Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Game Review: 'Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth'

Few RPG series manage to maintain the release frequency while upholding the quality level the way Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio does with the "Like a Dragon" franchise, which evolved from the "Yakuza" games. 

Just about every year, a new entry comes down the pike and dares gamers to invest hours into its intense combat, intriguing social sim aspects and bewildering slate of minigames that sink you into the high-flying culture of the Japanese mob.

With a turn-based combat system that seems to nod to the "Final Fantasy" games of yesteryear, you maneuver your party into opportunistic positions to enact the most damage with your strikes, special abilities and status-altering maneuvers. Battles become complex chain reactions that you orchestrate with strategic tweaks and adjustments, watching your decisions unfold in a satisfyingly brutal manner.

Oftentimes, battles rage on with the elegance of a John Woo film, with characters improvising attacks with objects that they weaponize to thrilling effect.

In between missions, you can blow off steam in minigames including a dating app, a Pokemon-like creature training game and a "Crazy Taxi"-style delivery escapade. The non sequiturs the franchise's side distractions offer have always made the series stand out, adding considerable charm and whimsy to the often grim procedings.

With a stirring story -- expect hours of cut scenes unless you are impatient and prefer skipping them -- and strong character development, "Infinite Wealth" continues the series' storied tradition, and will no doubt keep its fans salivating for the next entry. Nine games into the stalwart franchise, "Like a Dragon" shows no signs of folding up its wings.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Game Review: 'Tekken 8'

With the release of "Tekken 8," the fighting genre has completed a fresh round of reinvigorating triumph.

Bandai Namco Entertainment, no doubt looking to top last year's successes of "Street Fighter VI" and "Mortal Kombat 1," 

Locked and loaded with a fresh, fast-paced battle system, a dizzyingly ludicrous story mode and airtight online play, the franchise manages to reach a peak that it's been steadily building toward since the release of the original game in 1994.

The opening slate of fighters is a tantalizing mix of styles and intensity levels, with players geared more toward strategic deployments of specials, tank-like bruisers and lithe masters of aerial acrobatics. The balance at play is impressive, with no standout cheap or weak characters. 

Each battle takes on a chess-like game of psychology and strategy, testing your mental faculties as much as your twitch reflexes. The spoils come to those who master the finer moments of the game's inner rhythms.

The dev team was unafraid to go against the grain, shattering the shackles of previous entries while blazing new trails. While the game plays like something fresh and vibrant, it also remains decidedly true to the Tekken spirit.

I'll be sending out strategic texts to my old dorm friends, so we can renew our arcade battles online. Even though the "Tekken" franchise is now three decades old, it feels as though it's just getting warmed up.

Publisher provided review code.

Early Game Review: 'Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League'

The rowdy band of mercenary convicts known as the Suicide Squad is used to facing impossible missions that just about guarantee death. The latest attempt: To turn the tide of early griping from gamers about their new game.

Although some players complained of a buggy launch, my time with the game was silk-smooth and thoroughly enjoyable. I reveled at the opportunity to take control of King Shark, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn and Deadshot in their madcap caper to take down the world's superheroes.

The effort comes from Rocksteady Studios, which developed the Batman-centered Arkham trilogy, that redefined superhero gaming. The new effort leans hard -- probably too much so -- into the live-service aspect of multiplayer, dreaming of topping the mindshare of the Fortnights and Call of Duty games of the world.

The game entered early access Jan. 30 and officially releases Friday, looks to capitalize off the momentum of James Gunn's 2021 reboot film and follow-up "Peacemaker" series.

Whip-smart writing that's filled with gallows humor permeates the game, which offers a sardonic, sacred cow-roasting take on the DC mythos. The visuals also delight, blending into the lightning-fast traversal that gleefully overpowers its characters in an effort to replicate the free-swinging fun of the PlayStation Spider-Man games.

As a result, Harley Quinn is a drone-toting grappler who can traverse buildings at rates that would make Superman dizzy. Deadshot ditches his stealth reputation as a speedster who occasionally stops and pops heads with his sniper rifle. And the lumbering King Shark can rocket across canyon through the force of sheer will.

All players have diverse abilities, but also can pull out firearms to lay waste to faceless enemies en masse to rack up kill counts. As a result, there's a sameness to the ways each character controls, but that's likely for the better. The name of the game is high-caliber, team-focused action rather than diverse gameplay experiences with each character.

While I would have liked to have seen some more cohesive storytelling and interaction with the Justice League heroes, I admire the game's gusto and moxie, and will be returning to button-mash my way through the adventures time and again when I'm in need of something light and breezy. 

"Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League" may not win over the haters who are determined to knock it off its pedestal, but it's carved out its share of my PS5 hard drive for months to come.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Game Review: 'Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown'

Returning to seize its crown after a 14-year absence, "Prince of Persia" wall-jumps back into excellent form with a retro-flavored, Metroidvania twist dubbed "The Lost Crown."

Filled with satisfying combat tinted with "For Honor"-style parrying, "God of War"-influenced boss battles and a fast-paced level design that had me thrilled from the opening, "The Lost Crown" is a pizzazz-filled revitalization that refills the series health as though it were a powerful red potion from the game itself.

Lavish visuals, humorous writing and a freewheeling spirit course through the game's DNA. The 2D take on the escapades recall the early days of "Ninja Gaiden," and make for an excellent reset point for the franchise. Here's hoping Ubisoft sticks with this format rather than forcing it back awkwardly into the 3D realm.

I played the game on Switch, which seemed to me the ideal platform to experience the game, echoing its earliest days, in the late 1980s and early 90s. The earliest entries were somewhat blocky and clumsy affairs, while the new game is as slick and polished as a stalwart fan would dare hope.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with "The Lost Crown," relishing the intensity, numerous flourishes, Easter eggs and gorgeous scenery. A refreshing take on well-worn material, the game manages to revitalize the legend for a new generation. For the first time in decades, the future of the series looks brighter than the past.

Published provided review code.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Hot on Home Video: 'Journey to Bethlehem'

A surprisingly poignant and impactful take on the Nativity story, "Journey to Bethlehem" brings musical life to the age-old tale. Director Adam Anders weaves a delightful whimsy along with solemn notes in the story, which stars Fiona Palomo as Mary and Milo Manheim as Joseph. Spirited, nuanced performances lead the way, making the family-friendly film a worthy go-to Christmas season pastime for families. The film manages to stay heartfelt without stumbling into cheesiness.

Extras include three deleted scenes, as well as spotlights on characters including Mary and Joseph, Mary's sisters, Antipater and a making-of featurette titled "The Heart of 'The Journey to Bethlehem.'"

Studio provided review screener.

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Review: Galaxy Z Fold 5 sizzles on T-Mobile network

As the ever-expanding smartphone arms race rolls on, it becomes increasingly tough to trigger the "wow" factor that was common 10 or 15 years ago when new devices debuted.

Enter the Galaxy Z Fold 5, which reclaims that wow factor with a vengeance. 

Released in August, the wondrous device seems as though it comes from the future. At a family Christmas gathering, the device sent "oohs" and "aahs" throughout the living room. 

A multitasker's delight, the phone can juggle four screens running different apps simultatenously. You can easily keep an eye on the football game while tapping out texts, googling facts about players and checking out your fantasy stats, all at the same time.

It helps that the device was running on T-Mobile's stunning 5G Magenta MAX network, which pumps the gigabytes of data necessary to keep this top-tier smartphone swimming in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset-flowing waters for which it was born.

When it came time to take the customary group photo, we placed the device as an L frame, then signaled it to take the shot with a hand gesture. No one dared try to display bunny ears behind anyone else, because we could all see the image it was capturing.

At home, my 2-year-old daughter's eyes bugged out when she could watch "Yo Gabba Gabba" in vivid, larger-than-life aspect ratio when the phone opened up. Many phones have strived to be a tablet you could keep in your pocket, but the Z Fold 5 actually delivers on that lofty promise.

The camera suite is impressive, led by a 50mp stabilized main camera that sports 12mp ultrawide capabilities, as well as a 10mp 3x telephoto lens. Video records in mind-bending 8K, which you can downscale to capture 4K shots instead. There's also a nifty 4mp under-display camera that checks in for on-the-go video calling.

No gaming or streaming task I hurled at it could come close to slowing it down. Its capable battery also lived up to the task of insanely heavy use without batting an eye or heating up. One drawback is that the Z Fold 5 takes a while to charge up, but that is a small price to pay for its extended, worry-free utility.

A true pioneer among the latest and greatest of smartphone elites, the Galaxy Z Fold 5 makes you feel truly proud to possess. To use one is to also become its walkings spokesperson, giddily fielding questions from all who spot it. And when you see someone else with the Z Fold 5, you nod in a knowing, shared assurance that you have tapped into the futuristit present that Samsung has made to offer. 

What a feeling, and what a phone.

T-Mobile provided unit for review.