Friday, December 24, 2021

Book Report: "The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome"


The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of RomeThe History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Setting out to encapsulate thousands of years of foggy, fuzzy human history into a relatable, relevant and cohesive narrative is no simple task.

Susan Wise Bauer accomplishes her goal with ease and simplicity, parsing mythology, conflicting records into a rough stab at what actually happened is a juggling act, and the author is up to the challenge.

I learned a lot from the book, which provided some illuminating insights about human nature and its tendency to organize, unite and divide over the eons. Bauer also lends a feminist perspective to many well-worn stories, offering insight that sheds new interpretations on the boy's club of history.

John Lee's narration in the Audible edition lends a sense of importance and authority to the prose, granting it something of a real-life "Game of Thrones" feel.

A couple significant flaws stifle Bauer's work. Her attention to the Chinese empires seems uninspired and obligatory, and there is no mention whatsoever of what was going on in Africa or the Americas during the rise and falls of the Western empires on which she spends most of her focus. "The ancient world" didn't only exist in Eurasia. A simple retitling to something like "The History of the Western World" would have fixed the issue.

As a whole, the book thrives. The writing is solid and lively, the sourcing is commendable and the momentum rarely wanes. Bauer's book is an empiric conquest worthy of Alexander.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 20, 2021

Google Pixel 6 Pro flexes its 5G muscles on T-Mobile network

If "New Year, New Phone, Who Dis?" is your 2022 game plan, Android aficionados will be hard-pressed to find much more attractive or durable options than the Google Pixel 6 Pro.

As 5G capabilities and technology continues to come into its own, with app developers scurrying to keep pace while maintaining fidelity with 4G devices, it becomes increasingly crucial to latch onto a reliable network. 

T-Mobile's infrastructure is up to the task, pumping in the gigabytes without any noticable interruption in an impressive array of circumstances. I found the network holding up just as well on rural highway slogs as it did in congested urban environments. Google's slick, slender tech works as a silk-smooth conduit to keep your video and downloads flowing at scorching speeds no matter where you find yourself.

The Google Pixel 6 Pro flies on the network as though it were a magic carpet.

The 6.7-inch device boasts a camera system that can hang with the likes of the latest high-end smartphones, a sharp glass-and-metal form factor and a smooth, easy-to-grasp interface geared to streamline your workflow. It may take some practice to get used to swipe commands rather than traditional back and forward button taps, but the Android 12 interface feels more natural the more time you spend with it. It all hums along on a Tensor processor geared to highlight the phone's strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.

At the top of the list of the phone's features is its gorgeous screen, which displays video, pictures and games with stunning clarity that can rival the iPhones and Galaxies of the world. 

The three-camera sytem, too, is devastatingly edgy, able to snag immaculate detail from distance with a 48-megapixel telelphoto lens and a 1.3-inch sensor that sucks in ambient light to produce stunning imagery in less-than-ideal circumstances. Also aiding the photographically-challenged: a Magic Eraser that wipes out photobombers with precision,

The battery life is a drawback, wilting a little in comparison against the likes of the OnePlus 8T+5G. Somewhat slow to charge and quick to deplete its battery -- especially while multitasking -- the device still easily lasts through an intensive work day, but don't expect it to carry you for long into the night without a little boost.

A case with grip is a must, because the phone is too slick for its own good, with a camera bar that makes for an awkward grip unless counteracted with a cover.

On balance, Google's Pixel line of devices continues to swing a heavy axe in the smartphone arms race. Phones are finally catching up to 5G networks, rather than struggling to catch up. The Pixel 6 Pro is geared to lead the charge instead of following along.

 Review unit provided by T-Mobile.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

PHIL ON FILM: "A Boy Called Christmas"

 For my full review, click here.

T-Mobile, Hasbro Release "Lite-Bite T-Mobile Edition"


T-Mobile and Hasbro have teamed up to release an odd and retro-savvy gift idea -- A Lite-Brite consisting of magenta pieces.

The toy, available at this site, is $19.99, with free shipping through Cyber Monday.

Four of the boxes will include a Willy Wonka-style Magenta Ticket, which will give the winner two smartphones, a  year of T-Mobile Magenta Max phone service -- which includes a Netfix subscription -- a flatscreen TV and a year of T-Mobile Home Internet service. 

As Lite Brites go, the magenta pegs certainly pop. So if your child is into crafting pictures promoting T-Mobile's network, this is just the right gift.

But let's face it: The only reason to buy this thing is to stash it away in hopes that it becomes a collector's item, or to angle for one of those Magenta Tickets.

T-Mobile provided the product for review.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Broadway in Tucson Review: "Hamilton"


If there is a better musical than "Hamilton," I haven't seen it. The sheer energy that pulses through a venue as the incredibly energetic spectacle delivers one crushingly brilliant song after another is unmatchable. To attend is to feel as though you are part of something resonant and unique.

I first saw the show in Tempe in 2018, and it changed the way I thought about musicals. Heartbreaking, inspirational, incredibly catchy and noble for the strides it makes in musical theater diversity, the experience sticks with you with the impact of a first kiss.

One of the multitude of heartaches brought on by the pandemic was the cancellation of the planned 2020 tour stop in Tucson. The release of the Disney+ version with the original cast only partially sated the disappointment.

Now that vaccines and the subtle waning of the pandemic have allowed live performances to return, the production is back on tour again. As I watched with my wife, the show washed over me with cleansing properties that signified life is getting closer to what we once knew. 

"Hamilton" is far more than a standard show. It's a sign of where we have been and where we are going. And it seemed that just about everyone in the audience realized that.

It helps that the And Peggy company is absolutely crammed with talent. 

