A strange and dark time (announcing the publication of Finches)

Today I saw a painting of a derelict house against a setting sun. The whole thing was oranges and reds, framed by trees in full autumn plumage. Except this wasn't a painting. It was the charred frame of a burnt house, surrounded by burning trees shaking in the wind. The sun was shimmering in the background because it was veiled in smoke. All of this was a moment in someone else's nightmare, in the desert of southern California. If I didn't live in this state and saw our own sky over San Francisco turn red—beautiful, translucent red—I would perhaps be more driven to wonder over how any of this news made sense. How does a desert city burn from a forest fire? But the photos show Joshua Trees with strands of embers weaving around them, like if you took a photo of people dancing in fluorescent jewelry after dark.

The rather more familiar northern forest fires hem us in with its own smoke. Between heatwaves, an assortment of sinus pains and full workdays, it's hard not to stay tired. It's been a thoroughly tiring year. I'm still immensely grateful to be where I am. I can't underscore that enough. I'm grateful I live here and I wake up every day amazed that I am married to this amazing person who is perfectly fine with me whittling away at strange little video games, reading dangerous books and ensuring our cat is sufficiently kissed on the head. (As we know, cats that are insufficiently kissed on the head become feral.) But for all that my life is good, I don't, as a rule, expect good news. Have you seen this year? I'm already existentially terrified I could be torn away from my dear husband and cat over some missed comma of government bureaucracy. I prepared myself long ago that the current state of things will just be another post-election of the same.

Yet, here we are. Finches, the novella I've been trying to get out there for the past decade, is getting published in October 2021 by Vernacular Books. I'm currently in edits for the manuscript, which I hope to get out in the next month. To me, Finches is primarily built on betrayal. What does it mean to not live what you preach? What does it mean when your faith tells you a class of people should be beneath you, but in reality these untouchables are the most genuine representations of god's grace that you know? How do you parse all that when these people are your spouses and parents and siblings? It's a horror story—because I may not know how to write anything else—but I think horror is primarily a representation of our horror at what the world has become. In that sense, the world inside Finches is the place I grew up in, my acknowledgement that this awful, chauvinistic capture-in-time is true to its nature and how very much I wished it wasn't so. The nihilist in me knows nothing will change and I want to prove myself wrong. So as the parent of this maybe slightly dangerous book, I put it out there and hope someone listens.

Wins and cherries

Fixed Seth's desktop. Turned out it wasn't the thermal paste, his Corsair water cooler wasn't working and probably hadn't been working right for some time. What probably happened was that enough water had evaporated out of the tubes so it wasn't pumping correctly anymore. Pre-pandemic times, this would usually mean that we would look up benchmarks online, walk to Best Buy, get the relevant product and come home to put it in over the course of the same evening. For absolutely logical reasons, Best Buy prefers curbside pick-up at this time. But that also meant we had to get what we could get the next day. I would much rather have switched to a high-end radiator-type heatsink—it's just one forged part and no liquids to worry about, plus newer models seemed to have comparatively good performance—but the only models available the next day were both "gaming performance" water coolers. One was another high-end Corsair and the other was a much more reasonably priced Thermaltake whose secondary selling point was that it was clearly a mini disco. Seth chose the Thermaltake, so as his dutiful wife, I looked up reviews. Performance on it seemed good, but the assembly looked finnicky about clamping the copper plate bit onto the CPU. A blow-by-blow assembly review I read also talked about the cables supplied for all its tendrils being unusually long.

Upon collecting the cooler the next day, both of these points turned out to be true. There wasn't a manual as such in the box, just a large folded sheet of instructions. Even though the instructions were heavily illustrated, it sure seemed like a lot of stuff was lost in translation. For one, the diagrams showed that the round copper plate bit would clamp onto this metal ring you would screw into place, but the actual thing didn't have any grooves that would logically lock the two parts in place. I finally gave up trying to put this part together first and instead concentrated on mounting the radiator and fan to the case. In comparison to the five-year-old Corsair unit, the Thermaltake one felt more cheaply made. Like, the Corsair feels solid when you handle it, more metal. The Thermaltake unit felt lighter. On the Corsair, the tubes also seemed to be doubly insulated, with a stiffer outer covering like you would find on a more expensive garden hose. (It has to be assumed that water in any closed loop water cooler will evaporate over time, regardless of how expensive the system is. The idea is that by the time you need to change the cooler, you would need to change your entire system as well.) The Thermaltake's tubes felt like thick-ish, soft rubber. They also weren't kidding about the extra long cables. I swear every cable was supplied 3 ft. long, even for pieces you would stick directly onto the motherboard next to the CPU. I wound up having to reuse all the cable ties to keep the cables folded so they wouldn't rest on Seth's barely three-months-old graphics card or anything that could stay hot. Note: The bit that goes over the CPU does fit once you hold it down and screw it in, but rather than try to attach the metal ring and plastic aid before you assemble the radiator, it's easier to install the radiator first as I did, then try to align everything on the CPU.

And yes, the cooler does also double up as a mini-disco. You can set the colours, speed of colour-changing and "pattern" with a controller inside the case (try as I might, I couldn't see how we'd snake this outside). It is very bling. When I asked Seth what settings he wanted, he replied, "Off". Looks like we're not going to signal at UFOs in the middle of night with the colours of the rainbow.

Given that both of us have exactly the same setup for our desktops, we also figured we might have to change out my cooler sooner or later. If that happens, I'm most likely getting the nice Noctua radial heatsink I originally wanted to get for him. I admit I'm already getting a bit of numbers envy after seeing the kind of temperatures he's pulling. His CPU is staying at 29C on idle and handily staying there even under stress. My desktop is still doing fine, but I also admit I don't play anything more strenuous than a 24-man raid on FFXIV. My graphics card fried when the Stormblood xpac came out four years ago, but only because launch weekend was in the middle of a summer heat wave. Generally, I've tried to lay off on the hotter days since then. With the next patch due in August, I am a little worried about the timing of the next Nier raid, since I'll be running that in excess with all the particle FX. But I probably should be worrying more about what new bullet hell Yoko Taro has invented for us.

On the way back from Best Buy, we passed by a supermarket that still had cherries, so I finally got 4.5 lbs. cherries this season. I'm trying not to eat them all because the supermarket also had my favourite brand of maple yoghurt. The emphasis here is on "try".

Unfortunately, not a few days later, our sink started dripping. I figured this was just a matter of changing some permutation of washer. (It turns out our faucet used a cartridge system, which I haven't seen before, but the Internet showed me how to take it out.) More difficult was figuring out the make and model of our faucet. I couldn't find a model number anywhere and both Seth and I independently came to the conclusion the worn branding on the side was written in cuneiform. Seth finally made out P-E-E-R-L-E, which was a hell of a lot better than my P-F-F-R-L-E for search words. Google suggested it might be "Peerless", and when I went to check the faucet again, I realised a glyph I thought meant "water" were really two heavily stylised, skinny Ss. Now, the faucet we have probably has been there for a couple of decades, so I wasn't surprised the manufacturer's website didn't have it anymore. I wound up picking the model that best resembled ours and comparing the cartridge in its model to the one we had so I could order a replacement. I also promised the spouse I would call a plumber if this failed. (It seems odd to me to call a plumber to change a washer.) Today I changed out the cartridge and it seemed to work just fine. This is great, since we now also have an extra in case the other faucet fails.

