Author - Michael Lisenberry

The Sergio Martino Collection from Arrow Video Review

Giallo. The Italian thriller genre named for the yellow covers of the pulp novels that birthed it. A niche interest by current standards but one whose influence can be felt on filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Edgar Wright today. Alongside Spaghetti Westerns and Poliziotteschi it stands as one of the pillars of Italian cinema of the Sixties and Seventies.

The name Giallo likely brings directors Dario Argento and Mario Bava immediately to mind for film students and genre enthusiasts everywhere but there is another name worthy of being circulated alongside them – Sergio Martino, a journeyman director who less put his own stamp on cinema as he disappeared into it. Here, UK boutique label Arrow Video collects three films from Martino’s foray into the proto-slasher genre.

Feature

The Sergio Martino Collection repackages three of Arrow’s previously released titles of his – The Case of The Scorpion’s Tail, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and Suspicious Death of a Minor.

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail was Martino’s second Giallo and shows the mark of a director comfortable in this genre right from the start. When a woman’s husband dies in a plane crash and a killer murders her for the insurance payout it’s up to an investigator played by Spaghetti Western star George Hilton and his journalist love interest played by genre starlet Anita Strindberg to get to unravel the mystery. Featuring gorgeous locations, this film is a breezy watch and instantly transports you to the jet-setting culture of late Sixties/early Seventies Europe.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, aside from having an absolute banger of a title, is the darkest of the three movies and a worthwhile adaptation of classic Edgar Allan Poe work The Black Cat. Aside from its previous standalone release, Your Vice has also been collected alongside Dario Argento’s adaptation of the same work in the aptly named Black Cats collection. In her third work with Martino, Edwige Fenech – Giallo star and namesake of Lt. Ed Fenech in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – stars as Floriana, niece to a failed writer whose cat, Satan, seems to be at the center of a string of grisly murders. A progressive film that often condemns the misogyny and sexism of the Swinging Sixties that preceded it, Your Vice is a visual treat and the highlight of this set.

Rounding out the set is Suspicious Death of a Minor, one of Martino’s final Gialli and notable for its mash-up with the Poliziotteschi – Italian police drama – genre. Suspicious Death of a Minor marks the first work between Martino and repeat collaborator Claudio Cassinelli who stars here as a police officer investigating the horrific murder of a young prostitute. An uneven film with odd stabs at humor, Suspicious Death of a Minor earns a place in this set as a bookend to Martino’s work in the genre.

All in all, two worthwhile entries into the genre with a third film as a bonus curiosity. Each of these films have a place for fans of Italian cinema and packaged together give a good, if incomplete, look at a single director’s work in Giallo.

Picture and Audio

Each film here is presented in 2K scans from their prior releases. The colors pop and the picture on each disc is clean with very few scratches or blemishes left in the prints. Each film also features uncompressed Italian and English mono tracks.

One particular item of note – The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Your Vice is a Locked Room each feature their full English versions, swapping titles and credits to English when the language is selected from the disc menu. This option is not present in Suspicious Death of a Minor.

Extras and Packaging

Each film is presented with the same features from their previous release.

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Your Vice is a Locked Room are the more robust offerings here. Between them you’ll find multiple video essays and interviews with experts on Martino’s career. Being that the discs were not originally intended to be packaged together, it’s interesting that the retrospectives are frequently at odds with one another with historian Mikel J Koven characterizing Martino as a journeyman gun for hire in the features on Scorpion’s Tail while Hostel director Eli Roth professes his love for Martino and takes a deep dive into his genius in his interview on the Your Vice disc. By accident these contrarian takes put together a broader image of the director than you may get in a collection produced all at once, making for a happy accident here. It makes you almost wish more career retrospectives would seek opposing takes like we have here.

Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Suspicious Death of a Minor each have commentary tracks by experts in the genre. The real standout here are the lengthy interviews with Sergio Martino on each disc. All in all you’re treated to a full feature’s worth of insight from the director and it’s a treat to sit down with the man himself and let him talk at length about a period in his decades long career that he still carries a deep fondness for.

On the packaging front, there’s nothing much new save for some new art on a simple card stock sleeve. Each film is packaged with the standard reversible sleeve we all know and love from Arrow’s releases, each with original art and the previously commissioned covers for the films’ original releases with Arrow.

