Sunday, October 13, 2019

Book Report: "The Testaments"

The TestamentsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thirty-four years and three seasons of the pop culture-dominating Hulu series after her seminal feminist dystopian saga was released, Margaret Atwood returns to the franchise with youthful vigor.

Ignoring the canon that developed in the series, Atwood leaps ahead several decades to tell the definitive tale of the fall of Gilead through a compilation of historical documents. It would spoil things to give away the identities of most of the narrators, but it doesn't vie anything away to reveal that the driving force behind the story is Aunt Lydia.

A sinister, domineering force of dominating invasiveness, Lydia's acid-dipped observations and spider-like cunning spins a web of a plot that permeates the story.

Atwood keeps the narrative varied and agile, introducing plotlines through differing perspectives of various characters, coaxing the reader to piece together a sense of what's happening by deducing a reliable throughline.

As is the case with "The Handmaid's Tale," Atwood peppers her story with fevered, poignant observations about social and gender dynamics, as well as the dangers of mob politics and cults of personality.

A thoroughly satisfying and relentlessly challenging wrap-up to the saga, Atwood's novel is a triumphant storming of the Gilead gates.

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"Disney on Ice: Mickey's Search Party" Review

As the years pass, "Disney on Ice" paints itself into a corner, grasping at ways to try to top itself. Instead of being content with recycling the same plot devices and moves, the choreographers and effects designers continue to push the paradigm further and further.

Some years show more advancement than others, but the latest edition is on the edgier side, making the audience gasp with riveting gymnastic spectacles. The quality of performances continues to impress. Despite the kid-friendly trappings, this is top-level dance theater, with all roles going to highly capable performers.

The challenge year in and year out is to integrate the same characters and movie storylines into a different overarching story. Although the narrative remains as stretched and silly as ever.

Pan characters pop in and out of the movie re-enactments, telling the audience that they're looking for clues as to the whereabouts of Tinker Bell, who has gone missing.

The narrative is just an excuse for a Reader's Digest version of the most iconic scenes from the likes of "Aladdin," "Toy Story," "Frozen," "Coco," "The Little Mermaid" and "Moana." Oddly left out of the mix was "The Lion King."

Breathtaking set pieces abound, many involving silk aerials, trampolines, ramps and flexible poles. Among the standout moments are "Toy Story" army men backflipping on trampolines, Belle elevating dozens of feat off the ground in "Be Our Guest," an elevated Ariel pantomiming swimming in "The Little Mermaid" and giant puppets in "Coco."

A dazzling spectacle for all ages, "Mickey's Search Party" reinforces the notion that no matter how many "Disney on Ice" performances you've been to, you're cheating yourself if you miss this year's go-round.

For information on the tour, click here.

Studio provided review tickets.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

"Sega Genesis Mini" Review

Building off the retro-appealing success of Nintendo's NES Classic and SNES Classic, the Sega Genesis Mini is a plug-and-play console that's preloaded with several of the most memorable games for the seminal device.

With an authentic-feeling controller, pixel-perfect 16-bit graphics and 40 games, including entries from the Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star, Virtua Fighter, Earthworm Jim, Mega Man and Street Fighter series, there is more than enough here to justify the $79 cost.

Despite the adherence to retro charm, the quality-of-life features abound. The light, slim form factor makes it easy to move around, and there's a home button that lets you trigger a save state, pick another game, then hop back into your old game to resume your session.

On the downside, the wired controller forces you to scoot up near the TV to play, just like when you were a kid, and there's no option to rewind gameplay in order to help you easily get past some of the more trying challenges of yesteryear. The ability to connect online to take on other gamers with the Sega Genesis Mini would have been a tremendously thrilling addition, but it's not included.

Of course, it can be argued that any of the perceived drawbacks are simply methods to stay true to the charm of retro gaming, when the only multiplayer was the slug-your-brother-in-the-shoulder joys and frustrations of couch co-op.

A mini time machine that zaps you back to the late 1980s and early 90s, the Sega Genesis Mini nails the modest goals it sets out to accomplish. Blast processing is back, baby.

Publisher provided review sample.

Friday, October 04, 2019

"Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint" Review

Moving away from traditional real-world locations, Ubisoft's Ghost Recon franchise deploys to new horizons in "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint," but keeps its political commentary and believable near-future military gadgets front and center.

A sprawling, rich multiplayer-focused production, "Breakpoint" has you scurrying around for resources while clashing against human and drone adversaries. Emergent chases, tactical mindgames and pulse-pounding firefights fill out the relentless action, pushing the franchise confidently in new directions while staying true to the series' trademarks.