Having two repair things work in close order makes me a little more motivated to get back to that PS3. In spite of this going to make it harder to test for failures, I want to try removing the second GPU capacitor and replace that with tantalums too, to see if this somehow solves the RLOD. There's apparently a way to remove the plastic cap on the retail capacitor and try to piggyback the tantalums alongside, but I've not figured out how to do that yet. The original capacitors are already kind of finnicky to remove. If next week's work doesn't wreck me, this should be my next experiment.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin - They really don't make games like these anymore

About 20 years ago, I impressed a boy online by saying I had also played this weird Japanese RPG called Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. We had both been blown away by how different it was from the fantasy RPGs we'd seen up to that point, how strange the art style was and what a surreal horror story it came out to be. At the end, we bonded over both losing steam at the final dungeon—"the yellow UFO dungeon"—and never finishing it. 

At the time, Persona hadn't yet become the phenomenon it is today and certainly not outside of Japan. Eternal Punishment was in fact the first Shin Megami Tensei game I'd ever even met. And if you were coming from other JRPG franchises, like Final Fantasy, this was a diametric opposite in tone. Instead of majestic Guardian Forces, you summoned grisly, sometimes horrifying demons and deities (personae) from several global pantheons to fight on your behalf. The plot was dark and moody, centred around a magical serial killer that people summoned by calling their own cellphone number and giving him the name of the person they wanted dead. Rather than lanky J-rocker types with $400 haircuts, your party members were these slender, fey creatures with angular faces and slanted eyes like cats. It was blasphemous and perhaps a little anarchic, and compared with the usual Chosen One Saves the World, really more my style.

Shin Megami Tensei—whom I've heard abbreviated as MegaTen or SMT—is a long-running series of RPGs developed by Atlus which all dwell on summoning aspects of the human subconscious manifested as demons and deities. Set in a variety of modern or post-apocalyptic settings, the stories ranged from fairly basic—just get me in the dungeon I need to grind for the next 250 hours—to rather more dramatic affairs. Usually, you kind of saved the world from itself, and SMT isn't shy about pointing out how much we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes, you killed Satan and led the demonic hordes of hell personally to Heaven's doorstep. The Persona spin-off series typically focuses on telling individual character stories within an overarching plot. Being one of the last stalwarts of the turn-based RPG, any Persona game is also eagerly anticipated in our household, except for those aberrant dancing games Sega (the current owner of Atlus) makes with Persona characters. (Surely all those monies earned from selling hundreds of costume packs can fund another mainline SMT dungeon crawler by now?)

Persona 2 is an oddity among the Personas in that it's the only one to date that is part of a duology. To make things even stranger, Eternal Punishment is the second part of the duology and was the only part available in English for twelve years after its release, until Persona 2: Innocent Sin was remastered for the PSP in 2011. Being late in general, I only completed playing Innocent Sin two days ago, thereby taking two decades to figuring out some of the more confusing references in Eternal Punishment like, what do these games' names even mean? (They turned out to be very, very relevant.)

It helped some that at the same time I was playing Innocent Sin, we were tag-teaming Persona 5 Royal. (We thought we would casually replay a new version of Persona 5 with some added flourishes. Instead, we dumped over 250 hours into it.) This gave me a good perspective on how much the series has changed over time and how much it hasn't. 

The first three Persona games all occur in the same universe, while the worlds of Persona 3, 4 and 5 appear to be separate, even if vague callbacks are made here and there. The teenage characters from the first game return as adults in Persona 2 as NPCs and playable characters. They are active participants in the plot and you interact with them throughout the game. I'm saying this now because that made the callbacks in Persona 5 to the earlier games (and particularly Persona 2) somewhat more wistful. It'd be great if Atlus returned to some form of world continuity, but I'm not really holding my breath.

That said, one of the unchanging aspects of Persona is that the games have stayed grindy albeit in different ways. Eternal Punishment, after all, was the game that taught me raising your characters ten levels per dungeon ensured the mobs in the next dungeon would be tender and the boss a pushover. In older age, I've had to revise that to five level gains per dungeon with Hard mode right out of the box. Your mobs will still be fairly pliant, and the boss tedious from all that HP but not punishing. Comparatively speaking, the PSP remaster for Innocent Sin clearly had some re-balancing done with the numbers. I didn't actually need to grind past the first two dungeons, and that's plain weird. Every single dungeon, and there are a ridiculous number of them, is obnoxiously huge. If you're the type of person who likes filling in the whole map, you'll have no trouble being ten levels over without even needing to walk in circles. I beat the final boss at level 74 with full legendary weapons using a hodge podge of not-so-ultimate summons. The newer games definitely have shorter and more balanced dungeons. They're grindy too, but usually you're at the end just when you're about to lose your mind. In Innocent Sin, I got to what I thought was the second last dungeon and found out I really had five more dungeons plus the final one for the end boss. I then spent every one of the last six dungeons and two optional ones turning to my spouse in a sleep-deprived haze asking, "When is it going to stop?"

Fight mechanics in Persona 2 will still be the pinnacle of the whole series. From Persona 3 and up, the games used a more conventional turn-based system, but back in Persona 2, you could control the turn order as it happened, switching out actions to match things on the fly. Say you set up 3 characters to do a collaborative attack, but during the first turn, one of the enemies downed a character you set with an instant kill. Before those 3 collaborating characters would move, you could bring up the turn of 1 of the remaining 2 characters (your party always has the same 5 characters and all of them would fight—there are no reserves) to revive the downed character, and in that way save your collaborative attack. In fact, Persona 2 depended on these sort of collaborative attacks, called Fusion Spells. Fusion Spells are triggered by chaining spells in a particular order. For example, Agi > Aqua > Magna chains into Hydro Boost, a medium water-based attack on a single target. Before you could use a Fusion Spell, you had to unlock it, and discovering what spells to combine in the proper order was virtually its own mini-game. This is the whole reason why Persona 2 allowed you to titrate turn order so finely. In any situation, the more Fusion Spells you pulled off, the more likely your persona would grow in strength, mutate into other persona or learn unexpected new skills—and the faster everything would die. You want things to die fast, because if you thought SP management in the later games was torture, Persona 2 will just seem masochistic. The only upside is that you recover SP while you walk around in dungeons upfront and levelling instantly fills up your HP/SP gauge—no namby pamby S-links to raise here.

The Contact system for persona you met on the field was way more complex. Unlike later games, you summoned persona in the Velvet Room by trading in specific numbers of Tarot cards from each arcana. So apart from talking to persona to get items or money, which remains to this day, you also had to talk to persona to get cards corresponding to their arcana. Each persona had a combination of three possible personality types and each of your characters had four approaches to communication. Characters could also work together as a group to communicate. Depending on your approach, who you chose to speak and the persona's personality, they could react with Anger, Interest, Happiness or Fright. Triggering three reactions of the same mood would conclude that conversation. Depending on which reactions you triggered, you could form pacts with that persona (giving you the option of asking for items, money and information), start a fight or trigger status effects. 

On top of that, there were these little bonuses you would get for having persona from the same pantheon together in the same fight. If you had Odin on your team meeting Fenrir on the field, for example, Odin would lament about Fenrir breaking free of his chains and Fenrir would retort that he hates Odin for locking him up. While these little conversations were rare, if you like mythology, it was great motivation to learn each persona's back story. Personae from the same pantheon could also cast extra powerful, exclusive Fusion Spells together, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma or Genbu, Suzaku, Byakko and Seiryuu. These are not things that made it into the later games, and I highly doubt we'll ever see them again, but imagine the depth they could add!

