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She Kills Monsters – Spoiler-Free Book Review April 19, 2017

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Author’s Note:  This is a review of the published book version of “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen, and I will not be reviewing any theatrical version of it since I have not seen a live production of the play yet.

As an author, I have always had a fondness for the written word and I have to admit I love theater!  You can tell any genre of story on stage, just as you could with film, television and video games.  That having been said, I’ve recently grown sick and tired of seeing an oversaturation of boring musicals and depressing drama on theatre stages all across my state.  Recently, I asked a peer of mine if there were any recent plays written completely out of the mainstream that wasn’t Spamalot, and he eagerly recommended the play She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen.

Like with some of the other content I’ve done on this website I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible. I feel it does a disservice to an author to reveal important details about their story, and I also feel it does a disservice to an audience who would be cheated out of the chance of fully enjoying the first time they experience the play, so consider this review spoiler-free. However, while there will be no spoilers in this review, I do need to talk about what the story is about and give a light summary of the plot.  If you don’t want to know anything about the plot, feel free to skip the next paragraph, otherwise continue reading right along.

She Kills Monsters revolves around a woman named Agnes Evans.  Agnes is a twenty-five year old English teacher still recovering from the death of her parents and little sister Tilly in a car crash.  Agnes and Tilly never had much in common while they were growing up, and Agnes regretted the fact she never really knew her sister while she was alive.  One day, Agnes finds a custom Dungeons & Dragons quest module Tilly wrote for her among her sister’s belongings. Agnes has no experience with Dungeons & Dragons, so with the help of local Dungeon Master Chuck, Agnes is compelled to play the module to discover all she can about the sister she lost.

While the story revolves around Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the editions that existed back in 1995, because the protagonist isn’t an experienced player herself the reader does not need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the core books to understand what is happening in the story.  That being said, the author really did their homework because the rules, races, classes, alignments, and monsters specifically cited in the play do actually appear in the various Dungeons & Dragons editions. You won’t find any mentions of  Gorvilles in this play, thank goodness, so long-term D&D players should feel comfortable reading it.

The book of the play reads like a series of dialog with some minor stage directions.  While there are brief descriptions of battles in the stage notes, I did appreciate there were moments in the stage direction where specific songs or songs of a similar tempo were recommended as background music in certain moments. I will commonly include song notes in scripts that I’ve written and even though I have been constantly told by my peers that is something that is never done, I feel a scriptwriter should be able to name songs in their work as it can greatly influence the audience’s mood.  In this book it is done to great effect, as some of the song choices the author recommends had me breaking down in laughter at certain points, making humorous sequences downright hilarious. 

After reading every word of the play’s book, I found myself moved in a way I had not been in a very long time. When I say this play is hilarious, I mean it.  However, I don’t want readers to think that just because the characters play a game of Dungeons & Dragons during the play, it can only be enjoyed by D&D fans. While there are a few jokes that will be enjoyed by long-term Dungeons & Dragons players, everybody will enjoy the vast majority of its humor.

This is more than just a play that makes you laugh, parts of this play will bring you to absolute tears.  As I write this I’m feeling a bit constrained by my self-imposed spoiler-free guidelines as there are several moments throughout the play that nearly brought me to tears, with one scene in particular still resonating with me days after I finished reading it.  The reader will go through plenty of emotional highs and lows during the story, and I feel that it is because the play is so funny it can make its sadder subject matter even more effective.

After reading the book, I’m sure a lot of you are wondering if I would have preferred to see the play performed on stage and I’m hesitant to give an answer to that question because I’m actually conflicted by it.  On the one hand this is a really imaginative play featuring battles with monsters, dragons and the like, so I really want to see how different production companies would handle adapting it.  On the other hand, having read the book, I have my own expectations for how scenes would look.  With all that said, I think I’m trying to say that even though I already read the book, I would still be interested to see it performed live.

I think what it all boils down to is does this play have heart, and I’m happy to say that it does.  Qui Nguyen has a clear love for D&D, but the specific story she is telling is much more personal.  If you have any interest in geek culture, Dungeons & Dragons, or just unique stories in general, check out She Kills Monsters for an experience you won’t have anywhere else!

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Chessex Gemini 7-Dice Set Review April 10, 2017

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All Dungeons & Dragons players know that regardless of what edition of the game they’re playing, there is one essential tool all players are going to need to bring with them other than their imagination and that is dice.  But what dice do you buy and what happens if you’re like me and are very particular about the color of dice you buy?

