4 Elements (2008 - Windows PC)

4 Elements is a casual match-3 type of puzzle game that contains a few hidden object and find-the-differences scenes. The main focus is on the match-3 puzzle segments, which comprise most of the game. By clicking on three or more tiles of the same color that are lined up horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, you create an explosion that takes out the surroundings, allowing a flow of energy to forge a path to the goal. It can be incredibly addictive, setting off a really long chain and watching the ensuing chaos. But the game is generally quite easy, even with a time limit and a few extra gimmicks thrown in at the end.

The fantasy art style is beautiful, but it makes it hard to tell where the hidden objects and differences are in those portions of the game. Part of the problem with the HOG scenes is that you're looking for pieces of each object, so you're never quite certain what you're looking for and will likely resort to clicking everywhere since there's no penalty for that.
Rating: 3/5

9.03m (2013 - Windows PC)

The only reason to buy this game is to donate a dollar to the 2011 Japanese Tsunami victims. Be aware that all you're getting into here is an extremely blurry graphics demo in which you walk up to an object, click a butterfly on it, and then follow the butterfly to the next object. Repeat until it ends...which takes about 5 minutes.

Created for a good cause...but there's no way I can consider this a good game.
Rating: 1.5/5

Fortix (2009 - Windows PC)

Fortix is a Qix clone with a medieval setting and a definitive ending. Definitely a fun play, especially if you liked the old arcade game, but it only took me about six hours to beat both Normal and Impossible and get all the achivements on Steam. I guess that's what to expect from a game whose store price is only 99 cents.
Rating: 3/5

A New Beginning - Final Cut (2011 - Windows PC)

I really enjoyed the puzzle-solving aspect of this point-and-click adventure game, as well as the gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds (though the character art leaves something to be desired - Fay's walk and posture are perplexing, to say the least). What I didn't like so much was the lackluster voice acting, the rather unlikable characters, and the story, which has trouble staying focused on one disaster and ends up making little to no sense in the end. If the heavy-handed, sometimes unintentionally funny preaching about global warming doesn't annoy even the most environmentally-conscience players, then the "big reveal", which goes against everything the morality stood for, probably will. And they really should've left out that subplot about the solar flare, because it makes the entire story pointless, no matter what.

I'm tempted to think the game is supposed to troll both global warming believers and non-believers alike...and that it's possible the whole thing was a work of fiction made up by the reporter character, Oggy, which is heavily implied by the ending.
Rating: 2.5/5

Skyward Collapse (2013 - Windows PC)

Many negative reviews I've seen of Skyward Collapse at Steam are from players who only logged an hour or less into it, and while I concede that it won't be everyone's cup of tea, I don't think it's possible to fairly judge it in such a short amount of time. It requires a little dedication and time investment to really learn it. You also have to be forgiving of the fact that there is no animation at all - characters slide around the world like pieces on a board game. Also, I'm going to say right up front buy this game with the Nihon no Mura expansion. It's only a little extra for it, and you won't want to be without the Super Smite ability that comes with it.

As a god-like being, you command two factions of human civilization, which can be either Greek, Norse, or (with the expansion) Japanese. Each has unique skills, monsters, and gods whose powers can be used against one another by building up their towns and earning supplies.

Here's the catch: you're on both teams. You can't allow one to completely destroy the other. And you can't just not let them fight, because you need to earn points to make score requirements every so many rounds. So, you have to find ways to keep them balanced - if one side starts overwhelming the other, you'll have to concoct strategies to even the odds. This can get quite hectic, especially considering all the random elements the game tosses at you - such as the woes that create game-changing conditions, the rogue bandits that pop up every so often, and what to do if a character attains such high stats that they become practically unstoppable.

Playing this game on "Insane Score Requirement" was one of the longest and most intense gaming sessions I've had playing anything lately. But the reality is, once you get the hang of it, you will likely never be in any real danger of losing. However, the game is fully-customizable. You can change a number of elements to make it as hard or as easy as you'd like. Also, going for the achievements on Steam is a good way to learn the game's rules and mechanics and to give you concrete goals to shoot for. (I actually managed to get all of them - apparently a very rare feat.)

The music is nice, even though it sometimes doesn't feel all that related to what's going on. I was also impressed with how quickly the developers responded on the Steam forums when I had a problem with the game crashing upon victory. (You can thank yours truly for that option to turn off submitting scores to the Steam leaderboards.)
Rating: 3.5/5

Bilal's Stand (2010 - Streaming Video)

Bilal is a high school senior who lives on the outskirts of Detroit, helping to run his family's taxi business. He has been accepted into the University of Michigan, but needs to find a way to pay his tuition. He enrolls in an ice scuplting class because of a scholarship prize for winning an ice sculpture contest. The problem is that almost everyone in Bilal's life tries to hold him back - his sister needs his help with her school work; his mother needs his help with the taxi stand; his guidance counselor doesn't think he can come up with the tuition money; and so on.

