging with exhaustive research melded with an easygoing storyteller's momentum, Knokey's writing is an exquisite match for Roosevelt's bravado and manner. His respect and admiration of Roosevelt's philosophy and life force seep through in his writing, but there's also enough distance for occasional astute criticism.

Teddy Roosevelt is clearly Knokey's favorite president, and it's nearly impossible to get through is book without Roosevelt becoming your favorite as well.

View all my reviews

PHIL ON FILM: "Abominable"

For my full review, click here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"The Long Journey Home" Review

A procedurally-generated resource management survival travelogue, "The Long Journey Home" is crafted to test the mettle of even the most dedicated players. To succeed, you'll need to play with smarts, precision and selective risk management.

Following a 2017 PC debut and a 2018 port to Xbox One and PS4, the game makes its way to the Switch.

Developer Daedelic Studio West may have gone a little overboard in making "The Long Journey Home" as punishing as it is. The challenge level may be the main draw, but it's also the main cause of its frustration.

A strained menu system leaves you fighting against the interface as well as the environmental challenges, causing strain and misery that often makes extended play stations Sysiphean efforts.

At least it's a moderately varied slog every time out. With varied environments and item locations on each homeward voyage, there's always something fresh to take on.

On each voyage, you'll face a combination of several alien races, each of which presents its own set of challenges, as well as disparate ways to confront, manage and work with.

What "The Long Journey Home" lacks in polish and calibration it makes up, to a degree, in variety and panache. A mixed bag with plenty to digest -- as well as suffer heartburn over -- it brings the struggle of interstellar travel to brutal life.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series" Review

The fall and rise of the seminal Telltale Games adventure series "The Walking Dead" resembles that of one of its undead minions. Following the sudden, unceremonious closure of the studio a year ago, the core team reassembled to finish the final season.

As a result, the seven-year, genre-defining legacy established by the ill-fated yet influential developer got a second life. Now developer Skybound Games, sticking to the spirit established by Telltale, wraps up all the mainline series with all four seasons, as well as the "400 Days" and Michonne-focused spinoffs, into a grand, epic package.

All told, there are 50 hours of gameplay spread out across 23 episodes. Also added are 10 hours of developer commentary, background featurettes, a making-of documentary and soundtrack.

Through point-and-click, mild puzzle-solving and dialogue trees, you make choices that affect whether characters live or die, as well as the direction of the plot and the moral makeup of your protagonists.

At its core, "The Walking Dead" is the transcendent journey of a heroine, Clementine, from defenseless little girl to full-grown, destiny-controlling badass. The fourth season dovetails magnificently with the themes and plot points of the opening frame, creating a staggering, resonant journey that wouldn't have the same impact in any other medium.

Although the work of some other developers may have surpassed Telltale's work over the years, there's no denying the lasting influence and continuing relevance of this magnificent take on "The Walking Dead." As popular as the TV and comic series are, the games will always hold a place as the purest, most emotionally impactful franchise's stories.

"The Walking Dead" has risen from oblivion, and it's doubtful we'll ever see anything quite like it again.

Even more impressively, choices chain from one episode to the next, leading to distinct experiences on different playthroughs that drastically redefine the themes and storylines you experience.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Shows Leaving Netflix October 2019"

For the full list, click here.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Book Report: “Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator”

Stalin: New Biography of a DictatorStalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oleg V. Khlevniuk writes with passion and purpose in unearthing the festering corpse of one of his country's most notorious tyrants. From the outset, and especially with his watershed conclusion, he makes it obvious that he fears that Russia is drifting toward the blindly despotic cult of personality in the Putin era that it found itself sucked into in the mid-20th century.

With strong-armed rule, senseless violence and a self-serving, humanity-devoid obsession with stature and optics over practical benefits, Stalin engineered and steered the Soviet apparatus toward his twisted vision of glory.

A burning obsession with dominance and ruthless authoritarianism flew at the top of Stalin's figurative freight train. An obsessive student of history and analyst of processes, personnel and procedures, Stalin was the consummate overthinker, envisioning threats where there were none. In a paranoid effort to snuff out all challenges before they could arise, he stoked a culture of surveillance, nudging informers to expose their neighbors.

