Inbetween Land HD Review – iOS

Inbetween Land HD is the latest adventure game from G5 Entertainment that mixes in a heavy dose of hidden item locating and some more traditional adventure gaming elements. The story is rather loose with a poor setup that makes it hard to care about the characters or our main heroine’s quest to find her lost friend, Mary who was mysteriously transported to some giant island that floats over the city like a giant flying saucer from Independence Day. A quick search of your friend’s room and surrounding area nets you the items required to create a portal that transports you to the island where your search can really begin.

Unlike most other HOA, Inbetween Land mixes things up by having you find pieces of items rather than entire items. Once combined, they will unlock new items that can be used to solve puzzles and advance the story. It doesn’t really change up the genre all that much, but merely adds a nice level of additional detail to the mix. The overarching quest has you searching for five crystals you’ll need to save Mary

The game is certainly not short on lush backgrounds and original art style. The scenes are meticulously detailed and the 50+ locations definitely gave off a distinct “Myst” vibe that looked amazing on my iPad’s retina display. There is nice use of subtle animations in the static shots and some great ghostly overlays and cutscenes that mix up the hunt screens. The puzzles and mini-games are nicely designed from a visual standpoint.

19 mini-games and three modes to play offer a variety of ways to approach the game, but even at its hardest, Inbetween Land is far from challenging. It’s a shame really, because I can see great potential in the setup and material had the developers put just a bit more work into creating something that would grip the player and encourage them to keep playing. While puzzles later in the game get more creative, they still don’t provide the necessary challenge, making this game more of a casual time filler than an actual adventure game.

Inbetween Land HD game just didn’t grab me like so many other G5 adventures have in the past. The script is awkward as is the delivery of the lines by the voice actors. The puzzles are a bit simplistic for all but the most novice of gamers, so unless this is your first rodeo you’ll tear through this game in 2-3 hours. It’s free to try and $5 to unlock the full experience. This might be a great game to introduce your kids to the HOA genre, but most seasoned explorers can probably hold off for something a bit more substantial.


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Dragonborn DLC Review – PC

It’s taken a while for Skyrim to finally get an expansion that’s, well, like Skyrim. Dawnguard was fun, sure, and it had some spectacular vistas, but it didn’t even begin to approach the amount of open-world exploring that made Skyrim one of the best games of 2011. Now, finally, as ambitious and imperfect and sometimes annoying and amazing as Skyrim originally was, Dragonborn comes to PC, bringing players to Solstheim and a new plane of Oblivion. It is, in the best sense of the word, more Skyrim.

With a new landmass roughly a fifth the size of Skyrim’s mainland, the island of Solstheim shares the snow of the main game, but trades the rest for the wonderfully bizarre trappings of Morrowind. Buildings carved from discarded shells, massive silt striders, and the remains of Imperial colonization are only some of the things you’ll find on the island as you investigate the plans of the original Dragonborn to come back to life.

It’s been over a decade since the Elder Scrolls series took us to Morrowind. While some might have signed on for the dragon riding or the new quest line involving your new rival, the first Dragonborn, I’ve always been an Elder Scrolls lore junkie, and Morrowind was always home to the choicest, weirdest cuts of lore. When Dragonborn finally came to PC, I jumped at the chance to return to Solstheim.

Solstheim is both awash in nostalgia and refreshingly unfamiliar. Changed by the events between Morrowind’s Bloodmoon expansion, the island’s been abandoned by the East Empire Company, and instead claimed by the its native inhabitants and the Dunmer noble houses. Books explain the new trinity of the gods that have replaced the Tribunal that Morrowind left dead, and some of the game’s best-written NPCs detail what’s happened to the province since the Nerevarine last came.

Unfortunately, as good as the lore is, and as interesting as exploring the world is, the game’s mechanics don’t quite match up to its ambitions. The dragon-riding is disappointing, only allowing you to launch occasional attacks at the ground and as a new way to fast travel. For all the hype about fighting the original Dragonborn, he turns out, in the end, to be another Skyrim fight. Still, by this point, after the painfully awkward vampire lord form in Dawnguard, and Skyrim’s general inability to make a fight against a human-scale opponent more dramatic than timed blocks and bonking enemies with your axe shouldn’t surprise anyone. They’re certainly parts of the game, but not parts that I think anyone comes for.

The parts that people do come for – getting lost in a vast overworld, exploring dank dungeons and strange environments – are all present and accounted for. It’s the first expansion to Skyrim that acts on why the base game was so good and, if you still have even a spark of interest remaining in Skyrim, it’s worth picking up Dragonborn to rekindle it.