Julius Thomas III and Donald Webber, Jr. thrive in the lead roles of Hamilton and Burr, studied enough to pay tribute to the legacies of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. while confident enough to branch out the characters with their own distinct choices. Thomas underlines his complex figure's tenacity, while Webber leans hard into Burr's cool confidence ever-fractured by his insecurities.

Other standouts include Paris Nix in a dynamic double performance as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. His Jefferson, in particular, channels the sass of Dave Chappelle. Brandon Louis Armstrong is a chronic scene-stealer as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. 

Victoria Ann Scovens, with her impromptu beat-boxing, and Marja Harmon are ethereal as Eliza and Angelia Schuyler, and together with Milika Cheree form a tangible chemistry as the trio of sisters who would shape history.

"Hamilton" is an absolute treat, and while still spectacular on TV, encounters new dimensions of resonance and triumph in person. If you care at all about musical theater, find a way to get to the show. You never know when you'll get your next shot.

"Hamilton" plays through Dec. 5 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

"Jurassic World Evolution 2" Review

"Jurassic World Evolution 2" feels like the stage performance of the dress rehearsal that was the first game.

Building upon the solid foundation of the 2018 original, the park-building strategy game tasks you to craft enclosures that keep your creatures and patrons safe, healthy and happy. 

If you don't have a taste for order and harmony, you can choose to lean into the chaotic aspect of the park, letting dinos run amok, letting natural enemies migrate into the same habitat and recreating wild scenarios from the movies.

At the heart of the operation, the game is all about resource management. A structured virtual sandbox with some of the same satisfaction aspects of a train set, the game hurls administrative challenges at you, putting you on the spot to decide the lesser oftwo evils.

Much of the game is dry and pragmatic, but there are moments of action that shake things up. Chasing down a stray dinosaur with a chopper and taking it down with tranquilizers is a rush.

The sequel makes more of an effort to round up characters from the films, even if the presentation is on the chintzy side, steering toward still images rather than animation.

More fluid menus and a livelier interface might have spiced things up. A wider creature selection wouldn't have hurt either. But the game has come a significant way from its first iteration, and has evolved into a fuller, more intuitive experience for fans of virtual dino displays to sink their teeth and claws into.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Tick, Tick... Boom!" Review

 For my full story, click here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

"Angry Alligator" Review

"Angry Alligator" imagines a swampland in which gators aren't content to skulk in the background, waiting for prey to emerge. 

Instead, your gator is an agile and incredibly hungry predator, dashing along and chomping everything it can. All the while, your life force is connected to a draining timer that requires you to keep eating or face starvation.

A game with more than a touch of shovelware features -- including slapdash visuals and a borderline cruel autosave system that has you backtracking after deaths far more often than is reasonable -- the game is often more fun than it has a right to be. 

Think "Maneater" or "Hungry Shark World."

There is a simple satisfaction in rampaging through and munching largely defenseless creatures. While you do occasionally run into enemies that can ably defend themselves, you are usually the apex predator, and your deaths are often tied to meandering rather than annihilation.

The dev squad at GS2 Games clearly had deadlines to stick to, and prioritized moment-to-moment gameplay over the larger objectives, which are generally scavenger hunts or fetch quests.

"Angry Alligator" won't be anyone's Game of the Year, but it may just be the game they play while they're waiting for their GOTY cut scenes to pass. Like its antihero, the game ably takes a chomp out of your free time.

 Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Movies and Shows Leaving Netflix in December 2021


For my full story, click here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Book Report: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"

The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Malcolm X lived a complicated life, full of contradictions, animosity, pain and triumph. The essential civil rights figure has been analyzed and deconstructed to no end, but it's likely that the most crucial Malcolm X critic was himself.

Cowriter Alex Haley elegantly steps into the background to let Malcolm X tell his story. What results is a cohesive, often smoldering, intensely detailed narration of a life lived hard and vigorously.

Laurence Fishburne's narration in the Audible version is not so much a performance as it is a seance. Fishburne brings Malcolm X's fiery delivery to life as though he is speaking from the depths of his soul.

Malcolm X emerges to life as a vital, at times joyous figure blessed with incisive eloquence, gentle and often stinging humor, and exquisite clarity of thought.

He pulls no punches -- especially when criticizing himself -- as he traces his evolution from A-student to street hustler, to Black separatist and ultimately to a figure of compromise, reason and brotherhood. Especially near the end, he is ever aware of the coming assassination he feels blowing in the wind. His choice to live fearlessly inspite of the fatalism is commendable.

He is such a divisive figure that surely many people will refuse to hear what he has to say. Those who fail to listen will be those who lose out. He lived a hard and challenging life and his story bears listening.

Publisher provided review code.   

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Thursday, November 04, 2021

"Tales of Arise" Review

A sweeping saga that merges a large-scale RPG with series-length anime cutscenes, "Tales of Arise" is a meaty endeavor that sates the thirst of series fans with dozens of hours of robust thrills, emotional hooks and bewildering twists.

No longer content to tread water with mild disappointments, Bandai Namco Games focused its collective energy on highlighting the franchise's strengths and minimizing its weaknesses. 

With every bit the care that, say, Square Enix takes with mainline 'Final Fantasy" games," the devs channeled heart and intelligence into every aspect of the production. Every moment you spend with the game feels as though you are in the hands of master storytellers with something to say, as well as abundant talent to spirit you through the story.

"Tales of Arise" has the feel of a magnum opus. Although maybe the game is a bit too in love with its storytelling -- cut scenes can be a touch long-winded and laborious -- it feels like an affront to the talent on display if you choose to skip them. 

Required grinding is kept at a minimum, and the combat -- which has not necessarily been a strong point of past entries -- is involving enough not to bore you. Rewarding masters of skilled orchestration akin to real-time strategy, the system discourages button-mashing while elevating the need for resource management and the strength of active and support party members in tactical roles.