Overall

The Sergio Martino Collection comes together to give a decent, if incomplete, look at one director’s contribution to one of Italy’s most beloved exports to the world of cinema. That being said, there isn’t anything new for current owners of these releases. It’s a simple repackaging job with no reason for anybody to buy these films a second time. Stranger still, being a collection of Arrow’s previous Martino releases it leaves out Torso, one of Martino’s bloodiest films and another previous Arrow disc. If you don’t already own any of these films, however, this is a worthy buy for both fans of Giallo and anybody looking to dip their toes into the genre for the first time.

Arrow Video Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Blu-ray Collection Review

Independent filmmaker, international raconteur, Reform Party gubernatorial candidate… Who is Bill Rebane? Even if you’ve seen his work, chances are you don’t know his name. Arrow Video is out to change that with Weird Wisconsin – The Bill Rebane Collection, a celebration of a man endlessly fascinated by Hollywood and eternally working outside of it.

Much like last year’s He Came From the Swamp – The William Grefé Collection, Arrow Video has come through with another comprehensive look at a true grindhouse auteur with a level of care and craft usually reserved for Criterion’s art house box sets.

Feature

Let’s talk movies…

I’m going to get this out of the way up front- These are not good movies. But that’s okay! Movies like these, you know deep down if they’re for you or not. If these are your thing then chances are you’re not looking for “good” anyways.

Featured in this set are six films, just over half of Rebane’s body of work. Here are the descriptions from Arrow’s website:

Monster-A-Go-Go
American astronaut Frank Douglas returns to earth as a ten-foot-tall radioactive humanoid monster! Independent filmmaker Bill Rebane’s first attempt at a feature film began life as Terror At Halfday but was abandoned when funds ran dry. It was then bought by legendary exploitation pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis who shot extra footage, added a voice over and released it to drive-ins as MONSTER A GO-GO! Rebane himself called it “the worst film ever made”, but it’ll still give you the wim-wams!

Invasion from Inner Earth
In the Canadian wilderness a group of pilots listen to reports of planes crashing, cars stalling and a deadly plague gripping the planet. As it becomes clear that the Earth is amidst an invasion, they barricade themselves in a cabin in the woods and wait for impending doom.

The Alpha Incident
A space probe returns from Mars carrying a deadly organism that could destroy all life on Earth! While being transported across country by train the micro-organism is accidentally released, resulting in the quarantine of an entire train station. Those trapped inside must wait for the government to find a cure while trying not to sleep, because that’s when the organism strikes!

The Demons of Ludlow
The population of a small, quiet town prepares to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of its founding, but the town of Ludlow has a very dark past and when a piano arrives at auction, the ghosts its past return to seek retribution.

The Game
Three bored millionaires gather nine people at an old mansion to play “The Game” … if they can meet and conquer their fears and they’ll receive a million dollars in cash. But all is not as it seems!

Twister’s Revenge!
An action-comedy-smash-‘em-up in which three bumbling criminals repeatedly attempt to steal the artificial intelligence control system of Mr. Twister, a talking Monster Truck.

What you’ll find here is a collection of genre work of mostly community theater and public access television quality. Broadly speaking, the acting is bad, the writing is meandering and expository at best, and the camerawork is little more than non-existent and that goes for all six movies. Bill Rebane was a businessman, however, and part of a group of filmmakers who didn’t so much set out to make good movies as make entertaining ones and these films definitely are entertaining in their own MST3K way (who not coincidentally happened to riff on two of Rebane’s films, Monster-A-Go-Go being one of them). There’s something great about seeing the seams in independent productions and Bill Rebane was a king of the DIY set. None of the films overstay their welcome either, with the shortest clocking in at just over an hour and none of the others cracking much more than the 90-minute mark. Grab some popcorn, crack a beverage of choice, and enjoy six-ish hours of so-bad-it’s-good weirdness.

Click me. I dare you!

Picture and Audio

Each film here is a brand new 2K scan off of best possible elements. The transfers are as good as they’ll likely ever look, all things considered, and definitely better than any other home video releases you may have seen of these films before. Everything is in largely decent shape save for the odd scratch, hair, or discoloration that couldn’t be corrected in the transfer. The films are all presented in their original aspect rations, Monster-a-Go-Go in 1.33:1 and everything else in 1.85:1 with The Game giving the choose of either.

The audio is all original uncompressed mono, save for the stereo presentation of Who is Bill Rebane? Everything is clean and audible for the most part with any hissing or popping laying at the feet of the source rather than Arrow’s transfer.

