Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (~25 hours)

We live in a changing world.  Games of today are played more on tablets than home consoles, and Facebook more than Game Boy.  So it feels fitting that this game is called “A Link to the Past”.  There are numerous efforts to catalog and preserve retro games, including the Video Game History Foundation’s attempt to get classic games stored digitally at the Library of Congress, but only time will tell if future generations will actually play the classics.

Just like the joystick was replaced by the D-Pad, the D-Pad has been replaced by the touchscreen.  A Link to the Past was designed for the D-Pad, and boy is it hard to go back to joystick games.  Touchscreen games support virtual D-Pads, but the most popular form of input for touchscreen games is the direct kind.  Touching a button, an icon, a plot of land, or a destination for a character using your pointer finger instead of your thumb, a screen instead of a plastic cross.

Perhaps A Link to the Past will be the last classic D-Pad style game I play this year.  But it IS a classic, at least, in the “games as art” sense.  The graphics push Super Nintendo to it’s limit.  There is rain, fog, darkness, and fire.  The color palette is rich, but not over-the-top.  Link’s sword swing and run animation are very smooth. The music includes classics such as the theme to Kakariko Village and the Hyrule Field Main Theme.  And the controls, especially after receiving the Pegasus Boots, feel light and breezy for a 2D game.

The worst I can say is that A Link to the Past is occasionally an intricate slog.  There are fourteen dungeons total, and that seems like too many.  The dungeons can be confusing to navigate, and the reward — a new item — overcomplicates gameplay outside of dungeons, requiring certain items in certain parts of the overworld.  There is a light and dark world, doubling the initial size of the map.  Compare this to a more simple game, like Mario Kart in which sixteen races completes the game.  Or Walden, a game in which the only real mechanic is walking.  My least favorite thing, however, is that the story is… brief.  Though the first Zelda had hardly any text, more recent ones are brimming with dialog.  I like that.

Perhaps we will get a Zelda for tablets or Facebook.  But this is Zelda from 1991.  It’s long.  It doesn’t provide instant gratification like other games of the era, such as Mortal Kombat or DOOM.  But it did provide a formula for future Zelda games, like Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess.  And the series as a whole is considered among the best for consoles.  Time will tell if future generations will play the Zelda series, or where games are headed after mobile devices.  But it feels like a game made with heart.  I hope it isn’t lost to time.

4/5

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Review: Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

People on NeoGAF said that Shadowrun Returns was more of a prototype for the supposedly better games that followed: Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong.  Well, I can’t speak about Shadowrun: Hong Kong (though hopefully I will soon), but Dragonfall I actually found to be at times less enjoyable than Shadowrun Returns.  What I like so much about Returns is it’s Philip K. Dick-esque story.  In Dragonfall, the story takes a backseat for more of an action focus.  The action is great, and it’s a solid package for it’s $15 asking price on Steam, but the game could have been perfect if the story was as good as the rest of the game.

To sum up Dragonfall’s story, you are basically a team of Shadowrunners collecting bounties on anything that will net them money.  You’re accumulating money to gain information from a supercomputer to help you avenge your friend’s death.  That’s about it for three quarters of the game.  Your team needs a lot of money, and you’re taking on any mission that will help you earn it.  Though the story gets more focused later,  It pales in comparison to Returns’ story.

To make matters worse, the writing is often lazy, resorting to using the F-word on multiple occasions.  I know I’m being very hard on this part of the game, but I want to be clear: the story and occasionally the writing are the only bad parts of the game.  It’s disappointing, but I guess the previous game’s writing and story are difficult to top.

The combat once again is a high point in this Shadowrun.  You develop strategies as you go.  Having a decker on the team is always good for hacking computer terminals or entering “the matrix”.  Having your team dispersed across a room makes it less likely for a grenade to damage multiple allies.  Winning battles results in karma points, which can improve your skill with a weapon, in ranged combat, or boost your intelligence, to name a few examples.  Even battles you lose a couple times are still fun, because you develop new strategies for when you restart the match.

Something nice is that your teammates never actually die.  They go back to headquarters and get treated for their wounds.  This is in contrast to Returns, where once someone dies, they’re gone for good.  There are also a lot of opportunities to pick up items, keeping a full stash of useful goods for battles.

