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.

View all my reviews

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.