Thursday, August 13, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: "Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story"

 For my full review, click here.

"Bite the Bullet" Review

If "Pac-Man" evolved into RPG territory, it would be something like "Bite the Bullet."

A run-and-gunner with "Kirby" and "Mega Man"-style influences, "Bite the Bullet" asks you to eat your enemies and assume their abilities.

The old phrase "you are what you eat" comes into play, with a dizzying arsenal and array of power-ups always just a chomp away. You can also devour walls and transform into hyperpowered forms that make you the hunter rather than the hunted.

The roguelite from developer Mega Cat Studios keeps the tone light and airy, tantalizing you with yet another slate of upgrades and enhancements always on the horizon.

Co-op play adds another dimension to the proceedings, with you and a buddy competing against each other for the best stuff as you work together in a fragile alliance to advance.

Working better in short bursts than it does in marathon sessions, "Bite the Bullet" is a simple, freewheeling way to slap a smile on your hungry face during the pandemic. If you are feeling the chomp or be-chomped flow, you'll want to take a bite out of this one.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

"Destroy All Humans!" Review

 A sense of hedonistic anarchy courses through "Destroy All Humans!" You play an egotistical, comically overpowered alien who lays wanton waste to an unsuspecting Earth, subjugating man and beast alike to your control.

Originally released in 2005 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, the gameplay holds up two generations later thanks to an impassioned overhaul by developer Black Forest Games. Few of the nagging anachronistic issues from the previous release remain. If you didn't realize this was a remake, you would have a hard time telling it isn't a new game.

Ample boosts in visuals and framerate give the game a modern feel. This is the template that developers should use with remasters going forward. By staying true to the spirit of the original without staying devoted to its shortcomings, Black Forest achieves something memorable.

While the game is a linear story at heart, its sense of open-world destruction grants you feelings of freedom. You can attack objectives in a number of different ways, or just simply mess around while procrastinating your objectives.

Bolstered with witty writing and a sense of humor that sends up 1950s sci-fi flicks, "Destroy All Humans!" is a welcome blast from the past that easily becomes the definitive way to play the cult classic. If you feel its tractor beam tugging at you, resistance is futile.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

"Yakuza Kiwami 2" Review

After lurking on the fringes for the last couple years, "Yakuza Kiwami 2" is ready for its Xbox One spotlight.

Newly released on the console and PC following a 2018 PS4 release, the game is ready to stretch out to new audiences.

Those gamers are in for a treat. Over the past few years, Sega has demonstrated an uncanny ability to produce sweeping, open-world sagas under the "Yakuza" banner with impressive regularity. Part of the reason for the prolific release schedule is the regular inclusion of remakes.

Like "Yakuza Kiwami," which dropped in 2016 and was a remake of the original PS2 game "Yakuza" (2005), the "Kuwami" sequel is a redux of the PS2's "Yakuza 2" (2006). Rebuilt from the ground up to treat the story from the original as though it were a new game using the "Yakuza 6: The Song of Life" engine, the remake lifts the original well past the trappings of the PS2 original.

Not only are myriad quality-of-life updates in place -- gone are the days of tedious memory card save points -- but countless details of the production have also improved several degrees. From combat, to the menu system, the visuals, sound and story pacing, "Yakuza Kiwami 2" lifts the source material to heights it could never approached on the original hardware.

The Golf Bingo, Virtual-On and Cabaret minigames flesh out the open world as you work your way through the seedy underworld. You shape your character's personality along with his skills and attributes. The side touches round out the character and make you feel as though you're inhabiting a genuine person rather than an archetype.

Adjustments to the main story integrate the beloved Goro Majima character more directly into the mix, making the dagger-wielding thug a playable character. Following Majima through various developments, he fits into the franchise's first two games more naturally.

A story told with depth and passion, the mob opera that "Yakuza Kiwami 2" sings a haunting and resonant song of antiheroes jockeying ruthlessly for power, money and influence. By returning to its roots, the series continues to thrive as it ages.

Publisher provided a review code.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

BOOK REPORT: "The Martian Chronicles"

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bradbury's sci-fi opus stands as a landmark challenged and inspired developing writers to dream of far-off futurescapes.

That said, it holds up poorly and gets more anachronistic and backward as the decades pass. In 2020, it's a decidedly rough read that often resembles tales told by a drunken great uncle.

Burdened by clunky, unlikely visions of dystopian angst and even more alarming spurts of casual racism, this is a book you may remember fondly from your youth that you'll regret to re-encounter as an adult.

What stands out to me in revisiting the classic is the choppiness of the storytelling. Bradbury excelled at vision and spectacle but faltered in the nuts and bolts of delivering story arcs and crafting memorable characters.

Mark Boyett's narration in the Audible version is whimsical and steady, matching the rhythms of Bradbury's tale-spinning to help cast the spell of a narrative.

Bizarre and thought-provoking in both positive and negative ways, this is an absurd peek into a past vision of the future that is best regarded at a safe distance. 

Publisher provided review code.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 26, 2020

"We Should Talk" Review

"We Should Talk" is a dialogue tree game that you can knock out in 15 minutes. Then you'll find yourself diving back in to replay it again and again, choosing different paths to see where you wind up.

The premise: You're a woman whose relationship with your girlfriend is on the rocks, and you find yourself at your favorite bar to mull things over. You respond to texts from her as you run into friends and strangers, making choices that could destroy or firm up your romance.

As you make your choices, you shape your character's motivation, goals, background and hangups. You base your responses on mix-and-match sentence fragments that determine your tone and delivery.

Developer Insatiable Cycle added an impressive amount of depth to the short-form premise, providing reason to come back again and again. There truly is no wrong way to play it. You can be callous and indifferent, soothing and loving, or -- like most people -- a complex, ever-shifting mishmash of inconsistency.

It's a hectic and comical joy to juggle exes, friends with benefits and creeps as you work out your home life. The levels of intelligence and heart make the writing sing with authenticity.

While the game may seem slim and inconsequential, it's a refreshing chance of pace to those who are looking for something fresh and intellectual. The psychological net the game casts dwarfs most other narratives in terms of scope, providing a fascinating dive into the motivations and demeanor in the dating scene.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

"Sisters Royale: Five Sisters Under Fire" Review

Bullet hell shooter fans are accustomed to guiding ships through torrents of twisted metal through space. With "Sisters Royale: Five Sisters Under Fire," developer Alpha System shakes up the formula by swapping out ships for buxom bodies.

A vertical-scrolling shooter, the premise casts five high-powered sisters as they compete for the hand of the angel Yashin. 

Multipliers and power-ups abound, with endless chances to up your scores and unleash screen-melting waves of firepower upon your enemies.

While the gameplay is on the slim side, and the visuals pander to base tastes, "Sisters Royale" adds enough twists to the genre to become relevant.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

BOOK REPORT: "The Man Who Was Thursday"

The Man Who Was Thursday: A NightmareThe Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surreal journey into the realm of the absurd, Chesterton's novel is filled with compelling dialogue, intriguing twists and thought-provoking themes.

A gathering of European anarchists who seemingly scheme to tear society asunder -- with each of the leaders assuming a day of the week as a moniker -- evolves into a mishmash of distrust, backstabbing and subterfuge. All the while, parallel developments call the entire premise into question,

While some of the ideas seem less than fully developed, I appreciated the craftsmanship it took to build the rickety path.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"Rez Plz" Review

As the old saying goes, wizard brothers who slay together stay together.