The most disappointing thing about Shadowrun Returns was a lack of side missions.  Well, they corrected this mistake in Dragonfall.  There are quite a few side missions, earning you currency and easing the difficulty level by granting you more karma points.  It also adds an extra ten or so hours to the game which certainly adds to the value.  I didn’t do all the side missions, but I really liked the game, so I might do them on a second playthrough.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the most fun when you’re in combat.  Sadly, the story is highly uninteresting, but that’s my only real complaint about it.  Harebrained Schemes created a fantastic RPG again that’s worthy of mention when talking about the CRPG revival that’s currently ongoing.  I really hope HBS keeps making Shadowrun games, but it seems they’re moving away from it with their newer titles.  Regardless, they created two great games in the series, and more than likely it’s three great games.  I just haven’t started Shadowrun: Hong Kong yet.

4/5

Brief Game Reviews: Sonic & Knuckles

This is a good Sonic, but not as good as Sonic 3.  If I had to order the Genesis era games (now that I’ve played them all), it would go Sonic CD, Sonic 3, Sonic 2, Sonic & Knuckles, and last, Sonic 1.  I’m going to keep the review short because again, if you’ve played Sonic, you know what to expect.  Something neat about this one is there’s a boss at the end of each act.  Playing through Lava Reef Zone is fun if you have the fire power-up, cause the lava can’t hurt you.  Also, Sky Sanctuary Zone brings back some classic Sonic boss fights.  The Knuckles adventure is very similar to the Sonic one, so don’t feel obligated to play it.

4/5

Brief Game Reviews: Sonic the Hedgehog 3

This is probably the best Sonic the Hedgehog game from the Genesis era that isn’t Sonic CD (apologies to Sonic 2 fans).  This will be a short review, as if you’ve played Sonic before, you know what to expect.  Graphically, the game looks great with really bright colors.  Music is top notch too.  Now Sonic can pick up items that put a circular barrier around him, and have the power of water, fire, or electricity.  Water lets you breathe underwater, fire gives you a homing attack, and electricity attracts rings to you.  Get hit, and you lose the barrier, instead of all of your rings.  The second to last level is great and the final boss isn’t too hard.  Again, as good as you’re going to get on Genesis outside of Sonic CD.

5/5

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers (Game Boy)

I’m on a role beating games from my childhood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers included.  Though truth be told, there needs to be an asterisk next to the previous sentence.  I used a Game Genie code for Infinite Health to get to the end of the game.  Back from the Sewers is a thoroughly challenging game that I’m not sure it’s possible to beat without cheating.  It’s fun until the end of the second level, after which, it becomes too difficult to even fathom.

The first level is great.  You’re being attacked by foot soldiers in the sewers from the front and the back, and the level has sort of a rhythm game quality to it.  The level takes place on a strictly 2D plane, and you need to hit the enemies with split second timing or else you take damage.  Making it to the end without taking any damage is rewarding.  The second level follows suit above ground, with a second platform you can jump on and manhole covers you can fall in.  It ceases to be fun by the second level’s boss, who’s supremely unfair, shooting bullets and jumping at you, while a foot soldier in the window above drops pots on your head.  The game falls apart from here on.

There are any number of things that can damage you from this point on, including robots, robot dogs, rolling barrels, rolling boulders, and fire rising from the ground.  To get it exactly right where you hit / avoid all of these things and more through the remaining four levels is nearly impossible, not to mention the bosses remain unfair.  To the game’s credit, if you die as one turtle — or get captured, as the game says — you can start back as another turtle who hasn’t been captured, but it’s still not enough.  The game is still too hard.

The game actually has really great music though, of all things.  It’s sticks with you after you’re done playing.  On top of that, there are voice samples, which must have been quite a feat to get out of the Game Boy’s limited hardware.  You might want to check out a GBS file of the game’s soundtrack.  It’s quality chiptune.

Back from the Sewers can probably only be completed with Game Genie / Game Shark, but I’m glad I saw the ending, and can consider another game from my youth beaten.  It’s not very long, and the soundtrack keeps you going more than anything else, but don’t expect much from this title.  Surprisingly enough, it came out the same year as Turtles in Time, and was also released by Konami.  Try that instead.

