Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Haunted: Halloween '86 (The Curse of Possum Hollow)" Review

If you're digging the retro horror aesthetic of "Stranger Things," "Castle Rock" and "American Horror Story: 1984," "Haunted Halloween" is the next goody you need to go trick-or-treating for.

Developer Retrotainment Games, which is made up of Pittsburgh-based NES enthusiasts, started on the homebrew hobbyist scene but makes a foray into the big leagues here.

Its latest game is a brutally funny, thoroughly captivating throwback, which draws influence from the likes of "Ghouls & Ghosts" and "Castlevania," with a healthy mix of "Final Fight" and "River City Rampage" thrown in.

From the energetically composed chiptune soundtrack, to the lovingly crafted 8-bit visuals and the sly, satirical writing, "Haunted Halloween '86" feels oh so right on the Switch. Whether you're playing in handheld or docked mode, it time-warps children of the 80s back to their youth. For younger gamers, it's a window into the origins that seeded the basic grammar and tropes that would stretch and evolve into gaming's current state.

There's a reason there are so many throwback indie efforts these days -- the gameplay and storytellng mechanics thrived in the days when visual, audio and memory restrictions were so tight. Players were forced to fill in the technological gaps with their imagination, and that added to the legendary air of charm.

"Haunted Halloween '86" nails that aesthetic with resounding authority. Retrotainment Games captures just the right pitch, feel and delivery, and it will be a joy to watch their continuing efforts in recapturing gaming's glory days.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Anthill" Review

Lording over a society of scurrying insects is an intoxicating power trip. "Anthill" puts you in charge of an ant colony, charging you to sketch out pheromone trails that guide your insects to destinations to harvest food, defend the nest from predators and shore up the integrity of the hill.

An enhanced port of the 2011 mobile game, the offering from developer Image & Form makes the transition to the Switch with its pick-up-and-play charm intact.

The real-time strategy antics force you to keep your focus. Any misstep could trigger a cascade of mishaps that lead to disaster and derail all your hard work.

While a wholesale reimagining -- rather than a moderately upgraded port -- of the concept would have better taken advantage of the Switch's capabilities, the game makes for an apt fit on the console. Fans of the Pikmin series, in particular, will find much to enjoy here while Nintendo takes it sweet time advancing that series.

 Since the source material is so old and relatively obscure, chances are most games have never even heard of the predecessor, let alone played it. That adds to the sense of newness, and "Anthill" falls in line neatly with the Switch's already massive and rapidly growing stable of indie gems.

There's nothing much groundbreaking here, but the satisfying rhythm and flow of "Anthill" -- coupled with a steady, significant sense of challenge and accomplishment, keeps you scurrying with the frantic pragmatism of your little minions. This is a game well worth digging into.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Charlie's Angels"

For my full review, click here.

"Mary Skelter 2" Review

Emboldened with style to spare and a sly, subtle sense of humor, "Mary Skelter 2" is a headlong jump over the rainbow to a strange and disturbing realm overrun by a swarming evil. It's up to the kewpie-like Blood Maidens, who are as adorable as they are fierce, to turn the tide.

The roguelike RPG has you play as characters inspired by twisted versions of fairy tales, you take part in turn-based battles against enemy parties.

There's an urgency to the combat, due to Nightmares that pursue you in real time, spurring you to be efficient with your attacks in order to hasten the blood-based transformation system. You also have to take into account the mental status of your group, which is always threatened to be shaken by the horrors they face.

The sequel includes "Mary Skelter: Nightmares" (2016), so you can forge through the entire dungeon-crawling saga. Developer Compile Heart stuck to the themes and gameplay that served them well in the first game, stretching the battle structure to come up with scenarios that shove you out of your comfort zone.

Whenever you think you've got a foolproof routine established, the paradigm shifts and you're forced to recalibrate.