Bottom line is you know what you’re here for and the quality of the source material adds to the charm of the films themselves.

Extras and Packaging

Now this is where the set truly shines…

Weird Wisconsin hosts its six films and a feature length documentary across four individually packaged discs housed in Arrow’s standard high quality cardboard slipcase found in all of their usual limited releases. As per usual, each disc’s case has a double sided insert, although rather than the usual reversible new art/original art here you can choose which film to feature on the cover of each case. Finishing the set is a double sided poster and a hardbound book showcasing movie posters, original art, and From Latvia to Wisconsin: The Song Remains Rebane, an essay by Stephen Thrower.

Across all four discs are a comprehensive set of bonus features starting with trailers and still galleries for each film. Spread across all four discs are Straight Shooter, a series of interviews with Rebane himself where he offers insight and anecdotes into the making of each film. You’ll also find video essays by film historians Stephen Bissett and Richard Harland, short and industrial films from Rebane’s commercial work, and of course what Arrow release would be complete without an interview with Kim Newman?

The crown jewel of this set, however, is Who is Bill Rebane?, a feature length documentary occupying its own disc. Who is Bill Rebane? is a comprehensive look at his life, from a post-war Eastern European childhood to learning English by watching musicals at Chicago movie theaters, that puts his body of work into context. When diving into this set, I dabbled in the individual films here a bit before watching this documentary on its own. After watching Who is Bill Rebane?, I came back to the films with a new understanding and appreciation for Rebane’s creative output. With stories told by the people that worked with him, critics and historians, and the man himself, I’d recommend that anybody interested watch this first before taking on the rest of the set.

One thing of note- The documentary and many of the special features spend a great deal of time speaking of films not found in this set, The Giant Spider Invasion being most notable. These films do have quality releases from other distributors if you want to seek them out.

Overall

It’s rare that a collection of movies comes along that, while you’ve never heard of them, you know is one hundred percent your jam. I’ve been fortunate enough that Arrow Video has released two of them in the last year between this and last November’s excellent William Grefé collection.

Even though some of Rebane’s more notable films are conspicuously absent, this set more than goes the distance for low-budget genre enthusiasts, film history completists, or anyone whose curiosity gets tingling at the mention of haunted pianos and sentient monster trucks.

If this seems at all like your thing- trust me, you know if it does- don’t sleep on this labor of love for Bill Rebane, an unsung hero of the Midwest.

Hood: Outlaws and Legends Review

I’m going to get this out of the way up front- Hood: Outlaws and Legends is a decent premise wrapped up in a deeply unsatisfying game. It really pains me to type that. I try my best to look for redeeming qualities in just about everything I play but I struggled to even want to play this game after my first few matches. If you’re looking for an unbalanced cheese-fest, this game is for you. If you want a rewarding multiplayer experience, however…

Hood: Outlaws and Legends is a PvPvE heist-em-up published by Focus Home Interactive, AA peddlers of oddball titles ranging from original ideas to public domain idea grabs that all run the quality scale from mediocre at best to surprisingly great (I’m looking at you, Plague Tale.) Falling into the “public domain” category, Hood finds you playing as a member of Robin Hood’s band of merry men, stealing treasure in four on four matches where you compete against… an identical group of Robin Hood’s merry men? And that’s it. Over and over again.

The basic pitch is this – You are tasked with infiltrating a castle in Sherwood Forest and pickpocketing a key from the Sheriff. Once you have the key you must stealthily find your way to the treasure hidden somewhere on the map, steal it, and make haste to an extraction point where you will use a rudimentary crane to hoist the treasure to freedom. Of course, as you do this you’ll be watching out for the other team who is out to accomplish the same goal and kill you in the process. Think of it as a treasure focused Hunt: Showdown without any of the things that make Hunt an interesting game.

In a game industry facing the waning days of character based shooters such as Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege, Hood enters the fray with approximately four characters to choose from. Robin, Marian, Tooke, and John. That’s it. This, I think, is emblematic of Hood’s problems writ-large. In Hood you’ll choose from four characters to play one game mode in one of four maps that all feel like pretty much the same castle over and over again. There’s no variety in this game and it’s painful. Each character does have a simple upgrade path but that doesn’t matter much if the game couldn’t keep me interested long enough to want to unlock the small handful of perks each had to choose from.

