Friday, 22 October 2021

The Calendar of Puddings

Well, it's been a little while between drinks here at the Leaflocker. Since the last post I've back in Australia for longer than three weeks for the first time in six years, and I'm also back to living in my parent's house for the first time in a decade. Despite our fears, I'm finding the whole thing rather pleasant, thanks in no small part to the fact that being back near my mother's house means being back near my mother's cooking on a regular basis.

I've always remembered my Mum's cooking as fabulous, and spending time in the kitchen with her over the last month or so has been a major highlight of returning home. She recently acquired this gem in a thrift store, the fabled South Australian Country Women's Association Calendar of Puddings (Brown's Well Community Library's loss is our gain). Every time I think about how absurd it is that anyone would need a pudding for every night of year, how many eggs would be consumed, how many pounds of butter, I get the giggles, so I was more than a little surprised when I met my mother's eye and we together resolved in all seriousness to give it a go.

Of course, we're not making sweets every night. That would be silly. No-one needs that much sugar in their system (it's not caffeine), and setting ourselves up to do something each and every day is just setting ourselves up for disappointment, but I reckon we can work something out.

The rules we've set ourselves are very complicated:

1) Pick one pudding from the options each week
2) Make and eat the pudding

With three weeks or so until the birth of my firstborn and her second grandchild, it's likely a terrible time to be starting a new, extremely long-term series on the old blog, but in a classic case of the bear in the woods, I've decided that there's no point making a regular pudding if we don't record our thoughts, so it's time to blow the dust of the Leaflocker once again.

My mother took the idea and ran with it last week before I'd even convinced myself that she was serious, preparing October 20th's Baked Lemon Delicious (Swiss), which is an old family favourite recipe, and a great place to start a project that promises to be a little experimental. Having done this one a number of times over the last few years, I was amused to find that apart from forming a satisfying looking top crust, her version also failed to solidify, something that has dogged my attempts at the recipe in the past. But it's a favourite recipe for a reason, largely because as the name promises, it makes for a delicious dessert even when it turns out to be more of a custard than a pudding. Served with a generous side of icecream, it tasted like sweet, sweet lemony sunshine.

Wait, wait wait... the end of the recipe says 'serve hot or cold'. That can't possibly be right. I can't imagine what this would be like cold and it certainly never survives long enough to get cold before it's consumed. It feels almost criminal to do something like that to a dessert which brings such joy by being dangerously hot, but 79 Country Women can't be wrong, can they? Note to self: Next time you make this, make two, so that you can throw one in the fridge, just to check.

I guess the Leaflocker is a cooking blog now?

Monday, 23 August 2021

22nd August 2021 NYT Crossword

 I completely failed to do both the Saturday and the Sunday crossword puzzles on their designated days this week, but thankfully due to the joys of living in the future, I was able to preserve my crossword solving streak on the NYT app, something that I have become suprisingly attached to. All things must end, and this number going up is surely something that will come to an end soon, but for the moment I'm enjoying keeping it going, even with puzzles like this one, which took an age for me to complete.



Friday, 20 August 2021

The Confidence of Hades

This week has been a bit of a write-off, blogwise, which is a bit of a pity because as far as the traditional Blaugust focuses of the week goes, 'Developer Appreciation Week' is the one that I actually feel like I have a little something to say about, for once.


It won't come as a surprise that along with pretty much everyone else in the world and the judging panels of something like fifty Game of the Year awards, I'm a big fan of Supergiant Games' Hades. It's a game that I finally got around to playing just a couple of months ago and that has been in very heavy rotation here at Leaflocker HQ ever since, in a period when I really haven't had the time to spend on videogames, a clear marker both of just how good it is, and also my persistent lack of an adequate dose of self-control. Hades does a great job of making me feel both clever and powerful as your progress through the underworld, which is no mean feat when we're talking about me (not the finest gamer in the land), so I add my voice of recommendation to the choir. Play it.

Apart from the the main attraction of the gameplay loop itself, there's a number of aspects of the design of the game that I wanted to touch on today that I think really speak to the confidence of Supergiant as a developer.


First, there's the seamless inclusion of the little things that are just expected in game with modern sensibilities. The whole game is set around the rivers of the underworld, so of course you can pause in your relentless killing spree to stop and do some fishing (complete with terribly fishy puns). Heck, the game wants you to, it will even pause the relentless timer to allow you to do so. And in a world where it's important for those launch-day metrics to be able to satisfy @canyoupetthedog, not only can you pat the terrifying hellbeast Cerberus, despite him being set-up as the penultimate boss of the game you give him treats instead of fighting him, because who could possibly want to fight such a good doggo? And of course, there's the romance subplots, Supergiant were happy enough with the core game that they had the time and the inclination to add a little of something for everyone, that just oozes confidence in what you're making.


Then there's the confidence of saying "yes, you're going to have to play this dozens of times to see all the story". That's pretty much a requirement of the roguelike genre, but the ability to ask the player to see the game through to the end over and over, seeing the same content again and again, and rely on the small changes of the systems between play-throughs to keep it interesting, and to double down by throwing in little jokes about it as you make them start again, that's true confidence. And players have definitely reponded. A quick look at the Steam Achievement stats as they sit now show that almost 50% of players finished the game once, 24% finish the story, and 7% reach the epilogue. Given that seeing the epilogue took me over 70 runs, those are excellent retention rates. Compare that to something with a similar campaign length, something like FTL, where only 17% of players ever defeat the boss on easy difficulty, and you'll see just how impressive those numbers are.


And finally, in my favourite example of showing confidence in your gameplay, there's the excellent way that Supergiant didn't tie the achievements in the game to the end of the things to do in the game. Now I love achievements and I love ticking them off, but I greatly enjoy that there's still a whole heap more for me to explore and discover in the game well after I ticked off "100%" according to Steam. The hardest Steam Achievement, the one for finishing the game with the Pact of Punishment set to level 16, is explicitly the second of three in-game bragging prizes. You can tick off all the achievements without perfecting your bonds with every character, without completing every fated path, without unlocking all the cosmetics, and without engaging at all with the Resource Director, the part of the game that the game itself explicitly tells the player is just there for nutters. Supergiant is happy to give you that coveted Platinum trophy, secure in the knowledge that you'll be back to find what you've missed in the game so far, just because the game feels so darn good. And they're right, almost 40 plays after I ticked off my last achievements, I'm still diving back into the depths of hells, for just one...more...room.

That's confidence.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Blaugust 2021 Half Time Show

It's the 17th of August, and that means that we've passed the half-way point of the annual blogging festival that is Blaugust, so it's time to have a quick review of how it's all going so far.

When I hit the little orange Publish button over of the right hard side of my screen here, I'll have posted twelve times over the first seventeen days of August. That does seem a long way behind aim of one post a day required to win the coveted Rainbow Diamond award. I long ago stopped worrying too much about failing to reach that dizzying height, but as remote as it seems right now, it's not completely out of the realms of possibility until we reach the blog-event horizon of requiring two posts a day, so by that metric, I've still got plenty of time to claw it back.