Peter Pan Diamond Edtion Blu-ray Review

I’m a big fan of all things Disney, but with so much to choose from in their massive library I definitely have my favorites and my no-so-favorites. For whatever reason, Peter Pan just never made a solid connection for me as a child and then when movies like Hook tainted the franchise I really lost respect. It wasn’t until the SyFy Channel did an interesting treatment of the material with their Neverland miniseries that I saw any potential in the Peter Pan saga. So with a fresh perspective and 40 years of movie-watching under my belt I sat down to relive the fantasy adventure that is Peter Pan, fully remastered and released to Blu-ray.

It’s probably insulting to even begin to cover the story behind Peter Pan, as anyone with the ability to read this review has likely seen the film at least once on some previously released format, but just to cover my bases, Peter Pan deals with the unique relationship between a girl, Wendy Darling, and a rogue “bad boy”, Peter Pan. Wendy has two younger brothers, John and Michael, and late one night Peter Pan appears and whisks them all away to Never Land, a magical realm filled with pirates, Indians, and a group of orphaned children known as the Lost Boys. Great adventure ensues as Peter’s fairy companion, Tinker Bell, who has a crush on Peter and is a bit jealous of Wendy, stirs up trouble and puts the children in the scope of the notorious Captain Hook.

Whether you can wrap yourself in the story or not there is no denying the expert level of craftsmanship and artistry on display in what is easily one of Disney’s most masterful animated features. The expressions, emotions, and level of detail in both characters and the gorgeous backgrounds rival the purity of anything that could be rendered from a computer. The film has been magnificently restored allowing for a pristine 1080p/AVC transfer that is free from grain and loaded with energized colors and crisp detail. Contrast is excellent and black levels are deep and satisfying. Peter Pan has never looked better.

Disney knocks it out of the park with another flawless DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix that effortlessly competes with any modern day production. There is effective use of rear channels to immerse you in Never Land while minimal use of LFE punches up key moments in the film. Throw in a perfectly balanced dialogue track and music that dreams are made of and you have an outstanding audio presentation. Sadly, those looking for a lossless version of the original mono track from 1953 will have to settle for a 192kps Dolby Digital mono track. I’m not sure why you would want to settle for anything less than DTS unless you were just trying to prove how far we’ve come in sixty years.

Disney’s Diamond Edition packs in the extras with a Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy of the film, which looks amazing on my iPad’s retina display. You can kick off the Peter Pan experience with an Introduction by Diane Disney-Miller who gives some brief insight into the creation of the film. Those who have watched Peter Pan on the previously released DVD will likely recognize Roy Disney’s feature length commentary that covers nearly every aspect of creating Disney’s 14th feature film. “Growing Up with Nine Old Men” is a 41-minute fact-filled documentary detailing the artistic contributions by Disney’s most famous group of lead animators. Digging deeper into the vault, Disney adds 15 minutes of Deleted Songs and Scenes presented as storyboards and rough illustrations.

Much like the commentary, all of the previously released bonus content from the original DVD has been brought over, most of which remains in SD with a few HD exceptions. These include featurettes, documentaries, and more deleted material totaling 82 minutes. New for the Blu-ray release is the Disney Intermission feature; a clever and entertaining diversion that pops up anytime you hit pause during the movie. For kids who want to sing along, you can toggle some karaoke style lyrics with the Peter Pan Sing-Along feature, and if you find those black bars on the sides of the 1.33:1 picture insufferable, fill them in with some gorgeous background art from Disney artist, Cristy Maltese using Disney’s Side Bars. Last up are 14 minutes of Sneak Peeks for films like Wreck-It Ralph, Monsters University, and many more.

I have to admit that I enjoyed Peter Pan much more at age 49 than I ever did at age 9, and even though I may have changed over four decades, Disney continues to prove that their films are timeless treasures that will entertain children and adults now and far into the future. This remastered version is the best that Peter Pan has ever looked and sounded in his life and is a must have for anyone with kids of their own or just a kid at heart. No Disney collection is complete until you add the Peter Pan Diamond Edition.


Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review – PlayStation 3

If you haven’t read any of my previous reviews then you probably won’t know that I have a love of RPGs and all things anime, so imagine my surprise when I found out that two of my favorite companies, developer Level-5 and the legendary animation company Studio Ghibli was pairing up to make a game over 2 years ago. After a long agonizing wait, North America finally gets its stateside release of Ni No Kuni: Wraith of the White Witch on the PS3.

The partnership of these two amazing companies has brought about a journey that spans two worlds and touches the heart at the most unexpected times. I can’t say a whole lot about the story without spoiling the good bits but I’ll lay out the basics. The story follows the happy-turned-tragic life of young Oliver in a 1950’s inspired world. After a freak “accident”, Oliver’s mom succumbs to a heart attack after saving her son from a watery grave. Yeah, I know this comes off as a bit much, but this story may just have a happy ending for the player after all for those willing to stick through Ni No Kuni until the very end.

