Monday, April 29, 2024

Game Review: 'Final Fantasy VII Rebirth'

With impressive ambition, monumental scope and exuberant execution, "Final Fantasy VII Rebirth" somehow manages to match and even surpass its sprawling fanbase's unreasonable demands.

Expanding on the impressive start of 2020's "Final Fantasy VII Remake" and its 2021 follow-up, "Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade," the massive release expands on the foreboding groundwork established before it. There are spiritual and story similarities to the original game, which works as a sort of framekwork which the current team of developers flesh out with current interpretations.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the new series, particularly its towering recent release, is that it manages to break the shackles of "Final Fantasy" archetypes while also embracing them conceptually enough to preserve the commanding feel and tone that's been established. 

The middle section of a planned trilogy, the game's story veers off in daring new directions, blending with an immersive combat system and seamless world-building to craft a whirlwind assault on the senses. "Final Fantasy VII Rebirth" goes beyond a cinematic impression to a realm that movies themselves can never touch and video games only rarely reach. Think the grandiosity of "Red Dead Redemption 2" blended with the sizzling combat of "Elden Ring" and the challenging narrative of "Chrono Trigger" and you begin to claw at the surface of the plateau in which "Rebirth" hovers.

All seriousness aside, it's also a joy to see how non-self-important the game is. Side quests, Easter eggs and knowing nods to superfans show a dev team unafraid to make fun of itself, the game development process, and JRPG cliches that date back to the series' original entry.

It's rare that a game takes me by the shoulders and sinks into me, body and spirit, from the opening moments and never lets go, but that's exactly what "Rebirth" managed to do. This is truly one for the ages, and the shivers that started in my spine at the opening titles were matched an exceeded many times over as the story twisted and turned, drawing chuckles, winces and, very nearly, tears.

"Final Fantasy VII Rebirth" is aptly named because, even though this is the hungry-for-attention middle child of a colossal endeavor of a trilogy, it feels like a fresh rejuvenation of all things "Final Fantasy," and perhaps gamedom itself. It makes you see its world and your own as if for the first time.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Early Game Review: 'El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron HD'

A fascinating curiosity of mainstream gamedom, "El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron" was one of the only games in memory that embraces mainstream religion. The 2011 release turned heads for its daring content and skillful execution, blending striking visuals with engaging combat and spellbinding storytelling.

While sales may not have delivered any sequels or imitators, the game remained an intriguing relic that became food for think pieces and analysis videos aplenty. 

Now comes an HD remaster, due out April 28, in which Enoch's quest for redemption as he takes on a host of fallen angels in a brutal, somehow poetic hack-and-slash. Originally released on the Xbox 360, before getting a PC release in 2021, the game seems to be an apt fit on the Switch, with its sewing circle of eclectic oddities from every corner of the indieverse, both modern and historical.

If ever there were a game in which you did yourself a disservice by skipping the cut scenes, this was it. The writers explore mainstream and obscure religious texts for the characters and scenarios that populate its story. Told with the steady, shamanistic cadence, the fable unfolds with poignance and emotional urgency. Enoch is striving not only for his own salvation, but that of man. In microcosm, his journey touches the most ancient urges of human storytelling.

Many HD remasters are more successful at showing a game's age rather than updating it, but "El Shaddai" holds up surprisingly well in the gameplay department. Not a moment of my time with the game seemed as though time had passed it by. This game, like the saga represents, is timeless. And it now looks the part as well, whether docked to your HDTV or taking it as a spiritual injection on the go.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Early Game Review: 'Top Spin 2K25'

Save for the occasional Mario Tennis release, fans of the sport haven't had much to cling to when it comes to gaming. But a baker's dozen of years between "Top Spin" releases has done the franchise well, and developer Hangar 13 has used the time well for what amounts to a relaunch of the franchise.

Helping "Top Spin 2K25," due out Friday, look toward the future is old-school favorite John McEnroe, who acts as a narrator and guides you through TopSpin Academy, a longform tutorial that guides you through the finer points of the game.