Here’s my typical experience with Hood- Boot up and get dropped into the game’s equivalent of a social space – a mostly empty campsite with generic looking tents to manage upgrades and a few unlockable extras – jump in to matchmaking, wait around and check Twitter while the game scrapes together enough players for a match, try and fail to follow basic strategy because nobody in this game is using headsets, lose miserably because the other team has four tanks and beat everyone’s head in while your team decided on basic squad composition, rinse and repeat.

Hood isn’t a great game. The problem is that it isn’t even necessarily a bad one. It just… IS. The game is stable and everything works the way it was designed. There just isn’t enough of it. There are a number of things that could fix this experience, variety being the first. Give me more than four characters to play as. Give me more than one game mode. Just give me more.

As it stands, Hood feels like a late in development add-on multiplayer mode for a better single player experience. The exact kind of multiplayer mode that the review for a better game would completely ignore. What we have here is a lackluster title that I wouldn’t recommend anybody spend $30 on.

That being said, if it ever comes to Game Pass…

The Big Bang Theory Set is WB Studio Tour’s Latest Addition

**knock knock knock** Penny! **knock knock knock** Penny! **knock knock knock** Penny!

On Thursday, June 27th we were welcomed to a reception at the Warner Bros Studio lot to celebrate the addition of The Big Bang Theory to the Studio Tour. In attendance were actors Wil Wheaton (Wil Wheaton) and Brian Thomas Smith (Zack Johnson), show creator Chuck Lorre, and Executive Producers Steve Holland and Steven Molaro.

Fans taking the Studio Tour will be able to knock on Penny’s door, visit Sheldon and Leonard’s living room, and even sit in Sheldon’s coveted spot. The Big Bang Theory set is a permanent addition to the tour and joins the Stage 25, now renamed the Big Bang Theory Stage, in honoring the twelve season run of the smash-hit show.

“We are thrilled to invite fans of The Big Bang Theory to step into these iconic sets from such a beloved show,” said Gary Soloff, Director of Marketing, WBSTH. “There is nothing like being in the very spot that legendary film and TV shows were created and seeing authentic sets up close and personal. It’s a truly emotional experience especially with a memorable show that has such a broad global following.”

“For twelve seasons and 279 episodes, the cast and crew of The Big Bang Theory found their home away from home on these sets on Stage 25,” says Chuck Lorre, co-creator and executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, “We’re thrilled that Apartment 4A and other Big Bang locales will remind visitors of all the laughter that took place on our show.”
Bonus fun fact- Stage 25 neighbors Stage 26, the Two and A Half Men Stage, both named after shows created by Chuck Lorre.

The Big Bang Theory set will be open to fans beginning Friday, June 28th. Tickets to the WB Studio Tour are available at the official website.

The 17th Door 2018 Review

Full disclosure: I only went to The 17th Door once before and I absolutely hated it. It was opening night of their first year and I don’t know if it was inaugural jitters or my own jaded, freshly-retired from Knott’s Scary Farm perspective but nothing about it clicked for me. The talent was uneven, the interactive elements were annoying, and the entire tone reeked of a Midwest hell house. I warned all my friends to stay far away from it.

Imagine my surprise thoroughly enjoying the event this year!

The 17th Door tells the continuing story of Paula, a perennially down-on-her-luck young lady trying to navigate life after college. A scary prospect on its own, never mind the fact that Paula has been subject to mental and physical abuse, an unwanted pregnancy, committing infanticide, and finally prison. (Insert “and I thought my student loans were bad” joke here.) This makes for a wholly unique concept in the realm of seasonal haunted events. Can you keep an audience through a years-long serialized experience? The answer is… I think?

I was in a unique position walking into this year’s event. Being there for a review, I was treated to a recap of the two years that I missed, something that your average lapsed or first time guest will not get. Thus, going into this year’s installment I was able to keep up and understand where we are in Paula’s story and the motivation behind some of the scenes contained in the maze. Will your average non-repeat guest understand? Probably not. Will it matter? I highly doubt it.

The overall theme of this year’s installment is the psych ward of a prison. The cast and crew of The 17th Door do such a wonderful job of bringing this to life that Paula’s story almost feels like an Easter Egg for the keen eyed fan at this point, weaving its way in and out of the experience over the twenty-ish minutes it will take to see the entire show. In the rooms that have little to do with Paula, things are at their best. The event opens with a new and updated VR experience and will eventually see you facing cell-block riots, electric chairs, and the most thrilling encounter with a stilt performer I’ve had in my life. These are the scenes that everyone, newcomers and old alike, can enjoy. It’s when we slow down to spend time with Paula that things can feel a disjointed as the momentum stops for anybody who isn’t familiar with the ongoing story. Luckily for the uninitiated these scenes are few and far between (at the time of this writing I can only recall two or three scenes entirely dedicated to Paula’s story) before you’re whisked off to the next room.

