Thursday, December 17, 2020

"Immortals: Fenyx Rising" Review

A spiritual successor to "Kid Icarus," "Immortals: Fenyx Rising" is steeped in ancient lore, taking a lighthearted yet thrilling approach to the material. It's the opposite side of the coin of usual super-serious takes on the mythos, including "God of War" and "Assassin's Creed: Odyssey." 

Many of the team members who worked on "Odyssey" returned to the fray for this inverted version of the mythology-themed expansion to the epic, "Fate of Atlantis." You get the feeling that "Fenyx Rising" was something of a release valve for the devs, who used the opportunity to explore visions that the "Assassin's Creed" franchise couldn't contain.

After revamping production and scrapping the generic original title "Gods and Monsters," the dev squad at Ubisoft Quebec managed to find its stride. The result was a glorious, freewheeling Greek Mythology romp with action and humor to spare.

Playing as a warrior who intercedes in the ongoing conflict between gods and titans. As you take on quests and vie for upgrades, you take on the powers and abilities of the gods you are attempting to help.

While some of the banter is corny, the breezy approach is a welcome respite from the frenetic action. This is one of the games in which you truly do yourself a disservice if you skip the cutscenes.

While the mission structure tends to be heavy on fetch quests and repetition, the momentum never dissipates, and the fun keeps flowing as you fly ever closer to the sun.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, December 07, 2020

"The Casino" Review

Rolling in with routlette, slots, video poker, craps and baccarat, "The Casino" is just as meat-and-potatoes as its title.

Very much akin to old-fashioned shareware gambling sims that used to make their way across the nation via shareware floppy disks, "The Casino" lets each game stand on its own merits. With no money at stake, there are vastly diminishing returns to each, but all of the games offer short, arresting bursts of entertainment value, strategy and chance.

While there is little exciting about the presentation or execution of the casino standards, there is something to be said for the way it cuts through the fluff and gets right to the point. The game provides a no-risk way to scratch the gambling urge or test out some strategies.

Asymmetrical multiplayer lets you see how your earnings and skill stack up against those around the globe. Aside from that, there's not much of a compelling reason to continue to rack up pretend money.

"The Casino" may not be the most thrilling to drop this holiday season, but you may find it worthy of a tile on your Switch library. A welcome, appealing go-to that won't waste your time or cash, it's there when you feel the need to try your luck.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

"Family Feud" Review

The new "Family Feud" game on consoles exists in a parallel universe in which the pandemic doesn't exist. That's something of a relief in terms of the escapism factor, but also oddly tone-deaf. 

Guiding happy-go-lucky clans, not socially distant in any way as they gleefully rub elbows and shake hands, is as jarring as something you'd see in a pre-2020 TV series. While it's gratifying to revisit a world in which social gatherings came without taboos, quizzes with answers that included concerts and festivals were commonplace and shortages of household items were unthinkable, it would also be welcome to have at least a touch of reality infiltrate the video game show. 

Maybe an update that included pandemic-tinted questions -- or any update with new questions, which will eventually be needed to refresh the stale original slate -- would be welcome.

At least the dev team at Ubisoft took care to make the initial release full-featured. Online play is a welcome and all-too-rare addition in the genre, and there are multiple difficulty levels, customizable characters, a helpful answer-filling system and game formats to help keep sessions from wearing out their welcomes.

The game seems to have been concocted for foreign markets, then translated haphazardly to North American English. Odd spellings and syntax errors abound, oddly adding a charm to the otherworldiness of the semi-educated guessing game.

While the game is as one-dimensional on the show on which it's based, it's also every bit as fun. If you've ever wondered how your own family would perform on the show, this is your opportunity to find out.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Black Bear"

 For my full review, click here.

Friday, November 27, 2020

"Planet Coaster: Console Edition" Review

 In a time when open amusement parks are hard to come by, "Planet Coaster" slides in as a welcome escapist fantasy. Managing, pleasing and exploiting happy-go-lucky crowds can be as much of a rush as partaking in a thrill ride, once you overcome a sluggish start to get your momentum going.

As with most management sims, most of the fun in "Planet Coaster" comes after you've put in significant time sewing your seeds. What starts off as a slog can quickly turn into a frenetic juggling affair, requiring you to zip from one area to the next, putting out fires, optimizing the finely-tuned facets of your empire while building for the future.

Developer Frontier Developments put in similarly heavy work on the console adaptation of the 2016 sim, taking care to make the menu interface flow as naturally as it would with a mouse and keyboard setup. There's also a narrated tutorial to help get you going.

A nostalgic feel pulses throughout the game. As you prop up coasters, kiddie rides, concession stands and other attractions, a certain pre-pandemic innocence and optimism pulses throughout. 

The "Minecraf"-style sense of freedom stokes players' creativity by offering ample ways to explore, innovate and spectacularly fail. There are already four years of walkthroughs online, thanks to the enthusiastic PC community, to stoke your visions.