A towering challenge, "Tales of Arise" can be intimidating who aren't able to mentally and spiritually commit to the entirety of the journey. But even for a casual sampler, there are rewards to be had in the experience. Miss "Tales of Arise" and you will lose out on one of the shining gems of the 2021 gaming year.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Book Report: "The Sandman"

The SandmanThe Sandman by Dirk Maggs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A top-notch radio play-style adaptation of some of Neil Gaiman's greatest writing, the Audible adaptation loses little in translation to audio.

Because of the dreamlike, theater-of-the-mind-style nature of "The Sandman" anthology, this may be the strongest possible medium for the storytelling. The bluntness of a film or TV series adaptation might take away from the depth and grandiosity of the material.

Gaiman's narration leads the charge from an excellent voice cast, which includes James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Bebe Neuwirth and Taron Egerton. The application of music and effects is pitch-perfect, rather than shoehorned into the production in the clumsy manner typical of audiobooks and podcasts.

Bouncing across myriad time periods, settings and species, Gaiman's finely-woven tapestry explores the intricacies of dream and desire in a haunting manner. His series has echoes of "The Twilight Zone" and "Black Mirror."

Fan service also abounds, with connections to the larger DC superhero universe present, without taking center stage. This is thought-provoking and challenging fiction meant for comic book readers ready to graduate to a higher plane of thoughtful analysis.

There's a reason Gaiman's creation has stood the test of time and is continually regarded as a great work of transmedia art. This production only solidifies its grandiosity.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 25, 2021

"Far Cry 6" Review

"Far Cry 6" does its best to shake the exploration-craft-conquer series out of its rut with plenty of Latin flair. 

The gaming equivalent of an exploitation film, the work from Unisoft Toronto leans into stereotypes -- very much in an absurd manner reminiscent of the "Just Cause" series. It's on you to take down the malevolent dictator of a banana republic. 

Along the way, you befriend a bloodthirsty croc -- along with a few other animal helpers in the vein of "Far Cry Primal" -- and face off with the looming grip of Anton Castillo, who is played with ferocious intensity by Giancarlo Esposito.

Esposito's performance -- though used sparingly -- bestows a grander cachet than previous "Far Cry" games had, granting the game more of a serialized TV series flair than the cartoonish nonsense it might have been.

The game gives you a bewildering amount of options, allowing you to take on missions in a number of creative ways. There are plenty of side missions, as well as a ton of hidden areas to seek out and explore.

If you're plowing through the "Far Cry 6" story, you're just doing things wrong. Far more satisfaction awaits those who dig into the sandbox and mess around. The physics, visuals and story twists invite you to stick around rather than rush.

A sleek, gorgeous game that is as rich in character as it is in visuals -- a counterpoint to the dry, stodgy "Far Cry 5" -- "Far Cry 6" is something of a rebirth for the beloved but stale franchise. It's a big event, watercooler style game that's just the thing to sink you into your couch as the thermometer starts to dip. There's nothing like cuddling up with Guapo for a fine meal of a video game.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

"G-Darius HD" Review

A flashback to the 32-bit shooter era, "G-Darius HD" powers up the stalwart bullet hell franchise for Switch deployment.

Since the original game's arcade launch in 1987, the series has thrived on flashy visuals pulsing with fantasy-themed elements. Many fans believe the series peaked a decade later with the release of G-Darius, which introduced paradigm-shifting graphical boosts and level design.

"G-Darius HD" ups the ante further. Taito Corporation took deep care to pay respect to the beloved original, while adding considerable polish and ease-of-life enhancements.

Due to the side-scrolling nature of the game, it seems tailor-made for the Switch, particularly the gorgeous screen of the new OLED model.

The difficulty level remains monumental, which means you're in for a ton of frustration, as well as the thrilling sense of triumph once you take down particularly tough levels and bosses.

The game's replayability is immense due to its difficulty level, but it would have been nice to see a fuller-featured revamp that added extras, other "Darius" titles and more online interaction.

Still, for fans of one of the great shmups, it's tough to top "G-Darius HD," which reinvents the classic for a new era.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

"Space Invaders Invincible Collection" Review

A satisfyingly robust collection of "Space Invaders" titles, "Space Invaders Invincible Collection" stacks 11 permutations of the interstellar shooter into one tight Switch package.

The anthology is a time machine that takes you back to quarter-popping arcade games, with increasingly tumultuous levels.

The games span decades, and include reinventions such as "Space Invaders Extreme" and the "Super Space Invaders '91." The fan-favorite "Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders" also makes an appearance.

Original black-and-white and color versions of the arcade OGs also pop up as well. 

They are by far the weakest components of this slate, but their hardcore retro appeal can't be overlooked. It's a thrill for old-school gamers to start with the originals and work your way forward.

Online leaderboards and instruction slates round out the package nicely. It's tough to imagine a future "Space Invaders" compilation topping this one in any meaningful way.

If you want more "Space Invaders" than this, you're just being greedy.

 Publisher provided review code.


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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Book Report: "The Tipping Point"

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big DifferenceThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would dub this book "the ultimate term paper." Incisive research and clever applications make this a think piece with teeth.

With tremendous ambition, Malcolm Gladwell sets out to change the way people think and react to word-of-mouth advertising. Using an inconsistent but generally convincing array of case studies, he probes inside the inner workings of social phenomena, tracing them to their humble beginnings.

A few of Gladwell's examples ring hollow -- particularly a worshipful deconstruction of "Blue's Clues" and a questionable study of how 1980s TV news talking heads influenced voters -- but in general the book is sharp and illuminating.

Gladwell's pompous tone is a little distracting at times, but you have to set any prejudice aside and let the egghead on a mission keep his flow. At least he never bores, which is more than you can say for most term papers.