Elements of anime, manga, satirical horror and social commentary pulse through every aspect of the game, from the visuals and writing to the combat. It's all part of the package that makes "Mary Skelter 2" a nightmare worthy of your dreams.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Star Wars Pinball" Review

Pinball and "Star Wars" have always shared a Force-like link. The Saturday matinee-style sensibilities of the sci-fi monolith translate well to the pop-up unlockables inherent to the tabletop game.

Video game pinball fits on the Switch particularly well, with the system's shape replicating a miniaturized pinball table shape. Thus, it's little surprise that "Star Wars Pinball" feels so right on the Switch.

The revamped version of the 2013 Wii U game summons three new tables based on "The Clone Wars," Boba Fett and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Additional tables are promised as upcoming DLC, but there is plenty in the original package to keep you flipping your paddles in hypedrive mode through the end of the year.

A hotseat multiplayer mode lets you play couch co-op on the same console, adding an arcade-like intensity to showdowns.

These are boom times for "Star Wars" fans, with "The Mandalorian" releasing along with Disney+ today, the ballyhooed "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order" due out this week and "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker" debuting in theaters next month. But even with those big-hitters tugging away at the attention of the franchise's fans, "Star Wars Pinball" shouldn't be overlooked.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"Death Stranding" Review

Freed from the expectations and routine of the "Metal Gear" sage, visionary developer Hideo Kojima indulges his inner muse to the extremes of the wild and bizarre limits of his imagination in "Death Stranding."

The result is a wildly clever, willfully obtuse thinkpiece that dares you to shunt your predispositions to the wayside and hurls yourself headlong down the increasingly bizarre rabbit hole. The journey is rewarding -- wickedly humorous, intellectually challenging and obstinately baffling.

Spiritual imagery and symbolism pulses throughout "Death Stranding," which thoroughly feels more like an under-the-radar indie download than a major-studio exclusive. The production quality lives up to the Kojima standard. He's always been among the most cinematic of gaming visionaries, prone to elaborate, exquisitely storyboarded cut scenes.

The exquisite voice cast, which includes the likes of Norman Reedus, Troy Baker and Tommie Earl Jenkins, helps drive home the Hollywood-level cachet. It also helps that the game is as gorgeous as any you're likely to play, with sweeping vistas that call to mind the best on offer from "Far Cry" or "Red Dead Redemption" games. There's also a healthy dose of influence from "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" lingering over the saga.

The less you know going in about the story, the better. You control a metaphysical delivery man, tasked with searching out packages and spiriting them to their destinations. Ever teetering on the bleeding edge between life and death, you carve out your own path in an open-world environment. You can toggle scanning and compass features that give you hints as to which roads you could be drawn to, but there are rewards equally as gratifying off the beaten path.

If you can, embrace "Death Stranding" as blindly as you can. Throw yourself into the persona of the protagonist emotionally as well as visually. Allow yourself to be lost, lay off the hand-holding features the game offers, avoid online walkthroughs and let yourself stumble upon the game's surprises by happenstance. The feeling of being lost and lonesome, as well as the rewarding nature of relying on your resourcefulness to forge ahead, is key to appreciating the aesthetic on which Kojima seems to be meditating.

"Death Stranding" may be dismissed as slow or flighty by some, but the fact that it's not particularly crafted to appeal to the masses only adds to its allure. This is not a game for your mom, or the beercan-to-forehead-crushing frat crowd. Even if you're a lifelong Kojima devotee, you've never played anything remotely like this, and the experience can be every bit as enriching, troubling and thrilling as you allow it to be. It's also one of the most subtly funny games I've encountered in years.

Pop-locking and moonwalking to its own bizarre beat, "Death Stranding" carries the unbridled confidence of a street performer. This is a game to die for.

Publisher provided review code.

"Midway" Review

Boasting impressive effects, a top-flight cast and a script that manages to nail a patriotic vibe while also being fair to the enemy, "Midway" is a robust, thrilling tribute to the battle that turned the tide of the World War II in the Pacific theater.

Director Roland Emmerich shies away from his usual overdramatic, exaggerated set piece tendencies to tell a measured and tight tale.