"Planet Coaster" loses little in its transfer to consoles, moving as briskly and smoothly as a cart shifting its tracks. A tinkerer's dream, the game is limited only by the heights of your imagination.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

"Marvel's Avengers" Review

 After a disastrous E3 2019 showing, developers Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal took the criticism to heart, using the year to smooth out the rough edges, reshape core concepts and refine the bizarre visuals.

The result is one of the more underappreciated gems of 2020.

With a sweeping story, creative multiplayer co-op integration and promise of much more to come, "Marvel's Avengers" became a game that lived up to its lofty promise. More a "Destiny"-style persistent platform than one-offs in the vein of "Spider-Man," the game nails the core of what it means to unite Earth's Mightiest Heroes and deploy their complementary powers to take on overwhelming threats.

The heart of the story is Kamala Khan, who is coming into her own as the limb-stretching dynamo Ms. Marvel. After a cataclysm disbands the Avengers, she takes it upon herself to piece them back together, helping to heal old wounds and forge new alliances. 

The balance in skill and entertainment value among the likes of Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America is relatable and convincing, unlike the nerfing/overpowering tactics used in the likes of "Marvel vs. Capcom" slugfests. Instead of making, say, Black Widow as powerful as Hulk, each hero is given various skills and challenges that make them roughly equally satisfying to take on. 

A lengthy tutorial introduces you to the skillsets to each, allowing you to upgrade their skills, shaping their abilities to your comfort level and tendencies.

Online options are where the game will thrive over the long run. With an ongoing slate of missions deploying, there will likely long be loot and upgrades to scoop up. Taking on the ongoing saga of the comic book world, rather than telling a distinct tale, you feel like a part of the ongoing operatic journey.

Rich and robust, "Marvel's Avengers" is a veritable Thanksgiving feast of a game, worthy of carrying the banner established by the comic books and lifted to new heights by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues" Review

 "Cobra Kai," which has made the shift from YouTube to Netflix, is one of the most entertaining shows on TV. Its licensed game makes a valiant effort to live up to the legacy of the series, but falls short in subtle, gnawing ways.

There is clearly plenty of love and enthusiasm for the series involved. With eight playable characters to choose from across 28 missions, you can live out just about all of your street brawler fantasies as a member of Miyagi-Do or Cobra Kai dojos. 

The side-scroller gives you the choice between the factions, then sets you free to romp through its side of the story. The approach is wise, given the way it follows the philosophy of the writing. Unlike the righteous dogmatism of the "Karate Kid" films, the series crane-kicks its way along varying shades of grey, with both sides appearing heroic or villainous at times, despite being convinced that they are always in the right.

The story unfolds from both perspectives, allowing you to see the varied shades in which both sides, who are under the tutelage of lifelong rivalry between Danie LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.

In the "Streets of Rage" tradition, you slug your way through armies of enemies, with massive life meter-toting minibosses and end-level bosses awaiting you.

A fun and breezy idea in concept, some quality-of-life adjustments would have made things more enjoyable. Wonky hit detection and inconsistent damage amounts make it tough to know whether it pays off to be more precise or prioritize button-mashing. An overall lack of polish abounds, making the game feel more at times like a browser gamer rather than a console release. Also, the levels run on far too long. A bite-sized approach typically works better in repetitive titles such as this.

With spirit and vigor to spare, though, the "Cobra Kai" adaptation is an apt companion to fans of the series. A silly and colorful complement to the mythos, it's worth a look for superfans of the show.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"Black Desert: Prestige Edition" Review

 "Black Desert: Prestige Edition" is a staggeringly large and disarmingly ambitious MMORPG. 

The dev team at Pearl Abyss is filled its realms up with monsters to slay, loot to cobble together and resources to craft. You're never far from conflict, with aggressive -- if often easily dispatchable -- enemies looming around you at every turn. 

The game seems to be geared toward high-end PCs, and tends to chug a little on the Xbox One. It's not game-breaking, but frustrating and awkward at times.

The bombardment of microtransactions is also off-putting, but expected for a persistent online experience.

Taking on "Black Desert" often feels like a chore-filled grind-fest, but the act of collecting goods and button-mashing through battles tends to be more satisfying than rote. 

A sizable fanbase has seemingly gathered around "Black Desert," making its world feel lush and alive. That's likely due in part from crossplay functionality between the PS4 and Xbox One communities.

Console players looking for a fresh MMO addiction will be grudgingly satisfied, but may find themselves with PC envy.

Publisher provided review code.

Phil on Film: Movies and Shows Leaving Netflix in December 2020

 For my full article, click here.

Monday, November 16, 2020

"Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War"

 While the "Call of Duty" gameplan has been all over the map in recent years -- with story modes having been minimized or eliminated entirely at times -- it's the writing and narrative structure that take center stage in "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War." 

In getting back to its smirking, conspiracy-minded, counterculture roots, developer Treyarch finds new life in a formula that had started to grow stale. With branching dialogue, point-of-view shifts and a stirring, historical fiction-driven reimagining of the global state of the play over the late 20th century, the game is a freewheeling and fluid dive into the ether.

