Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

The Girl with all the Gifts by M R Carey

I’m always rather thrilled when something rather geeky breaks into the mainstream. Sure, some people hate it, feeling their beloved hobby is under assault, but I like the genres I love being exposed to a wider audience. The Girl with all the Gifts is a zombie novel which has done very well as ‘literature’. As with all the best zombie stories, it’s not really about zombies, exploring the age old theme of what it means to be human in new and exciting ways.

Every morning, the young girl Melanie is strapped to a gurney and a muzzle is placed over her mouth. She is wheeled into a classroom where she is taught about the world that came before the world was overrun by the ‘hungries.’ Her favourite teacher is Ms Justineau but her least favourite person is Sergeant Parks, who seems to have an irrational hate of her. At the head of this camp not far north of London is Doctor Caldwell, who seeks above all else to solve the mystery of the fungus which has turned almost all of humanity into monsters.

I don’t want to give away much, but I will say that The Girl with all the Gifts does some really interesting things with the zombie concept. The opening parts of the book are probably the strongest simply by how strange and unique feeling they are. As things go on, they get a little bit closer to the standard post-apocalyptic zombie tropes but that’s not to say those parts aren’t entertaining. Even when it does begin to more closely resemble classic zombie stories it’s a very good zombie story. Also, it’s set around Hertfordshire which is where I’m from, so that’s an utterly un-objective point in its favour for me.

I haven’t encountered Carey before, but I’ll be looking out for him in the future. His writing is unflashy but effective, with the moments of tension and fear necessary to a good zombie story being truly painful. He does a really good job of jumping in and out of other characters heads, with the individual natures of each character coming through very nicely in their narration.

Melanie is a heartbreaking and lovable protagonist, with a genius IQ and a dawning awareness of what she is. Her hero worship/crush on Ms Justineau is really touching, with their relationship forming the emotional core of the story. Justineau herself could have been a bland paragon figure, but she ends up as a rounded character with her own flaws and quirks independent of her relationship with Melanie. Sergeant Parks could have been a generically antagonising figure, but he emerges fully formed and sympathetic, a pragmatic man who has built his rigid world view as a self defence mechanism. Yes, the main cast do fall into archetypes, but Carey uses these to undermine your expectations in interesting ways.

The Girl with all the Gifts doesn’t quite top World War Z as my favourite zombie book, but it comes a close second. Actually, it’s not a fair comparison, because despite being about zombies they’re not trying to achieve the same thing at all. The Girl with all the Gifts is a moving, if fairly lightweight book and one I’d recommend to anyone, genre fans or not.17235026

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Escape Plan for PS4 and PS Vita

I imagine that it’s more than a little frustrating for loyal PS Vita owners to see a large number of the console exclusives re-released for the PS4. As a non-Vita owner however, I’m very happy. Escape Plan is a fun little game, but one than never feels like it realises its full potential.

The protagonists of Escape Plan, Lil and Laarg, have been captured by the evil Bakuki. They must make their escape. Err, that’s it. As I said recently in my Teslagrad review, I do like it when simple games like this give context to your actions without over focusing on plot. Escape Plan does this well, and Lil and Laarg are charming enough for there to be some investment in their fate.

Escape Plan is a puzzle game, made up of several dozen levels. The objective is to get the character in the level, or both, to the exit without dying in a comically gruesome manner. The characters are started and stopped then set off on their way, Lemmings style, while the player moves a curser around the screen tapping items away or pulling them out to get Lil or Laarg to the exit. This starts out pretty simple, such as just tapping tripping hazards out of the way or pulling out platforms over chasms, but it gets more complex as it goes on, with dangers such as electrical circuits or foes with blowguns that must be blocked. The levels involving both are interesting, with Lil having the ability to drink coffee and activate a mini-speed boost and Laarg being able to smash through obstacles or pound the floor. It’s fun, but never particularly challenging or as complex as I was expecting it to. Just as I thought Escape Plan was going to open up with some larger and more challenging levels, the game ends. That’s not to say what was there wasn’t fun, but it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. The controls are a little fiddly too; it’s very clear this is a game designed for a touch screen, and although the PS4 trackpad does a decent job of substituting for it, I imagine the Vita original would still be the definitive version.