It was ridiculously charming to look up from the Vita and see the same attacks you could make in 1999 show up in Persona 5 in 2020. SMT uses a largely unchanging spell list across all its games sort of the way Final Fantasy does. Kali in Persona 2 still casts Deathbound (a high damage physical attack to multiple targets) the same Deathbound she does in Persona 5, and your Agi/Agilao/Agidyne progression still looks the same regardless of when your game was made. Battle-related but not quite is that Persona 5 also features remixes of the pharmacy (i.e. the potion shop) theme song that appeared in Persona 1 and 2. You can hear it if you visit the 777 convenience store or Big Bang Burger in-game. It was surreal enough that when Seth walked into 777, he made me go to the Satomi Tadashi store (its Persona 2 equivalent) specifically so we could compare the tracks. 

Another theme that has remained largely unchanged? The Velvet Room theme. Now, they used the modern track for the Innocent Sin PSP remaster, but you can hear what it sounded like in 1999 if you play the original PSOne version of Eternal Punishment. The difference is visceral regardless of which version you hear for one specific reason. Back in Persona 2, the Velvet Room setup had more people than just Igor and a perky female assistant. Oh, no, the Velvet Room actually comprised four people: Igor, the Demon Painter, Nameless and Belladona. Nameless is the Velvet Room's blind pianist and Belladona is the singer—yes, that harmonic wail that sends chills down your back every time you step in once had a body attached to it. The beautiful piano track that backs her singing also feels more real when you watch Nameless actually play it in front of you. Your whole party would go into the Velvet Room with you, not just your silent protagonist as with Persona 3 onwards, giving you perspectives on what they see. If you're wondering, Yousuke in Persona 5 is a reference to the Demon Painter, who paints copies of Tarot cards you need on demand. The Demon Painter doesn't grow daikon radish shoots to supplement his meagre diet, but was instead a master painter in the real world who abandoned life to paint the human subconscious.

The thing that makes Persona 2: Innocent Sin and by extension Eternal Punishment the best games in the whole series for me though is undeniably the plot. They really don't write plots like these anymore. Some of that is changing trends, I'll give them that, and some of it is clearly creating tighter, more focused stories. Yet nothing in the modern Personas holds a candle to just how weird Persona 2 is. 

Innocent Sin, in a nutshell, is about five childhood friends who drift apart after four of them believed they murdered the fifth, finding each other again and reconciling the various aspects of their psyche, whether these are parts they like or not. The latter trait is another hallmark of each Persona game from past to present—the human subconscious goes awry when people refuse to acknowledge they simultaneously have the capacity to make horrible mistakes as well as do great good. The journey each character takes to reach their full potential is what drives the story. There's Tatsuya, your "silent protagonist" who would rather keep quiet than be forced to make a decision he'll regret; Michel, the fat kid-turned-visual kei rocker who while superficially narcissistic, might actually be the genuinely good character in the party and definitely the one who takes responsibility for mistakes first; Lisa, the rebellious, fully Caucasian child of an American couple who fell in love with Japan so hard they became naturalised citizens (still no mean feat in 2020)—unlike her parents, she's spent her whole life being picked on for being Japanese but "not right" and living with the assumptions people have about things foreigners should know; Jun, the effeminate boy from a home so broken he makes up his own family out of rumours and curls up in a ball on the floor at the mere notion of his real parents; and Maya, the unbelievably optimistic mother hen type who seems like the most easily likeable but least interesting character in the game until you realise why she's the main character in Eternal Punishment.

In Persona 2, people discover that rumours can really come true if enough people believe it is true. Specifically in Innocent Sin, a character called the Joker would grant your innermost wishes if you summoned him by played the Persona game. Trusting the general public to make responsible wishes and not constantly raise the stakes is quickly shown to be a wash. Conspiracy theories about Hitler finding the Spear of Longinus and faking his suicide become real, living celebrities who disappeared from public life are rumoured to have died and turn into restless spirits. Eventually, fake Mayan prophecies about humans being the bio-engineered children of aliens come true, people are hanging out in the public park waiting for extraterrestrials to hasten their evolution into higher beings and the Nazis are raining WWII plane mechs from the sky. Yes, it's all very mad, but it also captures a moment in time where even if none of these things happened, the basic kernel of why people would think that way was widespread. That year was 1999, not unintentionally the year when Persona 2 was set.

This is one of the aspects of Persona 2 that gains the most context if you were alive in the years running up to the third millennium. We can laugh at the doomsday/motivational cults in the game, but these sorts of cults really existed in the run-up to the year 2000. Only four years before Innocent Sin came out, the Aum Shinrikyo caused the Tokyo subway sarin attack that killed thirteen people and injured upwards of 1,000. By the same token, optimism was high that humanity would achieve all manner of goals by 2000, from world peace to sexual equality. Imagine what happened when your New Year resolution failed on a year everyone else was calling momentous and assuredly life-changing. As humanity's collective fear of the future reached a superstitious fervour, the charlatans and New Age gurus circled around them like vultures in Innocent Sin, but these guys weren't pulled out of thin air. For some of us, the world really ended, even if it wasn't in an explosion caused by the alignment of the stars.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin, really, works because it literally and figuratively answers, "What happens if we get left behind?"

Spoiler note: Persona 5 Royal references the same question, in the ultimate callback to Persona 2, but I found its answer somewhat more lacking.

For me, the relevancy of Persona 2 ultimately leads to a greater good. You see, I married that boy I commiserated about the game with all those years ago. The game holds an important place in our hearts because it was one more building block in our friendship. We still play SMT games together, Atlus still needs to release Shin Megami Tensei V and we need another Persona game where all the characters are working age adults. But until these things come to pass, we'll keep passing each other the controller and thinking fondly about what this added to our lives.

A PS3 repair for a special PS2 game (Pt. 2)

The ribbon I ordered came at record speed, pandemic be damned. Ordered Saturday, shipped Sunday, turned up at my door on Tuesday. If you ever need some rare part for an aging console, MyGameParts delivers legitimately good service. Taking apart the PS3 the second time was several orders of magnitude faster now that I knew what I was doing. The first thing I realised after pulling off the top case was that I really created the problems with my Power/Eject buttons myself. If you'll recall, the reason I had to buy a replacement ribbon was because I accidentally broke the original one while trying to figure out why my Power button wouldn't work. It turns out the Power button wasn't working because the small metal clasp that you push down through the plastic case for this button was accidentally flipped back (i.e. it was flush against the controller board under the case and couldn't be pressed down). 

I genuinely started laughing at myself when I saw this. It's such a mechanical user error. Definitely not something worth breaking a fragile ribbon over if I'd realised it the first time around.

Incidentally, I did get around to re-opening the later iteration fat PS3 we had to figure out why their Power/Eject button setup was more resilient, and I'd also gotten why completely wrong. What Sony did was, by the later iteration of fat PS3s, the metal clasp that you need to press for the buttons were attached directly onto the plastic top of the case. Instead of attaching a small controller board by a flimsy ribbon to the motherboard, those touch controllers look like they were built onto the motherboard itself and depressed from above (through the plastic top). 

To make extra sure everything was right with the PS3 I was repairing, I took the precaution of reheating the chips again before I reassembled the lot. Powered it up...and it worked. My jaw might have dropped. After the flurry of fighting dust bunnies to reconnect all the wiring and updating the system, I opened our precious copy of Eternal Poison and discovered the actual game disc was gone. Cue me and him ransacking the whole house trying to find our missing disc. In the process, I was momentarily proud of my foresight before storing all our PS2/PS3 games in the basement about two years ago. Before I packed everything away, I had matched every single game box with its associated game disc so that when precisely something like this happened, I could pick up a game and know that everything I wanted was inside.

