Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tomb Raider and TTC


These past few weeks I’ve been obsessed with Endurance mode on Rise of the Tomb Raider. As other reviewers have pointed out, Endurance is much more what we expect from the series: Lara Croft surviving against ridiculous odds as she fearlessly explores and plunders ancient structures. It’s challenging, nerve-wracking, and has led to marital shouting matches in our household while Junior pretends to play the game with "his" (Wii)  controller. In short, it’s a fun family DLC!

***But actually: Endurance has moments of blood and violence. Parents can avoid exposing their small children to scenes of Lara brutally knifing men in the neck by sniping distant targets and explaining that they’re napping, or resting, or whatever lies work on your offspring, I don’t know.

In Endurance, Lara is in the Siberian wilderness to claim the prizes hidden in crypts before members of the evil organization™ Trinity can. She has limited supplies and two pressing needs: hunger and warmth, represented by meters. If she starves or freezes, it’s game over. She can stave off hunger by eating berries from small bushes, hunting game (birds, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and hogs), raiding Trinity base camps, or launching a first strike against bears, lynxes, leopards, or wolves. For warmth, she can build a fire, huddle near an enemy barrel fire, or carry a lantern around. Gathering wood, paper, bolts, oil, poison mushrooms, and ore is mission critical because they help upgrade gear and weapons.

But during all this I wondered: why does Lara need so much food? Why, just last night, I stepped out of a crypt, starving, to find two bear carcasses just waiting to be skinned and processed into jerky. But five minutes later – a mere half day in game time – she’d polished off over 30% of all that meat! What gives?

And then it hit me: Lara is pregnant! Of course! She’s eating for two!

Which brings me to the real point of this blog post: hubby and I have been trying for baby number two for almost a year. This is called TTC (Trying To Conceive). Lara's pregnancy (that I made up) is especially obnoxious because she has succeeded (she hasn't) where we have not (sad!).

But my own expectations play a part in the bitterness of my disappointment. You see, we conceived Junior one month after I went off birth control. So last year, when I felt ready for another little one, I figured all I needed was a free app that’ll predict my next period and therefore inform when we should “have relations,” and boom! instant second baby.

Fast forward 11 months later and with higher stress levels, but no bun in the oven. What happened? Did my uterus shrivel up and die after the November election? Did hubby’s testes go on strike due to his overexposure to politics news? Who knows? I asked my OB a couple of months ago if I should come in to see her and she said to schedule a visit after I turn 35 (which is soon!).

So in the meantime, I decided to get proper technological support for TTC. I deleted my ghetto app with all the annoying popup ads (Med Cycles, if you must know) and downloaded three highly-rated ones: Flo, Clue, and Ovia. Hubby thought I was taking the average of all the apps, but really I got one per failed cycle. After Flo let me down I got Clue, and when that resulted in a nothing burger I got Ovia.

Anyway, this is the data set I've been feeding my apps:

  • All period dates from the past 100 years 
  • Basal body temperature (BBT) 
  • Ovulation prediction kit (OPK) test results 
  • Cervical mucus (CM) (delightful!) 
  • Cramps or other pain

This is all helpful because, for instance, I was concerned that I wasn’t even ovulating (anovulation). In February-March I kept testing negative, right up to when I was supposed to get my next period. But I'd gotten the flu during that time, which probably messed everything up. I can't be sure, because after I missed my period I stopped using the kits, thinking I was preggers. NOPE.

So it was such a relief this month to see the smiley face on my ClearBlue digital OPK and the dark line on my generic CVS strip:

LH surge detected!!! It's go time!!!

So at least one egg still came out to play. Whew. And it's so important to know when that little lady is about to make her journey because there's a limited window wherein swimmers can pounce. An egg pops out 24-36 hours after the LH surge is detected, but it only hangs around for 12-24 hours after that (per American Pregnancy).

It takes two to tango, you remind me. Indeed! I assure you that my chosen mate is young (men become less fertile around their fifties and sixties), doesn't smoke/do drugs/drink like me a fish, and hasn't had caffeine in months. However, he is under a lot of stress at work...