There's two major factors that reduce the likelihood of reaching that elusive target. One is the fact that we've just returned to the country, so between long-overdue admin and catching up with friends and family that we haven't seen for the last few years there are quite a few demands on our time other than sitting down at the keyboard.

The second is a lack of planned posts. In a usual Blaugust, I'd have a day-by-day plan of regular features giving my a structure for the month, but this time around I've been flying by the seat of my pants, and apart from the ongoing In My Humble Opinion series, the occasional crossword recording, and a couple of drafts that I started earlier in the month and will likely abandon, the future is all looking very unknown. Thus, I have a little request, if there's something you'd like to see me tackle on the blog, put in a request in the comments (or your preferring Owl-contacting method) and we'll see what we can do.

Even if we don't make it to 31 posts, we're on track for a pretty good Blaugust festival post-wise when we compare this year to previous ones:

Blaugust 2014: 34 posts
Blaugust 2015: 31 posts
Blaugust 2016: 31 posts
Blaugust 2011: 27 posts
Blaugust 2019: 18 posts
Blapril 2020: 18 posts
Blaugust 2018: 15 posts
Blaugust 2021: 12 posts*
Blaugust 2017: 9 posts
Blaugust 2012: 8 posts
Blaugust 2013: 3 posts

Even if I can just keep up with the current two-posts-every-three-day schedule, then we're still on track for the fifth-most active Blaugust since festivities began and the best since 2016, and I absolutely refuse to look further into the stats to find out how many of those years that fell by the wayside started strong before burning out early in the month. 

Talk to you tomorrow!

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Howard Springs Quarantine Menu Review

Meals here at the Center for National Resilience are delivered once a day, somewhere between 4 and 6pm, and consist of a package of a hot dinner (and a cold dessert), along with cold breakfast and lunch that can be stored in your cabin fridge. There's no choice, you get what you're given (subject to dietary needs), and if you don't want it when it arrives the only alternative is to let is get cold, but it's not all bad news. There are no repeats for any meal all week, which means that even if one of the meals isn't your cup of tea, at least you know you don't have to have it again any time soon, and the variety of the menu is an enormous positive in a world where every day is much like any other day. 

The menu is (roughly) repeated every week, so as we go through these meals for a second time I thought a little food review might be in order. I'm no connoisseur , being more of the "I see, I eat" disposition, and my slightly strange dietary needs might men that this likely isn't a particularly useful guide for anyone else, but hopefully it gives folks who come to stay here a bit of an idea of what to expect. It doesn't seem like quarantine is going away any time soon, after all.

Monday

I'm not really a granola guy, preferring plain museli for my breakfasts, but when the accompanying liquid is stewed fruit rather than milk, you don't really have a choice but to embrace the whole sweetness vibe and just run with it. It makes for a big ole hit of the sugars, but it's hard to go too wrong with stone fruit, the mix of crunchy granola bits and squishy fruit works well, and the little accompanying croissant makes for a nice palate cleanser.

The Aussie Tuna Salad is one of the less cohesive meals on the menu, being a general selection of veggies, potato salad, corn on the cog, a hard boiled egg, and also a tin of tuna. It's not really a meal that goes together all that well (I certainly wouldn't recommend the potato/tuna combo), but it's fresh and munchable over the course of the afternoon, and if you're still suffering jetlag or adapting to the weather that's no bad thing.

When we had this as our first meal here, fresh off twenty-something hours in transit, I have to say that I expected the worst. As we found out over the course of our stay, lots of meals can be cooked en-masse and delivered none the worse for wear in a plastic container, but a chicken parmigiana isn't really one of them. The schnitzel gets all sweaty instead of having a nice crispiness to it, and generally this was all the low-points of the pub schnitzel that many of the highs, even though you can tell that it was probably delicious when it was first cooked. Still, there's a lot of it, and sometimes that's what you need.

Dessert in our first week was a rather scrumptious key lime pie, but this week it was replaced with a cupcake celebrating our returning olympians. Cupcakes are almost always underwhelming (especially when compared to a key lime pie), and this butter-icing flavoured example was either par for the course of a little below. Not the best day on the menu, this one.

Tuesday

I have this one down in my notes as 'the weird one'. Tuesday breakfast is a little pot of mostly mushrooms, along with a little egg and some spinach, which is all very fresh and all, but as a person who somehow never acquired a taste for mushrooms, it's all a little overwhelming. This week I learned from last time and decanted the mushrooms when I first got them, so that they didn't diffuse their taste over the whole meal, and that made the whole thing a lot more enjoyable. Vegetables for breakfast is something I could get used to, I think.

Whereas yesterdays salad felt like a bunch of things thrown together that just don't go, today's ploughman's lunch is much the same sort of idea, but just works a whole lot better. The highlights are a little slice of camembert and a piece of turkey roll, and any small disgruntlement I might have felt over breakfast were soon forgotten. Mrs. Owl, whose pregnancy means that she didn't get either the soft cheese or the cold meat, but a little less favourable about hers, but we both went away satisfied and generally sated.

And then came the dinner I'd been secretly hoping for as soon as I knew we were coming to Howard Springs, the barramundi, because an eleven-year-old Owl drove his parents absolutely mad ordering barramundi anywhere and everywhere we went across the Northern Territory back in the dim dark past. While my dreams had it crumbed or at least battered, this version with a fragrant sauce and rice was a good move given the plastic container, and abolutely lived up to expectations. The little cheesecake for afters was particularly delicious, too.

Wednesday

Todays breakfast saw a return of the granola, this time with a thick, creamy yoghurt instead of stewed fruit. I liked this one better. It was also accompanied with a couple of hash browns, which are strongly in the 'this is supposed to be a hot food' category, but were actually pretty nice alongside a decent cup of tea. Lunch was a lamb and chutney wrap, which was fine and all, but probably the least memorable of the lunches. I'm just saying it could have had a little falafel, that's all.

The dinner for the people with normal digestive systems was an extremely lovely-smelling Butter Chicken and rice, but as a person who explodes in contact with chilies, I got this risotto-stuffed capsicum, which was decidedly less aromatic. The risotto and the capsicum are both pretty nice and the proportions of each are just about right, (although filling the whole container makes for a very large meal indeed), though the meal is brought down by the addition of a tomato sauce that is fine in its own right (pretty sure it's the same one from the parma) but doesn't really gel with the rest of the dish. This week's risotto had a lot less mushroom that last week's version, and given my relationship with mushrooms as described above, I greatly appreciated the tweak.

Dessert was the citrus tart that I missed out on Monday, so that's a win. The balance of crust and lemony goodness and a touch of cream is just right without being too sweet, which is no small feat. Mrs Owl got the same thing but with a layer of meringue on it for some reason, which she said threw the whole thing off, so I think I won this round.