Dice maker Chessex offers gaming dice of all different colors and configurations.  One of those options is a 7-pack of different dice featuring the same color.  Today, we’re going to take a close look at one of those sets, Gemini Blue-Steel. Let’s take a look and try them out!

How many sets of dice should pen and paper role players have?  Does the color matter?  Do you want us to look at more dice?  Post a comment below with your thoughts!

MagiQuest Review February 17, 2017

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Great Wolf Lodge offers tons of fun activities for its guests and visitors and one of those activities is a game called MagiQuest.  MagiQuest is a new kind of game where you use a magic wand to complete quests in a fully interactive environment inside the hotel.

Earlier this week, Maniac and Princess Angel were fortunate enough to spend a vacation up at the New England Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, MA.  We ended up playing MagiQuest nearly non-stop throughout the duration of our stay.
What did we think of the game?  Watch the video below to find out!

Special thanks to ChaosD1 for recommending MagiQuest to us!

Bawls Ginger Review February 16, 2017

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Last week, our favorite high-caffeinated beverage maker announced they had created an all new flavor, Bawls Ginger.  Yesterday, we were lucky enough to get our hands on it, let’s see how we like it!

Special thanks to Bawls for sending us a case of the soda!

Final Fantasy Day – The Sky Art Book Review February 4, 2017

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We thought that since it was Final Fantasy Day, we could rerelease one of our classic reviews of a piece of Final Fantasy merchandise. Traditionally, Princess Angel reviews the art books on this website, but in this one case we had to make an exception.  The Sky: The Art of Final Fantasy is an anthology of three books featuring Mr. Amano’s original concept art from the first ten numbered Final Fantasy games.
What did we think of these books? Is it worth picking up?  Watch our review and find out!

Final Fantasy Day is still going on and plenty more content from across the web is on its way!

Amazon Echo vs Echo Dot, Which Should You Get? January 30, 2017

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The number one Christmas boutique gift item this year had to be Amazon’s line of Alexa powered speakers, the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot.  I know a lot of people have asked me about these devices, as they can do a lot more than other Bluetooth speakers.  They feature access to an internal personal assistant named Alexa, a program which is capable of everything that Apple promised Siri could be, and a lot more. She has amazing voice recognition and can understand tons of direct queries including time, weather, news, and basic information. She can also play music from Tune In, Pandora or Amazon Prime (provided you have an account where applicable).

So if you’re here you’re probably about to ask me, “Which one should I get?”

Well first off, thank you for asking, I appreciate the fact you feel comfortable coming to my website for that kind of information.  Pull up a chair.

Next I’d like to say that this is only a review of the devices themselves and not the Amazon services which can expand Alexa’s features like Audacity, Amazon Prime or Amazon Music. If you already subscribe to those services you can do more with your Echo or Echo Dot, but they are not required for the devices to function.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get started.

Design and Appearance

Let’s talk first about each device’s appearance and design.


The Amazon Echo is slightly wider than the width of an aluminum can and about the height of a candle. It has only one input for its power adapter, and features a mute button and a pairing button on top.  Volume control is handled by an integrated dial on top of the speaker, which I absolutely love.  The rest of the device is taken up by an omnidirectional speaker.  The Echo does not have a battery so it will deactivate when unplugged.


The Echo Dot is much shorter than the Echo, but it is still about the size of a hockey puck.  It has a USB power input and a standard audio auxiliary out on the bottom of the device, and has the mute and pairing buttons on top. Sadly, the Echo Dot has no volume dial like the Echo, instead there are volume up and volume down buttons on top of the device next to the mute and pairing buttons.

The circular light on top of both devices glow different colors depending on what it is currently doing. It will glow blue when receiving a query with the brightest part of the light shining in the direction of its user’s voice. That way the user knows who Alexa is listening to at that moment.  You will see a white light when adjusting volume, and the light will get larger around the top of your device as it reaches maximum loudness.  If there’s a problem during setup, it will glow purple.

Edge goes to the Amazon Echo, while the light indicators on both devices are identical and the Echo doesn’t have an external speaker output, its own speaker is awesome and I freaking love that volume dial.

Setup

Next let’s talk about setup and installation. To set up the Amazon Echo or the Echo Dot, you’ll need an internet connected WiFi router, an Amazon account and a SmartPhone or Tablet compatible with the Amazon Alexa app. The process of connecting your speaker to a WiFi hotspot can be a bit complicated, so make sure you remember your WiFi password.