Stalin ferreted out his trumped-up threats through sadistic purges that cost the lives of millions and destroyed the livelihoods of countless others. Those who weren't snuffed out were often relocated or ruined. Only a life of strict adherence to the party line held a chance of success, and even then only by the grace of happenstance. A venom-soaked jealous whisper from a rival could trump up preventative punishment in a society that presumed guilt.

Narrator Peter Ganim recites the prose of the Audible version with a steady, professorial authority blended with a storyteller's enthusiasm. With excellent pacing and poignant pauses, he marches through the smoldering anecdotes with gripping urgency.

Exhaustively researched and graced with effective context, this Stalin biography is a fascinating display of applicable history. A chilling reminder of the past is a sobering portent of the present, as well as its near-future implications.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 15, 2019

"eFootball PES 2020" Review

For the past decade, Konami has exercised as much of a stranglehold on soccer superiority as Virtual Concepts has with its "NBA 2K" series. Although "PES" has always trailed in team licenses and player likenesses, its on-field action has managed to maintain its lead without being content to park the bus and wait for EA to catch up.

With such impressive advancements in areas such as its career and franchise mode in recent editions, the main challenge for "PES" was to evolve its public profile and establish a foothold in the realms of streaming and competitions. And that's just what the team at Konami has targeted as it starts a fresh decade at the top of the table.

Konami figuratively shifted its midfield and defenders forward in an all-out assault on the goal of becoming the premier esports destination for soccer gamers. Exhaustive efforts were given to balancing, server integrity, accurate physics and minimized perfunctory animations to strip the game of happenstance and place the emphasis on skill, tactics and reaction time to determine success.

Also benefitting from a boost in pomp, presentation and replay integration, "PES 2020" might have risked danger of losing its sense of fist-pumping fun on the pitch. From the first kickoff, though, any worries that the game would lean in too mechanical a direction are dashed. This is still very much a game designed, broken down and rebuilt by a team obsessed with the thrills, absurdities and goofiness of the game. As a result, the on-field action plays with a brisk, set piece-emphasizing vigor that retains the adrenaline of schoolyard and pickup matches.

While legacy AI hiccups linger, this is easily the smoothest and most logical match flow anyone has managed to craft to this point. Strategizing against the computer continues to evolve into a game of overreactive cat and mouse, with creativity and craftsmanship rewarded over monotonous spamming of safe, basic routines.

The next realm Konami can set out to conquer is online mode innovation. If esports continues to be part of the modus operandi, it will be important to craft minigames and overall progression that make online soccer as vital a part of a gamer's agenda as the likes of "Call of Duty" or "Fortnite." A three-on-three mode, skills competition or micro-challenge subcategory could fit the bill, and no doubt the squad behind the generation's most complete soccer game is hard at work envisioning the future.

For now, this fresh and vital edition of eFootball is more than enough to keep the soccer-obsessed enthralled.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Borderlands 3" Review

Boasting an embarrassingly rich loadout of weapons, ammo, characters and personality, "Borderlands 3" feels like the missing puzzle piece to the modern gaming repertoire that had been missing for far too long. From the opening screen, every move the game makes feels effortlessly spot-on.

That's a testament to 2K's refusal to accede to gamers' demands and crank out current-gen "Borderlands" sequels on the regular. Taking a route that other stalwart franchises would be wise to follow, the brain trust didn't release a third "Borderlands" until it was good and ready.

Developer Gearbox Software took its time in bringing its storied franchise to current-gen consoles, generating excitement with "The Handsome Collection" in 2015 but not a whisper since.

The time spent tinkering in the garage has paid off. "Borderlands 3" resurrects the best of the franchise while also joyriding along the edge of current technology. With seamless multiplayer integration, gorgeous stylized visuals, a compelling loot-dripping economy and an abundance of diverse missions, the game is a wild, raucous sandbox.

There are a thousand ways to approach every objective, with creativity, nuance and happenstance making no two throwdowns seem similar.

Most satisfying of all, there is no punishing penalty for experimentation and failure -- and nor is there a reward for mindless grinding. When you fall, you find yourself injected back into the action before your blood car reach a steady boil, with various opportunities bubbling in front of you, tempting you to adjust your tactics in the pursuit of sweet victory.

