Game review: BtVS Chaos Bleeds

How do you follow up 10 hours playing the game you were obsessed by 20 years ago? By spending a further 15 hours playing the game you were obsessed by 19 years ago!

After the fun but rather basic original XBox game based on the hit TV show was released in August 2022, the follow up came out a mere 12 months later, also available for the Playstation 2. The publishers of game #1, Electronic Arts, didn’t get the gig (bet there is a story there) and the baton instead passes to Vivendi. As such, the look and feel is very different. The graphics are loads better, even more noticeably now playing the two side by side, and everything feels a lot slicker.

The narrative of Chaos Bleeds fast forwards the player a few years on from Buffy’s High School days. This time round, logically we must be somewhere late in Season Five or early on in Season Six. Joyce is dead and buried in Sunnydale cemetary. Giles owns the Magic Box where Anya works there while she’s not shagging Xander. Willow & Tara are, for now, a happy couple. Faith is (supposed to be) in prison in LA. Spike & Buffy are still rocking the will-they-won’t-they vibe (presumably meaning this takes place before the events of OMWF). Dawn doesn’t get a mention, which is probably for the best.

Chaos Bleeds is far superior to its predecessor. Rather than simply pummeling bad guys and navigating jumps between platforms, there are actual puzzles to solve! I should, perhaps, be concerned by how many of these I specifically remembered, such as Xander having to find a UV filter for his flashlight so he can read the password on the whiteboard. I wonder how my life might have been different if my brain had decided to let that piece of information go and instead retained something important. Did I fail interviews or tests because my memory was hellbent on hanging onto that particular scrap?

As I played through, various other bits of the game came screaming back to me. The Giles escort quest out of the Magic Box, Faith’s boss fight with Kakistos, Spike tripping the cyborg’s alarm, Willow’s annoying propensity to cast Shield instead of Possession to name but a few. Also the slightly illogical way that Buffy has to find a weapon at the start of every level. Surely, surely she would be packing a stake at all times?

Most of the voice cast from game 1 reappear for this sequel, joined by Eliza Dushku (doing an absolutely bang up job I might add). In an inspired move, they also got veteran voice actor Tom Wyner to reprise his role as the laviscious Sid the Dummy from Season 1 filler episode The Puppet Show. Giselle Loren is on double duty as both Buffy and Anya, carrying both off with aplomb. Kari Wahlgren steps in to voice Willow this time around, but is just a tad too shrill sounding for my liking.

Once again, this was a diverting excusion down memory lane, and a handy distraction from the sweltering heat of last week.!

Game Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I’d give a spoiler warning, but since this game is coming up to its 20th birthday next month, that’s probably unnecessary.

Yep, it was August 2002 that everyone’s favourite Californian Nemesis of the Undead made her games console debut on XBox. As detailed at a certain BarCamp many moons ago, then written up as an early blogpost, The Buffster was my first introduction to console gaming, and I have never looked back!

Fast forward to a rainy weekend a few weeks ago where Terry and I decide to have an attic clear out. Terry likes to hang on to old tech, and buried at the bottom of a crate was none other than our orginal XBox in all its black plastic and lime green glory! So we dusted it off, plugged it in & established to my surprise it actually still functioned. Terry then spent a happy few days figuring out how to get it to talk to our TV given that the original XBox predated HDMI.

I was a huge fan of the show. But as allegations emerged of the showrunner’s character, re-watching it just doesn’t bring me the same pleasure it used to. But, by way of justifying to myself the fact that I really, really wanted to replay the game, I don’t think JW had a great deal to do with the game’s production.

By some minor miracle the hard disk still had all the old saved games on it. But games were much slimmer beasts back then, and we have disk space aplenty so I went ahead and started a brand new playthrough. I vividly remembered having got completely stuck and rage quitting previously, but I’ve had nearly two decades to improve. Could I actually beat the game this time round?

As it booted up, I got chills hearing the dulcet tones of one Mr Steward-Head giving the potted history of slayer-lore. Half a dozen of the original actors have re-inhabited their TV roles, which definitely enriches the game as a fan experience. While SMG declined to be involved, Giselle Loren does a terrific job of emulating the Valley Girl heroine.

The plot consists of a standalone story which seems to occur at some point just prior to the episode Lovers’ Walk in Season 3. Willow is developing as a witch, Giles is still Watcher, Xander and Cordelia are still together, Angel appears to have recovered from his stint in hell, and Spike is on a fleeting visit to Sunnydale. We start with Buffy undertaking a training exercise, a neat enough conceit for a tutorial level, allowing the player to master (pun intended) the basics of running, jumping, kicking, punching & staking.

The tutorial wraps up by having the slayer unexpectedly encounter the spirit form of the Season 1 Big Bad, at which point Buffy wakes from her nightmare, and the game starts in earnest. As you progress you learn various new button-mashing combos to better pummel your foes & gain weaponry which is useful, if not always logical. ‘Who knew hellfire didn’t melt plastic?’

The challenge comes almost entirely from defeating baddies interspersed with some really quite frustrating jumping puzzles, and a rather punishing sparcity of check points. Many was the occasion I succesfully battled through a level only to miss a jump by a fraction, plumet to my death, and restart back at the beginning of said level. I started to get flashbacks of the various points where previously I had got stuck, to the point I could remember bits of dialouge verbatim: ‘Guess I’m hitching a ride on a freight crane’. Amazingly I managed to complete that on attempt 2 this time round. Some bits were trickier than others, but my hand eye coordination had indeed got better over the years. Was I going to be able to complete the game this time? Things were looking hopeful!

