Senran Kagura: Estival Versus Review

*Review based on the PS4 version of the game*

I know, I’m supposed to go on and on about what a terrible, vile, evil thing Senran Kagura is. Because is this day and age, where political correctness is taken to practically fascist levels, the concept of animated characters with big boobs is considered more taboo than violence or sex. Yes, the Senran Kagura series is juvenile, but it knows it. This is a franchise all about bosomy ninjas all having friendly competitions with one another, with their clothes conveniently flying off during battle (with equally-convenient flashes of light knowing just where to censor). But it knows it’s all a giant piece of fan-service, and runs with the joke. Simply put, when we have actual issues going on in reality, I can’t find a game whose biggest crime is making one immature boob joke after another to be all that offensive. So sue me.

It also helps that Senran Kagura: Estival Versus actually shows some promise for the series as a worthwhile video game franchise, albeit it does have some glaring issues that hold it back.

Believe it or not, there actually is a story here: Four groups of female ninjas are in a constant rivalry against each other to become Kagura (which, as far as I’ve deduced, is like a ‘super ninja’ in the game’s mythology). These four groups are the Hanzo Academy, Homura Crimson Squad, Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy, and the Gessen Girls’ Academy.

One by one, these groups of series mainstays are teleported to another world which, conveniently for players, is primarily a tropical beach. The girls are brought here by an elderly woman named Sayuri, the grandmother of Asuka, the main girl from Hanzo Academy. The reason for Sayuri bringing the girls to this world is for them to take part in some Millennium Festival, which will make them more powerful for an eventual encounter with some kind of demon…or something.

It turns out this strange beach world also works as a medium between one life and the next, and the girls soon start finding some of their lost loved ones inhabiting this world, as they still have a lingering regret or two which is preventing them from passing on to a proper afterlife.

I have to admit, I actually found myself a little interested when it came to the stories between some of the characters. Whether they’re learning the importance of friendship with one another (oh, anime), or having an emotional crisis from facing their lost loved ones again, there actually is – much to my surprise – a little bit of character development amidst all the jiggle physics and blatant fan-service.

On the downside of things, however (and this may sound like a strange complaint here), there’s almost too much story. Look, the stuff between the girls can be funny, but the main plot, which already doesn’t have much to it, just drags on and on. In between each gameplay mission, you have to sit through one cinematic after another, with many of these cinematics quickly growing repetitious (if I had a nickel for every story segment where the girls discuss the “real” reason they were brought to the beach, I’d have a decent sum of money saved up).

“Arguably the best dialogue ever written.”

These aren’t extravagant cutscenes either, but ones where character models stand in front of static backgrounds, and recycle a few select animations, while text boxes explain the finer details. In worst case scenarios, you only see the backgrounds, and merely see text on the screen to represent characters. The latter example happens in every situation involving the girls meeting one of their deceased relatives (sans for one of the playable characters, who is the ghostly sister of two other characters). This comes off as a cheap cop-out, as it prevents the artists from actually designing and animating these additional characters.

The worst part of it all is that these cutscenes go on and on and on and on. Even though I got a kick out of many of the characters, I eventually found myself skipping through many of the dialogue boxes. This is a beat-em-up game about bosomy ninja waifus, do we really need so much exposition?

“You can pick up bomb items humorously referred to as “bombshells.”

Thankfully, the core gameplay is actually pretty fun. The game is more or less a combination of a beat-em-up and a 3D fighter, as you fight waves of enemies with outlandish combos, can transform into more powerful “Shinobi” forms, and ultimately face off with one to three of the other characters as a boss fight.

Square is your quicker, weaker attack. Triangle is your slower, stronger attack. The X button jumps, the Circle button dashes and allows you to run up walls.

By performing combos you can build up a meter that, when full, gives you a scroll. Press L1 to use a scroll to go into your Shinobi form. Once transformed, you can use special attacks with the use of additional scrolls (L1 + Square uses one scroll, L1 + Triangle uses two). Additionally, you’ll gain more experience points after a battle depending on your performance. And when you get enough to gain a level for a particular character, that character can hold more scrolls.

It’s simple enough stuff, but fighting through hundreds of ninjas before having grander showdowns with the other characters can be a lot of fun. And it’s made all the better by the differences between characters. Though the controls are the same around the board, each character has their own weapon (Asuka simply uses katanas, but her fellow Hanzo Academy student Katsuragi uses rocket shoes; and Yumi, the leader of Gessen Academy, uses fans for combat, while Haruka uses a pet robot in battle). Each character has their own distinct style of play, which really gives the game some good variety, considering the sheer number of characters there are.

Unfortunately, even the gameplay takes something of a dip for two main reasons.

The first of those reasons is repetition. Though the core gameplay is fun and the characters have variety, the game does very little to add anything new to the experience as it goes on. You simply hack a few hordes of enemies, fight the boss character(s), and then proceed to the next overly long cinematic. The main story mode is actually decently long, so for it to just recycle the same formula throughout its entirety is a bit of a bummer.

The other downside is that the enemy AI is largely inconsistent. Granted, in a game like this you expect the mindless hordes of enemies to be just that, mindless. But sometimes, this occurs during the bosses as well. While the bosses oftentimes put up a decent fight, there were more than a few instances where the boss characters just stood there for me to bombard them with one special attack after another. There was even one instance in which all three boss enemies just kept running into walls, never even changing into their Shinobi forms (which instantly refills all health, I should add). To say this battle was easy is an understatement.

Speaking of easy, the main story mode isn’t all that difficult. Though some opponents put up a good fight, I never actually died once during the entirety of the story mode. I was going to mark the game down further due to the lack of difficulty, but an additional mode, which sees each character play through their own short stories, adds more of a challenge to the experience.