Thursday

Breakfast quiche continues to be the most delicious of the breakfast options, and also substantially more filling than some of them, which is a useful feature when it's typically 16 hours since ones last meal. I got yoghurt as a side this week as opposed to last week's utterly inedible jelly, so that's a nice little bonus. 

Quinoa salad for lunch, which is a nice way of saying that a bunch of vegetables and a chicken drumstick have been added to a pile of quinoa. All of the parts are nice enough, but in what is becoming a bit of a theme of the B-tier lunches, they don't really go together to make a meal in any particular way. I learned from last week and didn't completely drown it in the Japanese dressing, which was a definite improvement.

The grown-ups had what I'm assured was a rather excellent (though bitey) Lamb Korma, but I had a Five Spice Chicken with brocolli mash that was a dramatic improvement on the rather plain roast chicken and rice from last week; I'm rather enjoying the extra little bit of variance in the dietary needs meals compared to what the rest of the crowds are getting week after week. The brocolli/cheese blend was an excellent side to the chicken, so no lunchtime problems here. Could have done with a little more, so I guess I'll fill up on fruit and this delightful little cheesecake.

Friday

It's the strange breakfast! Not to be confused with the weird breakfast. I love the strange breakfast!  Chia berry goopy thing takes a little bit of getting used to, but it is both delicious and surprisingly satisfying. Hoorah for this superfood that I otherwise would only encounter in the pages of my crossword, or maybe I'm confusing it with ACAI. Either way, delightfully scrummy.

For lunch I had a duck and crispy bean sprout bowl topped of with a mild mustard dressing for a little extra oomph, another example of a salad that is definitely meant to go together and really hits the spot, though I suspect the normal version also comes with chilies (I didn't miss them!). The same can't be said for Mrs. Owl's pregnancy-friendly version, which without the beansprouts or the duck was apparently a little underwhelming. I have no idea how bean sprouts made the list of all the things they say you're not supposed to feed pregnant people, but apparently that's a thing, because they were consistently substituted. 

For dinner, steamed atlantic salmon, which in my opinion narrowly beat out the barra (sorry, madam barramundi, I still love you best, I promise). A creamy dill and caper sauce that I was very happy to slurp the last of, some roast potatoes...understated but delicious. The caramel slice afterwards was many things but definitely not understated. Fine with a cuppa and would have done well accompanied by a big ole dollop of cream, but a little over the top all by itself.

Saturday

None of the egg meals have been a disappointment, and that streak was not broken by the scrambled egg and sun-dried tomato roll for breakfast this morning. Definitely improved by leaving it to warm up a little rather than straight out of the fridge (especially since I've turned my fridge right up in the vain hope of freezing some icypoles), but tasty either way, and definitely a lot better thing to put in my mouth than covid swab number five earlier on the morning, which I did not enjoy waking up for at all.

The prize for best lunch of the week was easily taken out by the Chicken Campanelle Salad, a lovely pasta salad with a creamy mayonnaise sauce, with perfectly balanced little splashes of fruitiness (apples and cranberries) and crunchiness (capsicum and celery). It doesn't look like much, but mhmm-hmm, yes please.

Despite featuring Hokkien noodles, normally a automatic win for me, the Chicken Stir Fry that I got instead of the rather incredible smelling prawn laksa that the chili-tolerant were delivered left a little bit to be desired, but it did have the added bonus of not making my glands swell up and try and choke me, so I suppose beggars can't be choosers. Mrs. Owl's laksa had a bit of an accident on delivered and laksa kinda went all over the place, so we hope that the cleaning protocol after we leave will be able to take care of that. The fruity nutty fruit an nut cake was pretty delicious, too.

Sunday

Cute little frittata triangles for breakfast today. They taste like a perfectly serviceable frittata, but they didn't feel like a whole lot, so even after filling up on fruit (oh my word I am drowing in kiwis) we started lunch a little early. Lunch was a Korean Chicken Bowl - which mostly consisted of couscous mixed with what I think was pickled beetroot. The cold chicken has become another old and reliable friend; maybe it's not all that exciting, flavourwise, but I don't think any of it was ever dry, which is quite an achievement.

They saved the best dinner for last, however, because the braised lamb shank is really top-notch. The lamb falls off the bone (another example of a meaty meat that is not hurt at all by sitting in a plastic tub), the sauce is rich but not too much, and the lack of mashed potato for the rest of the week makes mashed potato feel rich and exciting. Very much the sort of meal that makes me feel sorry for the vegetarians, and a very satisfying last hot meal to finish up on. With a little chocolate torte, too (I tell you want, the person you makes the little tart cases must be making a mint).

-

And that's it. We're back to Monday's breakfast tomorrow morning before we fly out, but for all intents and purposes, we're done here, and while being stuck in the same room all fortnight has gotten pretty old, I think it's fair to say that the food has been a highlight the whole time. It can't be easy cooking for this many people day in and day out, nor to provide interesting meals given the constraints of the quarantine situation, but the catering team has kicked it out of the park. I suspect I'll be missing some of these lunches when I have to fend for myself again out there in the big bad world.

Farewell, Howard Springs, thanks for everything. Let us meet again in happier times one day soon.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

14th August 2021 NYT Crossword

The crossword streak continues, this time with this rather delightful Saturday puzzle by Nam Jin Yoon.


This whole puzzle was an absolute blast, tough but fair and just generally zippy all round. I am very happy after solving it, even if there were a couple of gimmes that I really should have gotten earlier that I did. Tell me, friends, was this one of those puzzles that had you screaming at your screen?

My audio quality continues to be a little dodgy, a product of the rather primitive setup that I'm stuck with at the moment, but I think my production value increased just a tiny bit as well after a bit of fiddling about in OBS last week. Next step is to try and boost the audio so that the audience doesn't have to boost their speakers to 300% to hear it, but we'll take this thing one step at a time.

Friday, 13 August 2021

IMHO: Deadly Days

It's In My Humble Opinion time once again, and that mean that it's time for my old nemesis, the zombie apocalypse survival game. They just never seem to die, and I am condemned to keep playing them and to keep finding them ultimately unsatisfying. Yes, today I played my next game from the July Humble Bundle, Deadly Days.

Deadly Days is a zombie apocalypse survival game in which you try (and in my short experience, generally fail) to guide the pixelated remnants of humanity through a series of procedurally generated suburbs that are swamped with a never-ending tide of similarly pixelated zombies. Each day you pick a trip based on your little settlement's needs from a small number of options, drive your converted bus to the site, and then try to scrounge up enough food, tools, scrap metal and weaponry to get you through the next day before escaping again on the bus before you're overwhelmed by an ever-increasing tide of the undead.

Now I'm not really into this genre, to put it mildly, but I have to say that this is a pretty decent hookline, colour me slightly intrigued. Unfortunately, while the concept might be a winner, the execution leaves me more than a little cold, and after six run-throughs, some of them depressingly short and all of them well short of seeing the endgame, I'm done. Before this blog series completely dissolves into a sea of negativity, it's worth mentioning that there are some things that I don't hate about this title.