2/5

Joint Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade), and The Simpsons (Arcade)

I can say with 60% certainty that my local roller skating rink (now demolished) had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time arcade cabinet.  I can say with 100% certainty that my local bowling alley (still open) had a Simpsons arcade cabinet (and possibly still does).  And I can say with 100% certainty that my friend had TMNT: Turtles in Time for Super Nintendo.  Either way, these are two classic arcade brawlers that are sort of boring to play without quarters.

These games deserve to be reviewed together, as they are both arcade games released in 1991 from Konami.  While they have their differences, namely that The Simpsons is four player and TMNT is two player, they both are two button brawlers (jump and attack) where you’re generally fighting the same enemy type over and over.  The real fun of both games is looking at the graphics (in which TMNT has a bit of an edge), and listening to the music and sound, both of which have voice samples, and both of which use the same sound chip.  Both games are designed to eat quarters, although neither is nearly as unforgiving as, say, Metal Slug.

Onto some differences.  TMNT’s story revolves around Krang stealing the Statue of Liberty, and Shredder opening a portal in time to keep you from getting it back.  You travel through some American history like Wounded Knee, and move on to the (distant) future of 2020 A.D., where there’s a neo-metropolis, and also the year 2100 A.D. fought on a space base.  You finally make it back to New York to fight Shredder, who’s pretty darn tough.  Once the battle ends, the turtles return Lady Liberty to Liberty Island.  Roll credits.

Meanwhile, in the Simpsons, Smithers and Mr. Burns steal Maggie after she replaces her pacifier with a diamond jewel.  You travel to Springfield locations such as Moe’s Tavern, Channel 6, “Dreamland”, and last, the nuclear power plant, chasing Smithers carrying Maggie.  In the end you fight Smithers, and then Mr. Burns in a robot suit.  Once both are defeated, Maggie is released, and the Simpsons have a happy family moment.  Roll credits.

Again, you’re generally fighting the same enemies throughout both games.  In TMNT, it’s Foot Soldiers, in the Simpsons, it’s business people in suits (likely henchmen of Mr. Burns).  The Simpsons has two button-mashing mini games, but is shorter by about ten minutes.  Both games have health items.  In TMNT, it’s always pizza, where in the Simpsons, it could be any number of things, from apples to hoagies (grinders, subs, whatever you call them).  TMNT has a pizza box with a bomb on in, that, when consumed, has you spinning around destroying every enemy in sight.  In the Simpsons, there are multi-use weapons like a slingshot, and single use weapons like a bowling ball.

It’s hard to believe arcade brawlers were so popular that the same company would make two in the same year, especially considering how expensive arcade hardware was to produce.  The games aren’t as fun with unlimited continues.  Instead, it’s better to play where every hit you take gets you closer to losing another quarter.  But alas, these are two very similar games that were fun at the bowling alley but haven’t aged especially well.

Score for both games: 3/5

Review: Skies of Arcadia: Legends

Skies of Arcadia: Legends is, for the most part, a delight. Although my favorite Dreamcast RPG is Grandia II, this is a very close second. Skies is a classic turn-based JRPG about exploring the skies on an airship and the locations and people you meet along the way. The game does drag a bit at the end, but if you’re into really great early 3D role-playing games like those on Playstation, here’s one for Dreamcast and GameCube.

The story mostly revolves around Vyse, Aika, and Fina, who are air pirates fighting against the evil Valuan Empire.  Vyse and his crew are after the six Moon Crystals to restore peace to the world, while the Valuans wish to obtain them to rule over the world with an iron fist.  You meet a lot of interesting characters on your journey, including a old man looking to kill a giant whale (Moby Dick?), a womanizer, and a Valuan Prince who wishes to fight against the empire that raised him.  The story doesn’t really have a lot of plot twists, but I enjoyed following along.

A lot of the fun of the game is exploring the world.  The game takes place entirely in the air, and you fly an airship to various flying islands.  You start out being restricted to a small part of the map, but as you progress, your ship gets enhancements that lets it explore more of the world, until eventually the entire map is open to you.  Without spoiling later game locations, much of the world is inspired by locations from planet Earth.  An example is Nasrad, which could easily be compared to a Middle Eastern city, existing in the desert and home to a giant palace.