The puzzle platformer "Rez Plz" centers around a pair of codependent heroes who help each other solve environmental puzzles, take down tricky enemies and work their way through levels pulsing with whimsical designs.

Seemingly built from the ground up for co-op, the gameplay thrives on cooperation and communication. Much is lost in the translation to single-player, which forces you to switch characters often, stalling your momentum whenever it begins to ramp up.

Developer Long Neck Games makes regular, grizzly deaths a part of the dynamic, since the characters are blessed with the oft-used ability to resurrect one another.

As you roll through the game and you gather new powers, the tedium dies off and the puzzles grow more complex.

The comedic throughline is how ineffective the brothers are at wielding those powers. The lighthearted demeanor helps explain away what could be perceived as design flaws, but also make the characters more endearing and their cause more noble.

While there may not be enduring appeal to keep you coming back, the draw of taking on the game with a friend would make the experience far more worthwhile. The magic, it seems, comes mostly in the company "Rez Plz" draws.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

"Ultracore" Review

The run-and-gun side-scroller "Ultracore" is an adoring throwback to 1990s arcade shooters. With inventive weaponry, vintage cheesiness and a throbbing soundtrack, the game transports you to a bygone era.

You'll need to rely on your "Contra"-style trigger finger to blast, leap and swing your way past throngs of strategically-place menaces. The feeling of power at your fingertips is palpable, but death is always the pixel of a misjudged hit box away from breathing down your neck.

Developer Strictly Limited Games has the Metroidvania formula down, crafting sprawling maps that stretch in all directions, with an emphasis on verticality.

Hidden loot and secret avenues abound, giving you plenty of reason to scour suspicious nooks and crannies to unlock the goods.

A game meant to be powered through, then replayed ad nauseam to re-experience or track down bits of 90s flair you may have missed the first time, "Ultracore" is a welcome blast from the past that ratchets up your adrenaline and never lets its flashy momentum die down.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Book Report: "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World"

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Weatherford takes a fresh, sympathetic look at the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. His history argues that Genghis Khan's ruthless takeover of Eurasia planted the seeds for the interconnected global culture that began.

By preserving culture and promoting commerce, the Mongol Empire broke down barriers and set the stage for the global melting pot.

While not completely convincing, there are so many engaging details and such satisfying storytelling in vignettes that the book is captivating even when its reach exceeds its grasp.

Blending independent research along with the watershed translations of Khan's own Secret History, which is still being translated, broken down and debated, what emerges is as complete a portrait of the historical figure and his mentality and methods than could ever before have been crafted.

The Jonathan Davis narration drives the Audible version to greater heights. His enthusiasm for the material bleeds through in his storytelling.

Khan emerges as a clever tactician and man far ahead of his time, driven by ego but satiated by a yearning for justice and fairness. The book's most valuable purpose is to shed the centuries of systemic racism that have belittled and minimized the empire set in motion by Khan and his descendants. The book is a conqueror of hearts and minds in the manner of its subject.

Publisher provided review copy.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"Star Wars Episode I: Racer" Switch Review

When "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" came out in 1999, it was accompanied by a frontal assault of spin-offs from the then-long dormant franchise. Most of them were as divisive and underwhelming as the movie, but the pod racer game carved out a soft spot in many a young gamer's heart.

Old racing games -- even the old "Mario Kart" titles -- tend not to hold up as well as rose-tinted rear-view mirrors, and "Star Wars Episode I: Racer" is no exception. While still enjoyable for its loads of fan-service, short bursts of whimsical competition and old-school charm, there isn't quite enough there in this port to rekindle the N64-era flame.

Whether you're dodging attacks from Tusken Raiders, jumping lava lakes or swerving to avoid opponents, there's never a dull moment on the 21 tracks provided in the game. With nearly two dozen racers to choose from, there is also plenty of variety.

The problem is, the experience is just as one-dimensional every time around the horn. While Switch motion controls add a new dimension -- albeit a frustrating hindrance rather than a steadfast enhancement -- you're left with a flashy yet uninspired "F-Zero" wannabe.

Had the dev team put some effort into some remastered graphics, added online multiplayer and lessened the annoyance of the rubber band AI, they might have had something worthy of making a hyperdrive-style jump. As it stands, this is strictly a time capsule, and one that makes you recognize that racers of 1999 may be best left to the past.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Destrobots" Review

Access to all levels of gamers is the gameplan in "Destrobots." With the goal seemingly in mind to jostle for the attention of party game-minded Switch players, the pick-up-and-play antics are geared to allow just about anyone to slip into the flow intuitively.

The multiplayer-friendly top-down shooter lets you hunt down power-ups, line up explosive kills and romp through deceptively cheerful and bright levels.

Developer 7Levels studio sacrifices nuance and depth in the name of accessibility, but "Destrobots" makes up for the simplicity with a kinetic flair that echoes the likes of single-screen 1980s arcade games.

You can either slug it out with as many as three other opponents, or team up for a survive-and-advance Horde mode. It's a continually appealing challenge to double back in an effort to top your high scores and seek vengeance against friends who humiliated you in the last game.

While "Destrobots" may not do enough to stand out from the pack of similar Switch games, those who give it a try will find it tough to put down. Its combination of adorable and vengeful has charm and vigor to spare.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Shows and Movies Leaving Netflix in July 2020

For my full story, click here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade" Review

Packing seven billet hell shooters into one combustible package, "Darius Cozmic Collection" is a time machine that zaps you back to the golden years of gaming with a bottomless pocket full of quarters.

The 1980s and 90s classics are largely all variations of the same game -- "Darius" and the Japanese-titled spinoff/remake "Sagaia" -- but even slight changes make for ripple effects that give each version a distinct flavor.

Developer ININ Games masterfully delivers "old," "new" and "extra" versions of the original "Darius," a dual-screen version of "Darius II" and the sequel "Darius Gaiden." There are also two versions of "Sagaia."

For each game the formula is pretty much the same: You guide an underpowered ship through a barrage of enemy waves and environmental obstacles, gradually upping your attack and defense capabilities with modular upgrades.

Flashy bosses, fast-paced levels and dizzying visuals help entrance you, and the vicious difficulty level keeps you dying and replaying until your muscle memory catches up with your ambition.

With the usual remaster additions, such as save states and command mapping, as well as a replay system in place, "Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade" not only delivers the classic flavor, but buffs them up with modern conveniences that make them more palatable. Get those thumbs ready, because they'll be in for an 80s/90s-style workout.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

BOOK REPORT: "Star Wars: Book of Lists"

What happens when you round up a galaxy of listicles? They become a book, and that's just what "Star Wars: Book of Lists."

Every bit as fascinating and trivial as its title would indicate, the 224-page collection takes you on a landspeeder ride through factoids from a galaxy far, far away both obscure and obvious; interesting and inane.

Credit author Cole Horton's dogged determination to fish out 100 topics amid the franchise's current canon. While the bulk of the material focuses on the nine mainline films, ad admirable range of spinoff films and series are also given some sort of acknowledgment.

Not meant to be read cover to cover, "Book of Lists" is best flipped through whimsically or used to page through as a reference book to settle -- or start -- debates among fellow geeks.

Packed with illustrations and delivered with slick presentation, the book makes much more sense to keep around as a physical copy rather than digitally. An ideal bathroom page-flipper, the book works best in quickly digestible, short bursts of fun.