At its heart, "Black Ops Cold War" is a loose cannon action movie, straight out of the 80s. With booming bravado, high-octane set pieces and tense shootouts -- as well as imaginative revisitations of famed characters from previous chapters -- it's a AAA blowout that has become the too-rare watercooler event in this era of fragmented attention spans.

Multiplayer options abound, with Zombies taking center stage as a cinematic action-horror spectacle. Fireteam: Dirty Bomb emphasizes cooperation and trust, while Combined Arms and VIP Escort shake up the formula with inventive wrinkles and twists. 

Team Deathmatch is the standard, loosely-coordinate frag fest, with the traditional Kill Confirmed, Domination, Hardpoint and Free-for-All rounding out the banquet of offerings. The cross-platform sensation battle royale component, Warzone, is technically a part of the package but available to those who don't buy "Black Ops Cold War."

Although "Call of Duty" games may have ceded much of the cultural zeitgeist to the likes of "Fortnite" and other free-to-play flavors of the week swiping away the attention of the masses, what remains of the multiplayer scene is a hardened, cohesive group of roughnecks.

A promising new direction for a series that has been all over the map and its flipside, "Black Ops Cold War" delivers the goods with the hope of a parachuted supply drop. Feeling comfortably familiar and new enough to seem fresh and exciting, it's a rambling ride well worth hanging onto by your fingertips.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

"Just Dance 2021" Review

 Games have the power to captivate you to the extent that you're stuck on the couch for longer than you'd care to admit. "Just Dance 2021" gets you up and moving to the point of exhaustion.

An excellent home workout, especially during a pandemic, the game keeps the varied challenges flowing, reducing the need for you to go to the gym or brave the chilly outdoors to get in some cardio.

With 41 new songs from the likes of Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, The Weeknd and Dua Lipa -- as well as several dozen more if you subscribe to the Unlimited service, "Just Dance 2021" deploys the franchise's trademark flashy visuals to show off scintillating choreography. 

Whether you're playing solo or making a fool of yourself with friends and family in co-op, the game shoves you out of your comfort zone, delivering smiles, sore body parts and occasional frustrations. Nailing a hard-to-conquer move after several failed go-rounds yields immense satisfaction, with your muscle memory upgrading as though you were a real-life RPG character.

Most systems require you to use your phone to track your movements, but for me, the Xbox One/Kinect combination is the best way to play a "Just Dance" game.

Back are the usual kid-friendly mode -- which automatically blocks faces for video recording if you use a camera -- as well as the invaluable calorie-tracking Sweat mode, which can help you keep track of holiday snacks you're burning off while you bust your moves.

"Just Dance 2021" may not do much to shake up the standard formula, but that's mainly because there wasn't much need for innovation. With the wheel spinning so well, there's little need for reinvention.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Ammonite"

 For my full article, click here.

Monday, November 09, 2020

"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" Review

With two years having passed since the last "Assassin's Creed" release, fans were clamoring for the next deep dive into its ever-expanding whirlwind of historical fiction. "Assassins' Creed Valhalla" slices off a juicy hunk of Viking lore, letting you don a fur suit as you make your way through the grizzled hierarchy as a young upstart.

As is always the case in "Assassin's Creed" titles, developers went to extreme lengths to nail historical accuracy. From period clothing and food, to dances and social rituals, the team delved into the material with the gusto of a history doctorate student.

Taking some cues from the 2018 "God of War" reboot, the game sets you free in a colossal world that captures the Norse kingdom at its most expansive, powerful and influential. Ubisoft Montreal one-upped that effort with stunning visuals, exquisite writing and captivating story twists.

The Vikings are at war with the Anglo-Saxons, and are prone to much infighting among themselves. After choosing the gender of your protagonist, you're plunged into a torrent of subversion, misdirection and calculated intrigue.

As is nearly always the cases in "Assassins' Creed" games, free-running, climbing and diving, stealth options and myriad options to tackle open-ended objectives abound. The major shakeup is the setting, which is far more loose and freeform than previous ventures into more organized facets of society. The narrative structure -- which does include the common modern correlated element -- intertwines well with past stories while pushing the overarching narrative forward in meaningful ways.

A game this massive and customizable could seem intimidating, but efforts were made to open it up to those of Optional menu narration and a colorblind mode -- introduced before the game starts -- make it one of the most accessible-from-the-jump major releases yet seen.

A fitting sendoff for the current-generation version of the series, as well as no doubt an introduction to the next, "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" makes you want to raise a glass of mead, shout "Skol!" and dig into the glorious unknown past once more.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in November 2020

 For my full article, click here.

"Watch Dogs: Legion" Review

While the first two "Watch Dogs" overpromised and underdelivered, but the third time around reverses that paradigm. Those expecting more of the same in the open-world hack-a-thon will be dazzled at the amount of freedom and invention at your disposal this time around.

After the series debut in 2014 and its follow-up two years later, "Watch Dogs: Legion" opens up a breathtaking cyberpunkscape to explore and manipulate. Taking the baton from Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Toronto used the extra time to reinvent the franchise while staying true to the original vision.