Until I got to the sodding Dreamer Islands level. And then I was 23 again, screeching in frustration every time I mis-timed the rotating platform jump. To my credit, I did get further all by myself than I had before, even managing the bit when you cross the hall with the spinning blades, pick up the stone key and then the floor drops away so you have to cross back by jumping from ledge to ledge whilst still avoiding the blades. But try as I might, I just couldn’t get any further.

Reader, I cheated. That miracle whereby all the old saved games were still there? I loaded up the one complete game which was the result of me, many years prior, having tearfully handed my then-boyfriend the controller and asking if he would do the jumping puzzle for me. His fine motor skills were always superior to mine. And to his everlasting credit he did manage it!

This meant I could at least continue on, but without the benefit of the cool gear I’d saved up (15 hellfore bolts! 15!). The stage after the Island, the Dreamer’s maze, is the most puzzle-solvey level in the game, but by then fatigue was setting in. And of course knowing I was playing an old save meant it didn’t really count anymore. Gamer logic – what can you do? So I found a walkthrough, got to the final boss, dispatched the Master in short order (turns out I had half a dozen hellfire bolts on that save, which was sufficient), and finished the game.

Approximatly 10 hours of fun, frustration and pure nostalgia!

Spider-Man Miles Morales review – spoilers

As regular readers (both of you) will recall, at the tail end of last year I let my PS Now subscription lapse with a final hurrah of Gravity Rush. I enjoyed that game in no small part due to its similarities with a certain web swinging hero based in New York city. So I embarked on a replay of 2018 title Spider-Man, which I now realise I never actually reviewed at the time. And part way through that, what should land on my doormat but a surprise pressie from the Best Husband Ever in the form of the 2020 follow up game.

Once Peter Parker had put all his villains to bed for the 2nd time, it was the turn of new hero-on-the-block Miles Morales. Miles is a prominent secondary character in the first game which helpfully serves as his origin story. He’s the kid of the policeman who was killed in the City Hall attack. Supported by his mother and Peter, he channels his grief into his volunteering work at FEAST, where a mysterious spider gives him a nip.

SMMM picks up pretty soon after the events of the previous game ends. Under the tutelage of PP, he’s developing his skills and figuring out his superhero identity. Which, as J Jonah Jameson is quick to point out, following a fairly chaotic cold open, mostly consists of ‘helping’ put bad guys away whilst causing eye-watering amounts of collateral damage to the infrastructure of Manhattan. Pete decides he needs a break and trots off to Symkaria with MJ, leaving his protege in charge of protecting the city, and off we go!

Much as Far Cry New Dawn takes place on a re-skinned map of the previous game, SMMM is, obviously, going over the same ground as before. Cleverly though, by setting the events a couple of months later New York wears a delicate blanket of snow, thereby creating a new aesthetic which feels fresh and interesting. A few new buildings have been thrown up too, which narratively makes perfect sense given how many building sites were scattered around the locale in the first game.

The snow also lends an urgency to some of the social themes in the game, particularly acute when Miles has to battle to get the FEAST North centre reopened as its inhabitants stand freezing around makeshift bonfires in the grounds. It chimes effectively with the over-arching plot around how historically ethnic areas fare when greedy property developers think they can literally steamroller over communities who stand in the way of their profits.

Although the action takes you all over Manhattan, the game feels like a love letter to Harlem. I can’t speak to the accuracy of its portrayal, (although I did once go to a lovely party in Harlem), but the love and pride for that part of the city oozes from every pixel.

The diversity of the characters is hugely welcome, particularly after more than a decade of white dominance across the whole of the MCU. Miles’ mother Rio, adeptly picks up the mantle laid down by the late Aunt May: caring, determined & perceptive. In place of MJ, Miles gets support, both technical and moral, from BFF Ganke which provides a refreshing and satisfying bromance of mutual appreciation (quite the palate cleanser after MJ and Pete’s constant bickering about whether or not MJ can be trusted to look after herself). I suppose given how young Miles is, a full romance sub plot would be verging on the inappropriate, but I could have stood to spend a little more time with the lovely Hailey, the hearing impaired street artist who seems to have caught Miles’ eye. And in a beautiful counterpoint to the gammon-y JJJ (although he does kind of have a point about accountability sometimes), Miles regularly tunes in to the podcast made by Danika Hart, who shines as a beacon of positive vibes and practical advice in a febrile media world of manufactured outrage. And last but not least, Phin/The Tinkerer makes for a compelling and rounded villain whose backstory is perfectly calibrated to engender sympathy and understanding while you try to foil her plans. Videogames still have a long way to go, but this game makes some positive strides towards better representation and inclusivity.

In terms of gameplay, the venom abilities provide for fun and visually interesting new way to put down your enemies beyond the straightforward web and punch combos, which were getting a little samey. In lieu of the challenges set by the uber-annoying Screball (if I never hear “GET THAT PHOTOBOMB!” ever again it will be too soon) and the disappointing Taskmaster (such a missed opportunity), Miles undertakes a series of training challenges with a holo-Pete which were so much more fun to play! I would also like to put on record my gratitude to whoever thought to revise the benchmarks to more easily achievable goals, because frankly who had the time to execute 3000 Point Launches?