Wisely allowing the historical facts and built-in urgency of the stakes at play, the filmmaker provides one of his most mature efforts to date.

The makeup team deserves credit for making its cast of actors closely resemble their real-life counterparts. Nuanced performances from the likes of Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Patrick Wilson and Nick Jonas pay resonant tribute to the heroes of yesteryear.

While "Midway" takes the copilot seat to the 1976 classic, the update adds historical facts -- particularly from the participation of the intelligence community -- that wasn't available at the time, as well as providing a tear-jerking capstone to the Doolittle Raiders, the last of whom passed away this year.

The consummate Dad Movie, "Midway" is a well-crafted World War II film that will likely end up being one for the ages.

3.5 stars out of 4

Saturday, November 09, 2019

"Just Dance 2020" Review

Gaming doesn't have to be a sedentary, soda and chips-munching pastime. Games such as "Just Dance 2020" are the opposite, forcing you to get moving and making a fool of yourself -- fortunately away from public eyes.

If you'd like to advertise your moves, you can link up to social media and publish recorded excerpts of your awkward move-busting exploits -- provided you're playing on a system with the camera.

That's why the Kinect-friendly Xbox One version is still the best option in my eyes. The phased-out motion-sensing camera tracks your full body and records clips, allowing you to analyze your replays and make for a hilarious living room spectacle. That's the key to granting the title go-to party game status, thanks not only to the dancing, but the lyrics-providing karaoke aspect.

Most gamers -- even Xbox One devotees -- have no Kinect or camera at all. Those players sync their phones to the game, using the device to guesstimate their movements. Either way you go, you can track your workout progress by activating a sweat mode that tracks the calories you burn as you play.

The base game comes with more than 40 new songs. To get the most out of the game, though, you'll need to spring for a $25 yearlong Unlimited pass, which grants you access to more than 500 songs from previous games.

Since the game comes at a discount -- it's listed at $40, but available at $35 on Amazon -- it's easier to justify the subscription. As usual, the game comes with a 30-day free trial. The upfront cost sure beats the old system, which nickel-and-dimed you with constant microtransactions to download new tracks. Ubisoft regularly pumps out new songs to Unlimited for no extra cost.

Co-op multiplayer is the game's high point, provided you have enough space in your living room to allow as many as four people to boogie down simultaneously. You can also take your show online, competing in season-segmented competitions that pit you against worldwide opponents in single and multi-part competitions, as well as leaderboards.

With minor enhancements to visuals, menu design and load times. "Just Dance 2020" incrementally improves on a rock-solid base to maintain the franchise's standards. It will get your limbs flailing and heart pumping, allowing you to knock out your daily workout while dancing and singing safely hidden away from the outside world.

Publisher provided review code.

"Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition" Review

It's said that "Dungeons & Dragons" inspired just about every video game that hit the market, role-playing games in particular. The seminal "Baldur's Gate" titles were some of the truest synthesizers of the "D&D" aesthetic, rivaling "Final Fantasy" for the mindshare of a generation of RPG enthusiasts.

Originally released in 1998 and 2000, the RPGs paved the way for the likes of "Dragon Age" and "Elder Scrolls." The series may have fallen by the wayside, but its influence continues to reign.

Skybound Games took great care in translating the aesthetics to modern sensibilities, giving the visuals HD enhancements while staying true to the original look. Measures were also taken to bring the sound design, animations and save systems up to modern standards.

Rereleased on PC in 2012 in their current enhanced editions, the games now make their debuts on consoles, opening up their riches to a vast new segment of modern gamers.

Still, the "Baldur's Gate" games look and play very much as you remember two decades ago. What was cutting-edge technology and storytelling at the time now seems rustic and antiquated. Still, there are some fantastic adventures to be had, and you can find yourself sinking dozens of hours into upgrading your characters and venturing off on a multitude of quests.

