Thursday, April 27, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Star Wars Jedi: Survivor'

While "Star Wars" has gotten more fulfilling game adaptations than most other film franchises, there has yet to be a game that fully captures the essence of some of the saga's top-tier storytelling. 

"Star Wars Jedi: Survivor" -- due out Friday -- is the closest attempt yet to nailing the wonder and majesty of some of the series' most legendary character arcs.

The sequel to the criminally overlooked 2019 game "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order," "Survivor" follows the exploits of Cal, one of the few remaining Jedi spared the scourge of Order 66, as he tries to stay a step ahead of the Empire's clutches.

The dev team at Respawn Entertainment takes the bones of that game and launches them into the stratosphere for the franchise's current-gen debut.

Back are the intoxicating Force powers, which you can tweak, upgrade and trick out as you advance through the story. As with the likes of "Elden Ring," "God of War" and "Deathloop" -- some of the greatest narrative triumphs this generation -- the key is consistent, blisteringly intense writing. The yarn told in the game can match up with the better Disney+ series offerings.

While the main thread is compelling enough, there are bountiful side quests to distract you, including bounty hunter pursuits and puzzles in Jedi shrines. There is always plenty to see, do and explore. Most importantly, the sense of giddy fun always abounds. The game has a consistent way of making you feel like you're a little kid pretending to be a Jedi in your backyard.

Exuberant and energetic while also somber and emotionally resonant enough to stay grounded, "Star Wars Jedi: Survivor" is an impressive accomplishment that will no doubt stand as one of the marquee games of the year, as well as a shining light of what's possible in a story-driven "Star Wars" game.

Publisher provided review code.

Book Report: 'The Loudest Voice in the Room: How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American Politics'


The Loudest Voice in the Room: How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American PoliticsThe Loudest Voice in the Room: How Roger Ailes and Fox News Remade American Politics by Gabriel Sherman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I respect authors who seek out and deliver stories that people actively try to prevent them from telling. In facing down Roger Ailes at the peak of his power, Gabriel Sherman fought the good fight, put his professional and personal life at risk, and managed to wring out the definitive biography of one of the most imposing media moguls of our time.

What emerges isn't anything close to a hit piece, but a rather sympathetic portrait of a complicated figure. You get a sense of grudging respect for Ailes' moxie and stubbornness in Sherman's prose.

While the author doesn't shy away from exposing the more embarrassing skeletons in Ailes' closet, "The Loudest Voice in the Room" reads like a fair, vibrant portrait of a man determined to succeed and push his agenda through at any cost.

Of course, it's impossible to tell Ailes' story without discussing his sadism, rage and monstrous tendency to exploit women. Sherman nails the facts that juxtapose the fall of Bill O'Reilly with Ailes' ability to sweep his indiscretions under the rug while retaining his power for years. A precursor to the "me too" movement, the postscript to the book is as intriguing as the work itself. The world may never see another Ailes, and that is no doubt for the best.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Game Review: 'Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster'

 As momentum builds toward the June release of "Final Fantasy XVI," Square Enix went back to the series' roots to pay tributes to the early games that laid the foundation for what the iconic RPG series would become.

"Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster" takes the first six games in the series and curates them with delicate care and painterly upgrades -- with the respect and nuance a master would use to refurbish a great work of art or storied piece of architecture -- and gives the creaky classics a spotless sheen.

Originally releases in 1987-1994 and best remembered on the NES, SNES and PlayStation consoles, the spirit of the original games has endured with an enduring sense of simplicity and innocence.

Developers took an impressive amount of meticulous care in making sure the games retain their old-school resemblance and feel, while subtly inserting visual and audio enhancements and quality-of-life improvements to make the games more vital and playable.

Chief among the additions is a makeover of the myriad fonts. The games all involved heavy reading, and the streamlined rendition of the text makes it much more palatable, 

Also added are gorgeous animations that retain the 1980s and 90s feel, respecting the sense of revelatory wonder brought forth by the originals. 

And the most welcome additions are anti-grinding upgrades that allow you to skip irritating random enemy encounters and also fast-forward leveling. The results are streamlined experiences that cherry-pick the endearing moments while brushing aside the dust and debris.

While it remains to be seen whether "XVI" manages to maintain the series' dizzying standards, the OG "Final Fantasy" titles will always stand as grand champions. This collection -- available a la carte for $18 each and together in a $75 bundle -- stands as something of a Mount Rushmore from the series, looking down from their majestic perches with grandiose elegance.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Game Review: 'EA Sports PGA Tour'

EA's first golf outing since 2015's awkward pivot to Rory McIlroy as the cover athlete following the Tiger Woods era, the blandly named "EA Sports PGA Tour" is a full-scale reset.