Which made losing our Eternal Poison disc all the more baffling. Seth had a vague memory of trying it out on our PS2 Classic and being utterly depressed by how the console rendered the game on our overly-modern TV. He was right—though getting to said console required yet another dig through all the things I'd stashed away for winter. Being a hamster has its downsides.

24 hours after getting the PS3 running, we were now able to test all this mucking around I did. Both of us watched in anticipation as the Eternal Poison opening screen loaded, nicely rendered on our TV monitor and—everything went black. PS3 refused to restart, or even countenance the thought. I was crushed. I mean, I had everything up for at least two hours before that and it was running fine. My first worry was that I broke the Blu-ray player. Then I worried I killed the fan (though I distinctly ran my hand along the airholes when I first brought the console back up to feel for air, which was indeed blowing out at the time). And then I worried I had actually fried the chips. For real.

I'm not good at flailing my arms around if something fails. Especially if I was the one who broke it. The most likely reason the PS3 seized up was because it was still "overheating" the moment we made it do something more strenuous than install an update. That is to say, the system was telling itself the console was overheating even when it was not, which caused it to do the red light of death that was what I was trying to fix this whole time. Obviously, reflowing was a step in the right direction, but incomplete. First though, I had to rescue our game disc again.

I was prepared to try and eject the disc manually somehow, but ultimately didn't have to. After several hours of cooling down, I switched on the PS3 and got the disc out normally. This moment of optimism didn't last. Trying out a game that didn't require a disc killed the PS3 at the game's load screen just like before. 

More puttering around the Internet followed. I found a fascinating post on Reddit about how switching out potentially faulty capacitors resolved the issue long-term. The idea made a great deal of good sense to me. If you'd like to see how it works, the link is here: https://www.reddit.com/r/PS3/comments/cff5hg/ylod_conclusion_capacitors_are_the_problem_not/

Now, prior to this, I had been resistant about getting all the kit for a soldering job because it's an extra layer of detail and I wasn't sure if reflowing would work out to begin with. We answered the latter question, which was reflowing can work but everyone who's tried it agrees its a short-term fix that still yields unpredictable results. However, the OP for the capacitor fix believed changing out the capacitors was a long-term solution that potentially could add years to a PS3's lifespan. Given that the OP was a PS3 enthusiast who collects old consoles for repair, this gave me hope. Hope means I had to get a soldering iron. A soldering iron means I had to order capacitors and other odds and ends. If all goes well, and thus far the shipping gods have been kind, I'll get everything I need together by Wednesday. Provided I don't get buried under work, by the weekend, I'll either be laughing like a mad scientist with a soldering iron or going despondent that I actually destroyed our PS3 for good. We shall see.

A PS3 repair for a special PS2 game (Pt. 1)

Back in the time of the fat PlayStation 3 and roughly at the end-of-life of PlayStation 2s, there appeared a PS2 game called Eternal Poison (Poison Pink in Japan). This was a darkly gothic, richly designed and intricately-plotted tactical RPG—by then itself a dying genre—that had enough serious flaws it almost immediately fizzled. The company that made it, Flight-Plan, quietly folded three years later. The artist responsible for the truly beautiful character designs, tomatika, is someone I still hope gains more work elsewhere, and especially for games released in the West, but also seems to have also gone quiet. To put it mildly, Eternal Poison is not a game that will likely see a PS4 remaster. I doubt it would see even a PS Vita port and it's not on PS Now. But the magic of this game is such I am hellbent on finding some way of completing it eleven years later on our dead fat PS3 because I never got to see most of its story. Our original PS3 died after we completed our first campaign, then again after a restart. We tried 3rd party repair and Sony repairs. The latter wiped our save files, bringing us back to square one. Each time, we tried and tried, but our PS3 would fail us. The first-gen PS3 is essential because it had PS2 backwards compatibility and more importantly, unlike the PS2/PS3 slims, actually had scaling for modern TV screens. So began my extremely long-term project to fix our final fat PS3 retry, the saga of which appears here today.

But first, the game itself

What sort of game has me trying to fix a notoriously fickle console in the hopes it stays alive long enough for me to play it? I think I should start with the flaws, so we don't go into this with false hopes. Eternal Poison's biggest one is the 3D animations it uses for its attack cut scenes. The 3D models in these were primitive-looking even in its day. Any reasonable person wanting to get into this title is advised to turn off 3D animations at the earliest opportunity. Trust me, you won't be missing anything. The second is that Eternal Poison runs off a complex, some might say even convoluted, tactical system that is not intuitive. Every unit has Persona 2-era amounts of weaknesses/strengths including the monsters. The average character sheet probably has as many stats and percentiles on it as a tabletop RPG, all of which you must balance if you want to win. Every action requires navigating several menus. It's old school for the people who remember old-school. Finally, every move you take on the field is designed to squeeze XP from stones. Fire Emblem-types will go, "Oh, that." Yes, that. Just like beloved titles of old, healers take years to level because killing blows give the most XP. Meanwhile, you're buffing units very slowly on the way to the exit because every experience point is precious, while your turn counter grows perilously close to losing.

Now the good part. Eternal Poison's greatest asset is its atmospheric game lore and intricate storyline. Each branch of the story is told through the perspective of one of three starting parties. You can choose which party to play in what order, but you're locked on that party's arc once you begin the campaign. Completing their good endings unlocks a further two playable parties, and completing their good endings in turn unlocks the final path. Many of the early reviews of Eternal Poison panned it because although the game gives vague ideas on how to proceed in each arc, it's very easy to get the normal endings playing blind—never seeing the hidden subtleties of its plot. 

The basic gist is: a dungeon leading into the world of demons, Besek, appears in the Kingdom of Valdia. Valdia's eldest princess is kidnapped by the demons and you are on one of the missions to save her or explore Besek independently. Each party also has a side quest to collect the demons they encounter in a Librum (a sort of Pokedex of the Damned), each for reasons individual to their storyline. Once inside Besek, it soon becomes clear that this realm twists perspectives of time and reality. People meet dead acquaintances who act perfectly normal, sometimes younger or older than they remembered them. Others meet alternative versions of themselves. There's an adventurers' hub (your base) where you can hire additional party members (the characters are randomly generated each time you start a campaign). However, talking to your party mates in town hints broadly that these adventurers are ghosts themselves, having previously died while exploring Besek but forgetting who they are. It's also clear that people you "find" and "save" along the way might not be human. It can't be human to capture demons in order that you might grind them into paste (with animation!) and gain their powers—a service offered by a suspiciously vampiric woman in a corset by the way. This last service, by the way, is actually useful.

Your three starting parties have main characters that were carefully thought out, both in terms of personality and how their stories tie together. The "starring" party leader is Thage, a gothic lolita sorceress who travels with a horned albino wolf and a child she enslaved. She's there to collect demons, some of whom seem to have met her before and actually greet her in combat. By turns cold and perceptive, her tale is the lynch pin for every other arc. Olifen is the straight up knight rescuing a princess. He doesn't seem interesting at first, but you get the idea he's more aware of the Valdian political intrigue behind his clearly suicidal mission than he lets on. His story sets up the background of the 'outside' world you see inside Besek. Ashley is the younger princess of Valdia, who is there to rescue her sister. She's a lawful good cleric—again, you start off thinking, "Why would I even want to play her story?"—but hers is the story that really ramps up and connects what's going on behind the Valdian throne and why Besek has appeared. It's not just the party leaders with great characterisation; their fellow main party members also grow and change, some revealing dark secrets, throughout each campaign. Absolutely no one should be taken at face value.