It's hard to fire the old games up and keep a wide, dopey grin off your face. The "Baldur's Gate" games wear their geekiness proudly on their sleeves. You feel as though you have torn open a portal to the past.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Book Report: "Leaving Las Vegas"

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasFear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciated Thompson's portrait of my favorite city circa 1971. It was fascinating to sift through what has changed and what remains the same about the cross-section of desperation, glitz and excess that makes up the Entertainment Capital of the World.

It was fascinating to revisit a version of Vegas in which Circus Circus and the Flamingo were the places to see and be seen.

As for Hunter's storytelling itself, I found it lacking, strained and smacking of desperation. The sad throughline of an addiction-addled plight was meant to be funny and outrageous, but just seems painful.

The stream-of-consciousness writing is exaggerated to the point of hitting false notes way too hard. Every conversation and interaction is head-smackingly contorted and distorted to fit the oddball comedic rhythms that Thompson demands.

I respect the book for its innovation and boldness, as well as its occasional poignance in offhanded social commentary, but found the book wearing out its welcome, even though it's on the short side. It's like listening to a drugged-out, oblivios storyteller who doesn't notice or care that you've tuned out.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

"Family Tree" Review

The physics-based platformer "Family Tree" lives and dies on its charm and simple mechanics to thrive. The result is an occasionally fun, rarely challenging snoozer that puts up little resistance.

Developer Infinite State Games seems to have taken the simplistic approach to visual design, with many of the backgrounds and characters coming off as clip art.

Whether or not the aesthetic is an intentional attempt at a clean, smooth dynamic or just a way to cut corners while reducing man hours isn't clear.

"Family Tree" carries a tone something like "Doodle Jump" or a pinball machine. You continue flinging your bouncy character past platform obstacles, avoiding hazards while racking up bonuses. The effect can be hypnotic and zen, but seems more acclimated to a minigame.

Many "Kirby" titles have bonus levels that strike the feel and look of "Family Tree," and the franchise's sparing use of the mechanic goes further than Infinite State Games' overstressed efforts.

If you've got kids who are looking for a simplistic, confidence-building time-killer, "Family Tree" may be worth a look. But the Switch marketplace has too many crowded branches for the game to establish a nest of its own.

Publisher provided review code.

"Sega Ages Columns II" Review

The "Columns" games were Sega's late-1980s/early-90s response to Nintendo's "Tetris."

While the game didn't quite stack up or prove to have the lasting relevance of its rival, it was an addictive and well-crafted concoction that could stand up on its own.

The background graphics and goofy sound design, even in the more refined "Columns II" -- which is now out on Switch -- didn't age well, but that is part of the charm.

Playing "Columns II" as part of the Sega Ages throwback series is a nostalgia trip that thrives on the cheesiness factor of th 1990 title.

That's not to say Sega was content with leaving things as they were. There are a number of enhancements that modernize the game while remaining true to the goofy integrity of the George H.W. Bush-era release.

Online multiplayer, a stage select amenity and an arcade-simulating tabletop mode -- allowing players to hot-swap the device in order to facilitate simultaneous competitive action on the same device -- helps you get far more out of "Columns II" then you would have back in the Genesis days.

While "Columns II" remains a slim and shallow puzzler, it also benefits from the genius of its simplicity. Chalk up another one in the win column for Sega's retro initiative.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: "A Brief History of Time"

A Brief History of TimeA Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ability to translate concepts such as spacetime, string theory and quantum physics from high-minded theoretical gobbledygook into something I can approach understanding is nothing short of wizardry.

Stephen Hawking accomplishes that masterful task in "A Brief History of Time," which summarizes mankind's eternal struggle to make sense of the rules of the universe, dating from the ancient Greeks who looked skyward and made assumptions about physics that scientists would still be struggling to rationalize mellenia later.

That's not to say the book is easy to digest. As dense and overwhelming as a crash course on theoretical physics, there is so much to sift through that it's nearly impossible to retain more than the general ideas on the first go-round. I feel like I could read the book 12 more times and take away a multitude of riches from it on each occasion.