A few gripes. First off I am Not Okay with Peter being re-imagined in Tom Holland’s image. This is not to cast any aspersions whatsover on Mr Holland, whom I actually happen to think is the best Spider-Man committed to screen. But Holland’s SM is a high-schooler. The Peter Parker of the 1st game is meant to be a grad student. But between the super-heroics and his not-regularly-paid job with Doctor Octavius, he almost certainly does not have either the time or the funds to pursue a doctorate on a full time basis. Which means I reckon he should be in his mid-late twenties at least.

(Ok I’ve just googled it and apparently Tom Holland is actually 25. Fuck I’m old!) But, the point still stands that it’s a bit jarring when a character’s appearance drastically changes between games!

More substantially, there are some annoying bugs in the game I have, mostly with the bonus achievements. At the start, these weren’t showing up at all until combat had started, which is a bit late to discover you were meant to be doing stealth take downs of at least 3 enemies. Then, after a software update, suddenly I had the opposite problem with all achievements suddenly auto-completing.

As with virtually every game I have ever played, clipping issues remain a perennial threat; somehow dropping into sealed cubes from which I can’t escape, having entire conversations with an NPCs elbow poking through my face, or on one occasion just casually falling out the bottom of the ground into oblivion. At least none of these was game-breaking!

Lastly, and I suppose it’s entirely up to you as to whether you consider this a bug or not: it turns out you can equip the Bodega suit with the feline Spider-Man – complete with a little red kitty cowl over his head – tucked into your backpack (unlocked on completion of the main campaign and epilogue side quest), and then replay the Looters mission from the FNSM app, thereby creating the pantomime of asking the baddies where the cat is whilst he is, in point of fact, behind you!

SMMM is a terrific game and a valuable asset to the cannon of Sony/MCU (not getting into the politics of that) depictions of the Friendly Neighbourhood web head. Heartily recommended.

Gravity Rush Remastered Review

My PS Now subscription is nearly at its end, having to a substantial degree kept me sane for the past 12 months. I’ve played, and replayed, some cracking games on it, and it’s been a blast. But to be brutally honest, the content has got a bit… samey. I’ve got a dozen or so games on disk, all of which are worthy of a replay at some point, plus a multitude of other entertainment options. So I’ve decided not to bother renewing my subscription when it expires.

As such, I didn’t want to embark on another 100+ hour epic for my last game, only to find myself rushing to complete it before time ran out. I wanted something fun, self – contained, and not too long. I began and then abandoned half a dozen games at the more casual end of the spectrum (not my usual fare) before stumbling on the remastered 2012 title Gravity Rush.

The game starts with a nameless heroine falling from the sky, yet landing unharmed in a small enclosed garden, where she meets a small black cat. Terry was sat next to me as I embarked on this game, and promptly declared that it was the best game ever, on account of said cat, and that at all costs I must continue. Right, well that’s me told!

A little bit like my experience with Horizon Zero Dawn, I kept finding parallels with other games, although it somehow seemed a bit less like naked plagiarism as it did in HZD. I ended up feeling like I was playing through a medley of old favourites with a fresh twist – which really added to my enjoyment!

First comparison – Portal. The whole gimmick of Gravity Rush as the name suggests, is playing with this most basic law of physics. By manipulating, or rather ‘shifting’ local gravity fields, your avatar can float, fall & fly in pretty much any direction to complete tasks and collect items up high, down low, and clinging the sides and undersides of structures across the landscape. For someone who struggles with spatial awareness I expected this to really bend my melon. But after a short time I found the controls and movements across three dimensions to be surprisingly intuitive.

The next game this reminded me of was Twilight Princess, one of my all time favourite Legend of Zelda instalments. The aesthetics are so similar, with moody, muted backgrounds which appear as elegant line drawings from a distance and smoothly resolving into higher definition as you get closer. Terry thinks this is called progressive rendering and I have no basis on which to disagree. Our heroine is complemented by a cast of idiosyncratic characters, not all of whom seem to fully appreciate she’s trying to save the world. To be fair, I did develop a rather sociopathic habit of allowing the hapless citizens to get caught up in my shifted gravity field, thereby I assume falling to their deaths shortly after. During one chapter, the cute little void kitten you meet at the start (who is in fact responsible for your abilities) is split into 20 pieces (it’s not as violent as it sounds) and you have to go and piece him back together. Just like the quest in Twilight Princess to find and cuddle the 20 cats in the Hidden Village. Man, I really hope they release TP for the Switch like they did Skyward Sword.

The game delivers its story in neat chapters, using not-quite-static comic book panels in place of fully animated cut scenes. But there is plenty of opportunity to just roam around freely, soaring through the heights of this very vertical city-scape. Honestly, it must be exhausting living here if you don’t have gravity shifting powers. At times it was deeply reminiscent of the Spiderman game, where I happily spent hours just flying around Manhatten.

In lieu of currency, your avatar must collect purple gems which can be traded to open up side quest opportunities and upgrade various skills. There’s something a bit Sonic the Hedgehog about sliding along laterally while your increasing gem count ker-chings happily.

For a game without adaptive difficulty settings, it’s reasonably forgiving of user ineptitude, with frequent autosave points. I didn’t struggle with health levels until I was pretty far in, and at it’s hardest points, persistence usually paid off. On a couple of boss fights I had Terry by my side scouring the environment for the green health vials, but otherwise nothing too challenging. Terry of course may disagree, having now spent over two decades watching me get frustrated by a game.