Story aside, in this attraction visitors are treated to experiences unlike anything else I’ve been a part of at a Haunt. Gone are the pseudo-“hardcore” moments from past years. No more locker full of pig corpses, no water effects or head shaving. I’m not sure if there was feedback that lead to the decision but anything that would have been included for “shock value” in the past is gone. Instead you have an attraction full of unique uses of special effects all leading to a finale unlike anything I’ve experienced before. And if it sounds like I’m being vague, I am. I hesitate to spoil anything inside because this has grown from an event that I outright hated in its first year to one of the more unique Halloween events I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

The 17th Door deserves a lot of recognition for turning itself around. In a few short years it has grown from a painfully awkward hell house to something that I would gladly recommend to anyone looking for something new out of their Halloween events. The 17th Door has come into its own and I eagerly look forward to what comes next.

The Evil Within 2 (Xbox One) Review

It was October 13th, 2014. Midnight was drawing near and I found myself wandering the electronics section of my local Wal-Mart. The Xbox One was about to celebrate its first birthday and I was looking for something new to play after a somewhat sparse first twelve months. I found myself waiting alongside a handful of other insomniacs for a box full of Shinji Mikami’s new horror franchise, The Evil Within, to come out to the floor.

The Evil Within was an interesting experiment for Bethesda. Team up with the godfather of the modern survival horror genre to create a spiritual successor to one of the biggest franchises of all time, Resident Evil. I paid for my copy that night at Walmart (call me old-fashioned, I had yet to adopt a digital only policy) and rushed home to play. I had always been a fan of the Resident Evil franchise and I was excited to give The Evil Within a shot.

I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed.

Imagine my intrigue when Bethesda announced a follow-up! The first game had its high points, an interesting premise, and creative monsters come immediately to mind – but sloppy dialogue, frustrating controls, and an uneven difficulty curve colored the experience negatively for me whenever I look back on it. So how do you create a follow-up to an interesting but ultimately flawed first game?

You kick the freakin’ doors down and give your ideas room to breathe is how.

Released almost three years to the day from the first game, The Evil Within 2 picks up fairly soon after the events of its predecessor. Sebastian Castellanos is a broken man, drinking his cares away in the wake of the horrors experienced at the hands Mobius and the STEM project in the first game. If you never played the first game, here’s what you need to know: Sebastian Castellanos is your stereotypical drunk cop with a broken family, Mobius is your stereotypical evil corporation, and STEM is basically the Matrix. Mobius is up to their old tricks again, but surprise! Stebastian’s presumed dead daughter is in fact alive and powering the new and improved STEM project. Things have gone wrong, as they do, and Sebastian is approached to mount a one-man rescue mission into the STEM to rescue a team of Mobius engineers and perhaps find his daughter along the way.

Things immediately do not go well for Sebastian, as they are wont to do in horror stories like this. Sebastian finds himself in a tense opening chapter playing a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer from the moment he steps mental foot inside the world of the STEM device. The game wastes no time in impressing players with its design. Checkerboard floors and endless red curtains draw you into an endless mansion that is slowly crumbling from the inside. This first chapter plays like an enhanced and perfected iteration of the first game, drawing you in with a linear progression to a chase sequence with the first of many monsters to be found in the game. And where this first chapter executes a similar structure to almost every chapter in the first game, its merely an appetizer for the main course.

Once free of the first encounter, you immediately find yourself in the most welcome change to the survival horror format; The Evil Within 2 becomes an open world game. Sebastian finds himself trapped in a slice of small town Americana within the STEM, the city of Union. The design of Union is impressive. As things go wrong in the STEM and its inhabitants twist into monsters, Union itself begins to crack apart and it’s here that you find yourself moving between floating islands of broken apart middle America. You’ll explore Union to find missing Mobius agents, search for your daughter, and chase well designed side quests that draw direct inspiration from horror movies like The Ring.