Set on the fictional, remarkably biologically diverse island of Aurora, the game provides ample settings for cooperative clashes.

The dev team at Ubisoft Paris borrows freely from other Ubisoft franchises to buttress its already compelling base. Wildlife and natural resources lend a "Far Cry" feel, while the open-world campaign owes a debt to the past two "Assassin's Creed" games.

While the single-player mode is robust and compelling, multiplayer remains king. The modes out of the gate provide compelling matchmaking, diverse -- albeit in a slim out-of-the-gate selection -- of maps. Microtransactions abound, but largely stick to cosmetic buffs, spurning the dreaded pay-to-win model in order to keep combat balanced.

The lush vegetation of the jungles, dizzying crags of the mountains and icy realms of the tundra throw different wrinkles into the combat dynamic, forcing you to adjust your schemes on the fly.

While the true measure of "Breakpoint" will come in the following months, during which Ubisoft Paris promises to support the initial offering with a slew of steady updates and additions, it's hard to ask for much more out of the gate than what's here.

Tactical gamers can buy in without reservations, confident that they've found their next obsession with which to clan up for the next several months. "Breakpoint" forges ahead in all the right ways.

Publisher provided review code.


For my written review, click here.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

"Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" Switch Review

"Star Wars" games have always scattered across the spectrum between excellence and garbage, and that trend continues to this day. The advantage of being a gamer today is the advantage of cherrypicking the best of the best.

Such an example of a cherry is the recently-released remastered version of the 2002 GameCube and Xbox classic, "Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" holds up reasonably well despite plenty of expected creakiness.

You play as Kyle Katarn, a Jedi hero who takes on an intergalactic threat. At your disposal are a full range of force powers, lightsabers and blasters.

What amounts to a linear open-world shooter with enough trappings to make it seem as though it's open world, "Jedi Outcast" truly is a trip back to a galaxy far, far away. Although its continuity has been destroyed by the post-Disney takeover canon reboot, the story rings true because of the way it sticks to the fundamentals of what make up a stirring "Star Wars" tale.

Due to its age and now wacky story trappings, the game will doubtless appeal more to older gamers than youngsters, who may well find its controls and interface stale and awkward.

If you're willing to look past the rough patches and somewhat stiff controls, you may well find yourself as entranced as ever by the swashbuckling, ever-empowering thrill of wielding your light saber and force throws.

With its grand return to modern consoles, "Jedi Outcast" emerges from the shadows and is no longer a forgotten lark from the past. Its rebirth points to a new hope that other memorable moments from the franchise's past will reappear.

Combat variety and execution is where the gameplay continues to thrive the best. In the nearly two decades since the game's release, few titles have matched the level of precision and excitement found in the swordplay here. Exhilarating lightsaber battles require skill and versatility to conquer.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in October 2019

For the full post, click here.

"80 Days" Switch Review

There's something intrinsically appealing about the idea of handlebar-moustached Victorian gents making grand, globe-trotting bets. "80 Days" takes the premise and runs, rides and flies with it.

A mix of Jules Verne source material buttressed with cyberpunk trappings, "80 Days" is all about resource management, tough decisions and measured risk. Much as with the choice-driven text adventures in the 1980s version of "The Oregon Trail," your selections lead to surprising and often comical results.

Following a 2014 iOS debut and a 2015 PC port, the game makes its Switch debut, with the dev team at Inkle using the console's technology as a broad canvas to sketch out its grand plans.

Set in 1872 London, you scramble to maneuver your way across the world via numerous transportation methods. You jockey your inventory, making necessary sacrifices by leaving behind some key items while doubtlessly bringing some with you that will prove a hindrance. Along the way, you encounter a series of obstacles and setbacks that ratchet up the urgency of your bold, brash race against the calendar.

Along the way, you can encounter romance, sci-fi wonders and horros, thievery and even space exploration. There's no way to see and do all the remarkable wonders in a single playthrough, so you're encouraged to play the game again and again to explore it from different avenues and perspectives. The more you play, the more scenarios unlock. The game is designed to show you only three percent of the total available content on each go-round.

Slim and efficient and bolstered by a clean, appealing look, "80 Days" is a whimsical travelogue that stokes the flames of boldness and derring-do that personified the 19th century origins of the material. A breathless lark, "80 Days" brims with intrigue and discovery.

Publisher provided review code.