Where it slightly lacks in substance Escape Plan makes up for in style. The game is black and white, with Lil and Laarg bursting with personality despite the limited story. The soundtrack was my favourite part though, with a laid back jazzy feel to much of the original music. My favourite element was the use of popular classical pieces during certain levels, which made them feel a bit more exciting.

Escape Plan is a lightweight game which could have been more than it is, but that doesn’t mean that what is there is bad. I’m probably biased because I got it for ‘free’ with PS+, but I enjoyed Escape Plan.download

Teslagrad for Wii U, PC, OS X and Linux

Well, I’m still waiting for Dragon Age: Inquisition and I’ve finished with Bayonetta 2, so that can only mean one thing. Indie platformer time!

Teslagrad takes place in a faintly Russian influenced world, playing as an orphaned child who flees from the men of the corrupt King into a mysterious tower. As he travels up the tower, the boy begins to gain hints about what happened to sow the seeds of conflict in this land. Although story fades into the background, I feel that this is the best way to tell story in a platformer. Rather than abandoning story entirely as many platformers do, Teslagrad is content to let it be suggested in the background, never smothering the gameplay but giving what you do a sense of context.

The main gimmick of Teslagrad is magnetics. While the basic mechanics are standard platformer fare, the protagonist can give certain objects a positive or negative charge. Two objects with a positive charge repel each other and two with opposite charges attract each other. This is used to solve a variety of puzzles in some genuinely interesting ways. You eventually gain the ability to magnetise yourself with a positive or negative charge, allowing yourself to be pulled or launched by different objects. These can all get pleasingly fiddly and balancing all of this can be quite challenging. Sadly the platforming itself isn’t particularly satisfying, I’m not really sure why, but the clever puzzling makes up for it. My biggest problems were with the boss fights; you are killed with one hit and a lot of these fights are very frustrating. I have an abiding hatred for trial and error gameplay, but the boss fights felt like that to me. There was one rather good exception involving launching magnetic attacks back at the enemy but I tended to dread these encounters rather than look forward to them.
Teslagrad has a simple, clean art style. It’s not particularly flashy, but it was nice to see something eschewing the pixelated art style so popular in this genre. Not to criticise that look, but I’m seeing it a lot lately, so something with nice, old fashioned art is good.

The Wii U has a nice little catalogue of indies now, with Teslagrad being another feather in its cap. It’s not as memorable as the Braid or Fez’s of the world, but it has some cool ideas and is a lot of fun.TeslagradSquarePoster_Logov002

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux

I play a lot of games, but in many ways I’m not really a ‘hardcore’ gamer. Putting aside the fact that gamer is a ridiculous way to identify yourself, I do find myself largely enjoying games for the story and don’t mind easier difficulty if it means I can experience all of a game’s content. Therefore, the ‘roguelike’ genre isn’t one I really deal well with and any game with permadeath is guaranteed to piss me off. The Binding of Isaac is the first roguelike game I’ve been able to enjoy, which for me is a big deal.

To call the premise of The Binding of Isaac dark is an understatement. Isaac is a young boy who lives happily alone with his mother. One day, Isaac’s evangelical mother begins to hear voices from God telling her that her son is corrupt and so must be punished. This escalates until she eventually moves to sacrifice his life to God, before a panicked Isaac escapes through a trap door in the floor of his room to a series of mysterious dungeons where the game takes place.

So, yeah, pretty horrible. The game is replete with Biblical references and imagery, not least in the title itself which refers to the story of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son, also named Isaac. When videogames normally tackle ‘dark’ themes this often means misguidedly ‘edgy’ scenes such as GTA Vs torture scenes or Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre. The Binding of Isaac is dark in a more insidious and effective way and this horror weaves itself very well into the gameplay.