Publisher provided review copy.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Book Report: "The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution"

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French RevolutionThe Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Francis Fukuyama offers up a fascinating premise that he only manages to partially deliver. Promising he will deduce some sort of unified theory on how and why cultures develop various types of political infrastructure -- or at least explain why some cultures come up with different results than others -- he ends up with a scattershot grab bag of half-explanations and qualifiers.

Without going on to say it, Fukuyama seems to conclude that there is no way to predict how a particular society will develop. Each cohort of people is driven by a number of different factors, and there is no invisible hand nudging a group to one milepost or another.

Even though Fukuyama doesn't manage to prove much of anything, he makes a number of fascinating points that make his book worthwhile. The influence of a dominant religion in a culture seems to be the deciding factor on whether or not a particular form of government will stick.

Also, the way a society tolerates or rejects a stringent rule of law will influence not only the solidity of governmental infrastructure, but the economic success of the people as a whole. Finally, the amount of organization and resources supported the ability of each culture to export its manipulation onto the others.

The book is at its best when it dallies off its main path and delves into the buried details of how various cultures evolved their forms of governance over time, as well as the influence each had on another.

Jonathan Davis provides steady and smooth narration in the Audible version, but makes some occasional distracting pronunciation choices. Overall, he delivers the writing in the tone of an enthusiastic T.A., reflecting the conversationality of the author's work.

While the book seems like an attempt at a grandiose thesis that lost its way somewhere along the research aspect and ended up circling on itself, it's still a worthy read or listen for history and political science geeks. Just don't expect the jog on the treadmill to take you anywhere.

View all my reviews

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

"Outbuddies DX" Review

"Outbuddies" is more 90s than games that were actually made in the 90s.

Wearing its Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis influences as proudly as a Hypercolor shirt with rolled-up sleeves, developer Julian Laufer channels his adoration of the 16-bit era into a sprawling Metroidvania opus.

You guide a duo of adventurers -- one human and the other robotic -- as they explore a sunken fortress teeming with hostile creatures that seem to have spawned from the overactive imagination of a 15-year-old.

Although "Outbuddies" ratchets up the challenge level enough to make you cry out to the heavens in frustration, there are also plenty of comedic nods and cheeky references to keep you chuckling.

You mix and match the protagonists' skills to confront cleverly-designed obstacles as you seek to gradually unlock the mysteries of the deep.

"Outbuddies" lays out a vast and challenging world that is as fun to get lost in as it is to work your way through. Expect plenty of backtracking, dead ends and overpowered bosses standing in your way, but all that adds to the twisted brand of masochistic fun that fuels the adventure.

If you bring a friend along, you'll get even more thrills out of "Outbuddies," which centers on cooperative ingenuity. Even when the challenges mount, the peppy soundtrack helps keeps your spirits up.

Bolstered by heartfelt storytelling, "Outbuddies" is more than a standard nostalgia trip. It's a reimagining of a well-worn genre that challenges you to keep hacking away at its myriad challenges.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, June 08, 2020

"Minecraft Dungeons" Review

Credit Microsoft for failing to exploit the "Minecraft" franchise for all its ample groundswell of fans and renown. Continuing to build on the Mojang trademark of expanding and refining the base game rather than spreading resources on sequels and spinoffs, the gaming giant has behaved more like an indie studio than a massive conglomerate.

"Minecraft Dungeons," though, feels like something of a missed opportunity to capitalize on the years Mojang has spent laying the groundwork.

The game is a thin, inconsequential lark that seems as though it could have used more time in the conception phase. A loot-and-upgrade action RPG in the vein of "Diablo," "Minecraft Dungeons" tries to scoot by on its adorable look.

But there's little of the crafting and building flavor that series in which devotees thrive. The gameplay is slim and, arguably, dumbed down in order to accommodate players of all ages.

As many as four players can team up to hack and slash their way through the missions, which ramp up in difficulty considerably as you advance. Those who will get the most mileage out of "Minecraft Dungeons" will be multi-generational households who will be able to team up and share the giggles and frustration together.

Although there are ample opportunities to collect resources and upgrade weaponry with enchantments and other buffs, the game could use a few more modes and minigames to expand the package. Time will tell whether Mojang continues to support the game in the coming months and years, giving players reason to return for more. There is much more work to do to make the new entry worthy of its fabled name.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

"Red Wings: Aces of the Sky" Review

Playing fast and loose with concepts such as history, physics and bullet damage, "Red Wings: Aces of the Sky" takes a whimsical approach to the exploits of the Red Baron.

It's a game pulled out of Snoopy's daydreams.

Developer All In! Games takes a childlook fascination with the early days of aerial combat.

Forget the grainy black-and-white images of sputtering biplanes stored in your memory bank. In the "Red Wings" universe, the Triple Alliance face off against the Entente in battles that might be better described as cockfights rather than dogfights.

Whizzing bullets, swopping divebombs and impossibly effective spread attacks pummel the screen with pixellated shrapnel. You may mistake the combatants for 21st century stealth jets for the way they handle and distribute damage.

The leaps of fancy are largely welcome, because an ultra-realistic WWI aerial combat game would be a brittle and choppy grind filled with frustrating one-shot deaths and mechanical failure.

As breezy and free-flowing as the action is, though, it also feels a little slipshod and inconsequential. With World War I trappings serving as little more than skins for default mechanical birds of prey, there's not much authenticity to fuel the engines of those who lap up historical detail.

In an effort to please as wide an audience as possible, All In! sacrifices altitude by failing to pay tribute to the most rabid of era fans who might serve as the backbone of its community. Maybe a rougher flight would have made it possible to soar higher.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, June 01, 2020

"Atomicrops" Review

The likes of "Animal Crossing" may provide welcome escapism for those overburdened by the stresses of daily life. But for those who need a little more conflict in their farming simulators, here sprouts the combustible "Atomicorps" to provide just that.

In the unorthodox act of adding pyrtoechnics and combat to what's known as a placid genre, Bird Bath Games has concocted an intriguing hybrid that yields a bumper crop of thrills.

As is usually the case with games based on tilling the land, you're out to maximize your harvests and yield maximum profits while stretching your resources to the extreme.

Toting along a water bucket and gardening tools, you're also packing heat. Mutated varmints run rampant, eager to ravage your garden, derailing your dreams of hauling in untold riches.

The real-time strategy aspect heightens the urgency of your products and layouts.

The oddball gameplay doesn't always flow, often coalescing in awkward bottlenecks that disrupt the momentum. Likewise, the action sometimes seems superfluous and as much a load of busywork as the planning and planting aspects.

Overall, though, the varied aspects of gameplay do more to complement than they do to detract from one another. That the wily ecosystem somehow functions is a delight to behold.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

"Knight Squad" Switch Review

A medieval-themed "Bomberman" peppered with MOBA elements, the single-screen mayhem-fest "Knight Squad" rounds up as many as eight players to scramble for weapons and power-ups as they scrap to become the last one standing.

Originally released in 2015, the game has jousted on PC and Xbox One. Now it rides to Switch, with the Extrachivalrous DLC in tow.

The five-person developer team Chainsawesome Games continues its momentum with the port, making it seem as though it was meant for Nintendo's console all along.

Game modes include variants on last man standing, capture the flag and soccer. Any way you play, expect wild shifts in momentum due to the ludicrously overpowered drops that spice up the field of play.

Temporary invincibility, long-ranged attack capabilities and explosives have a "Mario Kart" Blue Shell-like ability to rubber-band struggling players back into competition, but there is still enough balance that the most skilled players usually come out ahead.