Without legacy tendencies to draw on, the reinvigorated franchise feels fresh and vital in a way that few EA Sports's annual-releases ever do. Bolstered with new shot mechanics, exhaustive course data and lifelike physics, sights and sounds, the game feels like a fresh news set of clubs and access to a newly built course.

The game is also technically sound in a way no golf game has ever had the opportunity to approach. Developer EA Tiburon integrates ShotLink data -- used widely to analyze player performance and statistics on the PGA Tour -- and the integration helps rounds play out with the tendencies of real-life pros.

As is usually the case with EA Sports titles, the licenses are ample. While Woods is nowhere to be found -- just as he commonly isn't on the leaderboards -- the likes of more relevant players such as Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele. A selection of LPGA golfers are also included, echoing the gender equity trend in EA Sports's recent FIFA releases.

Even if create-a-player is your preferred lane, you can live out the dream of player in the Masters at Augusta National, one of 30 top-flight courses including Pebble Beach and St Andrews. 

The shooting mechanic, dubbed Pure Strike, offers more than 20 shot types, allowing you to tinker and adjust your shot selection as you line up and adjust your strategy.

Thoroughly satisfying and crammed with PGA fan service, the rebirth of EA's golf franchise deserves a raucous. Waste Management-style cheer rather than a golf clap.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Dead Island 2'

Twelve years after the open-world hack-and-slasher "Dead Island" surfaced, a sequel rises from the post-apocalyptic ashes to reascend its grim throne.

Deep Silver Dambuster Studios piles on the high-performance weaponry and nonstop gore for the new effort, ironing out many of the drawbacks of the original and powering the sequel to new heights with spectacular visuals and dizzying action. 

Due out April 21, the game has you taking undead enemies apart limb by limb. Set in the terrifying streets of Hell-A -- a once proud metropolis turned dystopia after the zombie apocalypse -- you scramble to find survivors and set up a foothold of civilized resistance against the enemy. You choose from among six lead characters, each with their own hang-ups and pizzazz.

You may be surrounded by unforgiving environs and ludicrously overpowered creatures who lust after your blood, but a sizable arsenal helps even up the odds. Card-based enhancements allow you to deliver outsized damage with skill boosts.

One innovation promised this time around is voiced-based Alexa game control, which allows you to take it easy on the controller and use your virtual assistant to shout commands that pull up maps, draw weapons and distract enemies.

Zombie minions are divided into classes such as Walkers, Shamblers and Runners -- each of which have subsets that specialize in certain weapons or mutations.

Even though the tone is grim, a steady flow of gallows humor pulses beneath the subtext. The fun factor recalls the likes of the "Dawn of the Dead"-inspired "Dead Rising" series.

Appealing and feature-rich out of the gate while promising loads of coming content with a steady stream of updates, "Dead Island 2" is an appealing destination for your upcoming summer travels. So long as maiming undead villains is your preferred vacation activity.

Publisher provided review code.

Early Game Review: 'God of Rock'

 Recalling button-tapping rhythm games such as "Guitar Hero," "PaRappa the Rapper" and "Elite Beat Agents," "God of Rock" applies the concept to fighting games.

As a flow of notes flows down a crawl at the bottom of the screen, you tap corresponding buttons in time, powering you up enough to unleash superpowered specials that can turn the tide of battle.

Your success influences the soundtrack, making you as much a conductor as a fighter, with your flourishes resulting in victorious crescendos.

With player enjoyment and AI adaptability at top of mind, the dev team at Modus Studios Brazil allows the difficulty level to adjust on the fly, with a rubber band tendency that not only allows you to get back in the game when you're out, but ramps up the challenge substantially as you begin to thrive.

While there's not much to the game outside of its introductory gimmick, the execution and toe-tapping rhythms manage to give the game more appeal than a content-slim title like this might usually entail. For those looking for a fighting game with musical flavor, "God of Rock" solidifies the unlikely union.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Game Review: 'Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon'

 While a sharp dip in quality from mainline, action-packed "Bayonetta" efforts, the isometric, adventure-oriented spinoff "Cereza and the Lost Demon" manages to retain the character's sultry charm while spinning a compelling side story.