The Binding of Isaac is essentially a journey through a handful of short Zelda-esque dungeons, each ending with a boss, before confronting the Mother at the end. When you die you start again from the beginning. The dungeons are always randomly generated but end up feeling well constructed, lacking that looseness that can often creep into procedurally generated games. The combat is all done through Isaac’s tears (yeesh), which are shot out to tackle the enemies. The boss fights are fun and frantic and the whole thing is very satisfying to play. The best element of the gameplay is to be found in the upgrades that Isaac can gain to help him fight, with The Binding of Isaac having no problem letting you end up ridiculously overpowered if you stumble across the right upgrade. Some are fairly standard health/damage/speed upgrades, but some a more interesting, such as a foetus connected to Isaac by an umbilical cord which will spread out and attack enemies. Each run genuinely feels really different and fresh and you’d be unlikely to come across the same combination of upgrades twice. For a game with such a nasty subject matter, The Binding of Isaac is a really fun and satisfying experience.

The graphical style has been changed from the original to a 16bit influenced style, which looks great to me, but then again I never knew the original. The whole design is unpleasant from the ground up (in a good way), with some really horrible looking creatures and environments. My absolute favourite element of the presentation is to be found in Isaac himself. He starts every run as small and naked, but each upgrade changes his appearance and by the end Isaac appears transformed into a monster as each upgrade stacks on top of the other. It’s surprisingly affecting seeing Isaac forced by necessity to turn from something so innocent to so horrifying and brutal.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is definitely my favourite roguelike game I’ve ever played, although that isn’t really saying much. It’s a fascinating game and one I can see myself sinking a worrying amount of time into in the future.header

Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack One for Wii U

Ok, hyperbole time. This is the best value DLC ever released. Let’s do some maths. New, Mario Kart 8 cost about £40. There are 32 tracks in the game. Since the tracks are the main draw, let’s call that about £10 for 8 tracks. This DLC and the next (which will be released sometime in the spring next year) can be bought together for £11. There are 8 tracks in each DLC so 16 tracks overall. A reasonable amount to charge would be about £20, since these DLCs contain about half again the content of the full game. Instead, we get both for a little over half that. Maths alone is reason enough to buy it.

This DLC pack adds two new cups, the Egg Cup and the Triforce Cup, all of which are replete with the usual stuff like the different CC speeds and Mirror Mode. The eight new tracks include three classic levels; the original SNES Rainbow Road, Yoshi Circuit from Mario Kart DS and Wario’s Gold Mine from Mario Kart Wii. These are all good tracks and it’s nice to have them back. There are also two entirely new courses; Ice Ice Outpost is a fun level of two intertwining tracks and Dragon Driftway is a slightly nauseating level which mostly takes place in anti-gravity. The real highlights are, of course, the tracks based on other Nintendo titles. Excitebike Arena is a surprisingly fun level, made up simply of a loop and jumps, which has the novel gimmick of being randomly generated every time you play. It’s the closest Mario Kart 8 gets to my beloved Baby Park from Double Dash. Mute City is an F-Zero themed level which is simple but fun, although it does just whet the appetite for an actual F-Zero game. The highlight and biggest draw of the pack is Hyrule Circuit, a Zelda themed level which sees you cross a part of Hyrule Field before entering Hyrule Castle. There are some great Zelda details, such as the mini-puzzle which sees you knocking three crystals which opens a shortcut, complete with the classic Zelda puzzle solving jingle. On top of these levels are three new characters, Link, Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach and a few new vehicles, such as the Blue Falcon and a Zelda themed bike. These are all levels showing Mario Kart at its finest.

Nintendo doesn’t half-ass stuff and this DLC is stuffed with charming detail. From the animations when Link and Tanooki Mario do a trick to the fact that the coins are replaced with rupees in Hyrule Circuit, this DLC is every bit as packed with love and attention as the main game is. The music is great, although I wish Nintendo had refrained from yet another electric guitar version of the Zelda theme; Hyrule Warriors was enough of that, thanks.

If you still play Mario Kart 8, buy this. This is how you do DLC.Mario_Kart_8_DLC_14091061197762

Lone Survivor: Director’s Cut for Wii U, PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux

I have a real soft spot for games which are, by and large, the product of one person. Some really cool experiences like Fez and Dust: An Elysian Tale all come from one creative spring, and Lone Survivor joins them, mostly being the product of the promising new developer Jasper Byrne. Lone Survivor is a truly creepy survival horror game in an SNES 16 bit style which does nothing to sap the nastiness of the experience, actually highlighting it.