The accessibility makes the game an excellent choice for families looking for board game-style thrills to fill the days and keep the party going into the knight.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

"Sega Ages Thunder Force AC" Review

The Sega Ages line has excelled at excavating classics from the past and delivering pixel-perfect ports to the Switch. Bringing to life the dream long stoked by homebrew enthusiasts, the series continues to make the publisher's buried gems shine on TVs and handhelds.

Originally released in 1990 on the Sega Genesis, "Thunder Force AC" follows the bullet hell formula established by the likes of "Gradius" and "Life Force." As side-scrolling levels trot out increasingly hellacious and bizarre ships and creatures, you scavenge for upgrades and enhancements that help tip the balance in your favor amid the hectic barrage.

The dev team at TechnoSoft brings over a more manageable version of the eight stages, throwing in save states and an easier difficulty comically dubbed "Kids Mode" for those whose skills aren't quite up to par.

The art style, which made the most of the 16-bit technology available at the time, is impressive for its texture and creativity, enhancing the sense of elaborate menace you face throughout. But you'll be pardoned if you don't have the presence of mind to sit back and appreciate the visuals, because you're always a split second or overreaction away from demolition and a frustration-filled restart.

Like most games of its era, "Thunder Force AC" is meant to be replayed ad nauseum in order to acclimate to its patterns and master its intricacies, gradually building up your ability to survive and advance. The rise to the level of mastery it takes to annihilate a boss is a thunderously satisfying endeavor.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, May 18, 2020

"Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Mega Mix" Review

Anime visuals meet peppy grooves in a screen-tapping sensation that's a welcome and refreshing surprise for Switch owners.

In the franchise's Switch debut, "Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Mega Mix" is an adaptation of the 2017 PS4 game "Project DIVA Future Tone."

Rhythm games have registered on Nintendo handhelds since the days of "Elite Beat Agents" on DS, and this one proudly carries on that tradition.

Using either traditional buttons or Switch-geared controls, you lose yourself in the music and register your prompts in time to the beat. With more than 100 songs in the mix -- each with diverse natures that span the gamut of influences -- there's little chance of boredom, even during extended play sessions.

Gyrating characters and sassy themes abound, providing enough of an edge on the material to keep you off balance. Developer Sega AM2 takes full advantage of the system's capabilities, optimizing the game toward handheld mode.

Even though the game is best enjoyed on the fly, this isn't something you can hunker down with comfortably in a waiting room or on a commute. Expect to make a head-bobbing fool of yourself as you feel the flow and rock out with your headphones on.

"Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Mega Mix" is best enjoyed by your lonesome while lounging on your couch or bed. It also makes for a lively party game, pumping out wild sounds and visuals as crowds gather round. But any way you decide to play it, the game is a load of bouncy fun.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

"Super Mega Baseball 3" Review

The "Super Mega Baseball" franchise comes along just when sports-starved gamers need it most.

Boiling down the sport to the exuberance of its very essence, the dev team at Metalhead Software keeps upping the ante in its over-the-top baseball series. Coed teams with XFL-sounding team names take each other on in exaggerated clashes.

Despite the overpowered pitches, hits and throws, the gameplay remains surprisingly balanced. The result is that scoring lines and stats tend to be fairly authentic analogs to real-life contests.

Since the game lacks licenses, there's no roster update impetus for fans to keep buying its sequels. However, there are still plenty of reasons for fans to re-up. For one, the bulk of the online community will no doubt migrate to the newest entry.

Also, Metalhead continues to refine its game. The visuals get a boost, all the way down the line from character animations and facial expressions down to backgrounds.

Micromanagers who prefer front office duties to on-field action will be pleased. There's a new franchise mode to sink your teeth into, letting you put together your dream roster and put out administrative fires.

What began as something of a lark has morphed into a full-featured baseball sim that ditches the burdens of reality whenever possible. "Super Mega Baseball 3" is ready to be called up to the bigs.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

"Megabyte Punch" Review

Retro thrills abound in "Megabyte Punch," an exciting if simplistic romp through 16-bit style environments.

Eight years after its initial release on PC, the game loses none of its old-school charm. It still feels like a game straight out of the mid-90s -- which I do mean as a compliment.

Taking cues from the likes of "Mega Man" and "Strider," developer Reptile plunges into the past to build a modernization of retro side-scroller principles.

As you progress, you add upgrades and enhancements that extend your range, agility and ability to deal damage.

Set in a digital universe, you play as a robotic warrior depending its village from attack by a marauding empire.

Each level is segmented into three stages that end with a boss fight. As you slay combatants, you snatch up their tech and add it to your arsenal.

Four-player multiplayer ratchets up the intensity level and goofiness, with wall-jumping and brick-shattering punches filling the screen with mayhem.

"Megabyte Punch" fits in squarely into the Switch niche, packing a wallop in throwback charm.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

"World War Z: Game of the Year Edition" Review

When "World War Z" was released last year, it proved that the oversaturated zombie survival genre still had a heartbeat. Multiplayer online games such as this thrive or shrivel based on their community, and it managed to spark enough of a following to spread to a critical mass.

The four-player co-op shooter follows in the bone-crunching footsteps left by the previous-gen "Left 4 Dead" games, advancing the momentum in several significant ways. A tight and refined experience, the gameplay connects just as well to lone wolves as it does to tight, well-practiced clans.

Rounds are divided into cinematic episodes that borrow liberally from the likes of "Dawn of the Dead" and "Evil Dead." You scrounger for weapons and resources, working as a team to power through the onslaught of the undead.

Originally released in 2019, the game thrives on tone. Steadily building tension ramps up with frantic musical and environmental cues, as well as sudden movements that explode into moments of peril that would be frightening if you weren't so locked in on fire-eyed battle.

For the Game of the Year edition, developer Saber Interactive added in loads of DLC additions, including the three-story "Marseille" PvE episode arc and its four new characters. Also included are weapons skins and the various additions that have come out over the last 13 months.

A game that is far superior now to what it was at its starting point, "World War Z" continues to evolve and mutate. And because its community is so sizable, there is no sign that it will die off any time soon. Now is as good a time as any to join in the bloody fray.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

BOOK REPORT: "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

Slouching Towards BethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joan Didion may be self-obsessed, insular and oblivious to the plight of those outside her upper-crust elitist circles, but she also is a damned impressive writer with a remarkable recall for detail and an ability to capture the zeitgeist of a given time and moment that she lived through.

A collection of some of her finest pre-1968 personal essays, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" provides a painterly insight about what it was like to live, love and lose in settings such as Las Vegas, New York, Hawaii and Sacramento during a decade of rampant cultural upheaval.

Didion's ability to capture and crystalize a place and time are priceless, and many of her essays are passionate dives into the mindset of Americana in its various iterations of the period.

Her ability to unleash entrancing descriptions is uncanny, and her hypnotic pace is nothing short of dazzling. Still, it's easy to resent her, shaking your head at her oblivious navel-gazing and ludicrous degree of self-importance.

Diane Keaton is the ideal choice to narrate the Audible version, not so much reciting the words as breathing them -- no doubt because she either experienced many of the same things at the same times that Didion did, or because she was so heavily influenced by her words when they were published.

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is a priceless artifact of its time that continues to maintain relevance today. I found myself completing a master class, looking up references and reading about historical events I had hardly heard of before. Her wit and irony have proven to be timeless.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Saturday, May 02, 2020

MOVIE REVIEW: "Song of the South"

"Song of the South" has a reputation of bigotry and cultural blindness. The 1946 Disney animated/live-action mashup has never been released on home video, and it's easy to see why.