On a somewhat negative note, our heroine, unimaginatively named as Kat by another character, because she … has a cat, is a woefully unempowered example of a female video game leads. I mean sure, she does pretty much save the world (because the cat gives her magic powers). But every encounter she has is punctuated by her needy desperation to be thought of as attractive. Seriously, in almost all conversations she will express concern at whether of not she looks cute. Which leads me onto the costumes. Kat starts off in a rather revealing bustier and boots combination which looks neither comfortable nor practical for her line of work. As the game progresses through core and side quests she variously also gets: a maid outfit, a school uniform & a plunging cat burglar leotard leaving very little to the imagination. For a game that came out in 2012 it looks like the costume inspiration came from an Ann Summers catalogue circa 1990.

However, problematic tropes of gender depiction in games and comic aesthetics aside, the game isn’t without a dimension of social commentary. Fleeting references to labour disputes, class strife and forced migration coalesce into a parable about totalitarianism. It’s a little crude in places, but hearing the strident tones of a dictatorial figure broadcasting from public screens about how he alone can save the populous from an environmental threat is effective, and remains timely.

Far Cry: New Dawn game review

Spoilers abound!

A few weeks ago, on a rare occasion of leaving my house, I found myself venturing into a CEX, where I have spent many fond minutes and pounds! As documented in my RDR2 review I had fortuitously converted my £60 of CEX credit into games back in December 2019, which got me through the initial months of lockdown boredom. With that haul finally exhausted, it was a good chance to pick up something new.

For a very reasonable £12 I got my hands on the pre-owned sequel to Far Cry 5. It’s chunkier than a DLC bolt-on, but a much smaller game in scope. The game takes place 17 years after the climactic events of Far Cry 5, and across the same territory. I actually can’t remember when I played FC5 (and for some forgotten reason I didn’t blog about it) but it was long enough ago that this game feels fresh, yet recent enough to get the benefit of revisting some of the locations. The action is centred on a narrower section of the original map, bounded by no go areas of radiation, which fits organically with the plot. It’s a re-skinning of the previous locale, where mud drifts have partially covered up many buildings, so you’re running around a few feet higher than you were in the previous game. I got a genuinely nostalgic kick out of seeing some of the structures again in their decrepit state. Alas Rae Rae’s Pumpkin Farm seems to have fared badly during the apocalypse, but it was fun to scavenge round the ruins of the Radar Station & the FANG centre among others.

The nostalgia keeps coming with a few notable characters returning from the previous game. Grace Armstrong, Pastor Jerome and Far Cry favourite Hurk all show up, alongside a few new NPC, including Carmina Rye (who it turns out is the baby of Nick and Kim whom The Deputy helped deliver) and sharpshooter Nana. It’s really quite refreshing to see such a positive depiction of older women in FPS style games.

The colouring of this game is superbly designed. In a clear departure of the traditional greys and browns that saturate most post-apocalyptia, the designers have gone with vivid pinks and blue. Having run with the idea that humanity has spent a decade and a half underground so that nature has had some time to heal, the world is now carpeted in floral expanse. Hats off – the idea that after Armageddon the dominant species on the planet would be pink geraniums is a hell of a hot take!

Dual villains Micky & Lou have made their mark on this world using what I assume must have been an inexhaustible supply of spray paint in bright cyan and magenta. It’s tough to get Far Cry villainy right, and they are certainly not the worst characters incepted for the series (a vast improvement on the literally forgettable Primal baddie). Less compelling is whiny Ethan who turns out to be the unworthy spawn of Joseph. Yeah, walking man-bun The Father, is back, in what I found to be the less satisfying element of antagonism in this game. Perhaps because it just feels so narratively jarring. The events of FCND effectively assume the ‘proper’ ending of Far Cry 5 has taken place, as there is reference to him being trapped with The Deputy in an underground bunker, and I am simply not buying the idea that my previous avatar decided to give up that fight. Perhaps I’d be less irritated if the two final fights were swapped over, but dispatching the twins ahead of barely-a-boss mutant-Ethan was decidedly anti-climactic.

But I suppose one doesn’t play Far Cry games for their carefully structured plot. There is great fun to be had with a couple of new weapons (the saw blade projector is tremendously satisfying) and the process for upgrading them with scavenged resources works well and organically. I also really enjoyed the mechanic for capturing an outpost and then allowing the enemy to re-capture it, thus enabling the player to build the difficulty at their own pace. And for a change of scenery, the expeditions provide some neatly encapsulated mini adventures which provide some fun story-building glimpses of how events have affected the world outside this little corner of Montana.

For what it is, £12 was a very reasonable amount to pay for dozens of hours of entertainment, although I may have felt a bit short-changed if I had spent a lot more than that.

Game review – Horizon Zero Dawn

Here be spoilers!

Next up in my ongoing journey through the delights of Playstation Now is 2017 RPG Horizon Zero Dawn.

There is a lot to like here. The plot is similar in scope to Mass Effect; a sweeping apocalyptic saga of survival and desperation. We get the benefit of seeing humanity’s doom play out twice. In flashbacks we learn how semi autonomous robots went rogue, populating the globe with killer machines. For the 1st half or so of the game I was intrigued to discover how people as a species managed to get out of their increasingly dire situation. It packs a powerful punch to discover that, for the most part, they didn’t. Instead a bunch of scientists hole up in a bunker to programme a super AI to reboot the planet an indeterminate number of centuries later. But the reboot doesn’t quite go to plan, and history is in danger of repeating itself.