Survival horror as a genre relies heavily on pacing. Resident Evil stands head and shoulders above so many other games in the genre due to the careful expertise applied to every room and enemy encounter. The infamous dog scene works so well because of the control the game has over you as a player. So how does transposing the genre into an open world work out this well? It seems counter productive to the idea of pacing when you give the player control of where they go and how quickly they get there. For me, the open world meant that I couldn’t rely on my knowledge of survival horror as a genre. I couldn’t count on knowing what was being telegraphed when but instead I had to pay more attention to sounds and environmental clues as I progressed through the game. I had to be more alert as I explored Union and more careful about how I used my limited resources since I was no longer in a situation where the game designers could anticipate what I was going to be doing or what supplies I would need. Boss encounters also vary now from the typical one room encounter of other survival horror games to having a multi-faced-saws-for-arms monstrosity chase me across half of the city.

Taking the game off of its rails is the best thing that could have been done for a sequel. Instead of moving from level to level, you are free to experience the game in a more organic fashion. You can experiment more with which weapons to use in encounters. You can return to safe houses at any time to craft gear or buff your abilities. You can even take a break from all the action to visit a mini game shooting gallery where you can earn bonus materials for upgrades before returning to Union.

This isn’t all to say the The Evil Within 2 is perfect, however. Dialogue can still be laughably bad with Sebastian’s reactions ranging from, “What?” to the more expressive, “What the hell?” The controls do feel tighter this time around but aiming can still be a chore until you unlock late game upgrades for a steadier hand. Those are minor complaints though and where the game dips in quality it more than makes up for it in charm and imagination.

The Evil Within 2 is a surprisingly great follow-up to a mostly okay game. It adds new challenge to an aging genre and fulfills the craving I had when I waited until midnight at Wax-Mart three years ago. It’s a solid recommendation for anyone looking for a horror fix and is another welcome addition to Bethesda’s ever growing line-up of outstanding single player experiences.


The Evil Within 2 Review Score

[mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star-o” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”] (4 out of 5 Stars)


 

Cuphead (Xbox One) Review

I was a Silly Symphonies kid. My entire childhood was spent going to my grandmother’s house on Saturday mornings for breakfast. I remember the smell of bacon and eggs wafting out of her kitchen, the crinkle of the the plastic covering her couch, and the wood grain of the television set used more as decorative furniture than entertainment. It was on this TV that my cousins and I would watch well-worn VHS copies of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies while the adults were in the other room.

Cuphead is kind of like revisiting those memories, only to have those memories take you out back into an alley, beat you up, and steal your lunch money. Not only is Cuphead a bully, however, it is also one of the most beautiful and rewarding games to grace the Xbox One.

Much has been made of Cuphead’s production since its jaw dropping debut at E3 2014. The game has captivated audiences since long before it was in a playable form. Cuphead has been in development for the better part of seven years and the work definitely shows. The game boasts a retro 1930s style courtesy of an absolute labor of love by StudioMDHR who, in fact, devoted themselves to hand animating everything you see on your screen. After a seemingly never-ending albeit understandable wait, the game is finally in our hands and available to play.

Cuphead is a side scrolling boss-rush platformer. Think Contra but cuter and a hell of a lot more grueling. The game tells the story of brothers, Cuphead and Mugman, hopelessly addicted to gambling and wagering their souls. Losing to the Devil himself, the duo offers to work off their debt and are christened as Hell’s bounty hunters. This is the game’s license to send you after boss after boss, each one more creative than the last. From a living, breathing candy castle to a pair of boxing frogs who combine into a slot machine, the thing that kept me going more than anything else was a desire to see who I would fight next.

Cuphead has a clean gameplay loop at its core. There is a simple hub world that functions as little more than a map to move around and choose levels. Most levels are a boss fight, a single room affair where you do battle with a creature that usually will occupy the better part of the screen in fights that typically last around two minutes. Between boss fights there are short platforming levels (called “Run n’ Gun”) where you can hunt down tokens that can be traded in for new weapons and power-ups. Clear all the bosses on the map and you’re free to move to the next.

Fighting bosses is a simple yet challenging affair. Bosses attack and you shoot back in ever growing bullet hell scenarios. Mixed in with the bosses’ attacks are pink projectiles that you can parry away and fill a super meter. You’ll most likely die (a lot) as you learn to recognize attack patterns and tells, made crystal clear by the quality of the animation, and after time you’ll begin to recognize these fights as rhythm based puzzles. It’s a tough yet fair setup and I never blamed the game if I died because I could usually look back and see where I took a misstep or wasn’t paying attention to the way the boss was behaving. If there is any complaint to levy against the game, however, its that mid-fight there is no way to tell how close you are to beating any given boss. There are no health bars, only a timeline after you die showing how close you got.