The movie abounds with cultural insensitivity that could be classified as racist. Although it's purportedly set in 1870 Reconstruction-era Georgia, there is no clear mention of the setting, making it easy to confuse the setting with pre-Civil War times of slavery. The joyous singing of characters meant to have been sharecroppers could be viewed as slaves who were content with their treatment.

There is also a brutally indefensible animated fable of a baby constructed of tar and meant to be a decoy of a black child.

The movie's screenplay and songs were written by white people, based on the Uncle Remus stories published by author Joel Chandler Harris, a white man who was known to defended slavery. While the movie's live-action and voice cast gave hard-to-come-by-at-the-time roles to people of color, there was a stark lack of diversity in the film's conception, leading to a tone-deaf, stereotype-plagued product.

Still, I believe the movie should be made available, not only for its artistic merit and historical significance but because it could be used to encourage the racial sensitivity and enlightened perspective that its filmmakers lacked. Disney could release it on home video accompanied by a disclaimer apologizing for the offensive nature of its content, as well as an introduction and commentary track from a historian or cultural authority. To prove it isn't out to make a cash grab on a racist product, Disney could even donate the proceeds to educational or charitable organizations that promote tolerance.

American film history, particularly from the mid-20th century and earlier, is filled with embarrassing examples of prejudice. The same is true, to varying degrees, of literature and music from times past. But it's important not to turn a blind eye to the past, and instead use it as a way to learn about the evolution of society and culture, using it as a prompt to evaluate the current state of things. Making offensive artwork from the past unavailable is tantamount to censorship and revisionist history.

"Song of the South" is no movie to turn on and use as a babysitter for your kids, and is probably best kept from youngsters altogether. I believe a PG-13 or R rating would be appropriate.

That said, it's clear why Disney chooses to continue to keep "Song of the South" hidden, ignoring it as a skeleton in the closet. Releasing the movie, no matter how carefully, could kick a hornet's nest of trouble that might not make sense to the corporate bottom line.

Still, there is a lingering sense that some of the powers that be in the company don't mind if the public sees the film. Unauthorized copies are online, inexplicably spared from the hatchet of the company's copyright lawyers. And then there was the 1989 creation of the Disneyland ride Splash Mountain, which is filled with characters, music and references to the film.

As other attractions have been redone and rebranded, the fact that the ride remains intact gives off a sense that a brain trust within the company has a fondness for the film, and keep the ride there as a reminder for others to seek out the movie on their own.

That's because the story is engaging, the music is good and the performances are strong. The framework is the tale of a white 7-year-old child going through a troubled time in his young life. His father drops him and his mother off with the child's plantation-owning grandmother, and he quickly bonds with a black boy and white girl his age, as well as a wise black storyteller, Uncle Remus (James Baskett).

Remus helps the boy through his troubles with folksy fables, which come alive in the classic Disney animation style. There is lighthearted comedy, emotionally resonant lessons and a jovial, kind-hearted feel. The stereotypes and sloppy cultural messaging are casual and persistent, but the coming-of-age lessons ring powerful and true.

"Song of the South" made me cringe often, but it also made me laugh and had me captivated. I'm glad I finally made my way to the film after all these years, and encourage anyone interested in film history to do the same. It's a complicated and challenging film that deserves discussion rather than burial.

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.

"BlazBlue: Central Fiction" Review

In a year that's lacked fighting game releases -- or many big-name releases at all -- it's just the right time for a "BlazBlue: Central Fiction" reissue.

The stylish fighter, originally released in 2016, was rereleased in late April to support a GlobalGiving charity tournament.

Choosing from among 33 anime and fantasy-inspired fighters, you step into the 2D arena to face off against opponents in best-of-three-round battles.

Backgrounds are as impressive and pulsing with life as its characters, adding depth to the characterizations, backstories and stakes at play. The booming announcer voice grants the showdowns some cinematic depth.

Fast-paced play, well-balanced characters and inventive attacks make the game stand out from the pack. The willingness to take bold chances and embrace quirks gives the game a sense of boundary-breaking exuberance.

Four years after initial release, "BlazBlue: Central Fiction" continues to carve out its niche in the corner of arena battlers. With a flashy personality all its own, it continues to let its freak flag fly high.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

"Sega Ages: G-LOC Air Battle" Review

One of the best aspects about the "Sega Ages" series is the way it not only sheds a new spotlight on the established classics, but also occasionally veers into more obscure realms. The publisher acts as a careful creator, introducing new audiences to some of the building blocks on which gaming was constructed.

"G-LOC Air Battle" is yet another welcome resurrection that follows the trend, delivering a pixel-perfect yet subtly enhanced version of a game even the hardcore may not have ever heard of and almost certainly haven't played.

Released in 1990, the dogfighting sim paved the way for the likes of "Ace Combat" that would later follow. As you weave your way through bogeys in pursuit of bogeys, you feel a steady sense of speed and power.

The controls may be a bit janky, but that lends to the authenticity and sense of danger. You feel as though you're at the helm of a rickety aircraft that prizes speed and stealth attack ability over sensibility and safety, and the threat that you will plow into a rock wall or enemy combatant at any point is threateningly present.

While there are more than a few rough edges, and the difficulty level is trying even on the easiest setting, there is plenty to appreciate in the finer and subtler points that the game has to offer. It may not soar quite as high as it did 30 years ago, but does a heck of an effective job as a time machine.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Book Report: "Remembrance of Things Past"

Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I - Swann's Way & Within a Budding GroveRemembrance of Things Past: Volume I - Swann's Way & Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marcel Proust is not the most accessible of the great writers, but he makes up for his distant aloofness with a raw, relatable passion that seeps through his obtuse prose.

"Remembrance of Things Past" is known as one of his most personal projects, delving into themes such as memory, character formation and love gained and lost. Above all hangs a shroud of punishing and festering regret.

It's rarely easy or intuitive to navigate through the gauntlet of psychological barriers that he conjures, but rewards await if you keep your head down and keep things moving. There are moments of deep thought and compelling beauty. There are also times that you need to just stop in order to ruminate, or simply survive to proceed another day.

In the Audible version, narrator John Rowe spins the tale with the appropriate whimsy and aching sense of nostalgia.

Reading often with the intimacy of a hidden diary, "Remembrance of Things Past" is a hard look at a hard life. It's worth your time, but it exacts its price on you.

Publisher provided review access.

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Thursday, April 02, 2020

"HyperParasite" Review

"HyperParasite" lives up to the "hyper" portion of its name.

The twin-stick, top-down shooter has you rampage between rooms, possessing passers-by and assuming their abilities to take down enemies, open passageways and maneuver through foreboding terrain.

As a bitter alien life form who seeks to upend humanity, you work your way from street lowlifes, all the way up to the upper echelons of government hierarchy.

The endgame is nothing short of sparking the apocalypse.

"HyperParasite" makes being evil and destructive feel oh-so-good.

Developer Troglobytes Games delivers an energetic, lightning-paced romp that never lets up on its momentum.

There's often so much going on in each single-screen zone that it's tough to keep tabs on what's happening, but the chaotic feel only adds to the pulsing energy of the affair.