Lone Survivor takes place after some kind of apocalypse, which has seen much of the world transformed into strange and hideous monsters. The player character, referred to throughout as ‘You’, is the eponymous one survivor in an apartment block. Holed up in his former apartment, the player must venture out to gather supplies, hiding from the enemies and finding keys which will allow him to leave the building.

This isn’t a game which explains much, although there are a whole bunch of alternate endings which shine light of the proceedings. This is a game about madness and trauma. The difference between reality and fantasy is really hard to define and I imagine that there have been many debates as to whether there actually has been an apocalypse or if the whole thing takes place in the protagonists brain. It doesn’t really matter; that the game makes you ask questions is much more important than whether there are concrete answers. Lone Survivor really disturbed and intrigued me and can you ask for anything more from a good horror story?
Lone Survivor all takes place on a 2D plane as the player makes their way through the apartment, and later the streets outside. There are several ways to deal with the monsters you’ll come across, such as hiding and waiting for them to pass by, distracting them with rotting meat or, when all else fails, pulling out your gun and taking them down. The combat is incredibly clunky and awkward, but that’s exactly the point; it shouldn’t be any other way. There’s something of an adventure game element to Lone Survivor, as you collect items to help you survive and keys to get around. There are several different systems at play, such as you exhaustion which is managed by sleeping back at your apartment, which is also how you save. You have to manage your hunger, with higher quality meals staving it off for longer. Better meals can be prepared when you collect items such as saucepans and can openers; if you skip those you’ll be stuck with prawn crackers and sliced cheese. The most confusing of these stats is ‘mental health’, which determines your ending. Violent or horrifying actions, such as shooting a monster or eating a rat will lower your mental health, where pleasant and relaxing actions such as playing a handheld game or reading a comic book will boost it.

My only real criticisms are the quality of the map, which is pretty hard to use and the confounding nature of the mental health stat, which isn’t explained in game. I get that the developer was aiming for you to have multiple playthroughs, but I’m not really a fan of games that do this; you should be able to get the ‘best’ ending without having to replay the same stuff a second or even third or fourth time. It strikes me as an artificial way to extend a games’ value. Still, keeping the stat mysterious is certainly more immersive and definitely not a deal breaker.

The art style is fantastic, with the old school look working really well. The quality of the pixel art is top-notch. There’s sometimes a perception that art like this is easier than more ostensibly complex styles, but it must have been challenging to make this setting as creepy as it is with the intentionally limited assets. Byrne has succeeded in creating a game which looks timeless, which will always be scary however much technology develops. The sound design is good too, adding a lot to the sinister atmosphere of the place. Atmosphere is the operative word here; Lone Survivor has oodles of it and is really immersive.

I was really impressed by Lone Survivor. Horror really isn’t my genre of choice, but the art style convinced me that I had to give it a go and I’m really glad that I did. It’s available on loads of devices, so you have no excuse to not give it a go.lonesurvivor-thedirectorscut-1080p-wallpaper

Pixeljunk Shooter Ultimate for PS4 and PS Vita

I played this game off and on for months after getting it a while back as a PS+ game. It’s not perfect, but I actually enjoyed it a lot, with it definitely being one of my favourite games so far from the IGC. Pixeljunk Shooter Ultimate takes the two original Pixeljunk Shooter games for the PS3, combines them together and remakes them for the PS4.

Pixeljunk Shooter is about a spaceship sent to rescue a group of scientists trapped underground on an alien planet. Whilst mining and researching, the scientists have unleashed something from the planet’s core as the ship goes deeper and deeper into the caverns of the world to rescue the personnel trapped there. The plot just fades into the background, but it does help to contribute to a pleasantly menacing atmosphere through much of the game.

I was put off Pixeljunk Shooter at first because it looked like a ship based shoot ‘em up bullet-hell, which isn’t a genre I’m particularly fussed about. I was wrong though; the game does have combat, and some pretty cool boss fights too, combat really isn’t the primary focus of the game. The player must make their way through a series of levels, each level made up of five zones. In each zone they must rescue the trapped scientists and also find gems which are used to unlock more levels. The player fights through these caverns to the scientists and then takes them to the next zone. Sounds pretty standard right?