With clean animation and a thrilling jazz soundtrack, Cuphead is an easy recommendation for anybody in love with the Silly Symphonies/Max Fleischer era of cartoons. Challenging and rewarding gameplay is the icing on the cake. Cuphead took a long time to release and the work clearly shows. There was more than once where I had to remind myself that I was playing a video game, not simply watching one of my grandmother’s old VHS tapes. I’ve loved and hated my time with Cuphead in all the best ways and I’m excited to go back and revisit its bosses, if only to admire the animation StudioMDHR obviously poured their hearts, souls, and love into.


Cuphead Review Score

[mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#81d742″ type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#81d742″ type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#81d742″ type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#81d742″ type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#81d742″ type=”fa”] (5 out of 5 Stars)


 

Last Day of June (PS4) Review

It’s a late summer evening. Carl and June sit intertwined on a lakeside dock. The air begins to chill and Carl goes to the car to fetch a blanket. Upon his return he is surprised to see that June as sketched a portrait of him as a superhero. They share sweet nothings in a sing-song tone of gibberish.

This is the small slice-of-life moment that Last Day of June builds off of. Last Day of June is a narrative puzzle and, to be frank, a labor of love. Director Massimo Guarini (Murasaki Baby, Shadows of the Damned) has crafted a sorrowful tale that touches on base human experiences of love and loss to immerse his audience in the kind of story that video games as a medium have begun to catch up to in the past few years.

Last Day of June presents Carl as a broken man. After we spend a peaceful evening with the couple, we are thrust forward to present day where Carl lives alone, having lost June in a terrible accident. To say Last Day of June carries echoes of the opening of “Up!” would be an understatement. Here, however, instead of taking to the skies in a floating house our Carl finds himself able to step through June’s artwork to relive the past and attempt to change it for the better. Through his grief and memory, he is given an opportunity to set things right.

Carl steps into the shoes of various characters present for the last moments of June’s life and thus we have a gameplay loop. As Carl, you relive that tragic moment over and over again as you try and tweak June’s last day and unravel the wobbly mess of time itself. This is largely a trial and error affair, similar to the Telltale Games and the modern slate of walking simulators. Explore the environment, find the thing you can interact with, rinse and repeat. You’ll revisit June’s last day and find new pieces to the puzzle as you progress through the game, witnessing the game’s events from multiple different perspectives. While interesting, this does begin to feel a bit repetitive as the game progresses.

While Last Day of June may stumble here and there in its repetition it succeeds in its creative vision due to its strong aesthetic. The game has a painted feel that calls attention to June’s pursuits as an artist. The characters themselves have a handcrafted quality about them, like lumps of clay with thumb-pressed divots where their eyes should be. Instead of recognizable language, Carl and June communicate with simple coos and sighs, giving a universal understanding to the words we don’t ever need to hear them say.

Last Day of June is a haunting and melancholy picture of grief. It is not technically perfect; it doesn’t feature the best voice acting or visuals, the cleanest mechanics or tightest controls. Although the simple, nearly one-button controls heighten the repetitive nature of the gameplay, it is a short experience that never once overstays its welcome. Most importantly, Last Day of June has an abundance of heart and a clear goal of presenting games as art, and it succeeds in telling a touching story that will stick with you long after it’s gone.


Last Day of June Review Score

[mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”][mks_icon icon=”fa-star-o” color=”#1e73be” type=”fa”] (4 out of 5 Stars)


 

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2017 Review

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor has pulled into port for yet another Halloween. With six returning mazes alongside the all-new “Feast” haunted house, does Dark Harbor 2017 sink or swim? Read ahead for our thoughts.

Entering Dark Harbor we headed straight towards the dome, excited to experience Circus, a favorite from past years. This brought us to the first notable change to this year’s event- The dome is closed off. Last year you could find Circus and Intrepid housed inside; This year they are out in the open. This is a welcome change as it condenses the event and kills off some of the more desolate open areas they’ve had in the past, making it feel a little less like you’re hanging out in the Queen Mary’s parking lot.

Wanting to give the sun a chance to go down before experiencing the more exposed attractions, we first headed into the ship itself. The design team at Dark Harbor has made wise use of the Queen Mary’s reputation as a haunted landmark, and uses its more notably reported spirits as the basis for attractions. First up was the returning story of Scary Mary in the maze Lullaby.