Being a traditional role-playing game, cities have weapon and item shops where you can stock up on gear, but you can also upgrade weapons and buy items for your airship, as the game features airship battles in addition to regular battles.  Most interesting, is that almost every town has a Sailor’s Guild, where you can buy discoveries to look for, or sell discoveries you’ve found.  Discoveries are rumored locations on the map that you have to find with your airship.  There’s a reward for each discovery.  Also, every Sailor’s Guild has a Wanted List of pirates that have a bounty to their name.  These pirates scale to your level, so fighting them is always a challenge.  The Sailor’s Guild was a fun hook, and good way to stock up on gold.

As mentioned, you can get in airship battles, though these are sort of low points in the game.  You and your opponent need to spend a lot of time “focusing” to prepare for attacks, which, along with the slow pace of the battles, makes it feel like a Dragonball Z episode, where more time is spent watching two parties (or people, in DBZ) charge than watching much attacking.  Airship battles are more strategic however, where you often get an option midway through like deciding to move in closer or hold your distance.  One of these options is the *right* option, giving you more chances to attack or allowing you to use your ship’s most powerful cannon, so use your best judgement for every battle.

Normal battling is really fun.  It’s very much a traditional RPG: You’re in a party of one to four people, and can attack, defend, use magic, or an item.  Unique to Skies, are “Spirit Points”, which are shared by the entire party.  Every magic attack costs one magic point, but any number of SP.  There are also “S-Moves”, which cost only SP, and are unique to each character.  If you want to use an S-Move that costs four SP, and magic that costs six SP, but only have nine SP for that round, you’re out of luck.  You can have your characters “focus”, which raises SP for the next round (on top of the SP you automatically get for a round) although focusing costs that character’s turn.  Balancing your parties SP meter is a big part of the challenge in battles, as well as the fun.  Otherwise, turn-based RPG fans will feel right at home as it’s pretty standard combat.

Something to the game’s credit, is there is very little grinding.  So little, in fact, that I only recall doing it one time.  Maybe the game is just too easy, but the character leveling is right in line with where you’re supposed to be fighting, and not a lot of great RPGs are great at that (Earthbound, e.g., or even Final Fantasy).  The game is around forty hours long because it’s a seriously long game, not because you’re running around the world grinding all the time.  Pretty amazing.

I have to give Skies of Arcadia: Legends five stars.  For one thing, it makes me nostalgic for the Dreamcast.  But for another, it’s a seriously great early-3D RPG from an era when a lot of 3D RPG makers were still finding their footing.  Sega and Overworks really nailed it.  I shudder to think what this game would have been were it released today, with streamlined combat and uncanny valley graphics.  Skies has excellent writing, a long fun adventure, and charm.  What more does a JRPG need?

5/5

Review: Speedy Gonzales (Game Boy)

[Editor’s Note: I’m working on a very long JRPG right now, and apologize for the eight day gap between posts.  Hopefully after this game, reviews will be more frequent.]

Speedy Gonzales for Game Boy is another game from my childhood.  It is also, undoubtedly, a Sonic the Hedgehog rip-off.  It makes sense… Sonic is a fast hedgehog, Speedy Gonzales is a fast mouse.  The development team had to draw their inspiration from somewhere.  Unfortunately, the game falls flat in some of the same ways Sonic does, not the least of which is cheap deaths.  I don’t want to be too dismissive; the controls are good and the platforming can be enjoyable, but Speedy Gonzales is sadly an exercise in frustration more than anything else.

The game is divided into six zones, and each zone has three sections and a boss.  Some examples of zone names are Mexico Zone, and Desert Zone, in which you will find some of the most racist depictions of Mexicans and Middle Easterners you’ll see in a video game.  That said, each level has unique art with the exception of the occasional reused sprite, and the art is about average for a Game Boy game.

The game is like Sonic in that you run fast, there are springs you can bounce off of, and you collect spinning discs of cheese which is similar to Sonic’s rings.  There are even loop-de-loops, waterfalls you can run behind, and trees to pass through all like in Sonic games.  It’s a little shameless how much Sega’s flagship franchise is ripped off.  Then again, if you thought Sonic was cool and only owned a Game Boy, maybe this would have been worth picking up.