Stylistically, I love the mix of gothic lolita lace and dark fantasy tropes. The character portraits alone are worth the purchase to me—we're still kicking ourselves for not buying the deluxe version with an art book—as it pairs pale, wispy fantasy Europeans (think Castlevania) with alien, creepy monstrosities you encounter. Voice acting in English veers between excellent, like Thage's "too tired to care" aloofness, to aggravating over time, like the shopkeeper in town who greets you with "Ho, ho, ho!" every time you need to get a potion. On the whole though, the main characters are voiced well. It wouldn't and shouldn't stop you from wanting to pursue the stories to the end. I'm saying this as someone who usually throws up my hands in despair at English localisations (especially from the early days of Japanese imports—quality these days is very much on a par with the original Japanese voicing or can be). 

Fond memories aside, the repair

It's not that it took me eleven years to try and repair our PS3. Inertia and ending the work day feeling boneless took up large chunks of time in between. As I understand it, fat PS3s at release, like ours, were incredibly prone to overheating and living shorter, tragic lives than their later slim counterparts. The main issue was that the solder used for the CPU and GPU could grow brittle with use, and the thermal paste that came with was cheap, reducing its effectiveness quicker than it should. Repairs I looked up online are actually stop gaps. You're hoping to bring your console back to life because it's dead and out of warranty anyway, with the expectation its life span was only extendable so far. They involved two parts: 1) reflowing the solder under the chips with heat and 2) replacing the thermal paste on the chips.

Thankfully, this didn't require me to remove the chip and resolder it manually. I was expecting that, but most places simply suggest using a heat gun or heat source (some folks put their motherboards in ovens). Changing thermal paste is one of the things I used to ask the store to do if I was building a box from scratch because I was always terrified I'd do it wrong. This PS3 was already dead, and technically applying thermal paste isn't hard. It's more or less like spreading butter on toast, if your toast could fry when connected to a power source or kill your setup from overheating...as happened here. Of the two, it was the heat gun that scared me more because thermal paste wear is over time. Accidentally burning circuits is an immediate fail. I haven't held a soldering gun in nearly three decades (they're fun, deadly points of heat).

Online places still sell fat PS3 repair kits, which came with pre-cut sticky padding, the right-size bits and in the case of the one I got, a heat gun. Personally, I should have gotten a voltage tester pen before starting on this project—it's one of those things I keep thinking would be nice every time I start on an electricity-pertinent project and forget. The biggest and most fascinating bugbear for PS3 repair is actually taking the darn thing apart and putting it back together again. This is because the motherboard is sandwiched between two metal plates screwed under a plastic chassis and top cover. What wasn't clear from any of the guides I read was that the plastic chassis actually requires more elbow grease than you think to pry apart. I was honestly afraid I would break the top cover the first few times I handled it.

Because PS3s were meant to be assembled by people in factories, each large body piece had signage to help tell people where each screw went. The only thing that was a pain in the nuts to unscrew was the security torx screw. I have a torx screw set which claimed to have the right size (I used it to open and clean our release-version PS4), but it wasn't a good fit. I wound up struggling for about an hour using various things and just managing with a flat head screwdriver. For reference, I bought the repair kit after I had opened up the shell, just to make sure stuff in there was still workable, i.e. not charred, fan not dead, no inexplicable insects. Revealing each layer was fun, I admit, just learning how this worked together. I carefully followed directions on what needed heating and changing. It took me about 5 hours because I was being careful and learning on the fly. 

Then came the "Will it turn on?" test. My first try got the red standby light on but although the eject button worked, I couldn't start the PS3 with the front power button. This told me maybe the button wasn't aligned right when I reassembled it. I actually had some trouble when I was putting that back in as I thought I was missing a couple of screws, so I probably moved stuff around too much. Taking off the the top plastic case was tedious, but I made sure stuff was screwed in right (the power button side was in fact loose) and just in case took out and returned the tiny ribbon attaching the controller for the eject/power button to the motherboard. Plugged it in and nothing happened. Nothing. No light at all. (This is the part I cursed not having a tester pen.) After accounting for different power outlets in my house randomly not working (it's an old Victorian and it's not unheard of), I figured, well, it had to be the controller board again. After double-checking some places online, I figured what happened was in the midst of all my fumbling, I accidentally broke that tiny ribbon connecting the motherboard to the controller. Which made me feel pretty dumb. To be fair though, it's a finger-length board connected to the MB by a fragile, shoelace-thick ribbon.

Our friend Erin also owned a fat PS3 that died and graciously gave it to us at one point, so my first idea was to open that, steal its ribbon and try it on ours. Note: Before opening PS3s, remember to compare the model numbers between them to make sure they're actually the same machine. I discovered that her old PS3 both did not have the controller board/fragile ribbon setup at all and that later iterations of fat PS3s just had more resilience built into them. I tested powering up her PS3 before I opened it. It looks like the controller for the eject/power buttons was built into the top cover in this iteration, removing the need for accidentally breakable ribbons between it and the bottom half of the PS3. It also lacked the four USB ports on the side (the sign that it wasn't backwards compatible with PS2 games), which in our version was really a little box on the inside attached to the top cover with yet another thin ribbon plugged into the MB. The USB ribbon is about as bad as the one on the controller. I couldn't lock in our USB port ribbon on the board because the clip for it was either broken or slightly too big. Previous techs at Sony who repaired our machine clearly knew this was a problem because that ribbon was taped to the bottom case when I opened up the lid. 

Mind you, it was late. I didn't stare too long at the inside of the spare PS3's upper case to see if the controller wasn't behind a panel I could just take apart. That's coming today, when I have fresh eyes. In the meantime, I ordered a replacement ribbon online which I hope actually ships. It's a store I have never come across before that apparently specialises in game machine parts, and ships from the US, or so it claims. But yes, this is fun...maybe eventually slightly expensive fun. We'll see though. Hopefully, the ribbon was all it was. If I fried the chipboard, I might have to see just how bad our PS2 slim handles our 4K television...a process I suspect will be grisly. We gave up trying to tag team Persona 2: Eternal Punishment on the PS3 because oh, lort was it pixelated. It won't be world-ending if I wind up with a screen that was just the resolution of 1998, but it will be annoying to tag-team. That, by the way, is the other huge reason I am trying to fix a console that's been dead maybe a decade. Outside of the amazing story in Eternal Poison, its punishingly hard tactical element and gothic art, tactical RPGs for TV consoles is one of my top favourite shared activities with the spouse. We have a joke, we only are able to finish games we tag team, because both of us grind to a halt for different reasons in long campaigns. (He hits a "sudden difficulty curve" wall or dungeon with all the annoying teleportation puzzles; I skipped the sudden difficulty curve because I ran around the parking lot fifty times and my party is ten levels too much against the current boss....but I was sick of actually playing the game because I ran around the parking lot fifty times.) Updates pending while I wait for the US Post.
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10,000 Dragons

This may be the most political story I ever write. It's not my usual line of work. The occasional political essay, sure, but not fiction. It's also sci-fi, which again is not my usual line of things. But there really wasn't any other way to frame this story except as SF. How else could I explore a truculent mainland China, with its island-building, designs on space exploration and electronic surveillance police state, except in the context of a future we are currently living? If you can imagine the things that science fiction has been warning us about for decades—facial recognition as a standard biometric marker and predictive policing, you can probably reconcile the fact that these very technologies are being used to shape the lives of real people right now. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me is the propaganda machine rather than the robotic one: "Once you lose trust, you will face restrictions everywhere." It's as if someone looked at the era of Communist posters and decided we need to return to the principles of benevolent Big Brother, so they made an app for it. (Download mandatory for party cadres.) This tendency is not ideologically restricted to Communism. The particular strain of authoritarian messaging in question is something I grew up with as well in an otherwise democratic country. My own government has long had a fondness for patriotic music videos, hard controls on the press and civil society, and media blitzes for the latest government initiatives. That turned out to be helpful in shaping how propaganda was infused into the daily lives of my characters.