"The Tipping Point" should be a textbook in an essential marketing class at every business school.

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Monday, October 11, 2021

Book Report: "American Dirt"

American DirtAmerican Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Accusations of cultural appropriation distract from the torrent of research and authenticity that Jeanine Cummins channels into her writing.

Even though she can't fulfill the promise of her setup with a fully satisfying conclusion, her narrative about the struggles of a mother and her son to evade cartel assassins to make it north of the border is powerful and illuminating.

Careful to paint a respectful and inquisitive -- while still foreboding -- tale of the migrants' journey, Cummins uses eloquence and skilful emotional insight to deliver an often transcendent tale. Packed with stunning twists -- although maybe one or two too many -- and penetrating insight, the book feels like a product of experience rather than study.

Since so much of the book takes place in Southern Arizona and Sonora, the book has particularly high resonance for those from the Tucson and Nogales areas. "American Dirt" is a story that screams to be told, and Cummins was just the right author to answer the call.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 17, 2021

Book Report: "Grant"


GrantGrant by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish Ron Chernow had enough time and energy to write biographies of every significant historical figure. With a storyteller's flair and a historian's conscience, he sifts through mountains of research and conflicting narratives to suss out the closest thing imaginable to the true story.

His gift is one of empathy. He inhabits and takes in the world in the way that he imagines his subjects might have, probing the records and media accounts to synthesize the feelings and inner mental workings of the time.

In the same superb way he deconstructed Lincoln, Washington and Hamilton, he takes on the stoic icon Grant, transforming him from a poker-faced general and president into a man teeming with insecurities and inner demons. Chernow takes a hard look at his alcoholism, which Grant shielded with intense ferocity.

Orchestrating the myriad forces that Grant navigated as he floated to the upper echelons of Guilded Age celebrity, Chernow explores the complicated relationships Grant had with the likes of Sherman, Twain and Garfield, making the giants of history seem as familiar as drinking buddies.

Throughout the exquisite prose, Grant emerges as a figure of tender ambition, deep care of his family, as well as humanity as a whole, and his careful stewardship of the legacy he built. It wouldn't surprise me if Grant -- for all his flaws and gullability -- was Chernow's favorite subject of all to date.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"NBA 2K22" Review

There is no true offseason when it comes to the life of a pro basketball player. "NBA 2K22" embraces the lifestyle aspects of the league 

A more robust MyPlayer mode is more story-oriented and RPG-like than in years' past, emerging you into the rhythms, challenges and benefits that come with the pro baller livelihood. 

Unlike in previous years, your first choice as a high school phenom is whether to commit to college or avoid that route in favor of trying out for the G League. Either way, your endgame is to become a lottery pick and get those endorsement deals rolling in. The selfish aspect could influence your play style in showcase games as you prep for your future.

On-court action has been tweaked to allow for a less arcadey feel. The camera seems to be closer to the action, providing an immediate feel that seems closer to instant replay than broadcast perspective. Changes to the stamina formula force you to be stingy with your fast breaks and flashy moves, which can lead to diminishing returns if you overuse them.

Both MYPlayer and MyTeam modes are beset with long-game rewards that require a measure of grinding, but both are more rewarding than the instant gratification aspect of years' past.

Continuing the trend of previous editions of the game, there is an ever-increasing emphasis on microtransactions for consumables, including in-game boosts and cosmetics. While options abound to tweak your style and look without shelling out extra money, the temptation to fork out dough to cut out the grind is everpresent. That's par for the course in the modern sports landscape, though. At least failing to play in the money-hungry metagame won't reduce the thrills you get on the court.

Once you're ready to embrace the next NBA season, "NBA 2K22" will sate all the needs that aren't fulfilled by highlights or fantasy leagues. A silk-smooth anf flashy product much like its cover athlete, Luca Donkic, it's a comprehensive package that fuels your hoop dreams.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: Movies Leaving Netflix in October 2021

 For the full story, click here.

Monday, September 06, 2021

"DariusBurst: Another Chronicle EX+" Review

Side-scrolling space shooters were made for the Switch, and Taito has been crafting some of the best in the bunch for decades. 

While "DariusBurst: Another Chronicle EX+" may not add much to the recipe, the bones of what have long made games of this ilk so addictive remains in place.

The goal is to replicate a credit-chomping arcade experience, and "DariusBurst" accomplishes that to a harrowing degree. The difficulty level ramps up quickly then continues to pour on the pain, challenging you to hone your skillset as you power through the bullet hell. 

The array of power-ups and upgrades is satisfying, injecting momentum-shifting jolts into the flow of the game that can jolt you out of certain death.

The feeling of constantly skating by in a mix of luck and skill is intoxicating, challenging you to overcome your near-misses and celebrate your fleeting successes.

While there may not be much new in the offing for series veterans, there is plenty to enjoy for even the most devoted fans. The 1980s and 90s continue to live on on the Switch.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"Wingspan" Review

An ultra-complicated, often confounding and ultimately rewarding card game, "Wingspan" is set among the world of birds.

Sounds boring, right? Not so fast. Every bit as intense and nail-biting as a game with spells, crafting and summons.

Aiming to establish the most gorgeous, diverse and thriving wildlife preserve, you gather eggs, deploy bird species and strategize ways to edge out rivals.

The dev squad at Monster Couch deploys a labyrinthine swirl of rules, guidelines and subsets that are as difficult to grasp as it is to catch a feathered friend in your hands.

Once you get the hang of it -- an extended tutorial and frequent referrals to walkthroughs don't hurt -- you'll find yourself obsessing over the permutations of diets, eggs, habitats and subspecies.