Bilal and his family are Muslim, but that's not the big issue here (they're not exactly "hardcore"). The film is really a dramatization of director Sultan Sharrief's life, and it's meant to inspire children from any impoverished backgrounds to go for their dreams, no matter what hardships are thrown at them.

But it doesn't have all the answers. While I can see this being a good movie to show to high school kids, the resolution can only be effective if their parents watch it and are inspired by it, too. If that ice sculpture thing doesn't work out, then you may need to rely on someone who's irrationally dead-set against college changing their mind and co-signing a loan. So, what do you do if they don't?
Rating: 3/5

The Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue (2011 - Streaming Video)

This short video is a supplement to a book of the same title and some documentary called Forks Over Knives, which I haven't seen, but if it's anything like this, then you may want to look elsewhere for dietary advice, unless you're rich, have an insane amount of free time on your hands, and are prepared to make an entire lifestyle change.

This guy, Rip Esselstyn, goes to people's houses, tosses out everything in their refrigerators and pantries, and shows them how to eat a completely plant-based diet. The impracticality of this diet for the average person is completely lost on everyone involved in this thing. Example: He shows how to make "healthy" homemade fries...It takes 30 minutes just to bake them! That doesn't even include preparation or time needed for the main course. C'mon, people eat fries because they can be obtained quickly. No one has 30 minutes to make fries, and anyone who does would probably make something better in that time.

In another part, he makes a vegetable lasagna, but uses cashews as a cheese substitute. Cashews are extremely expensive. He also likes to bring up pine nuts a lot. I happened to notice a small container of pine nuts at a local grocery store - not kidding, $17 for the damn thing.

Questionable moments include one where he makes cereal out of Kashi. You really have to be careful when it comes to cereal and check things like the calories and sugar content. Quite often the cereals you least expect are even higher in calories and sugar than stuff like Apple Jacks and Captain Crunch, and Kashi is one of them. He also cooks marinated portobello mushrooms, but doesn't say what they're marinated with. Typical store marinades have high fructose corn syrup. And sure, maybe pureed frozen bananas would make a decent dessert, but the way they were acting like it tasted exactly the same as ice cream made my BS meter do this.

The end of the movie features an obviously-staged scenario of a backyard cookout with people lined up on picnic tables with vegan dishes in front of them. The level of absurdity here was facepalming, as each person had a completely different meal that looked like it took hours of preparation and wasn't just scooped off a grill.

I worry that things like this do more harm than good because people will view them and think, "There's no way I can do this", and not even try to eat better or lose weight. It's the type of extremism that can give an entire movement a bad rap.
Rating: 1.5/5

The Shootist (1976 - Streaming Video)

Everyone else seems to really love this movie, but I wasn't sold on it. It was John Wayne's last film, and in it he plays a gunfighter who is dying of cancer. Wayne was also dying of cancer in real life when he made this. So, many people see it as a final "love letter" to his career.

To me, it seemed kind of unflattering. There's this sheriff character who keeps shouting things like "Wooo-HEEE!" and "YEEHAW!" because he's happy that John Wayne is dying - it means the ways of the old west are dying with him, and they'll be able to have things like cars and street lights. Um, can't they have those things, anyway? And so, the sheriff is all happy that the last gunslinger is dying, but...there's still a saloon full of gunslingers? And for some reason, the sheriff is actually happy about that? Why am I the only person who thinks this makes no sense?

I may not have minded the rest of the movie so much, but that character totally killed it for me. His role either needed to be rewritten or written out entirely. It's not like this is the only western that has had the theme of the old west fading into history - I mentioned that in my review of The Magnificent Seven. But that movie didn't need Yosemite Sam to shout it all out for me in no uncertain terms.
Rating: 2.5/5

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
Author: Ron Currie, Jr.; Reader: Jake Hart
(Audiobook & Original Book - 2013)

Author Ron Currie, Jr. apparently received a lot of critical acclaim for his previous book, God is Dead, and I know nothing about it, but I came pretty close to hating this one. The self-insert main character is an author who never writes anything, and instead, goes to live on some island someplace where people speak Spanish and he gets into fights a lot. He's also in love with this woman who is the proverbial, "Woman That Every Man Wants, But No Man Can Have". Here's the thing: I don't believe this really exists. I think it's all in the author's head, and the same is true for anyone else who's ever proposed the idea of a "Woman That All Men Want, But None Can Have". It's contradicted by the book itself. There's a part where he talks about how she's getting divorced, because, as he says, "All Men Want Her, But No Men Can Have Her", but then he adds, "...which is weird, because her husband is actually leaving her." Yeah, no, it's not weird.