In true Level-5 and Ghibli form, Oliver awakens in a magical fairy in his world. This little Welsh speaking fairy with a lantern as a nose jewelry reveals to Oliver that there is another world from which he came that is in danger. It turns out that Oli-boy, is the Pure-Hearted One, the only one that could save their parallel world using magic as his weapon. As an added bonus for saving their world in true JRPG form, Oliver may have a way to help himself in the process. One of my favorite things about that Ni No Kuni is that the gameplay is a unique mixture of classic RPG elements and some creature training goodness.

Ni No Kuni is different than most of the RPGs that I’ve played over the years. I’m used to just beating the daylights out of any enemy in my way via swords and daggers and the like. In this world the key method of attack is magic, not that that stops Oliver from beating on creatures with his wand. Combat is a nice mix of real-time and turned-based action with a few twists. For starters, players are allowed to move around the battlefield at will which is fast becoming the norm for modern RPGs. The actual fighting works via a rolodex menu setup and timers which is classic fare. Whether it’s in a dungeon or out in the world, the enemy count in Ni No Kuni is off the scales. Sometimes it’s downright annoying when you defeat an enemy and take a few steps forward only to have another one standing there when you turn around, but on the bright side it’s a great way to level grind occasionally should the need arise.

The biggest and most welcome feature is the creature training and future capturing that occurs as you hit critical points in the story. You get your first creature, or Familiar, from Oliver’s heart while the rest are earned via story events or added features. Very similar to a certain franchise, these Familiars level up as you use them and can even evolve if given proper attention. The downside is the creature’s level resets back to level one when you do this, but the character is stronger for it. Some of the creatures you get naturally are pretty awesome like Thumbelemur, but there are a bunch of amazing enemies out there that any player would want on their side. With a little help from a certain character you can catch them and use them in battle. The one thing that makes this game unique is that you share the same health and mana bar as your familiars so if they are defeated so are you. It’s all about managing what abilities to use and when, whether it is via Oliver and his friends or their familiars.

There is more to the world of Ni No Kuni than meets the eye. There is a level of emotional elements that ties the two parallel worlds together. One of the main elements in the game is that an evil man has caused discord in the fantasy world resulting in some of its inhabitants losing heart in their everyday lives. Oliver, being the little wizard-in-training that he is, has to help restore what was stolen from these people on a regular basis throughout the game via magic. For instance, if someone is lacking the courage to do something, then he has to find another person in the surrounding area that is filled with an overabundance of it. There are several side quests as well as main story elements that require you to restore people to their former selves, usually to some reward. It’s a touching element that I haven’t encountered in any other gaming experience.

Ni No Kuni heavily focuses on friendship, family, and helping out others throughout its course and this is ever so apparent in the side quests. By visiting a certain shop in each town you can take jobs for those in need of a little help. Some quests are about curing someone of “broken heartedness” while others will have you collecting items or defeating X number of monsters. Completing these tasks will earn you stamps on a card. Upon filling up a card you can redeem them for perks that will aid young Oliver in his quests such as running faster on the world map.

As I said before Studio Ghibli are masters of what they do. One of the main reasons, I love this game so much is that I felt like I was actually in one of their films. The hand-drawn animated sequences alone are absolutely stunning, but it’s Level-5’s ability to take Ghibli’s trademark style and create the world and its inhabitants in 3-dimensional space. Their ability to create and blend these two styles is a marvel itself. The world at large is beautifully vibrant and detailed right down to the monsters and landscape. There are also the little atmospheric nuances such as cloud shadows and light particles that really flush out the presentation.

The graphics are topnotch but the music and audio are what really completes the package. Most of the major conversations are spoken in either English or the native Japanese. For the sake of my review I went with English. That and I didn’t want to reinstall the 4GB of game date just to see what a Welsh fairy sounded like in Japanese. The score for Ni No Kuni is everything that I expected in a project involving Studio Ghibli. This largely has to do with the composer chosen for this project which is none other than the renowned Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi’s trademark style is as instantly recognizable to the ear as is Studio Ghibli’s art to the eyes. It’s only fitting as Hisaishi has scored most of Ghibli’s most successful films to date. Every track be it the exotic Middle Eastern inspired tone of the city of Al Mamoon to the touching theme song is absolutely perfect for Ni No Kuni. I’m looking forward to the soundtrack when it releases in March.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was an experience unlike any RPG that I’ve ever played. The story was engrossing right to the end as I felt myself rooting for Oliver and his new friends the whole way. The fantastic art direction of Studio Ghibli and the attention and craft of Level-5 is just astounding throughout. The score is out of this world awesome and the voice cast is well done. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch isn’t just another RPG on the market; it is an adventure that every PS3 owner should experience. This is a must buy!