There is a lot to digest here -- too much for the armchair dilettante -- but a rich tapestry in which to delve for those who like to find themselves lost in the clouds. It may be tough to find similarly-minded avian devotees, but should you find your flock, you're experience will no doubt take flight.

Anyone else needs to be content to peck it out with the punishing A.I. That mode is for the birds.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

"Inbento" Review

An inventive, therapeutic puzzler, "Inbento" has you mix, match, flip and remove overlaying titles in order to match a preset image. 

The devs at Afterburn milk their lighthearted concept for all it's worth, conjuring exponential ways to trick and tease your mind whenever it reaches a comfort level with a concept. 

The act of manipulating the tiles is so simplistic that it seems somewhat condescending, but the sheer depth of the permutations in which you can go wrong give the game a sometimes diabolical edge.

While I played, my wife commented that it looked like a game for 2-year-olds. That only accentuated my embarrassment when I got stuck and had to resort to online walkthroughs. I recommend against retreating to that route, because it robs you of the sheer satisfaction of the breakthrough.

The content -- which includes more than 100 bite-size levels -- is a bit thin, especially if you get a feel for the puzzle design and start plowing through each one in seconds. If you start to struggle then your playtime, as well as frustration level, can considerably increase.

"Inbento" does little to evolve past its mobile game roots, but its relaxing, methodical feel is a rare pleasure in a time of hectic shooters and trying RPGs. It takes a special magic to make failure seem fun, and that's what this game manages to achieve.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

"Within the Blade" Review

Hack-and-slash ninja combat comes by the bushel in "Within the Blade," a fast-paced beat-em-up with a rapid buildup in difficulty.  

Set in 16th century Japan, you play as part of the Black Lotus ninja clan, which stands as the realm's best chance to fend off an assault from a warlord and his minions.

Hand-to-hand and projectile weapons and power-ups are around for your upgrading and crafting pleasure. A mix of stealth and daring assaults are your best bet for survival.

Speed and stealth are at a premium, with slick moves and continued momentum needed to rip through levels.

The dev team at Ametist Studio prioritized quantity over quality when it came to level design, adding marginal changeups to keep your reflexes and skills honed. There are shades of "Mark of the Ninja" here.

"Within the Blade" rarely lacks in excitement or intrigue, and those who are content with bashing through the repetitive content -- especially in NewGame+ mode, will find a trove of ninja thrills to enjoy.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

"Roundguard" Review

Mixing chance and skill is an enthralling and often frustrating combination. "Roundguard" handles the formula with ease and skill, making average players feel as though they're better than they really are, while sobering better players with the harsh reality of bad bounces.

The Wonderbelly Games team punches up the screen with an entertaining array of sound and color. 

Proudly following the "Plinko"-style path set by "Peggle" in 2007, the game tasks you to defend the kingdom by choosing from a roster of combatants, each bestowed with a special move that lets you manipulate your tumbling ball and its targets.

Strategy comes into play when you decide when to deploy your power-ups and when it's best to keep them in your back pocket. Because instant death always lurks around the corner, it's up to you to weigh your fate and decide when to play boldly or conservatively.

While a medieval reskin of "Peggle" may well have been enough to win me over, the intricacies and story additions wielded "Roundguard" lifted it above my expectations, providing moments of exuberance along with an "I'll get 'em next time" feeling of flustered determination. 

Consider the "Peggle" formula perfected.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

"The Forgotten City" Review

Riding a wave of hype surrounding time loop games such as "Returnal" and "Deathloop," "The Forgotten City" takes the concept and lifts it to a higher level of intellectual profundity.

Since the days of "The Majora's Mask," developers have toyed with the concept of avoiding imminent destruction with the right moves. "The Forgotten City" injects some current-gen pizzazz into the formula, presenting a dizzying array of choices that make failing the loop -- and following the permutations of the strange aberrations the failure can generate -- nearly as satisfying as completing it.

The dev team at Modern Storyteller proves to be profoundly literate, injecting sophisticated moral and ethical philosophizing. This is a deep, robust game in which story matters every bit as much as gameplay.

Set 2,000 years in the past, you find yourself in a doomed Roman city. Negotiating the local political scene and various levels of the social strata, you unravel a mystery strand by strand, gradually working your way to the "Groundhog Day"-style epiphany.

The sense of freedom and permutations of the story are entrancing, making "The Forgotten City" seem like a living, breathing world that is quickly swirling the drain.

In a sense, just about all video games are time loops, in which you can seize a modicum of control that life doesn't give you, letting you use your experience, knowledge and reflexes to right previous wrongs and succeed where you once failed. "The Forgotten City" is a time loop upon the time loop concept itself, shining a light on what can be done with the genre.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in August 2021

For my full story, click here.

PHIL ON FILM: "Jungle Cruise" review

 For my full review, click here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

"Observer: System Redux" Review

Cyberpunk sleuths have plenty to savor in "Observer: System Redux," an amped-up version of a 2017 release.

Set in 2084, the dark, twisting psychological horror adventure always keeps you off guard. Thanks to a thought-provoking script, entrancing visuals and clever gameplay mechanics, the game captures the tone of a page-turning thriller novel

You play as a detective who hacks inside peoples' brains in order to investigate crimes.

A dystopian nightmare emerges, with a cavernous realm of secrets, lies and backstabbing emerging around the deadly conspiracy. You put your own neck on the line as you sink deeper into the investigation.

While the stealth continues to be weak -- although the segments are uniformly streamlined and overall improved in this new-gen upgrade -- the puzzle elements are superb. 

The devs at Bloober Team are clearly well-versed in the annals of cyberpunk history, making clever references and poignant observations as they unravel their fascinating tale.