"Top Spin 2K25" hurls you into the mix with an intense showdown against Andy Murray. Playing as Roger Federer, you play out key points in an effort to come out victorious. After that, you are free to plunge into MyPlayer to craft your avatar. 

While the game launches as a single-player-only experience, online multiplayer is set to be added in an update sometime in May. The lack of a full suite at the outset may be discouraging, but at least the solo time allows you to hone your skills before the multiplayer scene opens up. Also, the player base will no doubt be stronger by the time the update comes along.

To get you going, you can trade serves with a slate of 25 current and past pros, including the likes of Serena Williams, Carlos Alcaraz, Iga Świątek, Frances Tiafoe and Andre Agassi.

With all four segments of the Grand Slam available, you can can serve and volley on the biggest stages in the sport. There are also MyCAREER and MyPLAYER modes available, matching the suite of options in the "NBA 2K" series.

The game looks and flows with gorgeous fluidity, surpassing past efforts, especially the Mario stuff, by leaps and bounds. 

With the confident burst of a first serve, "Top Spin 2K25" rushes the net with vigor and skill, marking an impressive return to form for the long-neglected franchise.

 Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Broadway in Tucson Review: Hairspray'

"Hairspray" first dazzled audiences as a 1988 John Waters movie, then captured Broadway hearts as a musical in 2002. That show was so successful that it inspired an encore film adaptation in 2007. The Broadway show's national tour is an endless victory lap for the phenomenon.

Bursting with catchy tunes, body-positive and civil rights messaging, "Hairspray" is as much an irresistible force of nature as its lead character, Tracy Turnblad. Played with vigor and determination by Caroline Eisman, Tracy longs to be included on the TV dance show, which nearly always consists of only thin, white performers. 

Determined not to let her plus-size body be the factor that holds her back, she turns heads at auditions and achieves her dream. But she doesn't stop there, using her newfound momentum to rally for racial equality, she makes new friends and enemies in the process. The throughline is that Tracy knows she will prevail because she's on the side of progress. As the show's tagline declares, you can't stop the beat.

From the show-launching "Good Morning Baltimore" to the dazzling duet "(You're) Timeless to Me" and the watershed "I Know Where I've Been," "Hairspray" is a nonstop succession of catchy ballads that infuse the audience with good cheer. 

The capable supporting cast, with Andrew Scoggin as showman Corny Collins, Caroline Portner as snotty Amber Von Tussle and Micah Sauvageau and Greg Kalafatas as Tracy's parents, "Hairspray" comes to life with gorgeous scenery, precision choreography and hummable music that coalesces into a boisterous extravaganza. I adored the timely additions to the script, which included a swipe at the Donald Trump regime and a crowd-wowing references to the Old Pueblo and University of Arizona.

"Hairspray" is a show for dreamers, early 1960s nostalgia and vestiges that still remain of the bygone oppressive era. Society has come a long way since the days in which "Hairspray" was set, but still has miles to go. It will take the Tracy Turnblads of the world to get us there.

"Hairspray" plays through April 28 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hot on Home Video: 'Drive-Away Dolls,' ''Madame Web,' 'Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths - Part Two'

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan co-star in this comedic coming-of-age thriller about a pair of friends -- both lesbian -- who take a road trip to Tallahassee, Florida, after their personal lives hit brick walls. Unaware that the vehicle they're renting is holding some highly sought-after contraband, they become targets of law enforcement and criminal elements alike. A winning script combines with two striking lead performances and a cameo from Matt Damon for a disarming, easy-to-like effort from filmmakers Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke.

Extras include interviews with the cast and filmmakers, a look back at the 20-year process it took for Coen and Cooke to bring the film to screen and a featurette dubbed "Road Trip Essentials."

Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney join forces for this awkward spinoff of the Sony Spider-Man/Venom universe. Johnson plays the title character, Manhattan paramedic Cassandra Webb, who discovers psychic abilities that connect her with three young women who are destined to take on superpowers if they can overcome sinister threats that plague them. 

As the film's 12% Rotten Tomatoes rating indicates, the stiff, slow affair is largely forgettable. Extras include a gag reel, Easter eggs, a deleted scene and featurettes on the film's casting . 