The levels, when they’re not about running to the right and avoiding obstacles, are about finding switches with question marks on them which change something in the level.  A switch could start an elevator, open a passageway, or produce a series of blocks.  Some switches are optional.  I found the switches to be fun, though the puzzle-solving never got too intricate.  You are on a 99 second time limit, after all.

Once again, the game has a fair number of cheap deaths.  The obvious example is running so fast that you can’t see the enemy / obstacle / pit ahead of you.  But there are also creative cheap deaths.  There’s a time where if you go left instead of right, a black wrecking ball drops from the sky and you can’t escape it.  There are enemies that fly up and down, and you have to jump with split second timing to not hit them and die.  You have three lives, and as far as I noticed, there are no 1ups.  If you’re in Section 3 of a zone or facing a boss and you lose your last life, you start at Section 1 again.  It’s super frustrating if you don’t have save states.  Once you do clear a zone, you’re given a password, so you can always return to the furthest zone you’ve reached.  I guess the challenge of making it through three sections and a boss on three lives added to the game’s overall longevity, but it ends up resulting in level memorization.  

Speedy Gonzales for Game Boy would have benefitted if everything was slower, but I’m not sure how you’d pull that off with the title character.  Maybe this needed to be a Tweety Bird game.  It’s really not such a bad platformer, but emulate the game so you can save state your way out of dying all the time.  As it stands, frustration is more frequent than reward.  A slightly below average game.

2/5

Review: Dead Space

Dead Space is a cross between a survival horror game and an over-the-shoulder third person shooter.  The influence the game plainly wears on it’s sleeve is Resident Evil 4, which I had the fortune of playing recently. RE4 basically invented this style of game.  That said, Dead Space has unique appeal of it’s own, with a lot of polish, and a good story with a nice flow to it.  Though enemy encounters are occasionally too frequent, Dead Space is an enjoyable thriller with a long campaign and solid gameplay.

The game is set on a spaceship, the Ishimura, originally involved in a mining operation that’s gone wrong and has sent out a distress signal.  Your crew arrives on another ship, the Kellion, to investigate the signal.  Upon arrival, you discover alien creatures have taken over the ship, who are extremely good at killing humans.  The ship is mostly abandoned, aside from the aliens.  The Kellion gets destroyed early in the game, leaving you and your crewmates to survive on the Ishimura among the violent alien creatures.  You play an engineer, Isaac Clarke, whose girlfriend is believed to be alive somewhere on this ship.

You get a gun early on, and you soon learn that shooting the aliens limbs off is a faster way to kill them then head or body shots.  This motif lasts for the entire game, and is a neat hook.  If you want to conserve ammo, you better be aiming for the arms and legs.  I started playing with the Steam Controller, on which aiming is a little imprecise, and I imagine this was deliberate to add to the game’s tension.  About halfway through the game, I switched to mouse and keyboard, and outcomes of enemy encounters got a lot better.  

Its pretty obvious what you can and can’t interact with, and exploring rooms results in stumbling upon extra ammo, health kits, and money.  Also strangely enough, aliens carry all of these things, which you can pick up after killing them.  There are times when you’re in short supply of the items you need, namely ammo and medkits.  Normally, you’re close to a store, which can sell you these things, but every credit you spend on something like ammo is a credit that’s not going toward something like a suit upgrade or new gun.  You need to use resources wisely.

There’s also a workbench where you can upgrade weapons, armor, and abilities via upgrade trees.  You pick up Power Nodes in your quest, and each one can be used to upgrade a weapon or your space suit.  I put all of my upgrades into three weapons as well as my suit, which worked out well.  Being in three unique weapons gave me good variety for different enemy encounters.  Also, spending on the suit game me more breathing time in outer space and more health.  I rolled my eyes when I first saw the classic back-of-the-box “RPG Elements” box get ticked, but in playing the game, I thought it worked out well.  I was noticing and appreciating the upgrades.

