Sunday, December 24, 2023

Game Review: 'Pinball M'

The "Pinball FX" team manages to crank out a consistent flow of themed tables that appear to all niches of the geekosphere, and the horror-minded "Pinball M" continues that tradition in bloody fashion.

The five included tables span the likes of "Child's Play," "Dead by Daylight" and Lovecraftian horror in the form of "Wrath of the Elder Gods Director's Cut."

Each table bursts with fan service, appealing bonuses and funny/creepy audio-visual flourishes. As with just about all tables in the series, they make you yearn for the genuine arcade article. But there's much to be said for getting to plug away at your pinball obsession without having to run your credit card down while constantly refilling your play card.

While "Pinball M" doesn't have anything to offer those who aren't into the virtual Pinball scene, the cadre of retro delights should please most horror fans whose interests intersect with flippers and ricocheting balls.

Publisher provided review code.

Game Review: 'Fearmonium'

A challenging, "Cuphead"-inspired Metroidvania effort from publisher and developer Redblack Spade, "Fearmonium" sets you loose in a bizarre house of horrors with only your wits and twitch reflexes protecting you from inevitable deaths.

A dark, gothic feel pulses throughout the level and character design. Just as with "Cuphead," the visuals take cues from 1930s-style Fleischer Bros. animation. The expressionist art style juxtaposes seemingly innocent creatures with gritty touches, making nearly every entity you encounter a harbinger of impending death.

This is one of those games that ran away with my imagination with a well-crafted trailer, yet failed to fully deliver on its promise. Floaty controls and inconsistent hit detection had me scrambling to progress. My success seemed to depend as much on happenstance as it did the gradual sharpening of my skills. 

Still, the game managed to capture my interest with its intricate, Easter egg-filled levels and bizarre meta-story. The artistic choice to go with comic book panels and text dialogue harkened back to the NES and SNES, giving the game a haunting retro feel that also no doubt happened to save the shoestring budget a few bucks.

While often more trouble than it's worth, "Fearmonium" is worth a look for those who were obsessed with "Cuphead" and are looking for something of its ilk. Only those with steely nerves and a capacity to handle frustration should dare enter, though.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Saguaro City Musical Theatre Review: 'Roadl Dahl's Matilda the Musical'


Saguaro City Musical Theatre's spirited production plasters smiles on the audience.

Led by a boisterous title role performance from Miriam Howell, the cast breathes a vivacious punch to the 1988 Roald Dahl book, which was adapted for Broadway in 2010. 

Mandy Modic's direction and choreography casts a spell worthy of the sprightly character. An improbably talented and synchronized group of students performs meticulous choreography and pitch-perfect song-and-dance numbers. The dedication in rehearsal to reach this point of precision seems incalculable. Credit goes not only to Modic, but to the performers' parents, who rose to the occasion to help deliver Modic's vision.

The adult cast is also superb. Zach Wetzel and Nickole Custodio play Matilda's villainously self-centered and shallow parents, Tyler Wright chews scenery as the imposing Miss Agatha Trunchbull and Lydia Schmidt provides the emotional core as Matilda's sweet teacher, Miss Honey. Their chemistry with their younger counterparts is key to the show's success. As Dahl envisioned, most of the adults treat the children with casual cruelty.

The stagecraft, while workmanlike, has moments of elevated mysticism, including haunting silhouette projections that help illustrate the tragic episodic love story that Matilda recites. I was also floored by a climactic psychokinetic chalkboard inscription, which captured the spirit of Matilda's magic to dramatic effect.

While some of the song-and-dance numbers could have been cut to help maintain momentum, most of them nail their targets with aplomb. In particular, Schmidt's solemn "Pathetic" is a tender cry for help, "When I Grow Up" is a watershed sequence of self-reflection and "The Smell of Rebellion" is a rousing call to action for self-respect.

An adorable and endearing treasure, Saguaro City Musical Theatre's production o f"Matilda the Musical" deserves to be savored and appreciated. Perhaps its most amazing feat of magic was the way it kept my wild 2-year-old girl silent in appreciation throughout its 2-hour runtime. 

"Matilda the Musical" plays through Jan. 7 at Berger Performing Arts Center. Buy tickets here

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora'

A dazzling visual achievement, "Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora" is a canonical entry into James Cameron's ever-expanding Panbdora-based universe. Ubisoft's Massive Entertainment crafted the game in close concert with Disney and Lightstorm Entertainment, and the game both lives and dies by that firm link.

Just like the films and surrounding fiction, the rich cultural and vibrant visuals carry the narrative past its heavy-handed tendencies. And just like the films, the game is somewhat hollow, unintentionally cynical and exhausting.

There are hints of "Far Cry" and Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games throughout. The Ubisoft connection gives the game a certain heft and grounding that it would have lacked had Disney gone it alone or shirked it off to a bargain-basement dev.