Ultimately, the takeaway I have always hoped for from this is that individuality wins over state thought-control—but it's a hope I have come to doubt multiple times over.

An odd intersection about pain management in Chinese hospitals

 I still remember back in the 90s about at least one evening news segment that demonstrated the integration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China's Western medical practice which featured the famous shot of a heavily pregnant woman in childbed serenely pincushioned with acupuncture needles. This was meant to exemplify a way of giving birth naturally without the perceived harm of analgesics, apparently perfected by TCM practices. At the time, Malaysia was also seriously looking into developing its indigenous medical traditions, including TCM. Local Chinese medical halls and chains from mainland China had just started coming in with modernised methods of medicine preparation. Herbs were powdered and precisely served in capsule form, no laborious double-boiling required. Single-use aseptic acupuncture needles now guaranteed hygiene. TCM doctors were real doctors in white coats, sparkling practices and spoke science...along with humours. 

I'm going to start by saying that immune-boosting as a quality is an exceptionally subjective value. TCM runs off the idea that the whole body is an interconnected system, and so its treatment is designed to right any perceived imbalances. I've heard it couched as a form of preventative healthcare, less active than proactive. This is the direct opposite of using acupuncture in childbirth, which counts as an active intervention. So as a symbol of the miraculous powers of TCM, it's a pretty loud example. 

But childbirth and its resultant pain is possibly one of the most subjective things to measure. We now know with the proliferation of doulas, midwives and focus on "traditional/natural births" without any of the "unnatural" painkillers, additives and flavourings that a mother's level of comfort during the birthing process is a major contributor to pain. It makes sense. The leg spreaders at an OB/GYN are awkward. It's not a comfortable position for any living creature to have a pap smear in, never mind give birth, which is why there's advocacy for letting women move around, even sit up during labour. That still doesn't mean they won't need an epidural (and some studies do seem to show there's less tearing with painkillers involved because there's less strenuous pushing). It just means that childbirth sounds like exactly the sort of messy, personal experience that it is.

Full disclosure: I have zero interest in children. I'm sure it's a difficult job with no manual. I don't think I'm the right type of person for it for a variety of reasons. It's not what I'm looking for in life to grow as a person. So why am I fascinated with this topic where it intersects with women's personal agency? Because you can't talk about the full rights of women as citizens without taking into account their control over their own reproductive health. This very much includes whether they want to have children or not, when and how. Particularly, how we talk about and perceive women having children often hints at how our culture perceives women in general.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is rooted in a deeply patriarchal culture. Note that I didn't say "historical". The PRC recently stopped its punishing one-child policy, which at its worst included forced late-term abortions and outright human rights abuses that it has never fully acknowledged. They did this because the PRC, like Japan, is faced with a rapidly ageing population and not enough young people to help support it within the next few decades. The PRC's birth rate has effectively plummeted below the replacement rate. This has real effects on its ability to sustain economic growth. Coupled with sex-selective abortions, an unanticipated effect of its one-child policy and a society that favours sons, it also has a burgeoning gender imbalance problem. It's now pretty clear that a lot of young men won't be able to find partners. Idle men cause unrest, no matter how hard the PRC exports them to build roads in other countries en masse. More than anything else, improved economic and educational opportunities for its population is the best birth control as it is anywhere else. After a whole generation of single children have grown up and started families themselves, there's less interest in having more than one child. While it isn't a trend strictly for just the PRC, the PRC does have the unique situation where actual government policy actively tries to turn off then turn on when its population can breed. Unsurprisingly, the women whose lives this policy affects are unamused.

That's how I found this fascinating paper on a study of Cesarean sections in Shanghai, which looks at the surprisingly feminist reasons why mothers opted for C-sections even with education on the merits of vaginal birth. It turns out that up until recently, China had one of the highest C-section rates in the world. In a push to improve maternal and infant mortality, the country undertook a drive to medicalise births, i.e. move all childbirth into hospitals while de-certifying and eventually criminalising home births and traditional mid-wives, at the same time promoting vaginal births over C-sections at all costs. Giving birth in a hospital amidst specialists was considered safer, with more guarantee of the baby's health. During the one-child policy era, when women worked with the perception they had only one shot at delivering a "quality child" (that's the exact phrase in the study, which I find absolutely brilliant at describing the kind of ultra-competitive environment East Asian children are born into), that meant it was even more important for that one child to be born with guaranteed health. Remember: the PRC doesn't do things in half measures.

A strained and sprawling public health system was now pushed to deliver babies like a well-oiled machine. That's not unique to the PRC, but the implementation kind of is. It sounds like, based on the paper, the system understood vaginal births meant improved infant well-being, but lacking the manpower and medical resources (specifically, anesthesia), just decided to make do with childbirth pain. That's horrifying on many levels for any modern medical system. Nowhere in this paper were there any acupuncture needles, by the way. Instead, two patriarchal values were clearly in force: that childbearing pain is a necessary evil for all women (it can't be helped!), and women who complained were weak-willed (motherly martyrdom is a defining trait of the good mother).

The uncommonness of epidurals, or even knowledge that epidurals were possible, meant that women saw C-sections as the only obvious choice to receive pain relief during childbirth and analgesics post-partum. The study hospital had a birthing ward closed to family members, leaving women effectively alone on a bed. This is a system where, not only was vaginal birth coerced, but the doctors and nurses in charge were often openly unsympathetic and even critical of women who disagreed. Pregnancy and childbirth education wasn't even the prerogative of the OB/GYN, as optional public classes were held twice a week in the hospital.

All of this is terrible but enlightening reading. There's a lot more to unpack in there, including classist ideas of which women are more naturally equipped to withstand pain, a parallel to how women of colour in the US are (wrongly) perceived to handle pain better. Once you get to the part about how women who lived through the Cultural Revolution or from the provinces can all eat their share in bitterness and thus have less worthy pain than the wealthy and educated, it becomes incredibly surreal. 

Labyrinth of Refrain: Darker and deeper than we would have hoped

Every so often, along comes a game that captures our attention and lead us down a rabbit hole of unexpected wonder. The last time we felt that way was after finding Eternal Poison (Poison Pink in its original Japanese release), a punishingly hard turn-based strategy RPG with many interlocked replayable stories, each told from a different character's perspective, each going into increasingly dark places that added depth to the wider context and narrative. Eternal Poison was the sort of game that someone going in blind could easily find frustrating and the story confusing. It didn't outwardly encourage you to figure out the many different endings, or explain why the ending you first got seemed to be missing something. You had to find the missing part yourself, and whether you did or not hinged very strongly on how intrigued you were by the character-driven narrative. 