The story of what happened to the people of the Ishimura is told through audio logs, video logs, and text logs scattered throughout the ship.  Many on the Ishimura have fallen victim to a religious cult, in which dying is how you get admitted.  You also come to find some people are still alive on the Ishimura, and for some it’s questionable if they actually want to help you or take advantage of you.  Meanwhile, you and the crew of the Kellion are just trying to stay safe.  I thought the story was excellent.  There are plot twists you don’t see coming, especially by the end.  The story is probably what kept me coming back to Dead Space the most.

The UI is an achievement.  Rather than health being a bar in the top left corner, your health is a series of bars on the back of Isaac’s space suit.  To check your inventory or see where the next objective is, a screen appears in front of Isaac, which is also visible to you.  At no point (unless you press Start/Escape to pause) are you taken out of the action by looking at or using the UI.  It keeps you in the game at all times.

Also an achievement is the sound design.  It’s incredibly eerie.  There are times when you don’t really know if enemies are right around the corner or if it’s just a dramatic use of strings for the scene.  Graphically as well, the game shines with excellent use of lighting and fog.  Playing on PC is the way to go, as there are a number of graphical settings that can be turned on that aren’t in the console version.  Unfortunately, Anti-Aliasing is just an On/Off setting, not a 8x or 16x setting, so some aliasing is noticeable.  Still, the game has excellent graphics for a last-gen title and looks great at 60fps.

This was a hard game for me to finish.  I played on Normal difficulty, and even then, there were spots that were extremely difficult.  It’s a long campaign, and took me 23 hours to complete.  Finally, the game really is tense, and there were times when I just needed to take a breather before getting back into the fray.  None of this is to say Dead Space is a bad game though.  From graphics to gameplay, story to sound design, Dead Space is one of last generation’s best.  The plot twists at the end are worth the (presently low) cost of admission alone.  Dead Space is a great space opera with truly scary moments and a story that keeps you hooked.  I recommend this game.

5/5

Review: Super Mario Land

Here’s another game from my childhood that I never beat as a kid. Game Boy was the first gaming device I ever owned, and because of this, Super Mario Land was one of the first games I ever owned. I had friends with NES and SNES, so I played the console Mario games. Even as a kid, Super Mario Land often felt like a cheap imitation of its console counterparts, and still to this day that feels true.

Right off the bat, when you start to play the game you’ll notice that the sprites are minuscule.  Goombas, for instance, are a tiny cluster of dots.  Having such small sprites on an already very low resolution screen makes the game look bad.  There is a part in the game where you’re underwater, and a part where you’re on what appears to be Easter Island, and the potential for great looking levels is ruined by how few pixels every piece of art actually is.

Once you start playing, you’ll notice there’s a real imprecision to how the game plays.  Mario doesn’t stop on a dime, but rather slows gradually to a stop.  There are times when it feels like you should have hit a question mark block, but you don’t.  There are times it feels like you should hit an enemy and don’t, resulting in the enemy hitting you and you losing your power-up or a life.  Finally, there are times when it feels like you should have landed on a platform but don’t, resulting in cheap deaths.  If the QA department was a little more diligent, these are all mistakes that could have been corrected.

These two rather large complaints aside, the game isn’t a half-bad platformer.  Super Mario Land follows the same formula as Super Mario Bros, where, after completing a set number of stages, you learn the princess isn’t in that world.  Only instead of Toad telling you this, an enemy is disguised as the princess, and says “Thank you Mario.” only then to reveal himself.

The platforming elements can be challenging, and the difficulty level ramps up as you keep playing.  I really dislike when a game’s first level is about as challenging as it’s last, so I’m glad there’s a difficulty curve.  There are only four worlds in Super Mario Land, as compared to Super Mario Bros’ eight, but that seems to go along with Nintendo’s mentality in the early days of Game Boy.  Back then, Game Boy’s games frequently were lesser in quality and length then their console counterparts.

This game is interesting from a historical perspective.  It’s sort of Gunpei Yokoi and crew at Nintendo R&D1 taking a crack at the Super Mario Bros. formula.  Despite fuzzy controls and poor sprite work, there is a good platforming game in here, albeit somewhat short.  What makes it really interesting is looking at how much better Nintendo R&D1 got at making a Mario game with the sequel, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which I rank as one of the best 2D platformers ever made.  Give Super Mario Land a try if you’re curious to play one of Mario’s weaker platforming entries.

3/5