1) It's only a couple of hundred megabytes, and in an age where every game seems to come with a mandatory download time measured in the hours, that's quite refreshing, especially to this guy on an inconsistent wifi connection. I'd be very disappointed if this little game with little art was any bigger than that, but I'm often a little surprised by how big some of these titles are.

2) Deadly Days knows that zombies are silly and isn't afraid not to take itself too seriously. The populace was infected by dodgy burgers and the survivors include an animated skeleton, an astronaut and a guy in a banana suit. This would have been no fun at all if they had tried to go the gritty horror route.

3) Especially once you get some slightly more powerful weaponry, the ability to carve your way through the dead is extremely satisfying, the weapons used and the special abilities gel well for this, and if I were an eight-year-old boy, I would think that was incredibly badass, in the same way that I enjoyed a game like Cannon Fodder when I was that age.

Unfortunately, I think that that's all the things that I liked, and I'm afraid it's Debbie Downer time from here on in. Here's some things I didn't like so much:

1) The game revolves around three currencies. Tools, which can be used to improve your base and weaponry. Food, which is used to heal your dudes and level them up, and is consumed each day. And Scrap, which is used to improve your base and weaponry. Yes, you need both tools and scrap to improve your kit, and getting them on any particular mission seems to be more or less random (with a few exceptions, like the hardware stores missions, where you're likely to encounter tools). Given that you need some serious upgrades seriously quickly to stop your little band being badly overrrun, being starved for one or the other of them is a one-way ticket to zombietown. As is being starved of food, which just might not appear on any given map, or be hidden somewhere inaccessible to you if the procedurally generated town hasn't given you a good path back to the bus. Bad luck, start again, I guess.

2) Each level sees you running around a map, popping zombies and collecting goodies by sending one survivor to loot a car, house or shop while the others continue to fight against the waves of the undead. The looter can't be attacked by the zombies, but they're going to be overwhelmed when they finish their looting if the rest of the gang leaves them behind. This means that you're more or less tied down to the speed of your looting, and when your other guys are just standing around instead of actively exploring, the game doesn't have enough going on to make that interesting. Given that the looting of the bigger targets can take half of your allocated time on any given level, this mechanic makes the game feel slow and frustrating in a way that might work well thematically but is just terrible as a gameplay element. It feels like some kind of rhythm like this might allow for interesting choices if you could split up and individually control your party, but you can't (you can only direct them like one big brainless horde) and so it fell very flat for me as a result.

3) I want the pressure to slowly build to breaking point to get the sense of impending doom in my zombie media, but the difficulty in Deadly Days ramps up in strange and unpredictable ways that feels like a roll of a dice rather than a ratchet of tension. Buying good items (you know, the ones that might mix the game up and make it interesting) will dramatically pump the difficulty, such that it seems like it's better to poorly equip your guys to stay weak for as long as you can to avoid facing powerful enemies, but some days it just seems to drastically increase overnight for no obvious reason, and if you've been avoiding those over-powered pick-ups, well, I'm sorry to tell you pardner but you are a dead man walking.

So, this was frustrating, and not in a nice "oh if I just do it like that I might last longer" kind of way. At least only playing this one for a little while meant that I was relatively quick to get out the blog post, I suppose.

Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 103 minutes
  • "Survivors": 16
  • Zombies "killed": I didn't count, but probably thousands.
  • Rocket Launchers recovered: 1, but it felt good.
  • Rating: 3 deficits of brains out of 10

The rankings so far



It's frustrating to say it, but despite the lower ranking and this being just generally a less-polished product than Yakuza 3, I think I enjoyed Deadly Days more. Still not enough that I would recommend anyone play it, though.
  1. Hammerting
  2. Deadly Days
  3. Yakuza 3
I'm worried that my rankings so far have been harsh, but they do reflect why this was a month that didn't exactly fill me with excitement when I saw the titles. Let's hope that we'll be more inspired by the headliner for the bundle...Dirt 5.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Getting Bit

I got bitten by a Ferret in Cornwall, circa 1971. There's a writing prompt for you all. What animals have bitten you and why? ~ Roger Edwards of Contains Moderate Peril

In the fine tradition of "getting to know you" week of Blaugust 2021, I couldn't resist getting down a few words on this delightful little prompt that Mr. Peril dropped over on the Blaugust Discord.

As an Australian I feel like I have a responsibility to carry the flag of 'weird animal stories' for the largely Usonian Blaugust crowd. Again, as an Australian I have my fair share of animal stories that happened to people close to me, like the friend that didn't quite lose his leg after a redback spider bite, or the time my brother didn't quite step on a saltwater crocodile, or that time mother got jumped by a king brown snake that was hanging out in a dustbin at a roadside rest area, or that embarassing interaction between Mrs. Owl and that flock of emus, but the sad fact is that despite my nationality, a combination of my natural homeboyish tendencies and my lack of any kind of willingness to put myself in dangerous situations mean that I don't have really all that many good animal stories of my own, and of the ones I do have, only one involves biting.

Nevertheless, here's my top five animal encounters (thus far), in escalating order of the trauma inflicted. And I do mean trauma, this list might not be for the squeamish.

Koala

The traditional thing to ask an Aussie is always a kangaroo question, either the potentially Veggietales inspired "do you have a pet kangaroo?" or "do you ride a kangaroo to work". Sadly the answer to both is and has always been an emphatic negative, but my morning and evening commutes through the Adelaide Hills used to regularly be delayed by that other most stereotypical of Australian animals, the koala, who are often found stoned out of their minds of eucalyptus either sitting on or mindlessly wandering along the bitumen roads. Once every couple of weeks or so I would come across a long queue of cars waiting behind the hazard-lit indicators of some poor sod who'd got out to try and tempt a koala out of the line of traffic. Only once was I in the situation of being that poor sod, and thankfully by the time I'd gotten out of my car and wandered over to look helplessly at it (what exactly I was hoping to actually do, I have no idea), the beast had decided that there was a nice spot on the hard shoulder just over there and wandered off. I am not convinced that this experience qualifies me as a koala whisperer.

Deer

Of all the creatures that one might expect to encounter out in an Australian forest, deer are likely not high on the list, but like so many other European species, deer (a kind of horizontal kangaroo, for those of you that might not be familiar with them) were brought to Australia to hunt, and quickly got out of control in a land with no natural predators. I was out running in the forest one day (as one does when one is young and impressionable and an Orienteer) when the undergrowth directly underneath me suddenly moved and I found myself suddenly falling and narrowly avoiding impaling myself on a fallen pine branch after tripping over what I eventually realised was a small deer, which immediately shot off in the opposite direction. Friends, I was shaken, but likely not as badly as the poor deer was. I often think of that poor deer, I hope it's living its best life out there in the forest.