I set up the full sized Echo using my Dad’s iPhone 5 early Christmas morning. I don’t know if it was my dad’s old smartphone, a buggy app, or the fact that it was Christmas morning, but it must have taken at least four attempts for me to connect the Amazon Echo to my WiFi router.  When I tried to set up three Echo Dots on a different hotspot later on that night, the process was extremely smooth with no errors. I don’t know if it was because I had more experience setting up the devices, the fact it was later in the day, the different router, or the fact I was now running the Alexa app on a Generation 4 iPad, but I had no problems activating the three Echo Dots.

Under normal circumstances I would give the far edge to the Echo Dot, but as I said earlier I think the discrepancy in setup success might have been caused by outside factors. Under normal circumstances the procedures to activate the devices are identical, which is I was surprised about the discrepancy. I would like to say this should have been an even match but given my issues activating the Echo on Christmas morning I will give a slight edge to the Echo Dot.

Bluetooth

Most people will want to use the Echo and Echo Dot as a BlueTooth Audio Speaker so let me talk about that feature first. To pair your Bluetooth device to the Echo or Echo Dot you’ll need to activate the speaker’s pairing feature in the Alexa app and then search for the Echo on your Bluetooth equipped smart device.  The process of Bluetooth pairing is identical on both the Echo and the Echo Dot and in both cases it was painless.  Once paired, you can connect your Bluetooth device at any time by selecting your speaker from your device’s Bluetooth menu.

Once paired, how do the devices sound?  I’ve tested the Echo with an iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6s, and a third gen iPad. Meanwhile I’ve tested the Echo Dot on an iPhone 7 and LG V20 device. Audio on the Echo sounded incredible, regardless of the device paired to it at the time. I’ve tested it on music, podcasts, YouTube video and they all sounded great coming out of the Echo. Meanwhile, the Echo Dot’s speaker didn’t sound much better than the audio coming out of the iPhone 7 or LG V20 without amplification, which was disappointing.

Now, I know the Echo Dot can output audio to a seperate speaker or headset using either Bluetooth or its AUX port, but in my opinion, that kind of defeats the purpose of the device in the first place.  The Echo Dot is intended to be smaller than the Echo, so adding a second speaker to it is an added cost and has the side effect of taking up more space on a shelf or table.  Plus, if I already had a quality Bluetooth speaker to stream audio from my smart device on, I might as well just connect my smart device directly to the better wireless speaker and not even bother pairing my device to the Echo Dot!

Edge to the Amazon Echo.

Alexa

Since getting the Amazon Echo for Christmas, Alexa has quickly become the other woman in my life and I love customizing her features.  You can enable all-new features for your Echo or Echo Dot in the Alexa app, including expanded news sources and actual games. That’s right, you can actually add features to Alexa just as easily as you install new apps to your smart device. However, since Alexa is run on the Amazon Cloud, your Echo and Echo Dot will never run out of memory so you can enable all the features you want.

If you’re unhappy with Alexa’s default news sources (by default she will pull news from NPR), you can change them in the Alexa app under the Flash Briefing setting.  That way you can add other news sources like CNN, CNBC, CNET, BBC and The Daily Show.  I recommend some trial and error while testing different news sources as you discover which news format and order you prefer, but eventually you’ll find something you’re happy with.

For new users who want to play games on Alexa I recomend enabling “The Wayne Investigation”, an official Batman Alexa game developed by Warner Brothers.  There are also a few independent games inspired by pen and paper RPGs which look like a lot of fun, but I haven’t had the chance to play them yet.

So is there a difference between the two?  I’m sad to say there is.  When doing Alexa queries on the Echo Dot I would frequently notice a pop or pause during its responses.  Since the device was pretty new, I chocked this popping up to internet buffering and not a speaker issue. As a long term audio guy, there is nothing I hate more than hearing pops in my audio playback. In fact this is partially why I will never understand the obsession over vinyl.  Meanwhile, after literally hundreds of different Alexa queries on a full sized Amazon Echo, I never noticed a single pop or crackle during Alexa’s responses.  And yes, before you ask we were using the recent Echo Dot hardware revision which we were told should have been as fast as the full sized Echo, and we noticed the popping on at least two seperate devices.

We’re still not entirely clear on the exact source of the Echo Dot’s pops. It could be the speaker, the processor, or internet buffering but since I had no such issues with the full sized Echo, I am giving the edge to the Amazon Echo.

Smart Home

At this point I would normally talk about the Echo’s Smart Home features.  I do know that Alexa can interface with a wide range of Honeywell Thermostats for home climate control, and smart bulbs for home lighting, but we don’t have access to that kind of hardware here.