In other words, I'm not 100% sure which one of us to yell at.

Meanwhile, Junior's contribution to the process consists of waking up too early in a spirited attempt to disrupt correct BBT measurements, as well as generally making sure his parents get stressed out at least once a day, e.g. by sticking his fingers on the chopping board while mommy is slicing up fruits.

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BONUS SECTION: App mini-reviews

Clue was included in a study of 50+ ovulation apps and was found to be one of only four apps to be accurate. I like its simplicity, clean UI, and ability to choose which data sets to track. It also does not care about feelings. Love it.

Flo is the prettiest, with an intuitive UI and helpful articles that pop up depending on data entered. But it's been wildly inaccurate. For instance, during this cycle, it predicted ovulation on cycle day 10 -- and my cycles are typically 29-36 days. It recalculated after I entered a positive ovulation test on cycle day 22, so it's not completely hopeless. Syncs to Fitbit/other health trackers.

Ovia is probably the best in terms of sheer data power. It asks for as much information as possible, e.g. BBT, weight, blood pressure, mood, CM, OPK tests, pregnancy tests, etc. It calculates a "fertility score" based on data entered. It also syncs to health trackers, because at this point, third-party developers can consume my data, why not.

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So did it work? you ask. Thank you for asking, dearest reader. No, not yet. My unmistakeable PMS symptoms have tormented me these past few days, and I await the arrival of Aunt Flow (AF). I take solace in the fact that the start of my newest cycle is yet another data point I can feed my apps to enhance their accuracy.

So, like Lara Croft, hubby and I are in our own Endurance mode. We must navigate the wilderness (my uterus), hoard supplies (vitamins), and kill any bad guys encountered (caffeine, alcohol, stress, etc.). May the odds be ever in our favor.

This concludes my strained analogies and mixed pop culture references, as well as this TMI blog post.

YOLO!!!

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This post brought to you by spring's alternating rain showers and sunshine!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Junior: Mid-Year Report

Several noteworthy developments have emerged since I submitted my last report. A summary is below.

Section I: Skills 
Junior has demonstrated remarkable growth in the following skills:

1. Cycling
Junior can pedal his tricycle along flat surfaces, with only a slight tendency to inadvertently go backwards. He dutifully wears his helmet, and likes to point to older children riding their bicycles. We are currently working on maneuvering and expect to continue training at this level for at least another year or two.

2. Climbing
Junior is an excellent climber of household furniture. His first foray into indoor rock climbing resulted in many cute photos, including the one above. However, he was not a fan of all the safety gear.
For the time being, he is honing his skill via playground jungle gym. The ultimate goal, of course, is to graduate to climbing trees like a monkey, a la his father:

3. Playing
Junior is now capable of surprisingly sophisticated social interactions with his peers. For example, here is an exchange at the sandbox the other day:

Junior: Do you want to play?
Older boy: Yes.
Junior: Come in!
Older boy: My name’s Fandango (name changed to protect identity). What’s your name?
Junior: I’m Junior (name changed to protect identity).  

Negotiations followed. Ownership is fluid in the sandbox; all toys are up for grabs. Junior successfully retained his excavator after offering his dump truck for Fandango to play with.

On the topic of negotiating, Junior has learned the phrase “One minute!” which he uses to plead for extended screen time. It’s…actually pretty impressive. Nevertheless, mommy is taking the iPad away.

Section II: Behaviors 
The improvement in Junior’s physical and social prowess has been matched by his cerebral development. The behaviors listed below show his mental leaps:

4. Affection 
Junior is expressive toward loved ones, saying, “I missed you!” and “How was your day?” to his father in the evenings. He adores his cousins and insists on being carried by any and all relatives. The best part is his latest proposition: “You want open-mouth kiss?”

 He really is very sweet; one day I told him I had a headache, and he replied that he wanted to massage me, which he did, very gently. Junior is Best Boy.