While many of the challenges presented by "HyperParasite" can be dispatched with the same formula, there's enough fun and inventiveness in the routine to keep it feeling fresh more often than not. "HyperParasite" counts on its appeal thriving as things get out of control.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 30, 2020

"Gigantosaurus" Review

Switching from among four colorful prehistoric lizards, you scamper through linear levels in "Gigantosaurus" in pursuit of a slew of flashy trinkets. The gameplay is as basic as you can get, but the fundamentals are solid, if unspectacular.

Based on the animated Disney Junior series and Johnny Duddle book, "Gigantosaurus" follows the "Crash Bandicoot" and "Banjo-Kazooie" template for sprinting, collecting and bashing action that never lets up.

The downside is that there's little challenge to the affair. The dev team at Cyber Group Studios understandably prizes accessibility above all else, playing to the show's base while minimizing overtures to parents and older siblings who find themselves pulled along for the ride.

As many as four players can join in the mayhem, taking control of one of the bumbling, stumbling protagonists. There are mild educational themes at play, encouraging qualities such as bravery, inquisitiveness and honor. The endgame is to solve the mystery of the colossal Gigantosaurus, but the joy comes from the ebb and flow of the journey.

Parents may find that "Gigantosaurus" comes at just the right time. Working equally well as a skill-builder and time-killer, the title is a suitable way to blow off some steam and break up the quarantine-spawned malaise. Playing the game beats watching episodes of the show over and over again.

inquisitive Mazu, playful Tiny, timid Bill, and courageous Rocky 

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in April 2020

For my full post, click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book Report: "A Passage to India"

A Passage to IndiaA Passage to India by E.M. Forster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

No single book did more to spark the tide that would turn into Indian independence than "A Passage to India." Its importance as an incisive critique of British imperialism and systematic racism can't be dismissed.

That still doesn't make E.M. Forster's book an easy read.

Choppy and dull while spiced up by occasional dollops of intrigue, the story is a largely shapeless and aimless meandering that stumbles along its stilted path of a morality play that serves as an excuse for a plot.

The best way to appreciate the book is anecdotally, cherishing E.M. Swift's poetic ways of painting scenes of a far off time and land, as well as the characters' distinct tones and cultural backgrounds. If only the book succeeded as much as a captivating tale as it did an anthropological case study.

In the Audible version, Sam Dastor gives a heroic effort to inject some life into the book's many slow moments, but there's only so much a narrator can do to make something so dry palatable.

I'm glad I plowed through "A Passage to India." It made me feel more worldly and expanded my appreciation of the way things were on the other side of the world a century ago. But this is a case in which the destination is more valuable than the journey.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Bubble Bobble 4 Friends" Review

"Bubble Bobble 4 Friends" gives the "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" treatment to the 1980s and 90s platformer.

With co-op available for up to four players, ININ Games brings back the classic series in chaotic form, with the players aiding and messing with each other in equal measures.

Giggles and elbows abound as you trek through the 100 levels with friends. Collectibles and hidden crannies abound.

There's also a side game at play, tasking you to discover letter bubbles that spell out the word "EXTEND." Find them all, and you'll unlock more facets of the design.

Colorful visuals meld with a catchy, chiptune-style soundtrack to conjure a retro-friendly feel that brings the older games to mind while also pushing the series forward in significant ways.

A satisfying way to bring back a blast from gaming's past, "Bubble Bobble 4 Friends" is a lovingly crafted and invigoratingly breezy way to revisit the adventures of Bub and Bob. 

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 20, 2020

"Granblue Fantasy: Versus" Review

Set in a steampunk-influenced world, "Granblue Fantasy: Versus" packs 2D-fighter and side-scrolling brawler aesthetics into one hack-and-slash package.

The characters are diverse and distinguished while also balanced. The lore is engaging and well-conceived. And the visuals tie it all together with verve and panache, luring you into the realm of might, magic and exotic contraptions.

There are three modes in which to test your might. The main RPG mode lets you level your character and advance the story. Versus mode allows you to square off in one-and-done matches against a friend or the PC. And Arcade is a traditional match tree that puts you through the paces against all comers until you either emerge triumphantly or wither away from the challenge and give in.

The game makes the transition from mobile platforms to console with confidence and ease, with developer Arc System Works taking advantage of the additional power and visual fidelity to make the game feel as though it were built from the ground up for the PS4.

Those familiar with Arc's contributions to the likes of "BlazBlue" and "Guilty Gear" will feel right at home in the frenzied yet fair strike-parry-block metagame of mental wrestling.

"Granblue Fantasy: Versus" may not have the name recognition of its predecessors or competitors, but its fresh take on the genre is a welcome departure from the norm. In a time when escapism and empowerment fantasies are more needed than ever, the game came along just when it was needed most.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"Wunderling" Review

Sick of their kind being stomped on all their lives, one member of the tribe has finally learned to jump. The skill becomes a game-changer in the squad's eternal clash with their arch-villain, Carrot Man.

Out for sweet vengeance, the Wunderlings run amok over the colorful, polygonal platformer landscape, dumping the usual routine on its head.

Developer Retroid has loads of satire-minded fun with the concept, twisting accepted gaming cliches. A goofy and satisfying romp, the game goes beyond its story gimmick by infusing the platforming with solid design and clever twists.

Light puzzle-solving keeps the action from becoming monotonous. Clever writing in the story segments is another incentive to keep hopping.

Wunderlings are sort of the ugly cousin of the Minions or the Little Goombas that Mario has stomped for the last 35 years, and the protagonist's angst-ridden resentment makes them charming antiheroes to get behind.

A winning underdog much like its subject, "Wunderling" is retro-tinged fun for Switch and Steam players alike.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

"Yakuza 0" Xbox One Review

There are worse ways to introduce yourself to the "Yakuza" series than its prequel.

Conceived by developer Ryo ga Gotoku Studios as an entry point into the series, the game does away with the muddled morass of a plot built up over the series and cuts to the origins of the saga.

Set in 1988 Tokyo, the plot follows Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima as they work their way through the gangland underworld, hinting at wild times to come.

Three years after its PS4 release, the game makes its way to the Xbox One, which is unusual territory for the traditionally Sony-exclusive series. The game is also part of the Xbox Game Pass, making for a low-risk barrier to entry for those who are heading into the franchise with hesitance.

A coming of age story packed with emotion, grand plot developments and more than a little silliness, the combat-heavy action-adventure moves through the traditional "Yakuza" light RPG elements while building up its story elements.

"Yakuza 0" may not be the most polished of the series' titles, but it's a well-crafted sampler platter that shows off some of the highlights that the "Yakuza" games have to offer.

Publisher provided review code.

"Persona 5 Royal" Review

Just as developer P Studio gave "Persona 4" a grand victory lap with its "Persona 4: Golden" rerelease, the paradigm-shifting success that was "Persona 5" gets a second go-round with "Persona 5 Royal."

The reboot of the universally-respected masterpiece shines every bit as bright as the first entry, giving veteran players ample reason to revisit the classic while beckoning new players to see how the buzz is justified.

More adventurous, action-packed and somewhat lighter in tone than previous entries, the JRPG tasks you to explore the Tokyo underworld, navigating psychological dramas that sweep through the streets.

You play as a member of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a band of iconoclast do-gooders that pull off elaborate crimes in order to shame the wealthy and powerful into reformation.

Juggling your secret identity along with your daily school and social life, you tangle with and recruit summonable Personas that can tip the balance of power in battle.

The follow-up to the 2017 game makes for a surprisingly refreshing experience. New characters and story beats add considerable depth and breadth to the story.