We actually found Labyrinth of Refrain by total accident, happening to see it on the day it came out on the PSN Store. Labyrinth of Refrain was made and released by Nippon Ichi Software, perhaps most well known for its Disgaea series. Seth and I are both long-time Disgaea fans—to absolutely no one's surprise, Disgaea is a punishingly grindy turn-based strategy RPG with deliberately over-dramatic and overly complex storylines set in interlocking visions of hell. It's over-the-top, colourful, campy and has a weird sense of humour. The big gimmick with Disgaea games, compared to other strategy RPGs in its genre, is that not only are the many classes of your different units fully customisable, everything (characters, weapons, armour, jewelry, consumable items) can be leveled up to some insane string of 9s, i.e. level 999, 9,999. So when NIS unexpectedly releases a Wizardry-style dungeon crawler in the art style of Disgaea, we were all about trying it. 

Labyrinth of Refrain's basic premise is that you play Dronya the Dusk Witch, who with her child apprentice Luca, are invited to the town of Refrain to explore the town's magical well, which appears to be a portal to other dimensions. You do this by sending a magical journal, the Tractus de Monstrum, along with a party of magic puppets, through each portal and exploring the connected dungeon realm. The journal records everything that happens during the journey and is sentient, containing the soul of you the main character. You create the puppets by inserting souls you discover into them, reanimating and repurposing the dead.

I'll start by saying LoR very clearly is NIS's attempt to be as different as possible from pretty much anything else. Most of these dungeon crawler games have very basic plots. The classes your party members can be are often recognisably D&D-like, spells and attacks run along the same five elements, slash/blunt damage and status attacks. They're not terribly interesting mechanics-wise, even when the game's premise is otherwise fascinating (our favourite staple, the Shin Megami Tensei series, comes to mind).

LoR immediately throws you under the bus at the first fight—and that fight was the tutorial! Apart from slash/blunt/pierce physical damage, the magic damage is split into Flame, Mud and Fog (fire, earth and air?). Status attacks have out-sized roles in this game, and are divided between Confuse, Startle, Stench, Poison and Abyss. Each weapon and attack basically has one or a combination of these damage types. It's not clear what most of these attacks do upfront. To be quite honest, even after Platinuming this game I'm not 100% sure what some of the damage types really do. Then there's your party members' classes, none of them with normal names. Six classes are available at the start of the game: Aster Knight (frontline/long-range dragoon), Peer Fortress (dual-katar wielding tank), Shinobushi (dual-sword wielding fighter), Mad Raptor (a crossbow ranged DPS), Marginal Maze (frontline/long-range lamp-using mage) and Theatrical Star (long-range bell-using 1001 Nights-style mage). Two additional classes are unlockable as the game progresses, Gothic Coppelia (hammer-wielding gothic lolita tank) and Demon Reaper (homicidal scythe-dancing girls).

I'll be the first to say that I appreciate any game that loves its exotic weapons. Scythes? Gothic Lolitas? Dual-katar and dual-swords? All for that. Just like the Disgaea games, you can reincarnate each party member to improve and increase their stat growth. Max level in LoR is 99. Reincarnation is very important to increase your party's longevity. In fact, it's impossible to access and do the post-game content without reincarnation. Apart from this, your party is divided into brigades called Pacts. Each party comprises one to four Pacts. Each Pact can hold between one to eight members, usually one to three active members and varying numbers of support members. Different types of Pacts are found through exploration. These may differ in what bonuses they grant to each member and confers different attacks/spells to use. In theory, you can make and deploy up to 40 puppets concurrently, but I stopped at 29.

Refrain starts off as your typical, kooky, Transylvania-esque town, complete with freakish inhabitants. There's the perpetually drunk shepherd, the blacksmith who is clearly a cross between Igor and Frankenstein and lusty one-eyed nun. At dusk, the townsfolk lock their doors and bar their windows against the undead who roam the night. Every morning, a Town Crier announces the names of people who died overnight, captured by the undead. Witches are persecuted by the superstitious locals, so Dronya and Luca mask their operations by pretending to be a troupe of travelling puppeteers. Throughout the game, the cutscenes segue into some of their puppet shows that all seem to tell a variation of two brothers enslaved by a terrible monster who try to escape. Their escapes always fail, their punishment always ending with one brother losing a leg and the other blinded. Dronya noticeably has wooden leg, so it's clear this story has something to do with her past.

The big conceit about Refrain is that it is really Purgatory. Its townsfolk are really the souls of sinners doomed to live forevermore. Those ghastly undead that roam the night? Being killed by them is explained as a mercy, the only way to escape the lives they aren't even aware they're living. An overarching theme in LoR that affects its characters personally is one's capacity to continue with the hand you're dealt, no matter how terrible or awful that hand is. Refrain's inhabitants, by simply being human, develop relationships with each other that they weren't able to when they were 'alive'. This balances their personalities and stops them from repeating the sins they can't remember they committed. There's even a whole dungeon based on the town when it goes to hell (literally), and the townsfolk you meet die off one by one. As each person dies, the personality of the companion they supported decays. You learn what sins they did to land them there, so that not even the most seemingly banal side character lacks a story to tell. All the stories are interconnected. Every person matters and comes into play.

Dronya herself personifies the "keep going" attitude. As you learn about her past, it's clear why she disdains others who simply give up when life sends them lemons—this is no shrinking violet. The main story's twists and turns start out necessarily slow (remember: the mechanics of this game are clear as mud, so the learning curve takes time), but doesn't stop once it heats up halfway through. It is very dark, very unforgiving, and it's clear the development team were fully allowed to experiment and take everything to their natural conclusion. It's what makes this game great. There are consequences for people's actions, but just like real life, following the good way doesn't necessarily mean you'll be rewarded. 

I'm the sort of person who believes in a one-pass play through—seriously, multiple replays of the same game to see different endings drive me nuts. LoR mocks those types of games openly. You will die in weird and really distressing ways, and each time, you will see the credits and ask your spouse what the hell just happened. That is part of the main story. Remember "keep going"? If you die and see the credits, open your Clear Data save. Keep going.

I wouldn't recommend this game for the young 'uns, by the way. The story has strongly mature themes, even without any graphically depicting actual sex or gore. The sense of humour is cheeky and black. While the first dungeon starts off as your typical slime-and-stone-corridor affair, the second dungeon puts you in a kind of Lilliput. When you first arrive, the resident gnomes pretty much announce that the "Kaiju are coming!" It soon becomes apparent you're not even the first kaiju to turn up, since among the cutesy snail-drawn cannoneers and hot air balloon bombing units you fight are previous kaiju encased in iron maidens prodded on by attendant gnome handlers. Switches, the bane of all dungeon crawlers, are essentially stone blocks with a gnome chained to them. You open doors by pushing in the stone blocks, in the process leaving behind a tell-tale splat of blood where the gnome was.

Just when you think you've got this, you wind up in a dungeon that is basically a bordello decorated with cat girls in shadowed relief, some in cages, there's an NPC all chained up who will reward you in loving caresses, distressingly plucked fowl carrying whips and succubi as viewed from the tail end peering evilly back at you. To put it lightly, monster designs range from the disturbingly lovely to proof that the dev team were in fact given all the freedom to do what they want. Meat statues? Scorpion-tailed squirrel "neck biters"? A gigantic head of a lovely maiden in watercolour spewing out a slimy slug-like creature from her mouth? If they could think it up, it's in there.

The art is good though, even when it's distressing. Backgrounds are pretty but not mind-blowing. Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers don't generally have the best background art (it is a giant tunnel, after all), but the different worlds in LoR are varied and the change of scenery is attractive enough to be noticeable yet not distracting. The reason I'm mentioning this is because those same backgrounds will consume at least 60 hours of your time, and then repeat (albeit on different maps) if you're into the 20+ hour post-game content to see the true ending. If you will forgive this pun, tunnel vision is the least of your worries.