After doing a lot of research in the Alexa app, it looks like there aren’t any specific Smart Home apps or features locked to one specific device or the other. 

Sadly this section will have to be left blank for now, if we ever decide to update this article in the future this may get changed but for now we will call this section even.

Price

With that all out of the way, let’s talk about price.  I’ve seen prices for the Amazon Echo range from $120-$150 US depending on where you bought it from. Mine was purchased off the Home Shopping Network (HSN), and we paid $129 for it.  Meanwhile, the Amazon Echo Dot retails for $50US on Amazon.

I know there’s just no comparison in price, you could buy three Echo Dots for the price of one Echo and many people (including us) have done exactly that.

Edge to the Echo Dot.

Final Thoughts

I know it may be more expensive but when it comes to quality and simplicity out of the box I have to give the overall edge to the Amazon Echo. Once I set it up, it just worked, and it never stopped working.  Meanwhile, the Echo Dot, while cheaper and equipped with all the features of its big brother, is not as polished a device as the full sized Echo.  We believe the Echo is worth the higher price.

Winner: Amazon Echo!

Maniac Tries Starbucks Pokemon Go Frappuccino January 3, 2017

Posted by Maniac in Reviews, Site Videos.
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Starbucks teamed up with the developers of Pokémon Go to turn Starbucks across the country into Pokestop locations.  To celebrate this partnership, Starbucks is now offering an exclusive Pokémon Go branded Frappuccino…but it’s not on the menu so you specifically have to ask for it.

So how does it taste for the Pokémon Trainer on the go?  Watch our full review.

Buffalo Wild Wings Titanfall 2 Promotion Review November 11, 2016

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As we reported earlier, EA is holding a Titanfall 2 promotion at Buffalo Wild Wings locations all across the country throughout the month of November.  They’re giving away exclusive Titanfall 2 multiplayer content to anyone who dines at or orders take-out from Buffalo Wild Wings.

How’s the promotion doing?  Watch and find out!

Oh and as a special bonus we will be giving away a Titanfall 2 BWW code to the first person who comments on this article with a link to their Twitter channel!

Titanfall 2 is out now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.

Pokemon Go Review July 8, 2016

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Earlier this week Niantic and The Pokémon Company released this year’s most anticipated SmartPhone app, Pokémon Go, on Android and iOS phones.

Pokémon Go is a free to play SmartPhone game heavily inspired by the Google Maps April Fool’s day prank from two years ago. In it, you take on the role of a Pokémon Trainer trying to capture Pokémon in the real world. To succeed, you must trek around your physical surroundings in a search for hidden Pokémon to capture using your SmartPhone’s camera. This is the kind of game that Pokémon Trainers like myself have been hoping to see since the iPhone was first announced back in 2007.  Now that it’s out, I’m sure you’re wondering how well it works.  You’ve come to the right place.

I must stress that this review of the app is based on its launch software played without the aid of a Pokémon Go Plus accessory. Those devices are not expected to release until the end of the month, and we will do an alternate review for them when they become available.  With that out of the way, let’s start at the beginning.

Setup

To play the game you must download the application to your device and create a Pokémon Trainer. You can log into the app by either creating a unique Pokémon Trainer account or, if you already have a Google account, you can log into the game using that. Once you logged in, you can customize your own Pokémon Trainer avatar. Options for your initial Trainer customization is limited but still diverse enough for you to create a unique likeness.


Once you have customized your own Pokémon Trainer, the game begins…

Gameplay

When the game starts, the Pokémon Professor asks you to pick your starter. Your choice is among the three GEN1 starters, Charmander, Squirtle and Bulbsasaur. After selecting which starter you like, the game immediately fires up and gives you an opportunity to capture it. This is your first experience with the game’s unique capture system. In it, you use the touch screen to “throw” Pokéballs at the Pokémon you encounter in the real world. Thankfully, unlike the main Pokémon games, there is no need to weaken Pokémon found in Pokémon Go in advance before capturing them.  If you are able to throw the ball well enough, you may succeed in capturing it.

Once I had my starter captured, I received no further tutorial on how to play the game, other than the vague request to visit a local Poké Stop, which in my case was a church down the street from my house.  When I got close enough to the church, I was able to access the stop in the app and I earned myself some free Pokéballs.

