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.