Set in near-future London, you play as a cog in a resistance group who's out to gather up recruits to break the back of Dedsec, the privacy-exploiting, propaganda-spewing dystopian overlords. Swiping pages from megalithic Ubisoft properties "Assassin's Creed" and "Far Cry," the free-form, side quest-pulsing realms is one of the most dense and intricately detailed open worlds yet crafted.

Every character walking the streets has a backstory, routine and exploitable tendency, and you can inhabit any one of them, adapting their abilities and access to ease or complicate the path to your next objective.

While the amount of choice at your disposal can be paralyzing, the map and menu system does a solid job of keeping your tasks in order. You can take down missions in any number of ways, either opting for stealth and hacking, guns blazing or gadget manipulation. The freedom, for instance, to hack a security camera in order to hijack a drone that you can use to set off an explosive distraction to clear your path is intoxicating.

Although it's possible to spurn the vast amounts of potential paths and creative potential in order to power through missions via shortcuts or formulaic routines is alluring, but you'll get more out of the game if you open yourself up to the array of tricks and customizations that await. If the goal is to get you feeling like a digital god who bends the Matrix to your will, Ubisoft Toronto has succeeded beyond any expectation. The freestanding online co-op and adversarial sandbox play will no doubt give the game legs that far outlasts the primary campaign.

"Watch Dogs: Legion" is one of the most welcome surprises of the year. Symbolic of the technological mastery of its fiction, the game is a powerful sendoff for the current generation, as well as a tantalizing beacon of what's to come as the PS5 and Xbox One begin their dawn.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

"Umihara Kawase BaZooKa" Review

"Umihara Kawase BaZooKa" is a platformer that tasks you to wield a bazooka and fishing rod to knock out scores of dopey enemies. Think of a side-scrolling Skee-Ball with a little "Reel 'em In" tossed in.

The dev team at Success keeps the tone light and fast-paced, with little barrier to entry, even at the toughest difficulty. A breezy, party game feel races through every pixel and sound, providing an upbeat, friendly feel that can serve as a nice break for those needing an escape from doom and gloom.

It takes a bit of patience to endure this brand of fun, though. Repetitive battles and drab environments make the game wear out its welcome more quickly than you'd hope, giving you little reason to proceed other than to keep your momentum going.

Local multiplayer can spice things up, letting you test your skills against up to three other players. The shared mayhem will no doubt spark laughs, both with and at the content.

"Umihara Kawase BaZooka" is a title designed for players with eclectic tastes and a casual skillset. Bouncy and peppy to both its advantage and disadvantage, it bops along to its own oddball beat. 

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

"G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout" Review

Of all G.I. Joe's gaming forays, the one that left the most lasting impression on me was in the RTS-lite "Toy Soldiers: War Chest." 

The understated, milquetoast "G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout" may not do much to move the needle in terms of brand recognition, but is able to parlay the feel and look of the characters in that game into an action-heavy shooter.

Developer GameMill Entertainment hit its modest expectations with a serviceable, spectacle-free slice of fan service.

Most of the draw comes in the 17-mission single-player campaign. Twelve characters who span the comics, toys and animated series pop up in major roles, playing on the nostalgia factor for all it's worth.

Leading the Joes against the world-dominating Cobra terror organization, you use an array of machine gun fire, grenades, power moves and old-fashioned melee moves to slaughter your way to glory. There aren't many surprises in store, but there's something comforting in the mindless, unchallenging combat.

GameMill understandably skirted online multiplayer in favor of couch co-op and competitive combat. It's hard to imagine rustling up three other people who care enough about the game to tangle in standard capture the flag, assault, king of the hill and deathmatch formats. But if you can supply the people, the game has got your back.

While "Operation Blackout" doesn't reinvent G.I. Joe as a viable gaming franchise, it doesn't embarrass itself either. If you're a lifelong fan of the goofy characters and paramilitary antics, you'll feel right at home here.

Publisher provided review code.

G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout Image

Monday, October 12, 2020

"Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia" Review

Superfans don't need much to hook them. "Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia" checks most of the boxes for fans of the show, but does little else to go beyond fan service.

Based on the Netflix series, the plot has you guiding Jim Lake Jr. as he takes on Porgon the Trickster Troll, who is trying to bring on the dreaded time-pocalypse. There is action aplenty, with loads of enemies to pummel as you roll toward the end of each level.

What might have been an inspired throwback instead seems somewhat muted. 

With creative input from Guillermo del Toro, as well as the series' voice cast -- including Emile Hirsch, David Bradley, Charlie Saxton and Lexi Medrano -- in tow, there was a chance for something exciting. But developer WayForward falls victim to the uninspired design of many licensed games.

Expect repetitive levels, dull enemies and tedious visuals that fail to live up to the vigor of the source material.

Cut scenes are usually skippable trifles in platformers, but the story moments provide some of the more intriguing draws here. Those who have followed the storylines of the Netflix show won't need much convincing to play the game to get the full flavor of the saga.

This one will have you hunting for something better.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"Commander '85" Review

 "Commander '85" is the pioneer hacker's dream come to life. Just as in the 1983 film "War Games," you play as a child of the 80s with a fancy new computer with untold powers.