A powerfully told, intricately woven deep dive into the recesses of the human condition and its corruptive qualities relating to artificial intelligence, "Observer: System Redux" continues to cast its spell on the current generation of consoles.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Book Report: "Fosse"


FosseFosse by Sam Wasson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sam Wasson's intelligent, insightful biography is as captivating as the miniseries it inspired.

A probing look inside the mind and life of a tortured creative genius, "Fosse" manages to look up and down at the trend-setting choreographer, film director and promotional mastermind.

Eloquent prose digs into the interactions and intricacies that made the man. Fosse was a walking trainwreck who womanized, abused drugs and drink and -- most of all -- himself as he incessently strove to max out his creative capabilities and manifest his visions into being.

As wretched as a person as Fosse was at times, he also harbored a kind heart that drew friends and admirers into his orbit.

Ever plagued with self doubt and loathing, it seemed Fosse never had the capability of enjoying his dizzying success. Perhaps it was that inability to appreciate that kept him ever reach, ever stumbling, ever falling and ever rising.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 05, 2021

"Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground" Review

The first venture into the strategy real for the dark fantasy spinoff of "Warhammer Age of Sigmar," "Storm Ground" is a rough-hewn experience with its share of exuberant highs as well as stagnant lows.

After the novelty of getting to play "Warhammer" on the Switch wears off, you're left with a clunky, scaled-down version of a middling PC release.

"Warhammer" superfans will no doubt relish the lore and world-building that comes in the story -- at least if they can stomach the mediocre writing and long-winded exposition.

Choosing from among three factions, you guide your forces through the gritty, unforgiving campaign, which provides ample replayability opportunities that let you view the conflict from varied perspectives. Whether you will have the patience to replay the story again is questionable.

The dev team at Gasket Games was creeping on the verge of a breakthrough to let the might of the brand be known on the underexplored territory of the Switch, but instead came up with a moribund spinoff that seems with more in common with a mobile snack than a full-fledged feast.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

PHIL ON FILM: "Clairevoyant" Review

For my full review, click here.


Weird But True: T-Mobile Serves Up Ginger Beer, Gin


Claiming it has "the world's largest, fastest and most reliable 5G network," the carrier is producing "5Gin" and "5Ginger Beer." 

I'm not sure I understand the reasoning behind the products, but I have a theory: You can use one for drunk-dialing and the other to drown your sorrows in carbonated sugar, I guess.

T-Mobile sent product samples.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

"Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection" Review

It's rare that a game holds up as well as your memory of it does. The "Ninja Gaiden" games, though, are the rare exception in which actuality trumps memory.

Slick, strategic action flows like wind, with a zen-like succession of blocks, jumps and special moves emerging from your reflexes as you face down scores of hooded enemies and imposing beasts. The franchise that was introduced on the original Xbox thrives three generations later in the form of the upgraded "Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection."

The enhanced, Sigma versions of the 2004 and 2008 games are included, and are the main event. The games hold up well, with Team Ninja devs sticking close to the ports while adding minor quality of life improvements and polish.

The QTE-riddled "Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge" (2013) is the black sheep here, but has enough bombastic moments to make it a necessity play-through for megafans.

Nearly all previously-released DLC is there, with loads of costumes, characters and other bonuses to sift through.

Although the saving system sticks to the original way, there's something to be said for the ability to trigger quick resets that autosaves would prevent to help you gear aup for particularly harrowing challenges.

Likely the introduction to many players to a franchise that had been stuck in the shadows for more than a decade, "Ninja Gaiden Master Collection" blows through the doors with brutal, rhythmic fury. It's good to have Rya Hayabusa back in the game.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

"The Colonists" Review

Gamers waiting for the low-stress escape title that could become the "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" of 2021 should give "The Colonists" a look.

While stale and antiseptic rather than colorful and gregarious, "The Colonist" is no less wholesome and cutesy. The settlement-builder puts you in control of a gang of multiplying robots who are apparently picking up where humanity left off.

A slightly scaled-down version of the game that launched on PC in 2018, the console translates the controls and menus well to the stick-and-button format, making it relatively easy to find the flow of the build-harvest-exploration loop.

While a bit robotic in its delivery, the dev squad at Codebyfire shows an aptitude for ease of use and guidance, coaching you up with an extensive tutorial -- pieces of which stick around to help out if you mess things up too badly.

Bursting with subtle satirization of human tendencies, "The Colonists" spins its tongue-in-cheek metastory with subversive pleasure. 

"The Colonists" may not deliver the obsessive, play-everyday quality of the likes of "Animal Crossing," but has enough clever ideas of its own to stand out from the pack. Those looking for lighthearted, repetitive challenges will find satisfaction in these bots.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, June 04, 2021

"Space Commander: War and Trade" Review

If you've ever daydreamed about a sci-fi-fueled life in the stars, "Space Commander: War and Trade" will bring those games back to Earth.

It turns out there is plenty of drudgery in the day-to-day operations of managing the interstellar military industrial complex. Expect a hefty helping of monotony building up slowly to the occasional frenzied spark.

The single-player adventure puts you at the helm of what turns out to be a day job that has you watching the clock a little too often. While the dev team at 7Levels should be applauded for crafting a solid, stable reward loop that encourages pre-planning and on-the-fly adjustments, there just isn't much sizzle to the affair.

A middling adaptation of a game that started off in the mobile realm, the gameplay pops a bit more on the Switch than on mobile devices, due to the lavish detail of the screen, which provides more real estate than most devices.

A lumbering economy and rough interface make it tough to manage your flow. While the experience is polished, it's sometimes as antiseptic as a ship's decontamination dock.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, May 21, 2021

"Mass Effect: Legendary Edition" Review

A groundbreaking and innovative effort that paved the way for the likes of "The Witcher" series, the "Mass Effect" trilogy gave players a hand in authorship, allowing them to shape and direct their own stories with key choices and morality-based decisions hanging in the balance.