Lullaby is just as strong as ever this year. Telling the story of a young girl who drowned in the ship’s pool long ago, Lullaby’s talent delivered on all fronts. From priests in the opening moments of the maze sharing prayers at the girl’s funeral to the nannies watching over her in the afterlife and Mary herself, we were taunted nonstop by talent using creative dialogue and excellent teamwork in their scares. Lullaby also benefits from a redesigned layout this year, bringing guests down to ground level with the infamous swimming pool instead of keeping them above on the balcony as in previous years.

Following Lullaby we ventured into the all new maze Feast. Telling the story of the ship’s cook who was brutally murdered, locked in his own oven, Feast will ring familiar to fans of mazes like Slaughterhouse or Red Barn at Knott’s and Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Universal as guests are captured and prepared as the night’s meal. That’s about all it does, however. Our time in Feast was spent walking through rooms that were lit a little too well to experience a maze that was ultimately derivative of attractions we’ve seen elsewhere. Notable, though, was our first experience of the night with a bar inside a maze. After being treated to the first few rooms of the maze, guests have the opportunity to stop and order a drink before moving along. The room itself looked like it may hold no more than ~20 people, and that’s not counting the line snaking through to continue into the maze. I’m not sure how this will play out on a busy night but it was already a bit troubling even considering we were there for a media event with much lighter crowds.

Once the sun was down we headed outside for the cooler air of the mazes on dry land: Circus, Intrepid, and Deadrise.

Circus is deceptively long this year. From above it seems to have a very small footprint but make no mistake, this maze snakes back and forth for maximum effort, tightly winding in and around itself. Circus features largely the same gimmicks as last year save for a much more hidden bar than Feast. Keep your eyes peeled for a hidden door and ask nicely when you find it, you may be treated to an exclusive speakeasy where you can see stage acts perform and scare guests remotely from an arcade cabinet (that didn’t seem to be working on our trip through.) Circus is also home to a mirror maze that I got lost in for quite a while, making for a nauseating limbo. Kudos, Circus.

Deadrise is largely the same as it ever has been, you’ll either love or hate its aggressive sounds and water cannons.

Intrepid is a marked improvement over last year. Last year Intrepid felt half finished. It was a dark maze full of bare walls and confused talent. This year its moved to the previous location of mazes like Village of the Damned and Voodoo, even reusing some of their sets to great effect. Whereas last year you found yourself aboard a haunted train and little else, this year the train takes you to various foreign lands (including Castle Greyskull, apparently.) The variety really helps to mix up the flat tone of last year’s maze and Intrepid found itself home to one of our favorite scares this year. There is a room in the latter half full of fog and lasers and the monsters on opening night used it to great effect to seemingly appear and disappear in front of our eyes. Hopefully they can keep up this energy throughout the rest of the season as it was one of the few times a more stoic member of our group ended up shaken by a scare.

Rounding out the night were U340 and Soulmate back on board the ship. The only change between either of them this year is a flipping of Soulmate’s layout. Soulmate sends you through in the opposite direction from past incarnations of the maze and it suffers for it. It may not seem like all that big of an issue until you realize that Soulmate used to end in a larger room simulating a ballroom dance floor. This was a great finale using multiple mannequins and talent and this year you are simply dumped out into a hallway. Other than that disappointment, Soulmate and U340 are the same strong mazes they’ve been in the past.

Overall, Dark Harbor was a fun experience. There are some nitpicks I have logistically, such as overpriced flat soda and poor line control practices, but we were there for a preview event. I’m sure things will smooth out as the year goes on. Is it worth your money? If you’ve been in the last year or two I doubt you’ll see anything all that new. If you’re looking at a busy Haunt season and money is tight, maybe wait a year and let it refresh a little more for yourself. I’ve gone every year for quite a while and it can get a bit monotonous without things changing in a more exciting way year to year. But, if you’ve never been or you’re a true Dark Harbor fan, I have no doubt that you’ll love your time at the Queen Mary this October.

Quick takes:

  • Lullaby: Stronger than ever in its third year. A+
  • Feast: Weakest of the bunch. Bland and derivative. D
  • Circus: A mirror maze from hell and great use of the “secret bar.” A
  • Intrepid: A much needed facelift over last year. B
  • Soulmate: Backwards layout ruined a fantastic finale room from previous years. B
  • Deadrise: Loud and wet. C
  • U340: Still an entertainingly claustrophobic experience. B