Kangaroo

Thankfully, my kangaroo story doesn't involve any punching, although it doesn't involve me getting taken out by a roo. Much like the previous story, this one was a random encounter in the bush while orienteering, yet more proof that going outside is bad for your health. I was running along a hillside, minding my own business, when a roo suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, undoubtedly startled by another runner somewhere nearby. I'm not exactly sure how it didn't see me, clad as I was in bright blue and red, but the roo jumped straight across in front of me, and then for good measure, gave me a solid whop across the face with its tail as it disappeared off into the bush again. Kangaroos are surprisingly solid creatures, and this whomp sent me flying, at least half from shock rather than the impact, but I was completely fine and was able to resume my run once I'd stopped laughing.

Bee

I know, I know. Getting stung by a bee is not all that exciting, though as someone with a (mild) allergy I do find the whole experience gets me a little hot under the collar. But no, this stinging was notable not so much for the fact that it happened (these things do when you have a yellow school uniform and ever go outside), but for the fact that at the time it happened I was currently closed in a locker as a joke by some friends, who seemed to find my escalating shouts and screams to be released as I realised what had happened, and my general inability to communicate the same the while panicking that my allergy might mean I could die alone in a dark locker surrounded by my schoolmates, to be extremely hilarious and not at all a reason to stop leaning on the door and let me out. It can't have been all that more than a few dozen seconds in there, but to me, in the dark and away from my antihistamines, it felt like a very long time indeed.

As ever with beestings, though, it was worse for the bee.

Wombat

There are terrifying creatures in Australia's water that will rip you limb from limb, and there are creepy crawlies all over the place that are just waiting to pump you full of horrible venom that will destroy your entire nervous system, and then there is the most horrible of all, the one that people threaten their children with, the common wombat. No-one makes up killer versions of wombats, because no-one needs to, everyone knows the wombat is a killer just as it is. Don't be fooled by the propaganda, wombats are murder machines, biding their time until they strike when you least expect it.

I found this out, to my horror, at the tender age of four or so, while sitting on the edge of the wombat enclosure at my local conservation park enjoying a peanut butter sandwich. I was perched there, unaware that I was just moments from a brush with death, when suddenly I was viciously set upon by one of these nefarious creatures, which swiped mightily at me with its powerful claws and vicious teeth, savaging my four-year-old buttocks and seemingly trying to drag me back into its monstrous lair to be consumed whole by it and its terrible brood. I was only saved by the lightning intervention of my ever-vigilant parents, and thankfully the beast slunk off to await easier, less wary prey, but my buttocks have never recovered, a constant reminder of the cruel, blood-thirsty, merciless nature of this most horrible of monsters.

I'm sure the wombatnip that I'd inadvertently left in my back pocket had nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

IMHO: Yakuza 3

There are many times when I feel utterly ill-equipped to be attempting to talk about video games on the internet, a place full of intelligent and experienced people who have valuable and insightful things to say about the craft. People like Tim Rogers, or Noah Caldwell-Gervais or Hans Stockmann who it sometimes seems have not only played every game in existence, but can somehow summon up something of interest or somehow even something important to say about them.

And then there's me, someone who faced with having given myself the task of reviewing the remaster of Yakuza 3, a widely-respected open-world adventure game from 2009, really doesn't even have a frame of reference with which to judge it. I've been playing games all my life, from a NES and 386 onward without a noticeable break, and yet somehow the whole genre ( I don't even know what to call them, action role playing games, maybe?) completely passed me by. I haven't played an Elder Scrolls game, a Half-Life, a Fallout, a God of War, or a Soulslike. I played one of the Might and Magic games for a bit. I tried Bioshock but didn't really get into it. Any game where you're controlling a character in a 1st or 3rd person perspective, it's very likely that I haven't played it or seen someone play it, I probably haven't even heard of it. Is Yakuza 3 like those games at all? I can't really say. I think that might make me a fake gamer boy.

But judge it I must, because I set myself a target of reviewing all the Humble Bundle games this month and this game has the misfortune to be on it. My first impressions are that it:

  1. Is mostly about the plot rather than the rather rudimentary game mechanics
  2. Has far too many cutscenes (I think there were seven scene-setting movies before I could do anything meaningful with my character)
  3. Leans heavily on the story of the previous games in the series (which I have not played) to make me care about the characters. Except the main dude, who is my dad now (sorry dad).

I was going to go into more detail on those points. On how the gameplay that is not fighting feels like just an excuse to get you either to the fights or to yet another cutscene where we learn that our tough guy hero is just a big softie really. On how the fights feel so rote and uninspired that you just want to get back to the aimless roaming around and cute little side quests. On how the introductory exposition may well be the worse example of un-lampshaded introductory exposition I've even seen. But honestly I think the dot points above pretty much cover everything that I have to say about this game. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm pretty sure that this game, and games like it, are just not for me.


Except...hold on just one cotton-picking second. Because wait, what's that sign hanging above that unassuming little staircase? "Mahjong Camp"?

If you ever hear people saying nice things about the Yakuza games, it tends to be that they're chock full of weird and wacky moments and odd side quests that you can get lost in, and that they're extremely Japanese, to such an extent that for Yakuza 3, for example, a lot of the content judged more obscure to a western audience, the Japanese trivia, the hostess clubs and the mahjong, for example, were cut out in localization. It turns out that in this remastered version that excised content was added back in, and that I had inadvertently stumbled across this city's one and only mahjong parlour. In an instant, I forget about the boy that has gone missing from my orphanage that I was ostensibly supposed to be searching for, and ascend the stairs.


Inside the mahjong parlour, I am invited to trade my money for mahjong sticks. Having just barely begun the game, I have very little money, but I can afford one game. I sit down at the beginners table with a mix of working folks (who kept emoting that they needed to get back to work or feed the kids) and serious gambler types (whose emotes seemed to mostly consist of sneers) and proceed to get my ass absolutely handed to me. 


Forced back out onto the street to scrounge for cash to feed my new-found gambling habit, I run into a few groups of thugs and swiftly relieve them of their hard-earned cash and belongings. After a short trip to the pawnshop, it was back to the mahjong parlour, where once again I sat down at the table and this time everything was coming up Milhouse. I repeated my victory on the intermediate and advanced tables in short order, although the fact that I kept seeing some of the same faces at each of the tables combined with no discernible change in the gameplay suggests that the table names must be at least a little bit academic. Though who really knows, we're talking about a game of chance here, after all.


The interface for the minigame is a little strange, partially (but probably not completely) caused by insistence on using a mouse and keyboard for a game that emphatically wants to be driven by a controller. This means it's frustratingly easy to accidentally call tiles when you're trying to draw instead, which would be a fatal flaw if this were a serious mahjong platform. The rules are a customisable to a small degree, and seem to be pretty well implemented, though they might be very slightly different to what I'm used to (since I should have had a win from the bottom of the river at some point but it was disallowed). My favourite feature is that the ability to call riichi is hidden, you have to realise that you have a ready hand and press another button to make the option appear, which is a nice little touch of realism that I appreciated.