While the true test of the game's longevity will come from Gearbox's resolve to support it as an ongoing service -- and some players have griped about some early systemic hiccups -- it's tough to fathom a more impressive blast of exhilaration and promise out of the gate.

With a dearth of first-party blockbusters on the docket this holiday season, and only a couple cross-platform rainmakers in the offing, it's easy to see that "Borderlands 3" will have the shooter community's prime attention well into 2020. If that's the case, then players are in for some glitzy, wild times delving into this project's myriad treasures.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sinking City" Switch Review

A brooding and gripping horror tale, "The Sinking City" is the latest in a wave of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired games that have hung issues such as mental health, hallucinations and vague morality in the balance.

The dev team at Frogwares doesn't shy away from the more embarrassing, outdated aspects of Lovecraft's perspective. The world of "The Sinking City" exists in a prejudiced perspective untouched by evolved political correctness. The game makes its move to the Switch after a June debut on other consoles.

Set in the partially sunken city of Oakmont, you play as a private investigator who seeks to unravel the mystery of a supernatural entity that has wrapped its tentacles around the city.

Gameplay elements mix sleuthing with occasional survival horror aspects. The mix is a somewhat jarring combination, with the writing momentum sometimes stalling when shoved up against frustrating game flow bottlenecks.

For a game that thrives on tension and atmosphere, the disruptions are nagging and frustrating. I rarely advocate for walkthroughs on first playthroughs, but this is a game in which I'd make an exception. It would be a shame to let rough, obtuse moments stop you from enjoying the dark tale.

Though decidedly a mixed bag, the game benefits from a steady hand and authoritative interpretation of the source fiction. A mature, nuanced take on horror, "The Sinking City" manages to inflict a sense of dread that few other games or films manage to even approach. There's something to be said for the captivating story halfway buried in the clunky morass.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

"NBA 2K20" Review

Forget about preseason. The NBA year truly starts when the annual "NBA 2K" entry drops. With no realistic competition around, the series continues to own the feel and thrill of hoops culture and gameplay. It's a credit to developer Visual Concepts that the series isn't content to rest on its accolades and is always striving for brilliance.

While there are few game-changing additions to "NBA 2K20" to set it apart from the past few entries in the series, the steady addition of new features, gameplay options and window dressing easily makes this year's entry feel captivating and cutting-edge.

The MyCareer mode is one of the most appealing go-to destinations. It allows you to live out your failed athletic dreams, grabbing attention from scouts, jockeying for draft position and working your way into the starting lineup. Juggling your business, image and basketball responsibilities makes you feel like an up-and-coming player dealing with a machine eager to chew him up.

You can use the NBA 2K20 app to upload your face onto your player, even though the accuracy of the scanning leaves much to be desired, and the name restrictions are ratcheted up to counterproductive levels.

The game provides real-time coaching and evaluations, judging every assist, shot selection and swipe at a ballhandler to give you a running grade of your performance.

In addition to MyGM and MyLeagye, there's also MyTeam a card-based fantasy game reminiscent of EA's Ultimate Team modes. Although the microtransactions and loot box-like card packs are wallet-drainers, there is much to be said about the steady satisfaction of putting together a roster made up with past greats and current phenoms and dominating the competition.

I played "NBA 2K20" on the Switch, and was particularly impressed with the visual fidelity and smooth animations on the underpowered system, as well as an evolved online infrastructure that hangs with what's available on PS4 and Xbox One. Connecting the app to my game was as simple as logging onto the app with my Nintendo ID. The ease of use expands the interface and allows you to shepherd your creations while on the go.

Continued enhancements including expanded, relevant commentary and a TV show with player interviews and relevant updates help sell the comprehensive feel of the package.

A dynasty that -- unlike the recent fall of the Warriors -- shows no signs of buckling, "NBA 2K20" reaffirms the franchise's stature as an integral pillar of what makes the game and its trappings so fascinating and compelling. The game makes you feel like you're in the club, and membership has its ever-satisfying privileges.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "It Chapter Two"

For my full review, click here.