PlatinumGames' Switch-exclusive first-party title, released under the Nintendo publishing banner, maintains the series' standard of eye-popping twists and kinetic confrontations.

The aim is to tell Bayonetta's origin tale through the lens of young Cereza - who becomes known as Bayonetta - and her demon, Cheshire. A rebel without a clue, Cereza struggles with typical trappings of  adolescent ennui, even being forced to do chores.

She soon breaks free of her humdrum routine to head out on her first significant adventure, which requires managing Cereza and Cheshire in concert to solve puzzles and dispatch enemies.

While past "Bayonetta" games had occasional emotional payoffs, the coming-of-age tale in "Cereza and the Lost Demon" is particularly stirring, focusing on idealism, destiny and the necessity to evolve in the face of devastating loss.

While not as full-featured or robust as the other "Bayonetta" games, this one is a sweet, engrossing side story that fills out the character and adds further to her intrigue. One of gamedom's most fascinating femme fatales gets her due in this rich dive into her past.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Game Review: 'WWE 2K23'

 With a hefty focus on cover performer John Cena, "WWE 2K23" refines the well-worn formula refined in previous versions of the annual release, continuing the steady progression for the 2K Sports wrestling sim.

Games with cover athlete-focused modes usually spend a significant amount of effort inflating the ego of his star and PR squad, but this one takes the opposite tack. The storyline in the interactive documentary focuses on several of Cena's most crushing defeats over his two-decade career. 

The Cena stuff is exciting and, to a bizarre degree, educational, but an impressive array of other big-name wrestlers steal share the spotlight with Mr. Hustle, Loyalty and Respect.

Supporting stars include the likes of Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns.

Outside of the Cena doc, the marquee mode is WarGames, a rousing three-on-three or four-on-four slugfests in side-by-side rings within a steel cage that are set up for dramatic momentum swings and exciting finishes.

World-building management modes include the likes of "MyFACTION" and "MyGM," which allow you to craft alliances and schedule bouts and career arcs, as though you are a WWE writer or producer. The online multiplayer aspect of card-based "MyFACTION" recalls the parallel experiences in EA's sports games.

"MyRISE," meanwhile, is the single-player build-your-own character mode that lets you go through the grind of the wrestling miners and showboat your way to Cena-like status. 

While there isn't a whole lot to draw you back into "WWE 2K23" if you're still satisfied with last year's version, this year's is a must for Cena fans. And anyone who isn't needs to watch "Peacemaker."

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Game Review: 'Roniu's Tale'

As a wily wizard running for his life, you scamper throughout frantic single-screen levels in "Roniu's Tale," an NES-flavored action-puzzler that brings the pain from the opening screen.

Developers at Kunjee Studios worked with publishing partnership 8-Bit Legit to create the game, which has vibes of "Dig Dug" and "Adventures of Lolo" with a touch of "Solomon's Key." The aim was to create a game meant for the Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-80s.

As you step on tiles, they disappear, making it impossible to backtrack. Meanwhile, enemies hunt you down as you try to grab a key and head for the exit. You deploy magical skills to dispatch enemies and bosses.

The simple concept is executed with precision. "Roniu's Tale" works far better on the Switch than it would as a mobile game, due to the necessity of precision controls rather than simple tap-and-smear action you can get away with on your phone.

The challenge starts with intensity and stays consistently demanding over 47 levels. You can swap out backgrounds with an array of screen borders, and to complete the 80s feel, there's even a full manual to peruse.

While plenty of trial and error is necessary to plow through "Roniu's Tale," the experience is usually lively and engrossing, making it not too much of a chore to bang your head against the same wall in particularly demanding levels before finally breaking through.

Filled with allusions and knowing winks to gaming's past, "Roniu's Tale" is a throwback joy that builds up a steady loop of aggravation leading to sweet satisfaction.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Flower Child to Open in Tucson April 4

I checked out restaurateur Sam Fox’s latest creation, the fast-casual, health food-minced Flower Child, at 2960 N. Campbell. 

The restaurant has an inviting, peppy vibe and delicious, reasonably-priced food. It’s a stellar addition to Tucson’s modern cuisine scene.

Here is what my wife and I tried at its friends and family preview event:

                              Seasonal sangria.

Chocolate chip cashew cookie.

                              Lemon cake.

 Smashed gold potato with roasted garlic and thyme.

                             Chicken Yakisoba noodles.

 Crushed avocado toast with soft egg, black sesame and white Cheddar.

For more information on the restaurant, visit its website.