He has also finally begun to play with his dozens of stuffed animals after two and a half years of ignoring them. A particular lifesaver has been Elmo, who keeps him company in the mornings when he wakes up at 5am. At 6am, Junior will excitedly rush into our room to report: “Elmo has two hands!” Yes, he does, bless him.

5. Self-assertion
Now that he is on the cusp of becoming a threenager, Junior is determined to impose his will whenever he can. Often this is easy to accommodate, since all he really wants to do is play and eat. Sometimes it can lead to hilarious fashion choices, as below:
However, when pushed to his limit he will not hesitate to produce a shudder-inducing high-pitched shriek of thwarted desire, followed by a lower volume yet still highly annoying whine, which he can maintain for a long period of time. Yes, sometimes Junior is that kid at the grocery store, howling to be wheeled back to the toy aisle.

6. Conceptual Understanding 
Junior can understand and, crucially, remember interesting tidbits, such as the fact that daddy is building an aerostat, which is a thing that flies. He has mastered the concepts of big and small, and has predicted that he will be taller than his father. He also recognizes beauty (“Look at the pretty sunrise!” and “Ang ganda ng bulaklak!”)

Most importantly, he can use his big brain to follow directions, meaning he is now able to make minor contributions to household upkeep – e.g. by throwing small items into the trash, or putting away his coat and shoes. He does recognize when a room is messy (“Ang kalat-kalat!”), unless it’s his own room, for some reason. In any case, his powerful mind lets him operate at a different level than other toddlers. This is objective fact and in no way a severely biased statement from a bragging mother.

As a final note, I must inform the Board that potty training has only been partially successful. Junior can pee in the potty, and has even asked to do so a few times. But he persists in pooping while under a table, and then reporting that his diaper needs changing when the smell finally overpowers him.

While three is a typical age for successful potty training, the morg (maternal organism) has been under social pressure from Manila HQ for some time now (“He’s not potty trained yet? Why, I trained you to use the toilet as an infant!”). Meanwhile, the porg (paternal organism) is satisfied with progress to date. We leave it to the Board to cast the deciding vote.

As always, thank you for your support for Junior, and I look forward to apprising you of his new developments very soon.

Sincerely,
Fragrant Elephant
Maternal Organism

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Game Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider (PS4)

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a solid sequel to 2013's Tomb Raider reboot. This time, Lara Croft is pursuing her father's research, which had led to his downfall and death. Most of the action takes place in Russia, with a brief interlude in Syria. Mechanics from the first game have been improved, locations are diverse, and Lara now starts out as a badass. Overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a terrific action/adventure platformer that has me looking forward to the next installment.

Ways Rise of the Tomb Raider Rocks
The game has plenty of strengths: a compelling lead, lots of exploration, fun puzzles, gorgeous visuals, and a thrilling soundtrack. As always, Lara is a star: she's a force of nature, laser focused on her goal; and neither words nor bullets will deter her. It's a joy to have her perform improbable physical feats as she seeks the Divine Source that her father obsessed over. Lara scales sheer walls of ice, mows through mercenaries with only a bow and arrows, and survives falls that would kill anyone else. She also helpfully tells players what the next move should be when faced with a puzzle, e.g. "Looks like that lever will control the flow of water." The Survival Instinct mechanic, similar to Eagle Vision in the Assassin's Creed series, is key to spotting clues, relics, documents, climbable surfaces, and other environmental features that will help Lara move forward.

In terms of visuals, while Uncharted 4 retains its "Prettiest Game" tiara (my review here), Rise of the Tomb Raider offers stunning vistas and excellent animations, particularly the wildlife. Facial expressions during cut scenes are also outstanding. Night and day look fantastic, and Lara's glow stick does a great job illuminating dark places.

The music is also great, with tracks for every occasion: a grand yet somewhat melancholy main theme, a "ta-daa" effect when Lara solves a puzzle, driving percussion for enemy encounters, etc. The voice work is impeccable. In fact, Lara sounded so different from the first game that I thought they changed the voice actress, but no, it was still Camilla Luddington, pitching her voice lower and adding rawness to Lara's lines, appropriate for the traumatic events Lara underwent in her last outing. The villains Konstantin and Ana are menacing, Jonah is as huggable as ever, and Jacob's and Sofia's voice actors are stone foxes, I tell you. Also their voices are good.