Ace Combat Assault Horizon: Enhanced Edition Review – PC

Ace Combat is easily one of the most recognizable flight-combat franchises when it comes to console gaming, but PC gamers who want to experience high-intensity, high-altitude aerial combat normally get their wings clipped. The PC is traditionally known for the more serious “flight sim”, but Namco Bandai is about to change all that with their outstanding release of Ace Combat Assault Horizon: Enhanced Edition.

For those who are wondering; yes, this is the same game that released to consoles back in 2011, only this version has been greatly enhanced, both in content and technology, allowing for stunning high-resolution graphics up to 1900×1200, and loads of bonus content previously offered as DLC for the consoles including 8 aircraft, 2 maps, 27 skins, and 9 skills upgrades. So, if you’ve never played Assault Horizon or even if you did and want to relive the adventure, the $35 Enhanced Edition for the PC may just be the cheapest airfare you’ll find this winter.

The PC version maintains support for exciting multiplayer action with up to 16 players as well as co-op missions, but the biggest improvement has got to be the additional support for flight sticks; something the console version lacked. Pretty much every current Windows-compatible joystick is supported and works great, adding greatly to the immersion of the flight-combat experience. For those without a stick, rest assured your gamepad or Xbox 360 controller is fully supported, and yes, you can play the game with a mouse and keyboard but seriously…why would you want to?

Assault Horizon introduces all sorts of new concepts, features, and gameplay modes. First up is that we are no longer flying in the fictional reality of previous games, but this time we are fighting in real world locations like Miami, Dubai, and Washington D.C. You’ll still get a nice mix of environments ranging from deserts and mountain ranges to battles over the ocean and populated cities. The choice of aircraft is staggering with multiples types of planes for each sortie based on air, ground, or multi-purpose superiority, and secondary weapons packages to complement your play style.

This latest Ace Combat introduces a few twists into the standard game formula by adding new types of aircraft with specific missions related to those craft, so you might find yourself hanging out the side of an attack chopper operating a chain-gun, or you might be piloting an air support mission in your nimble Apache helicopter, or perhaps making a nighttime bombing run in a stealth bomber where you have to fly in low beneath enemy radar. You’ll even get to man the guns in an AC-130 for some high-altitude ground support complete with night vision. Keep in mind, these non-fighter missions are spread thinly across the story, so they make for a nice diversion, and they are usually paired up with a traditional fighter mission.

Of course the big new feature for Assault Horizon is the dogfighting, and this is by far my favorite new element of the game. Love it or hate it, you will have to engage in these epic Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay-Tony Scott chase sequences. Gone are the days of flying in circles and double-tapping the missile button every time you get a lock tone. You now have to get into a close proximity and watch for the DFM indicator then tap LB+RB to swoop into position on the enemy six and proceed to give chase, unloading your machine gun and trying to fill up the new missile lock circle to fire close range rockets. During these intense chases your plane will be on partial autopilot. You still need to keep the enemy fairly centered on the screen or the DFM will break and you will have to reacquire your target.

These DFM chases will often swoop down to the deck or twist through city streets, oil fields, shipping yards, or other confined areas creating some of the best and most intense flight combat moments in gaming history. Early in the game I was skimming the coast along Miami Beach less than a hundred feet off the highway then out to sea where my machine guns were sending up giant plumes of water. Midway through the game you are flying over Dubai with that famous building that looks like a sailboat and the manmade landmass that looks like a palm tree. And near the end of the game you’ll be flying and weaving through Washington D.C. and all the familiar landmarks. I even took out a chunk of the Washington Monument.

The longer these DFM chases last the more likely some other pilot will get on your six forcing you to pull an evasive maneuver, and if timed properly, can put you on the tail of a new target. Enemies you are pursuing can also perform these same breakaway moves, but you have a microsecond to counter his move and line-up for a critical hit. It’s actually a sophisticated combat system that is extremely rewarding to master. Much like DFM, you also have ASM, which puts you on a guided semi-autopilot path for ground attacks. Basically, you find the trigger point in the sky marked with a triangle and hit LB+RB and begin your low-level run unloading guns and any ground missiles or rockets you have equipped, while dodging any incoming SAM fire or other planes trying to lock-on.

Assault Horizon looks like a Hollywood blockbuster with amazing camera angles to capture all the action, especially in the DFM mode that will actually position the camera from the point of view of the selected weapons pod (on the wing or under the plane). Until now I have played all my Ace Combat games from the nose camera (sometimes the cockpit camera), but Assault Horizon is the first time I have ever played from the chase view. This was partly due to the incredible plane graphics and detail, but mostly because of the frequent use of DFM, which will take you out of the plane anyway. Those other views are still available and look fabulous, and I did still use the nose view for the chopper missions, even though those evasive barrel rolls made me nauseous.