Avatar/Heroine Aloy is everything you want in a character you’ll be inhabiting for a few dozen hours. In spite of super-sized portion of childhood rejection, Aloy reaches late adolescence as a smart, empathetic & brave young woman. Voice actor supremo Ashly Burch fully deserves the plaudits gained for her work imbuing Aloy with knowing charm and steely determination in equal measure (not that I would expect anything less from the vocal powerhouse behind Life is Strange’s Chloe). And props to Rost, raising the bar for single Dads everywhere as he raises an emotionally mature surrogate daughter, capable of compassion as well as grit.

HZD got some stick for the combat mechanics, which are admittedly on the clunky side. But for me what was more jarring is how much of the action just feels a little bit…recycled. The climbing and ziplining is deeply reminiscent of the antics of one Lara Croft. The animation for boosting a partner up a vertical incline is eerily similar to Unchartered. Sweeping the bandit camps is like being back in the realms of Far Cry. And the aesthetic of the Cauldrons bears more than a passing resemblance to the Prothean ruins of M.E. Andromeda. Or perhaps this is just sign that I play too many video games!

The HZD world is populated with diverse tribes with roots variously in Incan, Innuit and Native American communities. And whatever the Oseram are mean to be. (Oh, let’s face it, they’re the Dwarfs!) In the grand tradition of DLC campaigns both world-building and world-subverting we discover that Banuk territory The Cut is in fact Montana, USA. Which by rights means the rest of the map should be Montana as well. Hey, perhaps this actually is all a far future fan fic of Far Cry 5. That makes about as much sense as anything else.

Great game, solid plot, fabulous voice acting & some satisfying challenges. A good choice for whiling away the many lock down hours. 4/5.

Link’s Awakening Switch review

Just over 9 years ago I came back home from my local GP, arm heavily bandaged, having had my first contraceptive implant put in. My console of choice at the time was the Nintendo Wii – a game changer (pun intended) in freeing the player from traditional controllers. No longer did the gamer need to sit with a lump of plastic tightly gripped in both hands. The Wiimote was designed to emulate everything from a bowling ball to a sword. It was brilliant. And, I realised as I struggled to remove my coat, utterly useless to me for the next couple of weeks. I could barely lift my arm above elbow height let alone simulate a game of tennis.

Fortunately the 2nd hand unit we’d bought had included a couple of Wavebirds and, remastered for the Wii, classic Legend of Zelda titles Windwaker and Ocarina of Time. I settled down in my reduced-mobility state to indulge in a little retro Link action.

Nearly a decade later I was recovering after having implant #3 removed in favour of a more permanent solution. So I took a break from my beloved Ring Fit, in favour of Link’s Awakening, the 2019 Switch version of the 1993 Game Boy adventure. My contraceptive implant journey has been book-ended by Link’s adventures. Seems fitting, somehow.

It’s a fab little game! The tilt-shift effect works beautifully to pop a 2D game into a 3D aesthetic. The camera reacts to your movements, panning up ever so slightly as needed to optimise the overhead view when you’re up against a near-side wall. It’s done seamlessly and sympathetically to both the player needs and the source material. Full marks there!

I first encountered our green-garbed Hero back in 2006 with Twilight Princess, and worked backwards through Windwaker and Ocarina of Time. Then forward again with Skyward Sword and BoTW. So it was really fun to see some of my favourite bits of Zelda-lore in a more embryonic form. The Like Likes which plagued my progress in Ocarina, the satisfaction of denuding a Helmasaur, and even the mysterious Wind Fish which clearly shares some DNA with Skyward Sword’s Levias.

It’s inevitable that a game like this will feel a little claustrophobic after the sweeping vistas of Breath of the Wild. Heck, the whole game map would probably fit into Hyrule Field. But it seems a bit churlish to try to compare a remastering of an old title with newer offerings. There is still plenty to do over 15 or so hours of game time (actually more like 17 in my case as I really struggled with the final boss) so I didn’t come away feeling short-changed. For a diversion while I healed up, it was really quite lovely.

Ring Fit Adventure review

A year ago today I took delivery of the Nintendo Ring Fit gaming system, which would turn out to be a very wise lock-down investment. I haven’t completed it per se, although I have got through the main story mode. But since this is an ongoing activity, today seems as good a day as any to publish my review.

I set myself a goal way back in lockdown#1 to complete a marathon on the exercise bike, which I cheerfully managed. Since then I also completed the Couch to 5K programme on the bike, which is quite a different experience to doing actual running, but still an effective way to increase levels of aerobic activity. But I decided I should also be doing something a bit more muscle focused.

After reading a few positive reviews I took the plunge and got a Ring Fit towards the end of April 2020. Since then I have, on and off, done some exercise most days, alternating bike sessions with Ring Fit Adventure. Very virtuous!

For me, distraction is the key to sticking with exercise programs. If I can successfully kid myself I’m not actually working out, I’m far more likely to persevere. This strategy worked like a charm in the early 2010s, with the aid of the Wii Fit system. Together with a few adjustments to my eating pattern I lost a couple of stone and felt happier and healthier than I had in years (feminist misgivings notwithstanding). Could Ring Fit Adventure help me pull off the same psychological trick again?