At the other end of your DOS prompts and your fuzzy manual modem awaits a burgeoning world to be shaped in your image via a series of command prompts.

The vision that Developer The Moonwalls is carrying is admirable and captivating. The execution, though, is as clumsily executed and obtuse as modder newsgroups of the infant internet.

Just about everything meaningful you accomplish in the game is done at your bedroom computer desk. You're massaging prompts, codes, passwords and adjustments that will seem foreign to anyone who came of age after Windows was introduced.

You're locked into a battle of trial-and-error against the programming itself, forced to use your ingenuity to decipher the correct prompts to advance you toward your task, whether it's cracking your school's report card database or manipulating powerful forces.

While retro charm abounds in "Commander '85," going it alone is an exhausting experience. If you want to progress with minimal frustration and adequate speed, you're best of digging up a walkthrough. While the game is fun to experiment with, it's also often as frustrating and slow as a Commodore 64.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

"Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning" Review

 There's no time like the cold months, especially during a pandemic, to hunker down with a deep, rich single-player RPG. "Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Recoking" certainly fits that bill, providing an expansive and robust dive into the realm of high fantasy for a cativating tale.

The 2012 game had a solid pedigree, with leadership from the likes of author R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane, and was one of the richer and better-looking RPGs of its day. 

The years have started to show the frayed edges and rust, though. The menu system now seems antiquated, the load times are a little rough and the quest management system is stiff and slow.

Still, the storytelling remains top-notch, and developer Kaiko made some strides in bringing the game up to modern standards. Smooth, compelling combat and fascinating, distinctive visuals help it make a lasting impression.

That said, there is much more the developer could have done in terms of fan service and quality-of-life improvements. The project's vision was seemingly to lightly touch up a well-regarded game, with little interest in taking it to the next level or adding to the content base.

As a whole, this is the definitive version of one of the top-tier RPGs of the decade. If you haven't played "Kingdoms of Amalur" yet, this is the form with which to make your recoking,

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 05, 2020

"Star Wars Squadrons" Review

Since taking the lead with the Star Wars license, EA has taken a careful and reserved approach in releasing a AAA-caliber game late each year. After stumbling with the ill-conceived "Star Wars Battlefront II" -- which was plagued with microsransactions at launch before it was stripped of the money-grubbing and reinvented -- the past two years have seen an impressive turnaround.

Building off the success of last year's exquisite single-player effort "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order," the multiplayer-focused "Star Wars Squadrons" is a throwback to the likes of "Star Wars: Rogue Squadron."

Developer Motive Studios could have dumbed down the gameplay to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible, but instead goes full geek, aiming for realism, customization and micromanagement that make the game admirably complex and obtuse. The more you study the nuances of the game, the more you'll thrive, making the club feel like an insular home of the elite rather than a casual rec league.

Five-on-five team battles make sit you in the cockpit of a New Republic or Imperial craft, pitting you in tense dogfights that become a game of cat-and-mouse with missile locks, enviornmental hazards and twisting objectives. The nagging need to rebalance your firepower, speed and shields depending on flexible needs of combat is a thrilling burden.

Impressive visuals and sounds help deepen the immersion, with the cockpit view making you feel as though you are truly inside your craft rather than controlling it as a drone. The unbriled thrill of success juxtaposes with the crushing devastation of defeat -- all part of a continues adrenaline rush that makes you feel skilled and powerful.

While more modes and fighter selections would have been welcome, what we have here is a compelling start that thrives on its economy of scale, plugging you to intense battles that reward invention and resolve. You feel as though you are in full control of a powerful starcraft, living out your cinematic fantasies.

"Star Wars Squadrons" capitalizes on the series previous aerial combat highs and soars to even greater altitude. The sky is no limit when it comes to this brave, bold excursion into deep space.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Book Review: "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tom Wolfe captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s psychedelic movement in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," a whirlwind of a book with a glowing reputation that casts a looming shadow over it.

It was a relic of and for its time -- thickly insular and crammed with hard-to-track references that severely date it. The time capsule nature of the book preserves it as an untainted, free-thinking and spoken remnant of its age. There is a certain innocence and vigor for upheaval that the decades in which I've lived can't hardly relate to. And a certain momentum that seems near impossible to recapture.

By employing a stream-of-consciousness narrative, Wolfe loses as much in relatability as he gains in immediacy. Ever at war with itself while trapped in a tendency to navel-gaze with an intensity that the Instagram generation will well identify, there are as many eye-rolling passages as there are watershed moments.

Wolfe's editors seemed to have taken a hands-off approach, leaving him free and clear to venture down bizarre asides and rabbit holes. That extends to morbid repetition of some words or phrases. He uses the term DayGlo so often that it could be a drinking game resulting in alcohol poisoning.

Despite all its flaws, the book stands proudly for the way it documents the rises and falls of counterculture movements of the ages, as well as the art, music and celebrity they inspired. Pyschedelics' influence on the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and the Doors and novelist Ken Kesey stretch beyond measure, and the same is ulitmately true of the author. All survived and endured past the acid test flashpoint. 