Choices you made in the game not only affected your ending, but characters who lived or died shaped the rest of your experience in the remaining. It always seemed as though the trilogy were one, humongous interlinked game, and "Mass Effect: Legendary Edition" now brings that vision to life.

Originally released in 2007, 2010 and 2012, the trilogy had started to show some laugh lines and arthritic pains over the years. The new effort from BioWare smooths out the rough edges and combines the games into one near-seamless saga. 

The original "Mass Effect" gets the most noticeable facelift, with its rough control systems smoothed out and its laborious loading times mitigated. The other two games also get significant boosts, with the lone significant sacrifice -- the loss of multiplayer in "Mass Effect 3" -- only seeming like a minimal setback.

Crafting and shaping your Command Shepard throughout the journey is enriching, with repeated playthroughs letting you toy with various styles and permutations. You can take on the mentality of a conniving manipulator in one, a ruthless, bloodthirsty tyrant in another, and a meek person with pacifist leanings in a third go-round. The often devastating repercussions -- in survival of characters and entire races, romantic unions lost and fund and in side stories discovered -- is often illuminating or disheartening.

The writing craft at play in the "Mass Effect" franchise was always the rocket that lifted it to its storied heights, and now the visuals and accessibility match it. Always known as a tough RPG, the ease-of-life benefits now sometimes steer the game into easy territory. But the true rewards come in participating in the story in a way unlike any franchise before, and a nature that is in many ways still unmatched.

While the trilogy's follow-up, "Mass Effect: Andromeda," left some players yearning for the olden days, this revamped, optimized taste of the original satisfies that nostalgic craving, while shining a promising light on the series' future.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, May 07, 2021

"Angels of Death" Review

 Locked away in a prison that seems to be straight out of a horror flick nightmare, you're pursued by a relentless killer who can overwhelm you with strength or speed. "Angels of Death" tasks you to use limited resources to evade and overcome the threat.

Whether or not you succeed is determined by your ingenuity, capacity for failure and -- most likely -- ability to closely follow YouTube walkthroughs.

Oddball twists and obfuscated solutions to strange puzzles abound, but the roadblocks ratchet up the sense of satisfaction as you progress in spite of the foreboding odds. "Angels of Death" is feet meeting fire.

The top-down puzzle adventure, which came out on PC in 2016 and the Switch in 2018, now makes its way to the Xbox One.

Developer Kadokawa Dwango Corporation keeps the sounds and visuals simple, giving the game the feel of a 16-bit classic. The archaic sensibilities add to the charm, making it feel as though you're playing through an otherworldly experience from a lost parallel universe.

"Angels of Death" is a rough-hewn experience, but well-polished in execution over the years. Dark and melancholic, the game offers punishment for those who are into that kind of thing.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Paper Spiders"

 For my full review, click here.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

"The Longing" Review

Left alone in the dark to fend for yourself, "The Longing" eschews hand-holding or even gentel guidance in favor of obtuse obfuscation. To progress, you will need to tinker, try, fail, fail again and hope for the best. 

With shades of "Limbo" and "Inside" as artistic inspiration the puzzler from developer Application Systems Heidelberg challenges you to think for yourself. Expect to spend plenty of time going nowhere, puttering about, considering the meaning of it all.

In this day and age, games that leave you stranded on your own are a welcome shakeup. The respect and challenge, however, come at a hefty price.

There is plenty of trial and error at play -- often to a frustrating degree, amounting to a brick wall of progress. The bottlenecking, combined with limited save capabilities, can make "The Longing" try your patience.

As you crawl your way through the plot -- which gives you a 400-day countdown to finish -- you are left to your own devices to tinker and tailor your ventures toward the ultimate goal.

If that sort of thing makes you smile rather than wince, this is probably the time of game for which you'll find yourself longing.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

PHIL ON FILM: "Mortal Kombat" review

 For my full review, click here.

"Say No! More" Review

An experimental game that actively averts gameplay, "Say No! More" centers around the whimsical absurdity of its premise. You play as an office worker whose sole purpose seems to be on turning people down. 

The dev team at Fizbin shows off its flair for humorous writing and visuals, crafting a thin but enjoyable romp that takes no skill. 

The story offers little replay value, but that's just as well, because "Say No! More" thrives on the element of surprise.

The narrative opposite of the 2008 Jim Carrey comedy "Yes Man," "Say No! More" explores the various ways in which the act of denial can be empowering and, at times, courageous.

Living vicariously through your character is a joyously aspirational experience that allows you to find strength in unlikely, brash self-determination.

With a distinct art style that makes the game a breezy, playful and surprisingly impactful experience. It's an easy one to say yes to.  

 Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Book Report: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #1)The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Douglas Adams' trailblazing, free-wheeling, eminently quotable novel is a fun, exuberant experience that ends way too quickly. The sense of playfulness, the sharpness of the wit and satire on display, and the endless trove of imagination no doubt inspired the likes of "Futurama" and "Rick & Morty."

Sci-fi absurdity elevated beyond its extreme is the order of the day, and Adams hits his stride in the opening, never looking back and only reaching farther and getting stranger as he goes.

While his characters leave little to connect to, and his plotting is a snake eating its own tail, then puking it up and swallowing it once again, all the perceived shortcomings are mitigated by the wild, untamed nature of the storytelling. At times the story plays as though concocted by Mad Lib. There is always a sense of Adams making it seem like he's getting away with something that he shouldn't bem and you're along for the ride.

He gives you many fish for which to be thankful, and proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the answer is indeed 42.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 27, 2021

BOOK REPORT: "The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir"


The Room Where It Happened: A White House MemoirThe Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John R. Bolton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a juicy, old-fashioned revenge-fueled tell-all that provides an unsettling -- if unsuprising -- peek inside the inner workings of the Trump presidency.