The second part of the animated adaptation of DC's monumental 1980s superhero crossover is as much of a crowd-pleaser as January's initial entry. The likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Batman and the Flash band together to take on the realm-decimating Anti-Monitor. Engaging storytelling, spirited voice performances and challenging storylines deliver a faithful yet inventive retelling of a classic story.

Extras include "Voices in Crisis," "The Bat-Family of the Multiverse" and a sneak peak at the third and final part of the saga.

Studios provided screeners for review.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Book Report: 'A Season on the Brink: A Year With Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers'


A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana HoosiersA Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers by John Feinstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Feinstein's access and blunt storytelling capture the essence of a bygone era of college basketball. The vintage Bob Knight Indiana teams captured a moment in time when the three-point shot had just been introduced, teams could stall out a 45-second shot clock and players redshirted and stayed for as many as five years with one program, immersed in the program's culture until they could lead the team as fifth-year seniors.

The book lionizes Knight, who had little control of his mercurial temper, bulled just for the sake of exerting powerful on those he controlled, and fed his insatiable ego with his every move. The book is set two seasons before I started watching the game, and helped fill in some blank spots for me, granting me a thorough understanding of the power dynamics of the period.

The psychological damage exerted by Knight is excused by the author in the grand cause of cutting down the nets, but the tome does work as a prophetic sign of the self-immolation that would one day consume not only Knight and the Indiana program, but destroy this era altogether.

The writing is pretty solid, save for the long spells of mundane play-by-play that lacks color or context.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Dave's Hot Chicken Opens in Marana

Wednesday was a glorious day for those who live in my corner of suburbia. The lauded Dave's Hot Chicken expanded to the space formerly occupied by a lowly, ignored Burger King that long lurked in Costco's shadow.

Now the intersection of Thornydale and Orange Grove is suddenly a power center, with Top Golf holding things down and Freddy's, Firehouse Subs, Smoothie King and Popeye's beckoning from the southwest corner.

For my money, no chicken joint comes close to hanging with Dave's, which continues to expand after opening a Tucson location in 2022. The new location, at 3915 W. Costco Drive, opens for real on Friday. This one comes with a drive-thru, and will undoubtedly become my go-to when I'm looking for a cheat day on my ever-struggling weight loss journey.

I caught up with Von Dyer, Director of Operations, who beamed at the soft opening as crowds swarmed in to devour the ludicrously delicious sliders, tenders and shakes.

"As we embark on the journey of opening a new Dave's Hot Chicken location in Marana, AZ, I am filled with a sense of pride and excitement," he said. "For me, this endeavor represents more than just launching another restaurant; it symbolizes the opportunity to become an integral part of the local community, to create jobs, and to provide a memorable dining experience for our guests. Opening this new location is a testament to our team's hard work, dedication and commitment to delivering excellence in everything we do. We look forward to serving the Marana community and sharing the unique flavors and hospitality that Dave's Hot Chicken is known for.

Here are some shots I took while enjoying an introductory meal on the house.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Game Review: 'Contra: Operation Galuga'

 A reimagining of the original run-and-gun NES classic, "Contra: Operation Galuga" looks, feels and plays like a breezy blast of 1980s nostalgia.

Capturing the spirit and look of the original game while blessed with wholesale quality-of-live improvements and visual and storytelling flourishes, the game is rock solid in single-player but, like the original, truly blossoms when you're playing with a friends at your side.

Over the years, the "Contra" franchise had lost its way as it tried to fall on too many grenades, attempting to follow rather than lead. "Operation Gulaga" is a stubborn return to form, following the path set by the likes of Double Dragon," "Mega Man," "Sonic" and "Mario" as the franchises returned to the side-scrolling glory of old.

The old formula remains intact: You scour the background for power-ups, switching among your left and right hand, which can both hold a firearm with varied capabilities. You can also call for reinforcements, and the traditional platform scaling returns, buttressed by an ability that lets you hang from pivot points.