It's impressive that the designers have gone to such lengths to put this detailed minigame in here, and after checking out the mahjong, I also dove into a few back alleys until I found the gambling house and a bar, both of which also housed a number of other seemingly well-rendered mini-games, each with variants and details of their own. While the main game of Yakuza 3 might not be my cup of tea, I find I'm willing to beat up enough punks to collect enough cash to try out all the minigames, at least, even if I might never find that poor lost boy at the orphanage, so it has that going for it. And that's not nothing.

Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 4.9 hours
  • Children abandoned to their fate: 9
  • Gangsters squeezed: Somewhere around 30 or so
  • Mangan hands achieved: 4
  • Rating: 5 hapless thugs out of 10

The rankings so far



I find it hard to rank games that are so different to each other, but in the end I decided to give it to the one that I'm more likely to leave installed on my hard drive, so the gangsters lose out to the dwarves.
  1. Hammerting
  2. Yakuza 3
Next up in this series, due some time in the next few days once I've had a chance to download and properly absorb it, is Deadly Days.

Monday, 9 August 2021

Donga Tour

Welcome to the Centre for National Resilience, also known as Manigurr-ma Camp, I think I've finally gotten over the jetlag enough to give a proper tour of the accommodation that has been our home for the last week and will be for the next week before we're finally free to roam once again, Covid and South Australian Police permitting.

On arrival (in our case from a bus direct from the airport, but some interstate travellers are driving in, I believe), each person is allocated a room, one of a set of four conjoined cabins in a demountable building set somewhere on the site among about 500 of its peers. If you're travelling with others, you'll be placed next to them and can freely travel between each others rooms (provided you put on a mask while not in the rooms). The cabins are known lovingly as 'dongas' (dong-a), a mysterious word that seems to have come into Australian military usage around WWII to mean a temporary or transportable building, not to be confused with the more familiar (to me) donga (dong-gah), which means "somewhere out in the middle of nowhere", although in this case that wouldn't be out of place.

Each donga has a small balcony that represents your only contact with the outdoors, since leaving your cabin for any reason other than the occasional laundry trip on designated days (something I haven't tried yet) is not permitted. You can only use your part of the balcony (as marked by the red tape on the floor) while masked (or while seated and eating), and we're fortunate that ours face away from the sun in the hot parts of the day, so are reasonably livable, though I'm still not over 23 hours wearing a mask the other day, so I've mostly been sitting inside where I also get the benefit of the powerful airconditioning unit. While sitting on your balcony you can watch your fellow residents doing laps of theirs, or skipping, or occasionally trying to organise mass dance parties before you surreptitiously slip inside and pretend that you were never there.


Inside the room is relatively spartan, a single bed, desk, shelf, drawers and cupboard, all decorated with an institutional grey and green colour scheme. The fixed desk and limited space means that it's not really possible for couples to sleep in the same room unless they're willing to share the king single (something that Mrs. Owl in her twenty-six week pregnant state and I in my perpetually restless one are loath to do all that often), although there's more or less room for a second mattress on the floor as long as you don't want to be able to access the bathroom. There's a bar fridge and a kettle, but no other equipment, so you won't be reheating any meals. The meals are probably worth a post of their own, so I'll save that for later in the week. 

We got a care package of soap, shampoo and tasty goodies as well as a litre of UHT milk (surprisingly good) and a takeaway container full of tea and instant coffee on arrival, so we had all the bits and pieces required to make our stay manageable. If you run out of any of the basics, a call to the team will send them running with replacements. I assume that doesn't work with the packet of Strawberry and Cream lollies, which was a blast from the past that I didn't know I needed, but you never know unless you try it on, I suppose.

There's a TV on the wall by the door which gets all the local channels, including most importantly the ones that have been showing the Olympics this last week. I believe there's also some kind of TV on demand service available, but we haven't looked into it, not least because the internet connection has been...intermittent. It works, most of the time, but as you would have noticed if you tuned in for the crossword video yesterday, it's not all that reliable. To further detract from the temptation of television, the beds are on wheels, meaning that you can't easily prop yourself up to watch, and the absence of a comfy chair means that there's not really an ideal TV-viewing spot. The desk chair is fine and all (especially since our most recent comparison has been an airline seat), but I definitely think these rooms all could have benefited from a little armchair to sit and read in.

Each room has an ensuite bathroom that doubles as a sauna, since they're very well sealed and the sun beats in the little window during the day time. The showers have excellent pressure and get very hot very fast, so if your idea of a good time is getting properly steamed up then this is definitely the place for you. There's not all that much to add here, it's a bathroom, it works. It has plugs in it, which after a few years in Britain with their extremely stringent electrical regulations, we find exceedingly strange.
And that's it. There are certainly worse places to spend a fortnight, but I for one am looking forward to a reclining chair and some food that's not out of a plastic container. Oh, and to seeing something living and green, you do have plant life in this country, right?



Sunday, 8 August 2021

(Jigsaw) Puzzle - 8th August 2021 NYT Crossword

I've been sorely missing the gang of miscreants that I've been faithfully signing onto discord with every day for the last 500 days or so to do the crossword with. 6pm is proving to be a pretty sad and empty part of the day with no-one to hang out with as I puzzle, so today I thought it might be fun to record the puzzle (like I used to occasionally back in 2019 before this little adventure began) so that we can do it together in spirit even if not in actuality. Curse you, timezones!

Anyway, here's the puzzle, which I thought was a lot of fun. I won't spoil it here, because I fear that would take some of the fun out of the discovered as we go along. I hope you enjoy playing along with me today, wherever you are in the world, whatever time it is where you are, dear friends.

Debris

 I've always been a fiddler. While I'm sitting around, if there's something within reach, I'm messing with it. It's subconscious, and it's deep-seated. Clicking pens, tying knots, endlessly drumming, you namean irritating personal habit, there's a good chance that I have it. I'm sure it's a thing that toddlers, or at least small children, are supposed to grow out of, but as in everything else in life, I have never been able to develop any self-control in this regard.

Most of the time can ignore this habit, but here in quarantine with nothing around but a bare countertop, it's painfully obvious, as I have been repeatedly finding myself surrounded by piles of massacred wooden cutlery from the seemingly neverending supply that accompanies every pre-packaged meal (as we can't be trusted with metal cutlery, apparently). It's got to stop. The cutlery is all going on a high shelf away from my grasping hands. 

I expect my fingernails will suffer as a result.

This post that should have been a tweet was brought to you by Blaugust 2021.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

IMHO: Hammerting

Back in March, when I was last a little active on this perpetually fallow little blog, I got six posts into a twelve post series about my thoughts on the February Humble bundle. Though I played a couple more games in that bundle (and have one mostly-written post to join my extensive collection of drafts that will never see the light of day), rather than head back in time I thought I might give the concept another whirl with the most recent bundle instead. But here's a couple of problems that I foresee with this approach:

  • Starting again means that I'm further from the finish line, which as a chronic project-starter seems like a pretty poor plan. But I always was a sucker for punishment, and besides, more games means more posts in a month where I'm trying to put out a lot of words, right? 