Aside from the great plane models and fantastic camera views the locations look amazing with plenty of real-world scenery that most of us will recognize. It’s always more emotionally immersive to be fighting over your own soil than some distant land. As always, the satellite photography looks great and unlike the console version where things start to lose their detail when you drop to the deck, the satellite photography and number of 3D buildings rising from the detailed ground texture has been greatly enhanced. Overall, it looks incredible and is still the best looking air-combat game out there.

Where Assault Horizon truly shines is in the audio presentation with what can only be described as the most powerful score since the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. While there is always that underlying military action theme at work, there are also all sorts of original tracks that make use of authentic instruments and cultural genres based on the part of the globe where you are flying. You get these eerie choral parts like you heard in Hunt for Red October whenever Russians are around, and then all sorts of cool tribal/native music when flying in Africa. Even the energetic rock/pop/rap closing credit theme made an impact. And the music knows when to slip into the background of the Dolby Digital mix so you can enjoy the quality dialogue, professional voice work, and authentic sound effects of jet engines, rotor blades, machine gun fire, and missile explosions.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a surprisingly lengthy game that will take you all over the world in a variety of mission types in various planes and even as a few different characters. There is much greater emphasis on story this time; a gripping narrative written by New York Times Best Seller and military author Jim DeFelice, and the presentation has moved beyond still images and comic panels, and we now have full 3D walking around parts between missions and even briefings where you can control your view with the stick. Expect a solid 8-10 hours to finish the game, and with so many great Games For Windows – LIVE achievements to earn, you’ll easily be playing again.

There is also a significant multiplayer component for competitive online play with up to 16 pilots in deathmatch and ground assault modes, and some awesome mission co-op games that let you bring up to two other pilots into the story with you. The online modes supports drop-in/out multiplayer, so your games are always full, even when other fighters eject in mid-game.

Easily the best, most original, and most complete flight-combat game to date, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon will have you on the edge of your seat with a death grip on your controller or stick as you engage in some of the most cinematic air combat since…sorry…no movie can even compare to what you will experience when you climb into the cockpit of this game.

Ace Combat has finally come to the PC and it’s awesome. Wheels up in thirty…


Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 Gaming Keyboard Review

A few months ago we reviewed the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 Gaming Keyboard, a high-end programmable keyboard that offered the ultimate set of “bells and whistles” including a full-color, touch-screen interface.   Apparently the $300 price tag was a bit daunting, even for the most die-hard of macro users, so Mad Catz quickly followed up with the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 Gaming Keyboard, coming in at only $199.  This toned-down version offers most of the same features while replacing the cool VENOM touch screen with a more utilitarian interface that offers the same functionality without the WOW factor.

Out of the box you get pretty much the same experience as the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7; 16 million color options for your keyboard lighting (both keys and backlighting), strong durable construction for all the components as well as the way they attach to each other and non-bundled intuitive configuration and setup software that you must download from their website prior to use.  Your first task will be to assemble the various components including the keyboard, number pad, and three wrists supports, one of which includes a roller wheel and button.  Splitting up the keyboard into all these parts may seem excessive but it does allow the ultimate in configuration for lefties and righties or those who prefer to have their keyboard and number pad in separate locations or at odd angles.   Regardless of your configuration, expect the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 to take up much more desk real-estate than your previous keyboard.

The big feature of the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 is the E.Y.E. module that gets you access to all the advanced programmable features of the keyboard that are handled with an intuitive graphical interface that vastly simplifies the formerly tedious task of macro programming.  Each of the keyboard’s three different modes can store your programmed macros, tripling mid-game access to available commands, and once programmed, custom profiles can be published to share with your community.   The E.Y.E. module consists of a circular OLED screen with a rotatable selector ring and four primary function buttons to the right and nine more command buttons to the right of those.  There is even a headphone and mic jack for convenient plug and play if you are using a non-USB chat device.  My only concerns with the new E.Y.E. module is that you have to press significantly harder on the buttons than you did on the V.E.N.O.M touchscreen, which often had my keyboard slipping back on my desk.  Also, the selector ring around the OLED was also not 100% responsive every time I tried to use it, and this ring is critical in most all of the functions of the keyboard.

You might be expecting a mechanical keyboard considering the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 is priced in the same range, and while the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 does feel and respond with nearly the same tactile feedback and accuracy as those fancy mechanical keyboards, it does so by using a specially engineered membrane to avoid all the excessive noise.  The speedy, double-tap friendly keys respond to an optimized 60g of actuation force and reset at the perfect level, all of which helps reduce muscle fatigue during marathon gaming sessions. Having used mechanical keyboard in the past, I saw very little difference in performance or feel, but I sure did enjoy my newfound silence, even as I type this review.  And for diehard gamers, you’ll enjoy a variety of textured key replacements for the WADS cluster.