After that the game provided me no further instruction about what to do so I had to figure it out on my own. The game works like this:

When you bring up the app, it is implied that you will use it while physically walking around your real world environment.  A radar in the lower right gives you a general idea about what kind of Pokémon might be in your area, but it’s no guarantee of what you will find during your trek.  Turn on your speaker because the game’s phenomenal soundtrack is a great companion.

While you’re walking around your environment, you may randomly come across various wild Pokémon. Their appearance is denoted by a buzz and loud music queue.  By tapping on them once they appear, you will bring up a capture screen, where you will be able to see the Pokémon you selected in your device’s camera. From there you can attempt to capture it and if you’re successful, you’ll gain the Pokémon and some experience.  When it works, it is so much freaking fun and adds an all new layer to physical activity.

If you wish to evolve or level up your Pokémon you can do so with the help of stardust and candies. You earn stardust and candies automatically with every capture but while stardust can be applied to level up any Pokémon, candies are specific to only the Pokémon of the species you captured. If you want to level up the stats of a specific Pokémon, you can use Stardust and only a few candies to increase their stats.  If you want to evolve it, it takes a lot of candies. That means you might want to capture a lot of Pidgeys to eventually evolve one of your Pidgeys into a Pidgeotto.

If you don’t feel like going anywhere you can drop an incense and the Pokémon will come to you. The item will continue to work for thirty real-time minutes. This is a great item for people unable to go outside at a time they want to play the game.

Currently, you must keep the application running at all times to make use of it. Your smartphone will not notify you of any Pokémon you encounter while the app is closed.  This will probably change once the Pokémon Go Plus accessory is released.

As you capture more Pokémon your Trainer rank will increase, and with every rank you automatically earn some free items like Pokéballs, Potions, Incense and Revives.  There are currently no Great Balls, Ultra Balls or Master Balls in the game, all captures are made with regular Poké Balls so you’re going to need a lot of them.  If your supplies run low, you will need to visit a Poké Stop location, or you can buy your supplies with real money.

If you find a Pokémon Egg, you can hatch it by setting it to incubate. Depending on which incubator you use, the egg will hatch once you’ve walked the expected distance the incubator requires. The incubator I’m using requires me to walk two kilometers to hatch an egg.

The game is currently programmed with the initial Generation I (GEN1) Pokémon, but more will be added. Currently there is no way to trade Pokémon with other players but the developers have stated this is intentional. They want us to start accumulating Pokémon on our own before we start trading them.

If we could talk about one major negative I have with this game I must make a reference to the fact that while the game’s 3D Pokemon models are extremely detailed and true to their original designs and sound effects, the game’s map environment (which is what you’ll be looking at most of the time) is pretty uninspired and does not share any relation to Pokémon’s style.  Take a look for yourselves.


Not even the game’s Pokémon Gyms or Poké Stops look all that visually interesting or even remotely close to their in-game counterparts. Poké Stops look like a small blue mark on your map, nothing like the Pokémon Centers you would traditionally see in a Pokémon game. Gyms looked like nothing more than generic towers. Easy to see on a map but with none of Pokemon‘s unique charm.  This is depressing because you can easily see how much care was put into replicating the Pokémon 3D models, the game deserves a more inspired world map. Hopefully this interface will be improved in a new version.

Technical Issues

In the time since I’ve had this game I’ve had to deal with constant random crashes, connection denials and yesterday I was regularly forced to log in more times than I could count. I would normally say that this game wasn’t beta tested, but I know for a fact that it was tested by Pokémon fans all over the world!  What happened?  I know for a fact I offered to Beta Test this game, but Niantic decided not to accept my help.  Most of these technical issues seemed to be caused by the sheer amount of simutanous users playing the game in real-world conditions.  During development, Niantic decided to limit worldwide Beta Testing to a select lucky few. Perhaps if they had accepted more testers to stress the game, their service might have been better prepared for what was in store for them when the game officially launched.

Conclusion

In short my advice about this game right now is to download the game but don’t spend any money on it until the network stabilizes.  There is a fun game here under an uninspired interface and constant technical issues. In time I’m sure it will come out.

Midsummer Fantasy Renaissance Faire 2016 Review July 1, 2016

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After having such a great time attending last year’s Midsummer Fantasy Renaissance Faire, we decided to attend this year’s event!  We got a whole new story, saw some new performers (as well as some old favorites), and enjoyed every bit of it!

That not enough for you?  Fine, take a look at our video review.

The Midsummer Fantasy Renaissance Faire 2016 will be happening this weekend at Warsaw Park in Ansonia, CT. Check out their official website for tickets and scheduling information.