  • Having not planned to do Blaugust before I got on my flight, I haven't had a chance to pre-download any of the games back when I had lightning fast British internet. Given the general slow speed and regular drop-outs of the internet connection here in quarantine, I don't have high hopes of being able to get my hands on all too many of the games over the next week or so. We'll see how we go on that front.

  • I am just not particularly interested in this month's games. Back in February there were a couple of titles that I knew that I'd enjoy and a couple that I was at least intrigued about. A scan through this month's options doesn't exactly fill me with confidence on that front. This is not an unfamiliar story with the Humble Choice for me, which is a clear indication that I need to reduce my subscription.

However, there was one game on the list that had been sitting on my watchlist for a little while. Hammerting sees you manage a small colony of dwarves, exploring a procedurally generated mountain and generally trying to make your fortune. As someone who has tried and failed to get into Dwarf Fortress on multiple occasions, I'd been morbidly interested it this one as a potential way into a DF vibe without the learning curve of difficulty spikes that have made that game utterly incomprehensible to me. There's just something compelling about dwarves, I guess. Sadly, after playing it for almost 18 hours over the last couple of days (there's really nothing else to do but sleep or watch the Olympics, and don't worry, I've been doing plenty of both of those, too), I can confidently say that Hammerting might be lots of things, but it is definitely not anything like the mind-melter that I've found Dwarf Fortress.

The game was released in Steam Early Access back in October 2020, and here in early August 2021, while there's been eight substantial updates, it is still very, very clearly a game that is in early access. After what I very much hope is a placeholder tutorial of the "here is the menu button, press it to get the menu" variety that does very little to prepare you for what's coming, your three dwarves are sent into a mountain and you're left to your own devices (apart from little queue of quests that generate as you go to give you a few targets along the way) in a side-on view of a mostly dark mountain. This isn't completely a bad thing, the learning curve is gentle and the game is simple enough that you're not going to drown in mechanics before you work out what's going on out there, but it's not a good first impression.

Sadly, it turns out mostly what's going out there is a whole lot of empty space (although admittedly it's a very easy on the eyes variety of empty space), which you must explore in order to gain points that can be traded for improved technology. Some of that empty space has different colours, but though the default sized mountain is very large indeed, so far it seems like there's really only a couple of types of challenges that need to be dealt with: There are big holes, that you'll have to dig around, water, that doesn't seem to do anything to phase dwarves at all, and enemy camps, that can easily be blown up by attacking them. Do these obstacles get harder as you go down the mountain? Maybe a little, but not noticeably so. After digging for a couple of days, it's clear that there's more to discover down there, but also that it's probably not going to be meaningfully different to what's come before. Sure, I could keep digging, but there's been no real indication that there's anything in it for me, and it's certainly not going to be worth wrestling with a user interface and lack of control that is constantly frustrating. 

The other part of the game is trading the goodies that you've found or manufactured with other settlements accessed via the world map for money and for trading points, the other currency required to improve your tech. This section has apparently recently had a revamp, but like the delving, once you've gotten the hang of the basics, there doesn't seem to be anything interesting going on, and this bit doesn't have the possibility of building mighty empire-spanning railcart rollercoasters to redeem it. It feels like it's set up to have different nations battling each other, allowing you to influence the fight somehow, but after 18 hours in my game, this aspect seems completely absent, and even if it did affect you as a player, the overworld seems so divorced from the real world underground that it's hard to imagine how anything happening here it could make any substantial effect on your game.

If this were a regular game, it would immediately have been uninstalled and dragged into my 'Timewasters' Steam category, reserved for games that are a perfectly reasonable way to spend a few hours but that I have no particular need to experience again unless a peculiar itch overcomes me. Since it's in active development, I think it'll go off into the 'Rainy Day' category, to be revisited at some point in the future just to see if it's gotten any more interesting. As with the Wild Eight, another Early Access title we visited in this series last time, there's definite potential here, but the difference between what exists and what seems to be envisioned is a vast gulf that will probably never be bridged. It comes with a Team 17 logo, something I've associated with quality work in the past, so I hope I'm wrong, but if I am then it's certain that the finished product is a long way away.

And because I'm feeling a little pent up frustration, in no particular order, here's a list of things that bugged me that I hope they'll get around to fixing before they call the game complete. Some seem more easily fixable that others:

  • There are different grades of materials that you can build the same equipment from. Using better materials increases the resale value, but doesn't seem to make any other substantive difference, and you also don't seem to have any control as to which quality materials different producers use. I don't know how many golden railway tracks I've made, wasting huge piles of coin and a limited resource for no additional benefit.

  • There are skill trees but they don't make any sense at all. The high-level skills all require overlapping trees. It feels like this whole aspect needs to be ripped out and rebuilt from scratch

  • There are neat little character models and character portraits that give each of your dwarves a distinct character, but they don't match each other. This hurts. General interaction with the character menus is a little haphazard and needs a bit of a revamp sometime, too.


  • Some of the more complicated automation tasks like water pumping and drilling aren't very intuitive and desperately need a detailed tutorial or tooltip.

  • You can control which dwarves do which roles, which works relatively well, although the interface is a little inconsistent. You can't stop any dwarves from fighting, though, which means that your entire colony grinds to a halt whenever any dwarf meets and enemies anywhere in the mountain. It would be nice to be able to set a maximum number of dwarves that will perform a certain task (like fighting or trading) at any given time, as well as just having toggles for each dwarf and some archetype templates.

  • There's not really any danger out there, or any variety in that danger. Every nest of enemies can just be beaten up by clicking on it and waiting. If different enemies required different strategies (these ones need to be drowned, or set on fire, or kept under observation, or you need to use weapons with long reach, these ones can be farmed) and there were a greater range of defensive and military options (the only thing in this category at the moment are doors), that would make the game more tactically interesting.

  • Dwarven priorities are a little strange. You can set certain building and construction tasks to high, medium or low priority, but you can't set the priority of digging, and even if a dwarf is set to only care about digging, sometimes tasks are just ignored for hours at a time, even if there doesn't seem to be any competing priorities. They also love jumping off places and getting themselves stuck in caverns or elevator shafts.


  • The 'overland' trading game doesn't have very much variance at all. There are different types of settlements that provide different goods, but they they all buy more or less the same things, and there's no easy way to compare prices for saleable goods across the world or to set up automated trading. Different capitals all have the same special trading task, right from extremely early, which require you to sell them two resources, on which can't be produced until half-way down the tech tree and one that can only be found extremely rarely somewhere in the mountain. 

  • Some of the other quests are really strange, too. One of them, acquired when you build you cookhouse, extremely early on, requires you to make crab soup. I'm yet to find crab meat, either in the mountain or for trade, so this task is just sitting there unfinished with the endgame goals.