Over the course of the 7 years after my initial weight loss triumph, those two stone had crept back. The icing on the cake (no pun intended) was the first few weeks of lock-down; over-indulging in crisps and beer as a coping strategy. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. But a global health crisis is a great incentive to take stock. Through the calorie counting based NHS Weight Loss app, and playing this game, I have successfully shifted around 7kg (also I do metric now). I’ve developed a little bit more muscle definition around the arms, my legs are stronger, and I’m very faintly starting to remember what it feels like to have abs underneath my comforting Doritos-duvet of gut flab.

The main story of the Ring Fit game took me around 32 hours of exercise time, which I completed over the course of 3 months or so. Defeating the final boss cues the credits to roll. But in true Nintendo fashion (like Breath of the Wild Master Mode) the completion of the initial story then opens up the opportunity to replay with a few narrative changes to keep things fresh.

One of the game’s real strengths is that it is very flexible in terms of user ability levels, and you can adjust the challenge to your heart’s content. It may not be suitable for someone with serious mobility constraints, at least not without medical advice. Similarly if you’re already a super-fit workout junkie this might not give you the exercise load you’re after. But for anyone in between those extremes, the game should allow you to set yourself a workout which is challenging but doable.

The cutsey approach isn’t for everyone, and some of the voice acting might annoy. Personally I found it quite charming – but it drove Terry up the wall. Each to their own. More frustratingly, some of the controls can be a bit hit and miss particularly in the mini-games. A few special items (clothing, power-ups etc) require these mini-games to be completed with a minimum score, so if you don’t have the knack you’re out of luck. Also for some unfathomable reason the game only unlocks a few optional challenges at a time, so if you can’t complete one then you won’t be able to access the others. The smoothie mechanic was fun at first but becomes needlessly complicated for a game of this nature as the number of ingredients increased. (Although to be fair I also think Skyrim has far too many varieties of mushroom.)

One purely practical concern: in battles you select an exercise to inflict damage on the enemy, and complete the specified number of repetitions until the enemy is defeated. Which I realised meant, in the case of the ones where you do half on one side of your body and then swap, there was a risk I’d end up working my left side much more than my right as I’d win the fight before I’d completed the same number of reps on the 2nd side.

But these are minor gripes – when what matters is simply playing the game, doing the exercises, and getting fitter. The game (perhaps seeking to avoid any litigious activity) emphasises repeatedly that you should make sure you are hydrated, that you’re working within your own capability range, getting plenty of rest and not overdoing it. Which is generally sound advice anyway.

If your pandemic experience has left you wanting to get healthier, but you struggle to stick with an exercise regime, it’s well worth giving this a go. The Ring Fit is currently available via Amazon (affiliate links obvs – other retailers are available) for under £60.

Getting my tubes tied

Content note: contains frank discussion of bodily functions.

Once up on a time there was a little girl who realised she did not want to grow up to be a mummy. She was not alone in this realisation, but she was a bit anxious because lots of little girls did want to grow up to be mummies. And as she got older she read some scary stories about how difficult it would be to be a grown-up girl who didn’t want to have children. There were lots of ways she could make sure she didn’t have children, and she used these for many years. But these methods had side-effects that started to annoy her. So when she was ready, she decided to ask her doctors if she could permanently make sure she would never get pregnant. And she remembered all the scary stories, and she wondered if it would be really hard to convince the doctors this was what she wanted.

But it wasn’t hard. This is her non-scary story.

The decision

I realised I would never want children when I was a teenager. As luck would have it, the man I fell in love with felt the same. We may have been young, but I fancy we were pretty emotionally mature, and this was a conversation we had early on. We were categorically both on the same page – procreation was a state to be avoided at all costs.

I’d been on the combined pill from age 17 to 25, had an IUS for 5 years, and then switched to implants lasting 3 years apiece. As far as preventing pregnancy goes I can’t fault these methods. But coming to the end of implant #3 I was acutely aware that I’d typically get two pretty good years, then one year of irregular bleeding, skin breakouts & mood swings. Plus I’d been told that if I went for a 4th implant they’d have to switch to my right, dominant arm as the scar tissue was getting too built up in my left. Enough was enough. I wanted a permanent solution.

The referral

Unfortunately, just at the point I’d made a decision to ask my GP to refer me to a surgical consultant, the pandemic hit. So we went into lock-down in March 2020, and waited to see how events unfolded. Watching friends and colleagues struggle with the additional stressors of childcare & home-schooling was yet another reminder of why this was the right decision for us.

I finally managed to arrange a phone call with my GP in July. I wrote up my list of reasons, and prepared to do battle with the forces of the patriarchy. I’d read the horror stories of women getting refused this procedure, and to be honest those stories had put me off from asking for this sooner. But my worries were allayed immediately. My GP was friendly, professional, and showed zero inclination to talk me out of my decision. He put the referral in, and I waited.

The waiting list

A couple of weeks later I had another phone call, this time with the surgical consultant. Again, I was prepared to argue, persuade, beg, or whatever was needed to convince this chap that I knew my own mind. And again, my fears were unfounded. He was perfectly accepting of my happy, child-free situation, my desire to secure that permanently, and my frustration with alternative methods. So I was added to the waiting list – simple as that. Of course as the pandemic raged on, I was warned the procedure wouldn’t happen until at least 2021. Several months later – after I’d seen my GP for an unrelated matter and he’d given the hospital a nudge – I was finally scheduled for a pre-op appointment.