"Spyro Reignited Trilogy" Switch Review

A year after his console renaissance, "Spyro" has used his adorably tiny wings to flap his pudgy purple body over to Switch. "Spyro Reignited Trilogy" is a smooth, seamless port that runs like a dream on the Switch, which easily handles the complex, remastered textures and animations in both handheld and docked modes.

If you have fond memories of frolicking around grassy fields and roasting enemies as Spyro the Dragon, odds are you haven't touched the games anytime in the last 15 years. Many aspects of the creaky old games added up to make the originals all but unplayable to anyone but the most devoted fans of the franchise.

As it did on consoles, the Switch version of the trilogy reinvents the series with wholesale modern trappings. So slick, lovingly created and invigorating are the new games that they figuratively breathe fire on the originals, leaving frayed embers behind.

Developer Toys for Bob, which kept the spirit of Spyro alive with the "Skylanders" series, channeled some deep love and care into the original series, released from 1998-2000 on the PlayStation. Their months upon months of dedicated labor paid off big-time.

This suite of remakes follows the template of last years "Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy" and pushes the concept even farther. These new games are what the original developers may have dreamed of but never could accomplish with late-20th century tech.

Rather than strive for a pixel-perfect recreation, Toys for Bob uses the original games as base parameters for a wholesale remake. New character models, backgrounds, animations, transition screens and audio suite are all included.

There are also countless quality-of-life improvements, from checkpoints, to slick loading times and saves that make the Spyro games seem so different from their forebears that they may as well be entirely new games. Those who aren't aware that the games are remakes would see no signs of Spyro's severely outdated past.

Spyro the Dragon is very much alive and well, resurrected like a cloned dinosaur from amber. Even if you think you know Spyro, the new games prove that notion false. He's reignited as a fresh, vital character with a spirit as bright and vital as the flames that rage out from his belly.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Gears 5" Review

With such a slim slate of console exclusives this year, Xbox One owners needed "Gears 5" to be a staggering success. Anything less than a spellbinding success on both the campaign and multiplayer fronts would be a crushing setback.

No pressure, right?

Luckily -- actually, it had much more to do with skill and experience -- the dev team at the Coalition was more than up to the task. "Gears 5" is good enough to draw lapsed fans of the series back into the fold. It's good enough to forge new inroads and suck new players in, setting them on the path to hardcore veteran status. It's good enough to make PS4 and Switch loyalists tremble with envy.

Following the steady, if uninspiring, success of "Gears of War 4" in 2016, "Gears 5" hews close to the spirit of its title's naming convention by powering foward as a sleeker, more economical and vigorous than any series entry since its inception. A rebirth for the franchise that pushes it forward in meaningful ways, the game slices through the burden of expectations with the ferocious vengeance of a chainsaw bayonet.

Shedding the series' dudebro past for a more serious, relatable and gender-inclusive vibe, the new entry makes a compelling case that Gears is the most stable and promising pillar of Xbox Land, looking sharp where its cohorts -- Halo and Forza -- have been showing frayed edges for years.

At the forefront is a killer campaign that powers in like a freight train after a somewhat tiresome opening training module tutorial. The voice performances and facial models lend severity and maturity to the stakes. The writers lace each chapter with memorable, paradigm-shifting twists that keep you glued to the story with the skill of a binge-worthy streaming series.

As strong as the campaign is, The Coalition doesn't step off the gas when it comes to multiplayer.

Gears is known for building a hardcore insular community that maintains such a high level of play that it's difficult for newcomers to break in. The new game makes a heroic effort to shatter the barriers to entry and making online mode far more accessible and forgiving than in games' past.

Although the out-of-the-gate offerings don't exactly bowl you over with a multitude of modes, what we get is enough to consolidate the community to keep the matchmaking working at maximum efficiency. If the series' past is any indication, players can expect a cavalcade of free updates and enhancements as the months roll by, with the Coalition adapting with nimble speed and measured empathy, adjusting to the shifting yearnings of the community with fresh, invigorating content.

"Gears 5" is a resounding success that -- judging from the sporadic drip of system-exclusive blockbusters from Microsoft over the past few years and the next "Halo" being saved for the next generation -- may well serve as the definitive high point for the Xbox One. If so, this makes for one hell of a sendoff.

Publisher provided review code.