Outrageous battles, wild explosions and goofy cut frames grant the game its easygoing brilliance. This is a title clearly designed for gamers exactly like me, who grew up wasting away afternoons with a best pal while blasting through the endless reams of minions and larger-than-life boss fights. "Contra: Operation Galuga" is just about perfect for what it sets out to be.

Publisher provided review code.

Hot on Home Video: 'Lisa Frankenstein,' 'Night Swim'


Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse star in this offbeat, necromancy-themed coming-of-age/rom-com. Based on a script by Diablo Cody, Zelda Williams directs the darkly humorous, 1980s-set tale of a social outcast girl who meets a resurrected, zombified teen who died in the 19th century who helps her along her journey and becomes something of a soulmate. Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest and Carla Gugino round out the cast.

Extras include five deleted scenes, a gag reel and a slew of featurettes, including "Resurrecting the 1980s" and a look at the filmmaking collaboration between Williams and Cody.


A supernatural thriller from horror maestros Atomic Monster and Blumhouse, "Night Swim" stars Kerry Condon, Wyatt Russell, Ameli Hoeferle and Gavin Warren in the story of a former pro baseball player who moves with his family to a new home with a swimming pool that tends to be linked to a dangerous force that could rip the family apart. While critics griped about the script and effects, the film does manage to pack plenty of intensity.

Extras include feature commentary with filmmaker Bryce McGuire, McGuire's breakdown of the nightmarish Marco Polo scene and a look inside the underwater sequences.

Studios provided screeners for review.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Broadway in Tucson: 'MJ - The Musical'

Bolstered by a blistering lead performance by Roman Banks, "MJ - The Musical" is a relentless surge of energy that pays tributes to the King of Pop while glossing over some of the most nefarious allegations that plagued his career.

The 2021 Broadway smash comes to life on its tour, with relentless momentum and a penchant for working its story to use bombastic performances of Jackson's greatest hits to amplify messages of loss, frustrations and perseverance that Jackson references in the framework, an interview with MTV.

Banks doesn't so much as capture Jackson's energy as he channels it. A dynamic performer who wields moves, vocals and kinetic energy that comes eerily close to that of Jackson himself, he hurls his entire being into creating a crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping spectacular.

Devin Bowles anchors the show with a dynamic dual performance as Jackson's domineering father, Joe, and manager Rob. The characters are so diametrical that it's jarring to see the same actor flip back and forth between the two so frequently, but the actor's presence provides a haunting link between the two that adds poignance to interactions with the troubled star.

The story, set before the 1993 Dangerous World Tour, is something of a wasted opportunity that fails to dig into the true fabric of the pop superstar, but that stance was likely mandated by the Jackson estate, which no doubt pushed for a warts-free hagiography rather than an honest look at a complicated, and, as many believe, nefarious figure.

It's best to check those concerns at the door and bop in delight to Banks' lights-out performances of such classics as "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Smooth Criminal," "Thriller" and "Bad." "MJ - The Musical" aims to be a rollicking tribute to a music icon that ignores the darkest corners of his personal life, and accomplishes that task with panache.

"MJ - The Musical" plays through April 7 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Game Review: 'Open Roads'

 A bittersweet dose of flip phone-era nostalgia, "Open Roads" is an introspective story of discovery that blossoms along a mother-daughter road trip.

The latest adventure from Annapurna Interactive, masters of subtle design and known for the likes of "Stray," "Florence" and "What Remains of Edith Finch," maintains the studio's high standard of intriguing writing with compelling gameplay hooks.

You guide Tess, a burned out teenager, as she tags along with her mother, Opal, on road trip that unlocks uncomfortable truths and discomforting memories among multiple generations. You start by packing up the room of a home you're leaving, then pass time behind the wheels, sometimes intentionally annoying your mother. 

Along the way, dialogue trees let you craft your own version of Tess, rendering her guarded, confrontational, conniving or some ever-changing combination thereof. Your choices don't seem to affect the narrative, but instead shed different lights on plot points that unfold.

A gorgeous and understated travelogue that boils over with astute observations and muted emotional epiphanies, the game is a short, powerful tale that begs to be re-experienced. This is one road trip that is truly about the journey rather than the destination.

Publisher provided review code.