It's a testament to Hawking's writing skill that going through the book again and again would be a pleasure rather than a chore. Leavened with astute metaphors, a smooth, easygoing pace and an easygoing sense of humor, "A Brief History of Time" is a joy to experience. An eye-opener and thought-provoker, "A Brief History of Time" is a spark that ignites your passion to sift through the mysteries of the cosmos.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

"Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 Tokyo" Review

It's hard to believe it's already time for the Summer Olympics games that lead up to the events themselves. Mario and Sonic -- ambassadors of goodwill for bridging the longstanding rivalry between Sega and Nintendo -- are back to set the tone for the athletic competition with their usual minigame compilation.

The dev team at Sega snaps the series out of its funk by adding in 8-bit retro competitions. Presented as the characters having time-traveled to the 1964 Tokyo games, the simplified activities dispense with the frills and pyrotechnics for raw, retro-style fun.

The normal events work the opposite way, continuing to push the visual fidelity for the series' debut on Switch. Convincing speed, animation and the usual quirky, oddball sense of humor permeate the wacky track and field antics.

The retro games aren't the only imaginative larks. The stylized "Dream" events ratchet u[shooting, karate and racing up a few levels on the absurd-o-meter, providing a welcome break from the standard button-mashing fare.

Oddly, and welcomely, there's also an educational aspect to the game in its story mode, with a steady drip of Olympic trivia, with an emphasis on the 1964 games. There's a pervading sense of cultural pride at play, with developers paying tribute to the full-circle dynamic of the hotbed of gaming culture hosting the games after a 56-year break.

The crossover franchise has come quite a ways from the simplistic, party game atmosphere of the 2008 Beijing games debut on Wii and DS. Still, the surreal effect of seeing Nintendo and Sega icons clash on the same screen hasn't lost its surreal pull, even with the "Smash Bros." series taking a similar tack. It's every bit as intriguing as Spider-Man setting up on the blocks for a sprint against Batman.

As many as four local players -- or eight competitors online -- can divvy up the 20 characters among the 31 events, which span the gamut from track, to surfing, canoe, boxing, equestrian, gymnastics martial arts, rugby and soccer. Basketball somehow misses the cut.

A colorful, hypercompetitive romp, "Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 Tokyo" is every bit as overstuffed and meandering as its title. And in a sense, the tone fits the Olympics themselves. This is a compilation that will keep you well entertained through the years until the 2024 Paris Olympics draw nearday.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, November 04, 2019

"Ichidant-R" Review

You don't need to have played a game in its heyday to have nostalgic feelings bubble up when you play it nowadays. That's what the wild anthology "Ichidant-R" proves when you fire it up on the Switch.

Released in Japanese arcades in 1994, the collection of timed mini-puzzles finally makes its way to U.S. shores.

Fans of Nintendo's old "Wario Ware" games will feel right at home. The colorful, creative challenges keep you engaged, longing to top your best scores and eager to see what comes next.

More than 20 challenges are included in the mix. One moment you could be conducting an orchestra, and the next you could find yourself winding through a labyrinth or playing hide-and-seek with adorable creatures of the night.

Developer CRI went to admirable lengths to preserve the original look and feel of the game. But maybe the package could have used some additional levels to flesh it out from beyond the original quick-hit game.

Always flowing with energy and relentless momentum, "Ichidant-R" never gives you a chance to get bored or feel stuck. While the challenge on some games is negligible, it's tough to find a more jubilant time-killer. 

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

"Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD" Review

Sega's "Super Monkey Ball" series has always thrived on a simple concept, which branched off the dynamic established by "Marble Madness."

Guiding your adorable spherical protagonist through platform and obstacle-filled mazes, you strive to achieve the best time and score possible via a combination of trial and error, twitch reflexes and sheer luck.Replayability is key, because taking on the same levels time after time would be a chore unless their design lent themselves to unbridled fun. Sega has usually succeeded at that task, and that's why the franchise continues to roll into current-gen consoles.