The preamble

The pre-operative appointment consisted of a 4 page questionnaire asking about my medical history and habits with regard to self-medication. I admitted to drinking alcohol in what I considered to be non-problematic quantities, and the occasional CBD capsule for anxiety. I was weighed, measured, swabs taken to test for MRSA, blood drawn to test for something else, blood pressure checked (a little high – but it had been quite a stressful journey there) and then sat down to have the procedure explained. I’d be given two weeks notice, and for that period I’d need to follow comprehensive social distancing and hand washing protocols (which obviously we should all be doing anyway). Then 3 days before the op I’d have to go for a Covid test, and then fully self-isolate until the day of the procedure.

I was also told it could take a further 16 weeks to schedule the procedure date, so was resigned to yet more waiting. But just a week or so later I was rung up with a date for mid April. Which meant the two week countdown started almost immediately. I’d managed to avoid having a Covid test throughout the entire pandemic (on account of basically going nowhere) so this was a fun new experience! I dutifully got a taxi to the test site (the instructions specified not to use public transport), had a long stick poked far enough up my nostrils to make my eyes water, and then got a taxi back home to officially self-isolate.

The operation

For a morning procedure under general anaesthetic, eating and drinking is permitted until midnight the night before. A snack before bed is encouraged, rather than just an evening meal. Then a small glass of water no later than 6am, and nothing further to eat or drink. I have to ‘check in’ at 7, which sounds like I’m off for a fancy spa treatment. I’m shown to a single-sex waiting room with half a dozen other women, who mostly seem to talk about their children and how hard parenting has been during the pandemic. Clearly the universe does not intend to try to change my mind at the last minute!

After a few minutes’ wait I’m taken to a room to meet the anaesthetist. And so begins the first of several safety checkpoints where they make absolutely sure who I am, what I am having done, what I am allergic to, and whether there are any issues which could cause problems with the anaesthetic, eg loose teeth, crowns, undeclared body piercings etc. The risks of the procedure are explained, and I sign my consent.

Then I meet a nurse who provides me with the obligatory paper knickers, hospital gown & surgical stockings which I change into, and I am directed to provide a urine sample for a pregnancy test. This is followed by a discussion with the surgical resident (who I gather will be doing the actual work under the supervision of the consultant) who again makes sure that I fully understand what’s going to happen and what risks are involved.

I’m summoned to a corridor where I relinquish my belongings into the custody of the hospital. I just about have time to send a hasty text to Terry to say I’m being taken down. I am given a pillow to hold, which puts me in mind of the companion cube from Portal, though I assume it will have a practical purpose to become clear in due course.

I’m deposited in another waiting room. This one has a telly and I watch half an episode of Fraser. Another member of the anaesthetic team calls me into a yet another room, and we go through the identity/procedure/allergy/risk call-and-response yet again. I have to say I’m impressed with their commitment to the Checklist Manifesto, or, as a former colleague once put it, Not Being at Home to Mr and Mrs Cock Up! Then we’re on the move for the last time and arrive at the ante-room outside the theatre, with me still clutching what I now think of as my emotional support pillow. There is a bed, and lo, my pillow gets its moment to shine. So up I hop, and the process of putting me to sleep begins. There’s a deal of squeezing and gentle slapping as apparently my veins aren’t playing ball, but eventually the cannula goes in to my left hand. I’m hooked up and feel a very slight dull ache as the liquid is drawn into my body. Then a soft falling sensation, and then nothing.

The recovery

I come round slowly, disorientated and bleary, but not too freaked out. I hear myself mutter “oh right, the operation” which seems like a very witty and urbane comment to make in the circumstances. A nurse asks me about my pain levels and if I need anything. I decline, and then change my mind about 45 seconds later as sensations in my abdomen start to register as quite substantial discomfort. I get a syringe of something sweet and syrupy which I dimly remember being told was opioid based. Whatever it is, it dulls the gnarly feelings well enough. I’m wheeled up to a shared ward with space for 5 patients, and manage to shift myself onto the bed.

I’m told I’ll be hanging out there for the next three hours, assuming nothing untoward happens. It’s around 11 ish in the morning, so I decline offers of tea or coffee (I’m kind of caffeine sensitive) but greedily sip water, then orange squash, to re-hydrate. My blood pressure and temperature are checked regularly, and don’t seem to be causing anyone any concern. After imbibing a good litre or so of liquid I finally need to pee, but am under instructions not to attempt to stand up unsupervised. I have a button to summon assistance, but with 4 other patients in the room the nursing staff are in and out fairly frequently anyway. I use the facilities without incident, although I am bleeding a bit (no different from a light period) which is entirely normal. I receive a standard-issue NHS maxi-pad to assist with that situation.

Throughout the entire process I have felt protected, cared for and respected. At no point have I felt like a number, or a piece of meat, but rather that my comfort and safety have been of paramount importance all the way through. The one small administrative mistake is in my favour – as a day patient I’m only meant to be offered drinks, and toast and/or biscuits. In error I have a lunch order taken and delivered, which shouldn’t have happened. I eat it gratefully, although I do get a sudden wave of nausea the next time I stand up a bit too quickly. This is completely normal as the anti-emetics used as part of the anaesthesia wear off. Fortunately no vomiting occurs, and I have learned my lesson that I’ll need to move slowly for a while.