Your programming options are extensive with 21 programmable macro buttons spread around the keyboard and E.Y.E. control module, each with three modes for a total of 63 user-definable commands that are easy to program and assign – the only hard thing will be remembering them all later.  Creating Macros and assigning icons is surprisingly easy using the configuration software. There are already several downloadable profiles out there for WOW, Diablo 3, Minecraft, League of Legends, and StarCraft 2 just to name a few, plus business apps like PhotoShop and Outlook.

I have to admit I was really impressed with just how good this keyboard feels and performs, plus it is quite the eye-catcher sitting on a desk. Normally, switching keyboards is like breaking in a new pair of shoes, but it only took an hour before I felt right at home with the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5, both in typing and in gaming. I’m even taking the plunge into macro programming since there are currently no profiles out there for the Sim City beta.

There are some other noteworthy changes between the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7, and S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 keyboards other than the obvious new control module.  The S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 no longer requires AC power but for some reason they switched the palm rests to a glossy plastic which increases the sweat factor and leaves behind ugly palm prints that weren’t an issue on the aluminum rests on the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7.  As far as programming and usability, the E.Y.E. does pretty much everything the V.E.N.O.M touchscreen does; just in a slightly different way, and some may actually prefer the tactile feedback of pressing a real button rather than an icon on a screen.  

I can see the logic in Mad Catz trying to offer two similar products in various price ranges, but the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 is so close in features and functionality that the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 almost ceases to become a viable option unless you simply must have a touchscreen interface.  When you can get nearly all of the functionality for two-thirds the price, the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 Gaming Keyboard might just be the best solution for gamers looking for the most tech at an affordable price.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows Review – PlayStation Vita/PSP

In my years of gaming, I’ve played countless horror games where schools have made an appearance or have been the focal point of the action. None however were as excellently disturbing or captivating than Team GrisGris’ 2011 release of Corpse Party for the PSP. It’s been a little over a year since that fateful trip I shared with the classmates of Kisaragi Academy and it seems the powers that be weren’t too keen on my escape. It was apparent that I was destined to take another chapter from the scary crap lesson book of horrors as I dove happily into my review of Xseed and 5pb’s newest release, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows for the PS Vita and PSP.

At first appearance, you would think that Book of Shadows is a sequel to the original, but that is far from the truth. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows actually takes place before, after and during the events of the original story. If you played the original, then you’ll pretty much be up to speed on the events thus far. You don’t necessarily have to have played the original, but I would recommend it before playing this one.

Book of Shadows features eight tales that present alternate timelines where some characters go into Heavenly Host with a sense of déjà vu knowledge of their potential fates. It’s your chance in these chapters to try and change your fates by choosing the right decisions. Some of these chapters actually flesh out a lot of the backstory of some of the secondary characters in the first game. For example, players will get a look at Ms. Yui’s life before the events of Corpse Party in the “Encounter” chapter. There are several other characters that you will get to meet apart from the main cast throughout each chapter. Some of them I recognized in name from the original story, which was a nice treat and a great way to expand the story of this school of horrors.

Book of Shadows not only introduces other characters and scenarios to the player but also brings about a more personable experience by shifting the adventure into a first-person point and click survival horror. I rather enjoyed this change of pace, not that the original was flawed, but the suspense is more ramped up when you don’t know what’s going to happen from one room or hallway to the next. Like most point and click experiences Book of Shadows uses the analog sticks to move a cursor around the screen looking for blue highlighted areas to great effect. Another new feature is the ability to save practically anywhere, which saves a lot of time if you walk yourself right into a dead-end.

One of the most interesting things about Book of Shadows is the newly added “Darkening” System which brings about an insanity element to the series. The more horrific events or items you trigger the more your character descends into a frightened state and the graphics alter for the worst. This can impair your ability to make the right decisions sending you right into an early grave if you don’t keep your player as calm as possible. Any bad choices could end in one of many “bad endings” before you make it through to the true ending. Half the fun of Book of Shadows is discovering all the endings and it’s one of two ways to unlock the final chapter of the game. For those that played the first game you can unlock the final chapter by importing your save file from that game – a nice little loyalty reward.

As was the original, this horror story is available to play on both the PSP and Vita, so I took the opportunity to make use of the larger more vibrant screen despite no actual control advantages. I must say right off that the game doesn’t suffer one bit unlike some games as it takes full advantage of the screen without any noticeable stretching. Most of the time you’ll find yourself in dark corridors and classrooms filled with the remains of dead students and spirits so the game is pretty bleak to begin with.

That doesn’t mean that the developers slacked off though. The bleakest moments of darkness are just as detailed as the happiest moments in the warm sunlight. Book of Shadows features sharp visuals seen in its hand drawn character models and its gruesomely tragic deaths. The horror aspects of this point-n-click style can be down right repulsive to the faint of heart but I didn’t mind it in the least despite the tragic events that have plagued our society as of late. Nevertheless, Xseed and 5pb have created a work of fiction that is richly detailed and features great atmosphere.