The middle of the book is the author describing his wild sex escapades, his father's undignified dying of cancer, and his own bodily functions as though the concept of "TMI" has never crossed his path.

When the author finally decides to write something for his antsy publisher, it's a suicide note. Then he actually attempts it and fails. But people think he's really dead, so he continues to fake it. I guess all that critical praise he got from his first book must've gone to his head, because he would have you believe, dear reader, that his suicide note would go more viral than the most virialest of viral videos and inspire thousands of people everywhere across the world to commit suicide in various bizarre ways.

Once he's put on trial in a courtroom scene that kept making me think of Roger Ebert's review of Patch Adams, the big moral that comes out of it is (are you ready?)...

You shouldn't get so worked up over fiction that you kill yourself over it.

Gee, thanks.

Rating: 2/5

Murder on the Flying Scotsman: A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery
Author: Carola Dunn; Reader: Mia Chiaromonte
(Audiobook - 2013; Original Book - 1996)

A fairly standard cozy mystery that takes place in the 1920s aboard a train called "The Flying Scotsman". Lead character is a female part-time sleuth who just seems to run into murder mysteries wherever she goes. The audiobook is a simple, easy listen, but there's such a plethora of suspects that I had a hard time keeping everyone straight in my head. Sometimes, I think taking notes for these sort of things is essential, unless you just want to be along for the ride and not worry about figuring it out for yourself.

There's a weird little detail that I wonder if it got trumped up by listening to it being read aloud rather than reading it. At one point, a little girl tells Daisy that she overheard two men arguing over something that sounded like "Arsony". I knew right away the word was supposed to be "Larceny", because it sounded exactly like "Larceny" without the "L" and made more sense in the context, but if I had seen the word written on paper, I'm not sure I would've deciphered it as quickly.
Rating: 3/5

My First Time
Author: Phil Growick; Readers: Mike Chamberlain & Nicole Vilencia
(Audiobook - 2012)

If you only read the title and not the subtitle that's too long for me to type out here, then this book isn't what you think. It's a collection of stories told by people in the advertising business of the first time they ever got to make a professional ad. Like many collections, some of the stories are better and more interesting than others. In fact, it takes a bit to get going. The first few either weren't very special or the interviewee rubbed me the wrong way, but after that it starts getting anywhere from hilarious, to outrageous, to downright crazy, and sometimes even inspirational.

As a video game aficionado, I ended up learning something that I never knew before and totally wasn't expecting to find in here. Apparently, it's possible that the Nintendo character Wario was meant to be a one-time throwaway villain (this makes sense to me, as I once proposed the idea that he was intended to be a parody of Sega). But the person who was in charge of advertising Super Mario Land 2 wanted to focus the ad on Wario instead of Mario as he was instructed, and he made Wario into more of a character than he was. This depiction led to him getting his own games and personality.

Though there's also an inspirational tale about a guy who made a Barbie Game Boy game for EA that extols the old virtue of "Always give everything your best effort, even if it's not your ideal job", it isn't all about video games. There's one in here about how a football player was supposed to show up for a magazine shoot, but didn't. The ad's creator was looking around for a stand-in, when he noticed everyone was staring at him. "...You look like a football player..." Even if you guess what happens once he's all fitted up in the uniform, there's still another hilarious twist worthy of a Seinfeld episode.

It's funny how sometimes the "lessons" are contradictory. One guy laments how he had a great idea for an ad that was totally ruined by people thinking they could improve it, when they actually made it worse. But another guy regrets that he didn't allow people to improve on his ideas when he turned out a less-than-stellar TV spot. As someone who's been smack in the middle of this situation more than once in her life, I can sympathize with it being difficult to figure out when you should listen to others and when you should listen to yourself. I suppose one thing you should never do, according to one guy's story, is tell Dan Castellaneta to "stick to the script" on an audition.

Word of advice: You might want to be near a computer while listening to this. Sometimes, they give the URLs to where you can find their ads online after the stories are over. I listened to this at work, so I was never able to do that, although I did find a few of them just by searching on YouTube.

Rating: 4/5



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