You play as a Na'vi who sets off on a voyage across a rpreviously unseen portion of Pandora, known as the Western Frontier. You meet new tribes and battle and hunt new creatures, pick up an array of weapons and upgrades and explore what amounts to be a story of little consequence on the "Avatar" realm as a whole.

At the very least, I can say "Frontiers of Pandora" is far and away better than most film-to-game adaptations. This is a gamer's game, and bursts with artistic revelations and a sense of discovery. 

On the downside, there is a sameness to quests and a general sense of mucky writing and cut scenes that slows down the sense of momentum. At least with the game, unlike the film in theaters, you can stop for bathroom breaks whenever you like and not miss anything.

Overall, "Frontiers of Pandora" will thrill and satisfy major "Avatar" fans and even those who are dabblers. Obviously, anyone turned off by the entire scene should avoid this one. But I'm grateful for the opportunity to take another dip into Cameron's wild vision.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Game Review: 'Uno'

A classic travel and family card game, "Uno" is just as much fun in digital form, and negates the hassles of shuffling and gathering. On the other hand, some of the strategy is removed, because it's all too easy for competitors to see what cards others are holding on screen.

Even with the drawback, I prefer the game on PS5 rather than card form, at least while I'm at home. The convenience makes up for the competitive compromise, and there isn't a heck of a lot of skill involved in "Uno" anyway.

Available for free on PS5 for those who have the original PS4 version, the game also comes gratis for those who have a PlayStation Plus Extra membership. The Ultimate Edition includes DLC packs including "Fenyx's Quest," "Call of Yara" and "Valhalla."

You can play any version of the game with modifiable rulesets and win conditions, and players can jump into games. You can also play against other PS5 players online. It's a perfect way for siblings and old pals -- who now live too far apart to swap cards -- to reignite ancient "Uno" rivalries from days of yore.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Game Review: 'KarmaZoo'

A sunny, joyous indie effort, "KarmaZoo" is a teamwork-oriented puzzle game in which as many as 10 random players gather to pull together to complete common tasks or, more likely, bungle the objectives and aggressively grief one another.

As with nearly every multiplayer-focused game, you'll fare better if you take it on with friends and keep your lines of communication active throughout. But there's a certain charm in being stuck with a group of unknowns, which forces you to go through the motions to get a sense of which players are trustworthy and which you should ignore or actively freeze out.

An overall uneven effort, "KarmaZoo" is a light, rather flimsy affair that packs a punch in quick sessions but wears out its charm quickly. The fun you'll have largely depends upon the group you get thrown in with. It's like getting assigned to groupwork in high school. You may be stuck with goofballs who skate by as you shoulder the load, or, if you're lucky, a squad of likeminded, good-natured players who want to give each other a hand.

"KarmaZoo" may be silly and ludicrous, but its charms tend to outweigh its drawbacks. It will make you smile one minute, wince the next and shake your head in confoundment all the while. That's just the way karma has it.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Stand by Me' 4K Steelbook

The 1986 coming-of-age classic, which launched the careers of Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell and River Phoenix, spins a stirring and nostalgic tale of tween friendships flowering in 1959 Oregon.

Adapted from the Stephen King story, the quotable, gloriously shot film stands the test of time and remains every bit as watchable as it did when it was originally released. Presented in a glorious 4K remaster, the film looks sharp and stunning.

Extras include picture-in-picture commentary with director Rob Reiner, Wheaton and Feldman, as well as Reiner's original commentary track. There's also the mini-doc "Walking the Tracks: The Summer of Stand by Me" and a music video.

Studio sent film for review.


Monday, December 04, 2023

Early Game Review: 'A Highland Song'

Set in the Scottish Highlands, "A Highland Song" is a whimsical puzzle-laden platformer that captures the mystery and majesty of its setting as it tells a delightful and stirring story.

You play as Moira, a teen who has longed to leave her small village to experience the sea. When her uncle Hamish sends her a letter asking her to visit his coastal, she ventures off on an 80-day journey that will lead her to the lighthouse near Hamish. 

Metroidvania aspects abound, with hidden paths and surprises beckoning around every corner. As you climb, slide and run through the environments -- all set to a captivating traditional Scottish-style soundtrack -- an overwhelming sense of discovery washes over you. The music plays a particularly important part during rhythmic sections, which challenge you to keep pace with the music to advance.

The dev team at Inkle, who are following up indie successes of "80 Days," "Heaven's Vault" and "Overboard!" continue to follow their distinct voice, unfettered by corporate mandates or the demands of deadline crunches. "A Highland Song" is a gorgeous and inspired effort that feels like a joyous treasure.

Replayability abounds. Because the game is so rich and dense, it's impossible to experience all of its inner secrets on a single playthrough. I'd advise shying away from walkthroughs unless you are hopelessly stuck, because they rob the game of its sense of exploration and reward.

"A Highland Song" is one of the most intriguing games I have played this year, and it continues to reward me the more I play. The story inspires chuckles and tears, and makes you fall in love with the Highlands just as the developers have.

Publisher sent review code.