Part of that atmosphere comes from its out-of-this-world soundtrack and audio effects. The score alone is amazingly creepy but it’s the audio technology in Book of Shadows that really makes this adventure memorable. Horror titles are usually best played on a console with the lights turned off, surround sound volume way up and during the wee hours of the night. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows however offers something most portable games don’t; the use of binaural 3D audio effects when using headphones. Using the same technology as in the original Corpse Party you are able to hear speech, haunting sound effects and maniacal childish laughter that seems to come from practically anywhere. I dare you to play this game at night with headphones on and lights off and not get chills down your spine. I will point out that the spoken dialogue in Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is completely in Japanese so get ready to read. Personally, I love this game just the way it is as some localizations don’t pan out so well. Luckily Xseed is on their A-game once again.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a game that almost begs to be played more than once if for no other reason than to experience all the possible endings, good and bad. But there is more to be had for the truly dedicated player as you can unlock music tracks, art stills and my personal favorite, the voice actors’ interviews which adds a more personal touch to the game. There is even a weird little mode that allows you to create your own custom conversations from spoken lines throughout the game.

I love horror games and more importantly I loved Corpse Party. Book of Shadows may have a different gameplay style but it is still 100% Corpse Party to its very core. The eight short stories that are contained within complement the original title as well solidify it as the newest addition to the haunted tale of Heavenly Host. The music and audio is to die for and the characters are memorable…both the living ones and the dead. If you like a disturbingly good tale, I highly recommend buying a copy of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows from the PlayStation Network today, plug in those headphones and turn out the lights.

NHL GameCenter Xbox 360 App – Game Chronicles Video Review

The NHL’s 2013 season has just kicked off and in order to get the hype going among gamers, the hockey league has partnered with Microsoft and released a special NHL GameCenter application on the Xbox 360 console, via Xbox Live.

The new app allows Xbox 360 worldwide access to all sorts of great things, including live games, replays, classic matches, and videos from the NHL VideoCenter, although you do need things like an Xbox Live Gold Membership to download the app and a GameCenter subscription to watch live games. Even so, hockey fans can enjoy a wide variety of features in the app:

  • Follow the Action from the 2013 NHL Season – Get real-time game scores, player stats and team standings. All Xbox Live Gold Members can also follow the action on and off the ice from the NHL VideoCenter. Watch the best goals, saves and hits from around the league this season.
  • Live Games and Replays with NHL Game Center Live – With your NHL GameCenter Live subscription ($49.99 USD for the 2012-13 season), watch live, out-of-market games from the NHL regular season. Miss a game? Watch full-length archived games or condensed replays from this season and last.
  • Every game with an HD-Quality Picture – NHL GameCenter delivers every game in a beautiful, HD-quality picture, and each broadcast gives every fan the option of the Home or Away audio feed. With NHL GameCenter on Xbox 360, you will feel like your team is the home team.
  • Keep Up With Your Favorite Teams – NHL GameCenter on Xbox 360 lets you personalize the experience to get to the information you care about most. Select up to five teams to follow so you can be sure not to miss a beat on your favorite teams and players. Get the scores, player stats, schedule and live games, right at your fingertips.
  • Season Central – A quick calendar view of the league schedule or just your favorite teams is a click away. Season Central is the best way to find out what games are on today, this week, or next month.
    Mini Guide – The Mini Guide gives you a quick preview of all of today’s action right at the bottom of your screen, and makes it easier than ever to switch between games.
  • Split Screen – Keep an eye on the rest of the league while cheering on your home team! With Split Screen, you can watch two games at once and do just that. Watch live games on both screens or a live game on one while you catch up with a game recap on the other. You can control both screens independently, pausing and rewinding each separately so you never miss a second of the action.
  • Classic Games from NHL Vault –Relive your favorite moments in NHL history with on-demand access to over 800 classic games from NHL Vault. Watch some of the best Original Six battles from the 1960s or re-watch the best games from the Stanley Cup Playoffs through the years. You now have the best way to watch these games on your big screen with Xbox 360.
  • Voice and Gesture Control with Kinect for Xbox 360 – Focus on the puck instead of looking for the remote. Navigate through Season Central, or play, pause, and rewind that behind-the-back goal, all with the power of Kinect for Xbox 360.

The new app can now be downloaded onto the Xbox 360 via the Xbox Live Marketplace.