A high-definition remaster of the 2006 Wii game, "Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD" recaptures the hyperactive tone of the original, adding significant upgrades in visuals and sound.

At its heart, the game is a series of puzzle labyrinths with only marginal variance in the skills and routines needed to conquer them. The charm comes from the fine details. The cartoonish ambiance and the slapstick physics lead to instant gratification or comical failure, and both extremes can be equally entertaining.

In the flood of HD remasters that have come to newer consoles -- particularly the Switch -- the better redesigns have been bolstered by extras, such as historical featurettes, alternate play modes or anthologies that included past games. "Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD," which is a straight-up remake without few augmentation or extras -- save for online leaderboards and a decathlon mode -- comes up light in that regard. For better or worse, this is a game strictly for fans of the original who want to re-experience it on the Switch.

Since so many Wii owners seem to look back on the game wistfully, there is probably a sizable audience eager to get rolling again. As long as they don't come in expecting more than what they remember, they'll be satisfied to guide the monkey ball once more.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

"Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville" Review

Evolving the seeds of "Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare" beyond the multiplayer arena to tend to a bountiful crop of activities, "Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville is a confident step forward for the franchise.

Developer PopCap refines the established, family-friendly FPS formula and expands it into a fuller-featured game that seems built to last.

As in the past, you take control of an eclectic array of battle-ready plants and undead creatures who annihilate each other via a dazzling array of creative attacks and zany power-ups.

In addition to the standard array of squad-based death matches, there are a multitude of co-op activities to take part in. These are such an impressive addition that it's feasible to get the game and spend so much time on these modes that you won't feel the need to go online.

Couples, parents and children or roommates -- particularly those of vastly different skill levels -- can mildly grief each other, help each other out and enjoy the giddy thrills of conquering shared challenges.

Reports of server issues have hampered the launch, but PopCap appears to have worked out many of the problems, striving for a stable online realm that offers up quick, fast-flowing action to most anyone who logs on.

Those who are familiar with the "Garden Warfare" games will feel right at home -- maybe to a fault. While there's much to be said about not messing with an established formula that has proven to work well, it could be argued that PopCap spent so much time fleshing out the co-op activities that they neglected to reimagine the standard multiplayer. That's not a fatal fault, but something that the dev team can build upon for future games.

And if "Battle for Neighborville" proves anything, it's the certainty that there will be more games. PopCap has plenty more to do and say with this series, EA continues to throw its weight behind the franchise and players continue to respond with adulation. The future for "Plants vs. Zombies" is bright, and the present is a joyful garden to tend.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 01, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Terminator: Dark Fate"

For my full review, click here.

"Citadel: Forged With Fire" Review

An open-world RPG reminiscent of "Skyrim" and "Dragon Age," "Citadel: Forged With Fire" grants you an impressive sense of freedom in a sprawling sandbox environment filled with mystery, magic and intrigue.

Originally released to solid acclaim in 2017 on PC, the game comes to consoles in the form of a finely-tuned port.

There is more than a little influence from the likes of "Harry Potter" and "Game of Thrones" at play in the dense, lore-heavy tale. As you work your way up through the realm's social strata, you tame beasts, master magical powers and earn empowering perks and abilities.

"Citadel: Forged With Fire" thrives on the way it blends aspects of various genres, including survival, crafting and PvE aspects of MMORPGs. There are also formidable crafting and building aspects.

The dev team at Blue Isle Studios has taken intensive care to improve upon the base game, evolving the menu systems, interface and gameplay aspects. The console release benefits from an impressive sense of polish.

That's important, because the learning curve is steep. Expect to spend much of your time fumbling around aimlessly, getting a sense of the rules that govern the game. Exploration and experimentation make for much of the thrill of discovery.

The more of yourself that you put into your character's appearance, your choices and abilities, the more you become invested in the quest. Yout trial by fire determines your mettle.

Publisher provided review code.