You can also sink plenty of hours into the Thieves' Den, which serves as your base of operations and allows you to customize it to your tastes, shaping it into your ever-shifting trophy of your mounting achievements.

Robust and sprawling while never losing its laser forcus on the feverishly written tale, "Persona 5 Royal" is nothing short of a crowning achievement that's well worthy of taking its spot on the throne.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 16, 2020

"Sega Ages: Sonic the Hedgehog 2" Review

One of the best assets of the Switch is its tendency to inspire developers to churn out the great games of the past. The "Sonic Ages" banner is at the forefront of this archaeological benefit, mining the pillars on which the Blast Processing brand was built.

"Sonic the Hedgehog 2" is among the most glittery of those rediscovered gems. The fast-moving, inventively designed multi-path levels continue to stand out as examples of riveting design.

The catch music, entertaining boss battles and consistently daunting challenge make for loads of replayability with charm to spare.

The 1992 Sega Genesis classic shook up the formula by adding a competitive two-player mode, letting Sonic and Tails face off in frenzied matches that caused many a couch-set slugfest between siblings.

New features include a time trial with online rankings, as well as new modes that let you start off the game as the yellow-colored alternate form of the hero, as well as Knuckles.

Carrying the momentum from the incomparable original, "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" high-stepped its way into the race with Mario for platformer mascot supremity in days of yore. Future games may have caused the Blue Blur to lose his way, but if you want to see Sonic in his prime, you can't do much better than this one.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

"Sega Ages: Puyo Puyo 2" Review

The once-obscure "Puyo Puyo" series has been granted a renaissance thanks to the Switch. After the 2017 port of "Puyo Puyo Tetris" comes the latest in the conga line of revamped 1990s Sega originals in the "Sega Ages" lineage.

A quarter-century after release, the simple-yet-satisfying block puzzles retain their charm and appeal. A surprisingly stressful experience, the increasingly frantic frenzy of tile placement inflicts you with the Tetris effect after your close your eyes following long, intense sessions.

A simple reissue of the original game might have been enough to hook you once again, but Sega took welcome measures to plus it up to modern standards.

With two-player online matchups, an online leaderboard and offline quick rewinds, the old standby gets the equivalent of a fresh coat of paint and a new transmission as it hits the road once again.

The years have been kind to the rock-solid structure of the puzzle dynamics in "Puyo Puyo 2," which will probably still be in puzzle gamers' rotations 25 years from now. That's par for the course for the brand, which may as well be renamed "Sega Ageless."

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

"3000th Duel" Review

A sleek and penetrating takeoff on the Metroidvania dynamic, "3000th Duel" places exploration and dynamic backtracking at the forefront. Combining smart, suspenseful storytelling with inventive combat and puzzle-solving, the game is a treat for Switch owners looking for a rich and powerful new obsession.

Placing a fresh twist on the insomniac hero setup, "3000th Duel" tells a stylish story with urgency and a deepening sense of mystery. As your mask-wearing character explores the oblique world, he learns haunting facts about his past that shifts his motives and endgame into question.

Developer Neopopcorn Corp crafts a visually bold tale that tugs you along by the shirt collar.

Battles, in particular, make for a rewarding sense of accomplishment. Timing and strategy are key, with enemies testing your sense of adaptability as you scrap for survival. Action rises to the forefront, and your character's rising sense of power and control is intoxicating.

If you find yourself more cooped up than usual in these days of social distancing, "3000th Duel" can be a welcome part of your entertainment rotation. It's well-crafted enough to cleanse your memory of your other Metroidvania successes.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 13, 2020

BOOK REPORT: "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed"

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An academic treatise with a sexy title and premise, Eric H. Cline's book is more of an extended research paper than a cohesive narrative.

Although packed with intriguing historical detail, Cline is so determined to stay true to proven historical documentation that he is hardly willing to add any opinion or interpretation to fill out his premise. The result is an unfulfilling, footnote-driven rundown of various debates between historians that can never be decisively settled due to lack of supporting evidence.

A better book would have used the research as a jumping off point, then infused some imagination to explain why it was that the first interconnected, globalized economy came to a sudden halt.

Oddly, given our coronavirus-plagued times, disease is never mentioned as a possible catalyst for the fall of the various empires. Instead, Cline speculates that earthquakes or invasions from unidentified "Sea Peoples" -- who could also have been victims of the same globalized cataclysm -- may have sparked the catastrophe.

In the Audible version, narrator Andy Caploe injects a little verve into the otherwise dry read, infusing the words with history-nerd passion that emphasizes some of the more intriguing nuggets that Cline digs up.

Still, the book is worth a read due to its magnificent premise -- an ancient history world that largely echoes our current state in terms of commerce, trade, grudges and interdependence. The chilling lesson, though not without its redemptive Darwinian qualities, is that a global economy is a house of cards prone to rapidly-spreading destruction.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: "I Still Believe"

For my full review, click here.

"MLB The Show 20" Review

Of all the traditions that launch a new baseball season, booting up the new "MLB The Show" game is maybe the one that induces the most chills. It's a way to peak through the blinders of Spring Training into the season, with freshly stacked rosters beckoning hope to even the lowliest of teams.

If "MLB The Show 20" were an MLB team, it would be the Dodgers -- stacked with a ludicrous amount of talent and ability, albeit with a few questions of whether it will all pull together as a cohesive whole.

Like all annual sports releases, the wear and tear of the long season will be the true test of the title's mettle -- with on-the-fly updates and server integrity needed to prove its worth as an evolving service. It's hard to ask for a more promising leadoff showing, though.

The 15th edition of the game, and final PlayStation exclusive edition before it goes multiplatform next year, continues the franchise's confident dominance on the basepath.

Crisp visuals combine with surprisingly incisive and occasionally cruel commentary to make up a well-rounded presentation that matches the feel you get on broadcast and streaming. Animations are meticulous and convincing, but don't take away from the speed and urgency of the gameplay, which flows at a hectic, no-nonsense speed to which the real-life game can only aspire.

Nearly every legacy mode got a significant upgrade. Road to the Show, in which you play as a Minor Leaguer working your way up through the farm system, has more of an RPG feel.
Diamond Dynasty -- the game's answer to EA's fantasy, card-based team-building "Ultimate Team" obsession -- gets a more exhaustive range of players and a plethora of ways to tweak and upgrade your squad.

The most intriguing addition is March to October, in which you watch your team's progress from afar, stepping in at decisive moments to alter your team's fate.

Whether "MLB The Show 20" goes down as one of the greats or makes a promising start only to fade like so many Arizona Diamondbacks remains to be seen, but hope and excitement loom as large for the new game as it does for the season itself.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

"Nioh 2" Review

Beating the likes of "Dark Souls" at its own game is no easy feat, but the "Nioh" games are more than up to the task. The PS4 exclusives deliver an ethereal though grounded style all their own, finding clever ways to spark excitement, satisfaction and even joy amid the hellish challenge.

"Nioh 2," the follow-up to the revered 2017 Souls-like adventure, gathers much of what the original such a standout, while branching out in refreshing and often daring ways.

The dev squad at Team Ninja delves into the 1555 Sengoku period of Japan, crafting a supernatural-tinged journey into the metaphysical.

As a half-human, half supernatural Yokai warrior, the burden falls on you to combat sinister forces by drawing on an otherworldly summon. By alternating between corporeal and beast form, you adapt to the offensive and defensive needs of the task at hand.