Towards the end of the three hours I’m visited by the lovely surgical resident who informs me that the procedure was uneventful with no transfusions or any such drama occurring. I’m also de-briefed by a nurse who talks me through what to expect over the next few days. This is mostly a repeat of information I was given prior to the op. Air is used to expand the lower abdominal cavity, which usually doesn’t fully dissipate when you’re stitched up. This can result in referred pain, particularly around the shoulders, as the gassy pockets try to disperse around the body, pressing on various nerves as it does. Sure enough I feel pretty bloated, although it’s weird knowing this isn’t standard trapped wind in the alimentary canal, so I’m not just one good fart away from relief.

I’m also instructed to keep the dressings as dry as possible, to keep the surgical stockings on day and night unless bathing, and to make sure I am supervised for the next 24 hours. I’m issued with various bits of literature on these points for later perusal, my cannula is removed, and after a final blood pressure check I am discharged.

The aftermath

By 4pm I am back home safe and sound, feeling a bit grimy, dozy, and kind of beaten up. As a priority Terry gives me a sponge bath to remove as much of the remaining iodine and bits of dried blood as possible. I take some paracetamol and have a little nap.

Over the next couple of days I rest, with occasional naps between rest periods. The official advice is to take appropriate steps to manage pain levels. Now is not the time for misplaced displays of machismo. I use paracetamol as directed, which gets me through the first 48 hours. The most distressing effect I have to endure is constipation, probably caused by that first opioid based painkiller. I finally get relief from that state of affairs on the Sunday morning after a rare 2nd coffee, which leaves me jittery but slightly more comfortable.

There are two specific advantages of doing this during the pandemic. The first is that I am currently working from home 100% of the time. As part of my discharge I am given a sick note which would sign me off work for two weeks. But by Monday I realise this won’t be necessary and I am perfectly capable of working, albeit taking things a bit easy. If I’d had to commute in on pubic transport and sit in an office I’d have taken the time off no question. But current WFH arrangements enable a more flexible approach to employment by default. And the second is that as I don’t share an office (or train carriage or bus) I can adjust my attitude to personal cleanliness (apparently I’m not the only one according to this Guardian article). Which means in practical terms I can continue with the sponge-bath approach to washing for the next 5 days. Ideally the dressings covering the incisions should stay sealed for that long, unless they get wet or there is any sign of infection. So I hot water and flannel it until the following Wednesday, safe in the knowledge no-one can tell over Zoom how greasy my hair has become.

By Monday I am off the painkillers, and taking gentle exercise each day. On Wednesday I finally have a proper shower and gently remove the two dressings. The incision points are healing up beautifully with no indication of any infection. I swab the areas with antiseptic liquid and re-dress with some of the spare dressings I was issued at the hospital. The stitches are designed to dissolve away, although the one in my belly button where the laparoscope was inserted is still just about visible.

On Thursday Terry and I go for a walk. This is the first time I have left the house since the op, and the first time I’ve left the house not for a medical appointment in months. Tomorrow it will be one week since the operation. I’m still being fairly gentle with movement, and avoiding lifting anything. I also get a bit fatigued in the middle of the day – again quite normal. But the recovery so far has been textbook.

Checking my privilege

I am fortunate to be in a committed relationship with an emotionally literate partner who shared my life preference for not having children. I am lucky to have had support and encouragement from friends and family. I am grateful to live in a country with a decent healthcare system, and lucky to be able to bear the incidental costs, such as taxis, without struggle. I had a wholly positive experience with the medical practitioners all the way through, and never once felt like I had to justify my choice to someone with pre-conceived notions of what a woman should want. I’m profoundly grateful for the care I received, and have written to the NHS Trust’s PALS team to pass on my positive feedback and for making this a non-scary story.

Game Review: Little Nightmares

After the balmy hours of My Time At Portia, I stumbled across this brief palette cleanser of a game on PS Now. Little Nightmares is simple but difficult, scarily atmospheric and really bloody frustrating in places.

You play as an unbearably slight little figure, barefoot and shrouded in a too-large yellow hooded garment. From the first moments of your minuscule avatar waking in an unfamiliar setting, the game quickly establishes a sense of foreboding and dread as you guide this childlike creature around an inhospitable environment. The music and soundscape expertly builds tension, although in places was distractingly similar to the incidental music from the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer game on XBox. Coupled with the haptic feedback and the pulsing heartbeat whenever peril is near, the game gets full marks for engendering a sense of mild terror.

The game is set at a single-difficulty level which was at time beyond my skill. On the plus side it did mean re-living the olden days when I had to ask Terry to do the too-hard jumping puzzles. This kind of game necessarily walks a tightrope between boring (too easy) and frustrating (too challenging) so whether or not the game gets the balance right will always be a matter of personal preference. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be any longer than it was, given the limited range of actions (crouch, grab, sprint, jump), and the repetition of the stages.

As the name suggests, the game is a meditation on primal fears: the dark, hunger, being pursued. There is something specifically nerve wracking about a game where your only survival skill is evasion rather than combat. At various points you can interact with the environment as a means of distraction. What you can’t do it chuck a bottle at an enemy and then glass the fucker, more’s the pity.

The graphics are gorgeous in a grotesque kind of way. But I was a bit disappointed that the game leans so heavily into the problematic horror trope of depicting evil by means of disability & disfigurement. Perhaps I’m missing some kind of social commentary equating the ills of greed and capitalism with the obese, grasping diners. But to me it felt like a lazy artistic choice. Similarly the climactic end whereby our (by now no doubt traumatised) protagonist decides the best way to handle fear is to become something even scarier seems a bit old-hat.

I’ve played worse, but probably won’t be bothering with the sequel. 6/10.