The main draw of Pixeljunk Shooter is the range of different substances found in the depths of the planet and how they interact with you and each other. The most basic and common of the substances are water and lava. Water heals your ships shields, where lava destroys you. If you manage to mix them together, say by blowing up a barrier between them, they will combine and form rock which can be blasted through. There are loads of different substances, such as magnetic substances and bubbles which send your ship spinning around. They all interact in different ways and playing and mastering these myriad systems is a lot of fun. There are also different power-ups that you ship can temporarily use, such as changing your ship so that it heals in lava and is killed by water, or one which shoots jets of lava instead of the standard bullets. It’s complicated but never convoluted. The boss fights at the end of each area are fun and quite difficult. This game can be very tough, with my only real frustration being when you are taken out by a solitary drop of lava. I wish it had been a little more forgiving, but it was never too challenging.

Pixeljunk Shooter is simplistic but looks good, with the physics system holding up nicely for the myriad of liquids and gases at play. The music is really varied and interesting, with some grand dramatic themes, some laid back, cool and jazzy and one genuinely beautiful piano led piece which pops up towards the end. It should be incoherent, but it all works very well. The game just feels…well, cool. There’s something effortless and relaxed about Pixeljunk Shooter, the true mark of a game well made at almost every level.

Pixeljunk Shooter Ultimate is a lengthy and worthwhile experience, one which I enjoyed much more than I had expected to. I definitely recommend it.14308578774_bb000b3943_z

Bayonetta 2 for Wii U

Bayonetta is a rather unlikely Nintendo franchise isn’t it? After Nintendo funded the development of a sequel to the critically acclaimed but poorly selling original, there was much upset about this game’s Wii U exclusivity. Fears that Bayonetta may have been dialled down for Nintendo’s more child friendly image were misplaced; Bayonetta 2 is just as insane and fun as the first one.

Bayonetta and Jeanne are battling a bunch of angels while Christmas shopping when one of Bayonetta’s trusty summons turns on her seeking to drag her to Inferno. Jeanne pushes Bayonetta out of the way and is taken to hell in her place. Bayonetta is desperate to rescue her friend and the only other surviving Umbra Witch, so travels to the European city of Noatun, in the shadow of the mountain Fimbulventr, which is supposedly the nexus of the three realms; the human, Paradiso and Inferno.

I actually found that I liked Bayonetta’s plot more than I thought I did. The whole thing was bonkers obviously, but actually quite entertaining bonkers. There was an internal consistency which held up quite nicely, so I was actually really pleased to see these characters again. The actual story of Bayonetta 2 doesn’t really work, with the only successful element being an interesting re-evaluation of the plot of the original as new light is shed on the past. The long cutscenes would be a problem therefore if it wasn’t for one thing; Bayonetta herself. Bayonetta is a divisive character and I can completely understand why people may be turned off by her, but I think she’s brilliant. Of course she’s a sexualised figure, but unlike the mute and passive vessels for male sexuality seen in many games, such as the Dead or Alive franchise, Bayonetta is sexy for Bayonetta. She is in complete control the entire time, revelling in her sexuality and showing not one ounce of shame or humility as she cavorts about the place. In a society which often seeks to crush independent female sexuality, telling women that they should repress their desires unless it’s for the benefit of a man, Bayonetta is a boldly independent figure.

If you were hoping for something radically different from the original, you’ll be out of luck. The combat is pretty much the same, with the light/heavy attack combo system which worked with such beautiful simplicity last time. The witch time mechanic is back and works as well as ever, with the constant risk/reward of whether to dodge to save yourself or dodge to activate those precious seconds of free attack being the core of the Bayonetta experience. A nice addition is the ‘Umbra Climax’, which can be chosen when magic is full as an alternative to the returning ‘Torture Attacks’ from the last game. These let Bayonetta briefly unleash an unstoppable combo of wicked weave hair attacks and never stopped being unbelievably fun. Another great addition is the ability to strap weapons to Bayonetta’s legs instead of her standard guns; I opted for a play style of rapid twin blades in her hands with flamethrowers attached to her legs. Yep, this is definitely a Bayonetta game.