Opportunities to upgrade are numerous, but to thrive you need to take a calculated approach to strive toward the build you desire, adapting your skills and upgrades to a cohesive vision.

Haunting visuals couple with a subtly unnerving soundtrack to pitch a sense of dread over the proceedings. Veterans of Souls-style games, including "Bloodborne," will understand the basics, but will find plenty of surprises and wrinkles that make "Nioh 2" more of a trailblazer in the subgenre than a follower.

Raising its fist to the skies in defiance, "Nioh 2" is a brash and combustive. The game makes you work for every inch of progress, thrilling you all the while. Those who were obsessed with the first "Nioh" have hardly seen anything yet.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 06, 2020

"Bloodroots" Review

Proudly wearing a Haggar the Horrible-like animation style on its ragged sleeves, "Bloodroots" is a wallop-packing action romp that thrives on an "Itchy & Scratchy"-style of exaggerated hyperviolence.

"Bloodroots" takes the Jackie Chan approached to combat. Scrounging for environmental items you can weaponize in combo-loaded melees, you ramble across the map in pursuit of creative implements.

Anything from vegetation to household goods can be picked up and wielded at surrounding opponents.

Playing as the vengeful  Mr. Wolf, you make your way through the Weird West, a dilapidated yet bubbly lawless outpost that serves as a stomping ground for your melees.

Developer Paper Cult infuses attitude and amplitude in its storytelling, crafting a riotous, anything-goes wonderland of fisticuffs.

Peppy writing and the entrancing visuals combine to conjure a captivating feel. Oozing with personality and outrageous humor, "Bloodroots" is an eclectic and energetic romp that never wears out its welcome. It's combustive and creative down to its very roots.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: "Onward"

For my full review, click here.

Book Report: The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the WorldThe Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World by A.J. Baime
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The tale of the rise of Harry Truman is a uniquely American fable, and wouldn't be believable had it been written as fiction and not come to pass.

Truman's ascent from mediocrity to the role of the most powerful man in the free world is Arthurian in its serendipitous momentum. He was a middle-aged, broke businessman thrust into a lowly county office as a political pawn of a corrupt businessman.

That led to his being hand-picked as a patsy placeholder to run for Senate, where he caught the eye of party power players who maneuvered him into position as an afterthought vice president to FDR. After his sudden passing, Truman found himself in the driver's seat of America's World War II apparatus, which eventually tasked him with the impossible A-bomb decision that would forever define his legacy and set the course for the free world.

A.J. Baime tells Truman's story with a Dickensian spirit, making the reader feel as though they're breathlessly tagging along on an impossibly lucky journey through history.

Along the way, Truman shines as a saintly figure who maintains his relatability through self-deprecation. His calm confidence owes to his moral fortitude rather than any airs of greatness.

Tony Messano's narration in the Audible version strikes the appropriate tone, delivering a relentlessly upbeat and energetic take on the prose.

The book is a shining lesson of the pitfalls of elitism, and the trouble with underestimating someone perceived as common and unexceptional. What a world we live in, that a man like Harry Truman could start from the bottom and ascend to the most dizzying heights. And what a blessing for the Western world it was that he managed to handle the heady burdens which such collected wisdom and grace.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

"MathLand" Review

"MathLand" is so earnest and straightforward that you can't help but look at it sideways. Is there something ironic going on here? Where is the twist?

You can stop squinting and searching. There is nothing more to "MathLand" than math itself. A purely educational experience, the game is a sneaky way to get kids -- as well as rusty adults, for that matter -- to drill and kill arithmetic until it becomes second nature.

The $6 download is a throwback to such elementary school computer lab classics as "Math Blaster." Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are all there to help you hone your skills as you make your way through isometric levels.

The slate of minigames tasks you to select correct answers, rewarding you for your speed and accuracy. Developer Artax Games could have gotten cute by instituting touch-screen number drawing in the vein of "Brain Age" or "Professor Layton," but the multiple-choice approach is the most clean and effective.

While lazy players can guess their way to success, the only sure path to victory is to memorize and apply number skills. That's life in "MathLand," as straightforward and methodical as can be.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 02, 2020

"Yakuza Remastered Collection" Review

The release of "Yakuza Remastered Collection" is an excuse to dive into the core games of the sprawling Japanese gangland opus.

The anthology contains three previously released games, with a minor visual update and a few quality-of-life upgrades thrown in to freshen things up.

The third, fourth and fifth numbered entries of the franchise -- previously available only on the PS3 -- are included, each spinning a lengthy and sidequest-packed journey into the depths of the underworld. Beneath the hardboiled surface of each game bubbles a decidedly goofy and whimsical interior.

Minigames include rhythm-based button-tapping karaoke, exercise, dance and arcade pastimes. Those flourishes are more than just ways in which to blow off steam. They insinuate you into the characterization and culture of the society, immersing you into the sights and sounds of big city excess.

All the games run in 1080p and 60fps. Even more appealingly, they reduce some of the painful loading times and chugging prevalent in previous-gen games. A touched-up translation and addition of missing story moments from past games also makes the collection the most polished versions of the games to date.

You're best off taking on the games in order, due to the evolution in gameplay and storytelling that continued into the landmark 2016 release of "Yakuza 6."

Now the entire "Yakuza" storyline can be fully consumed on the PS4, completionists can finally put their PS3s to rest. This is the way the "Yakuza" games were meant to be appreciated.

Publisher provided review code.

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Sunday, March 01, 2020

"Dreams" Review

The game-making genre has always aspired to the vision that anyone on their couch could bring their idea to life and use it to reach the masses. Drawbacks in technology, interface and scale have always stopped entries short of that ideal.

But now comes the staggeringly innovative "Dreams," a boundary-shattering delight that lives up to its name by venturing closer than anything that's come before to the long-sought ideal.

Developer Media Molecule expands on the Play/Create/Share philosophy it has built over the last 12 years in the "LittleBigPlanet" series, launching its ambition to stratospheric proportions. Using a tutorial thinly disguised as a campaign to roll out its myriad toolsets, the title makes you feel comfortable with manipulating the code it takes to construct just about any category you can envision.

It also takes a crucial step beyond that landmark by managing to make game creation appealing to those who may otherwise be disinterested. Theoretically, the release of "Dreams" could mark as a turning point for game development, demolishing class and social structures that have restrained the field's diversity and opening up the art form to the visions of the masses.

While only time will tell if "Dreams" ascends to such heights, it's already apparent that it's allowed current players to crank out a staggering amount of eye-poppingly brilliant creations. While later "LittleBigPlanet" games did allow the cleverest players to branch out into other fields, the series was always pretty much a platformer builder, with little more reach than "Mario Maker" games.

"Dreams," though, frees players from such shackles, granting and encouraging freedom of creative vision without any apparent impediments. Through ease of use and expertise in design, it achieves the paradigm sought for by the likes of "Project Spark."

When I started the game with my children, I marveled at the way my 13-year-old and 7-year-old jerked the controller out of my hands to indulge the ideas that were bursting out of their minds. There are few games that are capable of engaging all three of us at our varied levels of experiences, and fewer still that can make us feel equally empowered. The fact that "Dreams" accomplished the goal with ease is hardly short of miraculous.

When you play "Dreams," you get more than what you put into it. The power it grants you is intoxicating, and also just a gleeful. It makes children feel as capable of adults, and adults feel as unencumbered as children. To take the controller is to live the dream.

 Publisher provided review code.