Bolton, a diehard GOP foot soldier who was brought into the Trump fold in order to provide experience and perspective in matters of global affairs, found himself hoofing it on a treadmill to nowhere. His exasperation is amusing, and bravery commendable.

The author's insights into Trump's scattershot approach to domestic and international crises are sharp and poignant. What emerges is a picture of a man in over his head. There was little effort to portray Trump as a sympathetic figure, but -- as Bolton sees it -- it's easy to feel some sympathy for a man unequipped to deal with the role in which he was thrust.

While there are few bombshells or juicy revelations in "The Room Where it Happened," what emerges is a steady, enthralling instant history that reads like a novel. It's a page Bolton seems relieved to have turned.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 19, 2021

"Explosionade DX" Review

Suiting up inside giant, overpowered mech in "Explosionade DX," you unleash destruction upon your hapless foes. The action title grants you an exuberant feeling of vigorous angst as a renegade Lieutenant who finds himself as the realm's last defense against assaulting forces.

A revamped version of the Xbox Live Indie Games release, the new version feels and plays like a modern game rather than an Xbox 360-era relic.

Inspired by the likes of "Cybernator" and "Metal Warriors," the game is a whiz-bang energy.

The Mommy's Best Games dev team packs the 60 levels with increasingly frenetic thrills. To survive, you must juggle an array of attacks, defenses and evasive maneuvers. Revamped graphics, leaderboards and new enemies amp up the package.

The two-player, local co-op mode expands the fun considerably, allowing you and a pal to team up in your torrent of destruction.

Bubbling with the exuberant passion of a project dreamed up in a garage, "Explosionade DX" bubbles with the excitement of an independent game while sparkling with the polish granted by a heftier budget and technological advances. Time has been kind to the buried gem of the past.

When life gives you explosions, make "Explosionade."

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

"Taxi Chaos" Review

A takeoff on the 1999 arcade classic "Crazy Taxi," "Taxi Chaos" sets you loose among a chaotic New York cityscape, tasking you to spirit passengers from one places to the next.

Your ride is equipped with nitro boosts and jump capability, making each fare a real-time strategy puzzle to navigate traffic, exploit shortcuts and shave seconds off your time to up your score.

The Lion Castle dev team figuratively floors it on the pick-up-and-play aspect of the concept, but stalls in neutral when it comes to the replayability side of the equation. There are nominal upgrades and advancements on deck, but most of it is just window dressing, with no tangible reason to surge ahead other than the exuberance of the gameplay, which wears thin after a bit.

A mission-based mode in the vein of "Stuntman," or a sizable multiplayer dimension would have done wonders to the base game, which -- as it stands -- is barely more than a casual touch-screen tapper.

"Taxi Chaos" is a lighthearted diversion that works as a palate cleanser between more serious enterprises. It's fun to take for a spin, though it falters over the long haul.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, January 18, 2021

"Space Invaders Forever" Review

Ever since it started rocking arcades in 1978, "Space Invaders" has been a video game staple, steadfastly refusing to evolve as other trends came and went. Its simplistic charm -- oft-copied but rarely surpassed -- has been incalculably influential.

Staying relevant has been another, tougher story.

"Space Invaders Forever" is the latest attempt to inject some new life into the old bones, rounding up three games in an effort to revitalize the ancient concept. 

The results are largely satisfying, particularly on the form of the main event, "Space Invaders Extreme," which follows the lead of "Pac-Man Championship Edition" to add new layers of strategy and playfulness to the 16-level mix, complete with boss fights and hidden surprises. By far the most entertaining and replayable of the three included modes, the fevered blast-and-dodge routine rarely goes stale.

The dev team at Taito Corporation had middling success with its other components: "Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders: and "Space Invaders Gigamax 4SE." The quick-hit, party game-style feel works best in quick hits.

The overall lack of online multiplayer is an unfortunate, if understandable omission. "Space Invaders" is decidedly old school, and that sentiment continues in its latest release. "Forever" is a mixed bag that delivers the highs and lows of the concept, content to rest in orbit rather than shoot for the stars.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Review: OnePlus 8T+5G

 As the world continues the shift to 5G, T-Mobile is intent on leading the charge with its array of devices geared to take advantage of the network.

An upgrade over the OnePlus 8, the premium OnePlus 8T+5G vies to stand alongside the likes of Samsung's flagship phones. Armed with a 120 Hz display, four rear cameras and heavy-duty battery life, the phone manages to match specs with the best of the bunch.

The real star, of course, is the network. While 5G connectivity fades outside of heavily urbanized and trafficked areas -- I couldn't get service at all during a weekend trip to Silver City, NM -- the coverage performs so well at full service that it feels like a hefty downgrade to shift to WiFi. If this is the phone you get, unlimited data is a must.

The OnePlus 8T+5G's slim form factor and vivid display makes it a joy to watch HD video or play high-performance games while on the go. It's a solid option for those looking to take advantage of PlayStation and Xbox game streaming. That's where the advantages of the network truly come into play, reducing lag and latency that too often plagues services such as PlayStation Now, Google Stadia and remote play.

The 65-watt charger -- equipped with an unwieldy white box of an adapter, pumps the phone with juice in minutes. The charger is so efficient that I find myself lining my other devices for it every morning. Using the heavy hitter makes it tough to go back to whatever dinky USB-C adapter you were using before.

The lack of induction charging is a head-scratching absence, and some awkward button placement makes it difficult to affix to tripods. The minimal downsides are far eclipsed by everything going for the device. While the move from 5G to 4G may not be as dramatic as the jump from 3G to 4G, the subtleties of the advances combine to make you so comfortable that it's tough to look back.

Review unit provided by T-Mobile.