Meanwhile, the AI does a bang-up job of making the game challenging. When alerted, bad guys coordinate their attacks, with gunners laying covering fire as brawlers try to flank Lara. Mercs armed with flame guns will never turn their back on you, necessitating frantic rolling maneuvers to get behind them and blast their fuel tanks. As for animals, non-predatory ones are vigilant and snap to attention as Lara approaches, fleeing before she gets too close. Predators are quick to charge, and some even sneak up on you. The AI adds a level of realism that compensates for Lara's near-magical jumping abilities, I think.

Exploration is where the game really shines. Observant players are rewarded with faded brown explorer satchels leading to hidden survival caches, hilariously conveniently placed treasure boxes, and all sorts of items for crafting: wood, nests, ores, oil, etc. There's a happy marriage of fantasy RPG elements and platforming, where discovering artifacts or documents scattered throughout the settings leads to experience, which become skill points, which in turn can net new abilities for Lara (e.g. faster healing). Deciphering ancient documents or Soviet-era murals improves Lara's language skills, which help with finding hidden coin caches to buy extra swag like gun silencers. At base camps, Lara can craft ammunition, upgrade weapons, learn new skills, or fast travel to a previous camp. This latter option is perfect for when you get new gear that lets Lara access new areas in past locations.

Crucially, game controls are perfect. There is never a danger of missing a platform (unlike in Final Fantasy XV's Pitioss Dungeon); Lara is programmed to land on or reach for the next climbing surface. Firing weapons is intuitive (aim with L2, fire with R2), though I did have some issues with the special ammunition at first (aim with L2, fire with R1). So confusing! But this is probably because I am an old lady. Get off my lawn.

However...
Alas, Rise of the Tomb Raider suffers from skimpy writing and character development. Unlike in the last game, when Lara struggles with her transformation into an effective killer, there's barely any growth this time around. I spent most of the game unimpressed with Lara's fixation on the Divine Source. While "My dad died for this!" is an acceptable and well-worn motivation, it rang hollow without more background on Lord Croft's efforts. If you haven't started a new game yet, I recommend doing the "Blood Ties" mission first, accessible via the Croft Manor option in the main menu. This introduces players to the exploration and puzzle-solving that are the crux of the game, and also presents a lot of context for Lara's motivations.

Since I only played "Blood Ties" after I finished the main game, Lara's quest seemed pretty selfish at first, especially since there were friendly people around asking her to give it up. The only time I felt a sense of urgency was when Jonah got kidnapped. Then I was totally on board the Lara Exploration Train, which had screeched to a halt and then jumped on the tracks marked "Rescue My Pal."

In Conclusion
Other than that, the game is bomb. I love the NPCs and the new allies system, where Lara could agree to ally requests geared toward the overarching goal of defending their homes. I especially appreciated Sofia, who is initially hostile but eventually becomes a staunch supporter. The main villains are shown to have strong desires and inner conflicts, just like the hero.

My attachment to the NPCs made me realize a major difference between the Tomb Raider series and Assassin's Creed: Lara Croft (and her progeny, Nathan Drake of Uncharted) is frequently alone in her adventures, whereas the various Assassins move through crowds of people and interact frequently with NPCs. This is why the new allies mechanic was so nice; it made the game feel less lonely and balanced out Lara's very personal quest, making her part of a bigger picture.

In the end, of course, Lara gets her hands on the Divine Source but destroys it, and players are rewarded with a wonderfully fierce ending theme, "I Shall Rise" by Karen O. At the very end is an easter egg: a scene showing Lara being targeted by powerful foes, capable of ending her at any time they choose. Oooooo~!

TL;DR: A fantastic sequel! Highly recommended!

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This post brought to you by Sarah Waters' Fingersmith!

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)