Publisher provided review copy.

"Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time" Review

Crash is back. Coming 22 years after the last numbered series entry, the spinning, double-jumping relic of a PlayStation mascot leaps into action as though the past couple gaming generations never happened.

A razzle-dazzle collect-a-thon in the tradition of PlayStation-era classics, "Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time" makes up for its lost decades with vigor and exuberance.

Building off the momentum of the 2017 "Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy," Developer Toys for Bob stays true to the original formula while introducing quality-of-life improvements, modern visuals and creative level design.

All the rail slides, improbable leaps, attacks and items to collect are back, along with a zany, time travel-centered story that has you selecting levels through a "Super Mario World"-style top-down view. 

While the silly cut scenes are skippable, there's no fluff in the playable content. Toys for Bob forged an impressive amount of creativity into the gameplay, twisting established formulas on their heads and delivering scores of thrilling set pieces.

The mainline game is the most significant draw, but not the end of the story. Controller-passing multiplayer is also here, in the form of time trials and crate smashing competitions that track scores for as many as four players. This is a platformer designed for speed runs, tricks and online streams. 

Far more than a tribute to the franchise's creaky past, "It's About Time" feels like a wholesale relaunch. They don't make 'em like this anymore, and it will be exciting to see what Toys for Bob does with its newfound momentum as Crash spins, jumps and slides into the future.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"Bartlow's Dread Machine" Review

Wearing its steampunk-influenced charm on its epaulet-adorned sleeves, "Bartlow's Dread Machine" piles on the 19th century trappings, ever amused at itself as it takes you for a ride on a creaky old penny-farthing.

The twin-stick shooter challenges you to hit the mean-yet-mannered countryside in search of kidnapped President Teddy Roosevelt. 

In a travelogue that spans the breadth of Americana -- from New York to San Francisco -- you romp through the tongue-in-cheek parody.

As a Tin Woodsman-like secret agent, you take on a band of devil-worshipping anarchists, with historical figures periodically popping up to help out.

Developer Beep Games revels in stylish visuals and sound design, slyly mocking the period setting while also paying adoring tribute to it.

Bursting at the rivet-lined seams with bouncy wit, the game will no doubt slap a goofy smile on your face. 

While there's little remarkable about the combat or controls, "Bartlow's Dread Machine" manages to stay interesting by humming to the tune of its own phonograph.

Publisher provided review code.

"Shing!" Review

A breezy hack-and-slash romp, "Shing!" lives up to the onomatopoeia of its title with kinetic action, dazzling combos and over-the-top thrills.

Developer Mass Creation ratchets up the silly, raucous intensity as you guide your demon-slashing ninja into battle.

Smarmy humor pulses through the game, which hurls you from one breakneck bout of bloodshed to the next.

There's a bit of a learning curve to the stick-based control scheme, which is nuanced enough to take significant time to master, while free-flowing enough to satisfy button-mashers.

The side-scroller has a tendency to wear out its gimmicks, but manages to stay fresh with subtle twists and paradigm-shifting confrontations.

As with most games of this ilk, you'll get more out of it if you bring along a buddy for co-op. Like recently-released genre rivals "Streets of Rage 4" and the "Battletoads" reboot, there's a heavy reliance on well-worn conventions of the past -- quite possibly because there isn't much new under the sun in the beat-em-up realms.

"Shing!" won't turn any heads of those who are focused on more sophisticated experiences, but those who are down for some quick, rough and dirty action will feel right at home.

Publisher provided review copy.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Stream in October 2020

 For my full story, click here.

Monday, September 28, 2020

"Here be Dragons" Review

An ultra-nerdy D&D session gone awry, "Here be Dragons" is a whimsical travelogue for the tabletop set.

Smart, sassy writing carries the game, which otherwise hovers close to visual novel territory. Light action moments break up the text-driven narrative.

Developer Red Zero Games is banking on hopes that there's enough humor in the material to move players through the paper and dice sim.

The spare, hand-drawn art style adds to the tone, funneling the tone all-in on the barebones aesthetic. The humor leans hard into ultra-geeky territory, for both better and worse.

While you're questing amid the seas, strategic choices come into effect as you confront sea creatures and rival treasure hunters.

The game feels right at home on the Switch, where it surfaced in September, more than a year after a PC launch. As a salty, in-the-know niche offering, it should find a home on the devices of many on-the-go players looking for something light yet substantive in between "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" and "Breath of the Wild" sessions. 

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"WWE 2K Battlegrounds" Review

 "WWE 2K Battlegrounds" is all attitude and no realism. Which is exactly the way a game about a fake sport should be,

Developer Saber Interactive applies the exaggerated "NFL Blitz" formula to pro wrestling. The approach makes more sense than the dry sim technique applied to most WWE games. Technical mastery has never been the appeal of the sport. It's always been wild, over-the-top shenanigans that hooked fans.