How hard is this game? Punishing but fair. You'll know why your party wiped each time. Your gear is upgradeable by mashing it with other gear (preferably of the same type) and reincarnating so you get higher soul clarity (the multiplier for how much your stats grow per level) is worth it. Use every tool at your disposal and don't be afraid to experiment with different Pacts until you find a play style that fits. Status effects, as I said earlier, are a major game changer and everyone including the penultimate optional boss is susceptible to them. Equip those attacks as much as possible. 

I would recommend this game to people who like great, gloomy stories, character-driven narratives. If you don't mind that the world isn't saved every time, like fantasy settings in general and believe characters should grow rather than be rewarded, this is worth the try. The voice acting in English and Japanese for Dronya is great, but I couldn't tolerate the English voices for either Luca or Neldo. English voice is good to try in scenes with Marietta in it, whose French trollop accent adds something the Japanese voice acting lacks. If you are prepared to sink the time and see the true ending, brace yourself for some hard grinding. That said, the main game does a noteworthy job of scaling difficulty in tandem with the story, so you won't feel like you need to run around the parking lot to level up between fights. Nor will you feel like you've lost out even if you just complete the main story—it's a tale well told and ends satisfactorily. 

For me, personally, I hope NIS makes more of this series. If this is what happens when the devs are set free, I'm happy to see what they do next.

So this is grief.

It feels a lot longer than slightly over two weeks since Sif left us. My brain tells me it has been about a month, my calendar says otherwise. I still look around expecting a fluffy cat with the best tummy waiting to be rubbed just behind me. Since I hardly ever leave the house, most of the last bunch of times I've left, I've wound up strongly associating with the times I left the house right before Sif died, which is to say, all the trips to the vet, including the very final one. Even if all I'm doing is going out to grab some milk, I'll cross a street and feel really, really sad. I finally stopped breaking down into tears at random times last week, I think. I knew this process would be sad, it's just always surprising how much.

Dorian has been a sympathetic only cat. In spite of his protestations at being treated like a teddy bear, inclement weather has meant most of the last two weeks were spent roasting me in my skin on the couch. We've only just sort of agreed I don't have to be fully robed and arm warmer-ed and blanketed (although this is the ideal). And although I try to keep this to a minimum, occasionally getting up for some water is probably okay. He continues to be disappointed that our opposable thumbs cannot turn off the rain and cause environmental warming on demand. I wished he would sprawl out in a ridiculous fashion a bit more so I have a belly to rub -- he's more of a curly cat. 

I swear what I'd really rather be talking about is my obsession with Atelier games and how much I love crafting in MMOs, specifically how much I love crafting in Final Fantasy XIV. Or how crafting in Atelier games cause me to not craft in FFXIV. Look, one of them is on the PS4, which enables me to enjoy my ridiculously warm couch cat, while the other needs me to be at my desk, which may allow me to have Decorative Dorian beside me gnawing my hand while I'm about to start some hilariously complex raid with a whole bunch of other casual learners, sometimes. Decorative Dorian also has a habit of getting pissed I'm not on a couch, so papers go flying from the desk while I'm trying to dodge floor lasers, ensure the healers have enough mana and make sure I'm in the right position for the upcoming pushback mechanic. Cats qualify as one of the most common reasons for death in dungeons. Sif hated me being in dungeons almost as much as Dorian. Her keening wails serenaded many a thing I attempted. "Hey, this is your two-hours-early reminder I'm hungry!" "You're up late and Seth is in bed!" "I will photosynthesise your stress by yelling at you!" Yeah, I miss that. 

The Day the Empty Carrier Came Home

Listen with pain. On my birthday, we discovered that Sif had lung cancer. It looked like it had metastasized from her belly. The doctors told us that we would decide when to let her go. 

The photo above was the very first picture I ever took of Sif nine years ago. She was a loving cat, who only wanted to be loved in return. She was also a difficult cat. When Seth adopted her, just a few months before we started dating, she had already been returned to the SPCA twice. Although we never found out exactly why she was returned, it was quickly apparent she was a very anxious cat. She hated being left alone --an unavoidable situation if as Seth did, you worked long hours away from home. Sif knew the moment Seth walked up to the front door of his building. She would cry at the apartment's door until he was inside. The plaintive crying only stopped after I fully moved in. One of the real benefits of working from home for me was the ability to walk away from my desk just to kiss a kitten behind her little petal ears. I am biased to think her presence was more calming to me than I ever was to her, but the warm, loving household we created together was a good thing in the lives of her two very damaged people. She had the best belly of any creature in all of existence. We spent many long hours with glazed expressions on our faces just rolling around soft surfaces while I rubbed her belly.

The world I'm living in now is the world the fluffy cat left behind. Sif died on Halloween. For the last two weeks of her life, we watched as she steadily got thinner and more frail. She stopped grooming completely. We did what we could with wet wipes, but her paws were blackened and ragged. The day she left us, she was having trouble breathing. She wasn't able to eat. She could no longer mew -- her chest was too tight. I remember that she slowly followed me around the back of the house. When I realised she wanted to be near me, I saw down against her to read, what was one of, and still is, the greatest pleasures in my life.

Because of that, I had some vague hope the trip to the hospital would be okay. She was in bad shape, but maybe she would still leave quietly in the night. Instead, she went immediately into ER. The doctor came in ten minutes later to tell us her quality of life would not improve. It was time. Seth and I spent the last hour of her life sobbing uncontrollably, while our confused and upset cat kept trying to leave our arms and hide under a sofa. I stayed with her till the end. It would have been unimaginably cruel to not be there for her. To be honest, I expected the sedation would happen slowly. That I would watch her go over the course of a few minutes. The two injections she got actually worked immediately. One minute she was there, the other she was gone. 

I remember the last time she purred. It was Tuesday morning, and she was hungry, so I would add a dab of food to her bowl, and she would purr to let me know I was doing the right thing. I remember the last time I rubbed her belly, on Tuesday night. She had flopped down in front of the telly to nap, as she liked to do, so I wandered over to skritch her tummy. She had a little kitten smile on her face while she slept. I still feel terrible we had to wake her up to give her meds. I should have let her sleep.

I remember the last time she visited me in the study to scold me for working late. That was Wednesday night. I couldn't sleep, and work was something I did when there was something left at my desk. When she comes to squeak at me, I usually pick her up so I can hug her on my lap and listen to her purr. Because she would have trouble breathing, we could no longer pick her up. But she was there, she wanted me to know.

Sif was one of the first people to make me feel loved and wanted when I didn't think I possibly could be loved or wanted. There is a fluffy, triangle-shaped hole missing in my life. I look up from my screen and see that fluffy triangle looking up at me, expecting kibble for supper, her most important meal of the day.

A few years ago, I bought an S-roller for the cats to play with. It's a set of interconnected tubes with a ball cats can reach in and chase. Dorian played with it for about a minute. Sif was unimpressed. In the spring, I noticed this toy under our dining table gathering dust and took it apart to wash. When I put it back together, I managed to snap it into a question mark shape and being too lazy to take it apart again, I added some treats and hoped a cat would find it. The next morning, the treats were gone and Sif was napping in the centre of the question mark -- now officially her personal ergonomic palanquin. When she felt too sick to move, we would find her there, and now her question mark still sits in a corner of our living room. It's her spot, it's not going anywhere. If I were to be cliched, it's like a question hanging in the air. In reality, it's more a string of regrets -- hours where I was too busy working to nap with her when she wanted, or stuck in complex and frustrating raids while she cried at me to stop and not stress out. She was a good, loving cat. I wished I was better to her.
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