  • Final task is just insane. It requires you to collect 10,000 gold. I have maxed out my population and finished the tech tree and I have 3 gold, the most I've had in the whole game is 12, and tradingl which I've talked about above as an utterly uncompelling part of the game, is the only way to each money. I'm certain that I could give up on exploration and just pump out goods constantly for hundreds of hours in order to tick this off, but I'm equally sure that that wouldn't be remotely interesting for anyone involved.
Verdict? It's still Early Access, let's wait and see. I know I'm sounding a little down about the whole thing, but being able to sink this many hours into a game before I gave up in frustration is a promising start, as long as the team follows through.


Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 17.8 hours
  • Icy caverns explored: 3
  • Rats butchered: Somewhere on the far side of 100
  • Depths plumbed: Moderate
  • Rating: 6 golden railway tracks out of 10

Next up... just as soon as it finishes downloading.. .and play it... and write about it to my satisfaction... Yakuza 3.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

XCOM 2 Succession Game: Mission 14 (Parts 1 and 2!)

Screenshots have been eaten by connection problems here in the far North, so I'm afraid this one's going to be just the text. If you'd like an audio-visual experience, watch the video :)

Between bouts of jetlag this morning I found enough time to prop my eyes open to be able to play my next turn in our ongoing succession game of XCOM 2, which very conveniently rolled around to my turn just at the beginning of Blaugust as I was flailing around for that sweet sweet blog content. As has become my wont, this blog takes the form of both a video recording of the game or the traditional AAR.

My turn opened on the Geoscape, showing that our XCOM project has now gained the support of the whole of North America, but that ADVENT has bases in China and North Africa and their nefarious Avatar Project is starting to look very dangerous. After training a couple of new rookies into Grenadiers to help fill the whole in the roster that has opened up since Ramblin' Redshirt bit the dust, and expanding our squad size to allow us to take six soldiers on each mission, I began trying to gather the necessary contacts in Asia to discover and eventually attack the enemy base there. 

I didn't quite get through the first part of that process before I was interrupted by the summons to the mission briefing room to complete a Guerilla Ops mission, so it was back to North America for what was labelled as a 'Difficult' task. Reader, they were not kidding. Operation Knife Song was brutal. Since my last turn in the game back in early June I've played through the whole XCOM 2 campaign, so I have a bit more of an idea what I'm doing than I did back then, but that didn't stop me from unwittingly walking my team into a meatgrinder and getting them spat back out.

I opted for a six-man team of two Specialists, two Grenadiers, and one Sniper and Assault, a flexible team that I hope would allow me to deal with any unexpected threats. I quickly found a Muton and Trooper just inside a nearby building, but had left my fireteam too spread out to take them down effectively. Though we were eventually able to take them out without taking any damage, it required far too much effort to clean them up, and left me needing to make up time over the course of the rest of mission.

Next up, in the building that held the target goodies chest, the team uncovered a big pod of mixed Advent troopers, a nearby pod of sectoids and snakemen, as well as a pair of Autoturrets, all in all a significant mass of firepower in a choke point on the map. A couple of poor tactical moves and wasted abilities, triggering both pods of aliens in moves that could and should have been avoided, showed that I'd someone managed to get a little rusty in the couple of months since I last slipped into the skin of the Commander, and put the team in a pretty sticky spot. To make matters worse, ADVENT chose this turn to send in a dropship of reinforcements, leaving our team bad outnumbered and flanked on all sides.

The firefight that ensued saw the team miss a number of critical shots, and a couple more tactical errors left me ending up being forced to decide which of the team members I could afford to have shot in the back. It didn't end up well for Rakuno, who found themselves caught in a deadly crossfire, Naithin, who got himself constricted by a snakeman, or for Geoff Mason, the Squaddie who I have designated as 'UnwiseOwl Jr', whose back was left exposed to the remaining autoturret in a vain attempt to get close enough to the mission target to finish it in the remaining couple of turns. The team ended relying pretty heavily on their newly acquired heavy armour in order to have any chance of survival.

The team all hit their shots in the next turn, but were left with just too much to get done in the time available. Left with the uneviable choice of killing off one of the remaining ADVENT Captains or completing the mission, Bookahs sprints for the case, leaving Naithin to be unceremoniously cut down in his prime.

Rather than leave us with one of our A-team members dead and most of the rest carrying heavy wounds going into an ADVENT base assault an a potential Avenger defence mission, I instead decided to call my mulligan and turn back time to give it another try now that I was forewarned on what was awaiting us on the mission, being pretty sure that with a more careful approach we'd be able to do the whole thing a lot more cleanly. Unfortunately, my autosave settings had been reset to default in my recent reinstallation of the game, meaning that I didn't have a usable save point before the mission has already gone to hell.

This forced me to reload from the beginning, meaning that the mission was reset and I was once again going in blind. So much for that plan. Thus began what I hoped would be the actual mission 14, sending the same fireteam out on Operation Hell Saga.

We quickly found the first pod, consisting of a MEC and an Officer. Though we accidentally alerted them to our presence before we were ready to deal with them, judicious use of a grenade and elevation bonuses made quick work of the MEC and presented an opportunity that was just too good to pass up for Naithin to attempt to skulljack the Officer, completing an additional objective that had already proved disastrous for the team once

Naithin took the shot, collecting a good stash of goodies for his trouble, and the team took aim at the Codex. Dealing with it was relatively straight-forward, since the crossfire was well prepared, allowing Rakuno to lay the initial hit before Junior and Magi stepped in to finish the job, but it did result in a significant proportion of my firepower being behind the action, causing Black Widow to be isolated facing a pod of three Snakemen more or less alone.

From this point a comedy of errors ensued, with a long chain of bad RNG and the reptiles high agility combining to mean that clearing them out took a significant amount of time and involved a number of hits that would send Widow to the infirmary for an extended period. Thankfully her poison resistance (I'm not sure if that's from the armour or a PCS) reduced a lot of damage, and the cleanup was eventually managed without too much drama. 

After taking out the objective, the team faced off against a pod of reinforcements as well as another Snakeman and his Stun Trooper buddies. The reinforcements were taken out pretty easily by a combination of Magi's continuing excellence with the sniper rifle and judicious use of the Bookah's GREMLIN, but another chain of missed opportunities meant that Naithin took a couple of shots before the last pod was finally disposed of, so he'll be joining Widow for an extended stay in the infirmary.

All in all, a successful mission, especially when compared to the nightmare that was the previous attempt, with a lot of goodies picked up and the bonus objective of the disposal of the Codex completed to boot. Magi, surely the MVP as the only member of the unit who consistently remembered how to shoot, got a promotion for their efforts (picking up the incredibly overpowered Kill Zone perk), as did Rakuno (Volatile Mix) and Naithin (Shadowstep). The contribution of Widow, who kept a pod of snakes busy for an extended time, even if she didn't end up seeing too many of them off herself, can't be underestimated either. 

I didn't manage to begin to deal with the looming threat of the Avatar project as I'd hoped, but I'll leave that in the capable hands of Naithin as we begin our third cycle. You'll find the save file here. Good luck, Commander.