Stacked with a roster of greats that dates through the decades of the entertainment phenomenon's heyday, the game's arcade-style antics have you wielding oversize props, hurling your opponent out of the ring and unleashing show-stopping super moves that jolt the crowd to its feet.

While the gameplay and modes are rail-thin, the game nails what it sets out to be: A game to play with buddies late at night while high-fiving and guzzling beer. Just as with WWE telecasts, you have to be in on the joke while willingly suspending disbelief to get the most out of the antics.

As with "Blitz" and "NBA Jam," there is little need for annual updates in a game like this. While roster and arena expansions would be welcome, what you get here feels like a riotous and exuberant foundation to use to celebrate the absurdity of the action inside the squared circle. The game pulls off a spectacular submission hold on trifles such as physics, logic and balance, and it's all the better for that.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 25, 2020

"eFootball PES 2021 Season Update" Review

Rethinking the annual sports franchise update model, "eFootball PES 2021 Season Update" shakes up the standard formula and lowers barriers for fans to re-up.

Tagging the game with a $35 price rather than the usual $50 or $60 cost, Konami is offering a square deal to players: A semi-sequel for about half price.

The usual slate of roster and uniform updates are there, but gone are any gimmicks meant to pose the game as a true sequel rather than a standard readjustment of an already solid base.

All features from last year's game return. Robust Become a Legend, Mater League, MyClub and tournament modes are there. The emphasis, as the title indicates, is on esports-friendly competition. That means the priority is on balance and sound infrastructure.

The most notable new face is UEFA Euro 2020 mode, which lets you play out the 24-team, 12-venue mini-World Cup.

While there is little other than that to make the game stand out from last year's release, that's not the gameplan here. The well-executed idea is that of a conservative coach with a high-powered team protecting a slim lead late in the game. This bus may be parked, but it's got air conditioning and a fully stocked minibar.

Publisher provided review copy.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

"Street Power Soccer" Review

It's been 13 years since "Mario Strikers Charged" released, and since then the world of arcade soccer has been desperately trying to play catch-up.

"Street Power Soccer" tries to set up the reins of the likes of "FIFA Street" and "Rocket League." It succeeds to a degree, providing a rapid-flowing game of sprinting, passing and striking, but its gameplay is too thin to give you reason to return day after day.

The silly character models -- complete with a creator -- joins with the six game modes to flesh things out. Online multiplayer is also there, and can freshen things up provided you can find an opponent.

While cage battles and freestyle can be amusing, it's the story mode that rises to the top as the main draw.

Powers and specials provide some zip to the gameplay, making for wildly imbalanced pyrotechnics and rubber banding AI that make no lead safe.

A solid soundtrack from the likes of DJ Snake, Snap the Black Eyed Peas peppers the soundtrack, helping to make up for bland, generic visuals.

While there's nothing here to seize your attention away from the likes of FIFA or PES, there is plenty here to distract an arcade-minded soccer fan who's waiting for Bowser and Mario to take to the pitch once again.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 07, 2020

"Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time" Review

Samurai Jack is back, unflappable demeanor and katana at the ready. The video game venture is no typical cartoon adaptation flop, and overcomes some rough moments to provide a generally enjoyable hack-and-slash spree.

Available on all platforms, including mobile, the game pays tribute to the beloved Adult Swim series, which wrapped up its final season after a lengthy hiatus in 2017.

From the looks to sounds and rhythm of the writing, the game registers a thoroughly authentic feel. Head writer Derek Bachman penned the script, which weaves throughout the show's continuity and ties in with the 2017 finale.

As much as fans will appreciate the game's canonical value, though, it's the action and combat on which the game will either live or die. The results there are only so-so, with a retro, PlayStation-era 3D feel that doesn't always keep up with the flow of the battlefield.

For non-fans, "Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time" will feel like little more than a stylish beat-em-up. Those who grew up with the hero will see things differently, though, and it's these fans for whom the game was truly made, and it serves them with honor.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

"Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2" Review

It's been a rough rail slide for the "Tony Hawk" series for the last 15 years, with a succession of releases ranging from mediocre to awful slowing to a trickle.

It was fair to assume that "Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2" would be more of the same, but the wholesale remake -- which far surpasses the spirited but bland 2012 "Pro Skater HD" -- may be just what the series needs to kickflip its way back to relevance.

Originally released in 1999 and 2000, the wacky, arcade-style trick sims rode the rise of Mountain Dew-fueled extreme sports as they crested. Even players who hardly cared about skate culture could feel like superheroes as they chained together absurd sequences of impossible athletic prowess. It was like handing fingerpaint to a kindergartener.

The new game delivers the same freeing feel, and comes at the right time because there simply isn't anything out there like old school Tony Hawk anymore.

Credit developer Vicarious Visions for being unafraid to reinvent the wheel, while making sure it still spins.

The gameplay holds up surprisingly well. Vicarious Visions holds true to the original vision and feel, while not holding back on updating the visuals, menus and ease of use to make the game seem organic and new. There is plenty of nostalgia and fan service at play here, but players who come into the game cold might not even recognize that it's a throwback.