The whole experience is as dazzlingly insane as the first one, with an almost unrelenting stream of madness barely letting up throughout the game. It’s slightly shorter, but that’s probably a good thing since the whole experience has been cranked up so thoroughly. There are slightly more open areas too and a little more traversal stuff, which is welcome because unlike many games like this the traversal mechanics are actually really fun. It’s quite a lot easier, at least on normal difficulty, with a much more generous approach to the scattering of witches’ graves, which makes exploring the environments more tantalising than the original. The addition of Nintendo costumes is lovely, and they’re slightly more than simply skin changes. For example, if dressed as Princess Peach Bayonetta will summon Bowser’s first rather than her hair. It’s already been spoiled everywhere but I won’t do so here, I’ll just say to wear the Star Fox costume on Chapter 16, the final level; trust me. With a new co-op mode, as well as the bundling of a port of the original Bayonetta for the Wii U, Bayonetta 2 is a hell of a package.

Bayonetta 2 looks lovely, with a massive improvement in the environments which were a little bland in the original. The voice acting is generally good, but the faux-British accent of one of the new major characters took a lot of getting used to. The music is fantastic as well, with another fast-paced poppy remix of a classic song serving as the theme, this time ‘Moon River.’ I don’t know why this keeps working for the series, but it really does, managing to make the silly feel epic. The general design in this series is just so good.

With the original bundled as well, Bayonetta 2 is a no brainer for both fans of the original and newcomers. Let’s hope that Nintendo’s new most unlikely franchise has wings. I really hope we get a Bayonetta 3, but failing that, Bayonetta for Smash 4 DLC!bayonetta2

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves is the latest released in the planned seven book Gentlemen Bastard series and has left me with yet another epic fantasy series to await new instalments of with impatience. The Republic of Thieves shifts the focus of the first two books towards something else and isn’t entirely successful, but it does represent a game changer for the series which leaves me desperate for the next novel.

This book picks up not long after Red Seas Under Red Skies left off, with Locke poisoned by the Archon of Tel Verrar and near death. Jean has been desperately searching for a cure but Locke is fading fast. Locke is saved from an unlikely source; Patience, one of the Bondsgmagi of Kathain whose enmity Locke had earned back in The Lies of Locke Lamora. She will heal him, but in exchange he and Jean must rig an election in Karthain. However, the other side have hired help too, in the form of Sabetha, the much heard about never before seen love of Locke’s life, and former Gentlemen Bastard herself. We also spend a lot of time in a flashback story, which sees the teenaged Gentlemen Bastards sent to the city of Espara to launch a con as actors in a renowned play known as ‘The Republic of Thieves.’

The flashback element of The Lies of Locke Lamora was extensive, but it could be argued that the main narrative of The Republic of Thieves is the flashback, with the present day Karthain storyline feeling curiously shunted to the side. That’s not to say that it wasn’t entertaining, it certainly was, but the joy of Locke and Jean’s ingenuity feels absent, with the whole plot feeling somewhat light weight. The reunion of Locke and Sabetha is very well handled though and there’s some interesting world building and light shone on long term mysteries. Karthain was a place built up significantly in the first two books, but the reality doesn’t quite reach what was suggested. The flashback story is actually better and it was a real joy to see deceased characters like Chains, Calo and Galdo again. The supporting cast in Espara are likeable and well developed, with the romp tone of much of the first two books to be found here rather than the present day storyline. I wonder is Lynch bit off more than he could chew here; he has two essentially separate stories, but by cramming both into one book each is somewhat diminished. This all sounds quite negative, but I want to make clear that I really did enjoy this book a lot. The wit and humour are still abundantly present, with the dialogue between Locke and Jean remaining a joy. Lynch does banter better than anyone else.

Locke and Jean remain a strong core for the series, with the addition of the mysterious and acerbic Sabetha living up to the two books of misdirection. None of the new characters in Karthain make much of an impact, particularly compared to the awesome piratical cast of the previous book. It was fantastic seeing some old friends in the flashback story and I actually grew rather fond of the well-drawn and likeable supporting cast in the Esparan storyline.

The Republic of Thieves doesn’t necessarily push the same buttons as the previous two books, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It tries to do too much and faces diminishing returns but is a damn enjoyable read regardless. Although I’ll miss the heist shenanigans of the first two books, I really cannot wait for whatever is coming next.republic-of-thieves---cover

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