 

Death Race 3: Inferno Blu-ray Review

I’m a firm believer that most film franchises get a bit weaker with each new sequel; especially when those sequels make the transition to direct-to-video as was the case with Death Race 2 and now Death Race 3: Inferno, although, technically, these are prequels. There are however exceptions from time to time and these two movies were arguably just as enjoyable, perhaps more so as even the original flick starring Jason Statham. Picking right up where the last movie left off and paving the way for Statham’s story, Inferno slips right into the Death Race mythos with some of the most explosive car-combat racing you’re likely to see in any film outside this series. This is the stuff video games are made of…video games that inspire movies like this.

By now, any Death Race fan knows the setup and the rules of the game. Any convict who wins five races earns his freedom; meanwhile the penal system earns crazy amounts of cash for streaming the events to millions of addicted violence-hungry viewers. Oh, and if you think the NFL has strict rebroadcasting penalties, pirating the video feed for Death Race is punishable by death…unless you are under 18 and then it’s just life in prison. The opening of the film quickly recaps the last movie and transitions into this new one within minutes, so even newcomers hit the ground rolling.

Ving Rhames is the head of Weyland industries, the people behind Death Race, but due to a hostile business takeover Death Race is now the property of Niles York (Dougray Scott) who decides to take the concept worldwide with races set all over the country. His first of many planned global races is set in Africa, so he packs up our current cast of racers and their cars and ships them overseas for a true off-road rally-style experience. Since the race is no longer on an island the drivers all have tracking chips implanted in their neck that will summon a highly accurate guidance missile should they deviate from the course or abandon their car.

Inferno isn’t all that different from the other two films. We get that same style of sports channel presentation with booming narrator, score cards, and race commentary which makes up about half of the film…the better half. The rest of the time we get to explore some very shallow character development with Carl Lucas (Luke Goss), his hot…hot…hot navigator, Katrina Banks (Tanit Phoenix), and his dutiful pit crew led by none other than Danny Trejo. Dougray Scott chews the scenery and the script in creating one of the most exaggerated villains since Dr. Evil. There are brief intros and backstories for the other racers but don’t get too attached as most end up in a fireball soon enough. But let’s face it. We aren’t watching this for story or drama. We want to see stuff blow up and Director, Roel Reine knows just how to do that, and he even ramps the testosterone levels by adding a new pre-race navigator battle that forces 16 hot women to fight for the ten open positions. Of course, it’s a fight to the death using gladiator weapons and even a flamethrower, and yes…heads will roll…literally.

I have to admit I was a bit bored with Death Race 2 since it was all taking place on the same island prison as the first film, but now that we are out in the dunes and wastelands of Africa the entire concept changes. Pressure plates are now replaced with gates and races wind their way through densely populated villages and even a terrorist camp that take shots at the racers like the Sand People did during the pod race in Star Wars: Phantom Menace. Carl even incites them to join in the race for even more explosive action. And on top of all this, they even manage to work in a prison break movie loaded with plot twists that have you rethinking (and re-watching) key parts of the film.

From a technical perspective, Death Race 3: Inferno looks just as good as any other direct-to-video flick shot on HD digital. The director even talks about buying dozens of these tiny cameras and having his interns think up creative places to attach them, and many of those shots make it into the film. The 1080p/AVC transfer is bright and detailed with great contrast and black levels, especially in the dark prison interiors, but the colors and detail really pop when you get outside and the camera starts to swirl around these cars and trucks that have all been modified for off-road racing. I appreciated the minimal use of CG and loved all the real stunts, effects, and pyrotechnics.

The audio portion of the experience is equally as enjoyable with a powerful DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that had my subwoofer trembling throughout the film while making the most of surround channels to put me right in the action, and all the while keeping a steady balance of dialogue coming from the front center, so I never missed a word of the cheesy script. Even the music was surprisingly good.

Death Race 3: Inferno offers both an R-rated and unrated cut in the same package, both sharing a 105 minute runtime, so I challenge you to find the difference. The feature-length commentary by Roel Reine does a great job of detailing the challenges and experience of making this film including everything from their decision to shoot in Africa to their acquisition of trucks and cars left over from other movies like Fast Five. You can tell he enjoys making these movies as much as he does watching them…as much as I enjoy watching them. Next up is the 11-minute documentary on the Making of Death Race 3: Inferno that covers the basics and recaps a lot of info from the commentary. Nine Deleted Scenes offer up 22 more minutes that landed on the cutting room floor including an alternate opening and a random clip montage. Last up is Art Imitating Life: Goldberg, a 5-minute documentary on Danny Trejo and how his own life mirrors parts of his character in this film and most of his other roles in his career.

There are no surprises in Death Race 3: Inferno, so if you don’t come away from the credits loving this movie and ready to watch it again then you have no one to blame but yourself. This is a guys’ guys’ movie, best shared with friends (or a frat house) and a keg of beer, and despite its direct-to-video delivery, the stunning Blu-ray presentation will have you thinking you are watching a Hollywood summer blockbuster. Bad ass cars…hot women…explosive car combat…what more do you want?