While there's no telling whether Activision Blizzard manages to parlay the brilliant reinvention of its series into the steady release of annual updates it once merited, what we have here is something special. Lighting once again has been caught in a bottle, and the Birdman soars once again.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

"NBA 2K21" Review

While it's a bit jarring to leap into next season's NBA sim while the current season is still playing out, there's no denying the superpowers of Visual Concepts.

"NBA 2K21" is forced into an awkward situation not only by the pandemic, but because we're a couple months away from embarking on the next console generation. The current entry will likely be outclassed by the upgraded version on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Still, there is too much to appreciate in "2K21" to deny. 

Cover athlete Damian Lillard's fingerprints are all over the game, from the initial 2KTV episode starring role to the improved passing and fast break animations. There's a concerted effort at play to make the game unfold more naturally rather than the traditionally choppy style of video game hoops.

As silky smooth as Lillard's pull-up jumper, the presentation and ambiance sell the gameplay as a vision of the NBA at its best. It's both nostalgic and optimistically forward-thinking to see games played at home arenas filled with rabid fans once again. How long it takes real life to follow the example of the sim after the 2020-21 basketball season begins remains to be seen.

The ego-stroking fantasy of MyPlayer continues to evolve, with your created up-and-comer dealing with the trappings of fame and fortune, as well as social media and side career distractions, as you work on your game and carve out your place in the league.

While the endless stream of nagging microtransactions is never going away, their presence are welcomely subdued, providing quiet, if persistent reminders that you can pay to speed up your progress. Still, it's far more satisfying to put in the actual work on the practice court and in game and see your dedication pay off steadily. If you're looking to get off to a faster start, you may as well spring for the Mamba Forever edition, which pays tribute to Kobe Bryant and comes preloaded with loads of virtual currency, cards and perks.

Like a low second-round draft pick or free agent signee, "NBA 2K21" has the potential to slip through the cracks due to circumstances. If you're still all in on "NBA 2K20," there isn't a heck of a lot of impetus to upgrade before the draft and free agency rejiggers the rosters to resemble next year's season.

But this is no G-League might-have-been. If you call its number off the bench, it will doubtlessly light up the scoreboard.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 04, 2020

"The Coma 2: Vicious Sisters" Review

A chilling jaunt into the realm of Korean horror, "The Coma 2: Vicious Sisters" ratchets up the sense of dread and anticipation as you elude an indomitable stalker.

Running from the formidably demonic Dark Song, a force of grim terror that seems to serve as a metaphor for regret and lingering angst, you play as troubled high school student Mina Park. 

To survive, you slink around your school and the outskirts, meeting odd characters who can either help or thwart you along the way.

Playing at times with the feel of a visual novel, you overcome occasional gameplay obstacles to stick with the tense, evolving storylines. While puzzles tend to trap you in bottlenecks at times to stall the momentum, the pacing is strong enough to keep you coming back for more.

Light RPG elements, including crafting, as well as some touches of hidden picture point-and-click games make appearances, combining for a hybrid experience that feels nothing like the norm.

While "The Coma 2" may be too esoteric for some tastes, developer Devespresso Games thrives on offbeat creativity to channel its dark vision to light. This strange descent into an otherworldly horrorscape is worth a look for those yearning to be shaken out of their comfort zones.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, August 21, 2020

"PGA Tour 2K21" Review

Golf gamers can rest assured that their sport is in capable hands.

After eons in the hands of EA, which rode the "Tiger Woods" name into the ground, then awkwardly swapped it out with Rory McIlroy before letting the series go dormant for the last half decade, the PGA license falls to 2K. 

The initial effort is a decidedly nuts-and-bolts affair, with developer HB Studios Multimedia doing its best not to end up in the bunker and two-putt its way to par. It helps that sim golf fans have gone so long since they've been able to take to the virtual links. The need for a new game is so strong, that just about anything with licensed courses and athletes could sate the urge.

Like cover star Justin Thomas, the game is fundamentally sound and pulsing with makes-it-look-easy excellence, if also a little bland and wallflowerish.

The lineup of modes and customization options is thoroughly satisfying, if unspectacular. Resisting the urge to plug in a trendy, half-hearted narrative, it's just plain golf here, with the playoff-driven FedEx Cup taking the place of the traditional majors.

The course design feature is robust and easy to use, allowing you to dream up and execute your duffer visions in minutes.

MyPlayer builds efficiently off the 2K brand established in its NBA entries, letting you upgrade your duffer's equipment and attributes, with nearly everything you do online and off contributing to your virtual currency pile. Thankfully, there is little to no pay-to-win mechanic at play.

The effort to infuse rivalries with other players seems a little stiff and forced, but does add some welcome edge to the prim, proper sport.

Online Societies, akin to virtual country clubs, let you group up with like-minded players for casual or cut-throat matches.

While more courses and players would have deepened the game's authenticity factor, what matters most is that the structure is in place for a series built to last. If 2K develops the series into an annual release format, the best is no doubt yet to come. But even if this entry stands alone for years, there is plenty here to keep fans satisfied.

Publisher provided review code.

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.

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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.