“Pure Shakespeare.”

Despite the aforementioned limited animation in the cinematics, I did greatly enjoy the graphics of the game. The character models remind me of those of the Guilty Gear games, where they look like traditionally animated anime characters brought into 3D. And the game even features a few hand-drawn cinematics and images sprinkled throughout (though the few hand-drawn segments may expose more limitations in the main game. For example, Katsuragi and Haruka are a little more, should I say, “gifted” even compared to the other girls in the game. But the gameplay models for every character are pretty interchangeable in terms of body type, with only the, umm, “flatter” characters looking any different in-game). The  music also adds to the aesthetic pleasures, with a soundtrack that’s appropriately fun and bubbly.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (along with the core gameplay) is the sheer abundance of unlockables in the game. It seems like no matter what you do, you’re always unlocking an additional mission or a customizable option for the girls (you can change their outfits for their different forms and cinematics, and even pose them for pictures). You may find yourself replaying parts of the story mode or the character missions just to see what you can unlock next.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in this day and age in which people actively seek to be offended by things. But behind all the bikinis and bosoms is a pretty fun- albeit flawed – title. The game itself may not share the beauty of its cast – with excessive cinematics, a repetitious structure and often-stupid AI muddling things a bit – but it does show that there may be a little something more to this series than fan-service alone. With a bit more time dedicated to refining the game, Senran Kagura could turn out to be a winning video game series.

 

6.5

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The Wizard Dojo/After Story Gaming Alliance!

Well, here’s something different. After numerous threats a quick discussion, I have coerced managed to get some additional help here at the Dojo. Fellow blogger Alex of AfterStoryGaming, longtime reader and commenter here at Wizard Dojo, will now be using his writing abilities to contribute some reviews and other stuff to the Dojo!

This marks the first time someone other than myself will be writing for this site, which is kind of a big deal. Truth be told, I had planned to get some help from others some time ago, but wanted to keep this site to myself for a while longer. But I feel I’m now at a point where I can open the Dojo’s doors to additional writers. Granted, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m sure most of the content on this site will be from yours truly. But it’s great to finally be getting some additional content from someone else here at the Dojo.

I hope to eventually get even more people to contribute to Wizard Dojo from time to time, especially once I really start getting serious with developing that game I keep meaning to develop.

“Me, learning game development.”

 

So now you can not only enjoy my video game and movie reviews and general, rambling nonsense here at Wizard Dojo, but also those from a different individual as well!

You can check out Alex’s site, AfterStoryGaming, to get an idea of the great, detailed work he brings to the table. Happy to have you onboard, you scallywag! I can see this collaboration going places!

 

“This collaboration may soon end up something like this.

Five Kingdoms I’d Like to See in Super Mario Odyssey

It’s almost hard to believe that Super Mario Odyssey will be released in a few short months. The game was only properly revealed in January, and after a strong E3 showing in June, it will see its worldwide release in October. For a major Mario title, that’s a pretty quick time in between reveal and release. Yet, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the game. We know of its primary “capture” mechanic, which allows Mario to take control of enemies, objects and NPCs via his hat. We know that Mario is collecting Power Moons instead of Power Stars,  and that every stage also plays into the overarching plot of Bowser trying to force Princess Peach into marrying him. And we know that Mario will be traversing a wide variety of different worlds, from big cities inhabited by realistic humans to psychedelic food-themed worlds.

One other thing we know of is that Odyssey is playing up Mario’s history in a way that perhaps no Mario game has done before. Many of the hats and costumes Mario finds along his adventure are references to the plumbers more obscure appearances, and for the first time, Mario’s original girlfriend, Pauline, appears in a proper Super Mario adventure.

This got me to thinking of what other kinds of ‘Kingdoms’ (Odyssey’s name for its various worlds) could we see show up? The aforementioned big city (hilariously named “New Donk City”) is where Pauline serves as mayor, and where the shops and street names allude to the Donkey Kong series. But what if that’s just the tip of the iceberg? What if there are more Kingdoms in Odyssey that pay tribute to Mario’s long history in one way or another?

Here are five such kingdoms I’d like to see in Super Mario Odyssey. Now, I’m really just spitballing/geeking out here, so I don’t expect to see them show up. But it would be so awesome and – considering some of the Kingdoms already revealed – not entirely impossible for them to make an appearance in some form.

The following five Kingdoms all represent a part of Mario’s history (or even that of its spinoffs) to some degree. Though seeing them literally realized would be awesome beyond words, they could also simply be implied homages to the series’ history (like how New Donk City’s street names and shops reference Donkey Kong Country).

Anyway, before I ramble any longer, let’s get to the Kingdom ideas!


Continue reading

Bit Dungeon Plus Review

*This review first appeared at Miketendo64.com*

Bit Dungeon Plus looks to bring some old school challenge to the Nintendo 3DS, and while the concept does deliver on that to a degree, it ultimately suffers from a lack of polish and (in my case anyway) some notable technical issues.

Bit Dungeon Plus has an obvious inspiration in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It uses the same top-down perspective, and even utilizes 16-bit graphics. Players take control of a knight, who can obtain new weapons, armor and magic spells along their journey. After a set number of enemies are defeated, they can even gain levels like in an RPG. Upon gaining a level, players can choose to upgrade their maximum health, their attack power, or the strength of their critical strikes. Players can find health and magic restoring formulas by defeating certain enemies and breaking objects. Additionally, you can buy special upgrades and items by finding secret shops hidden inside of dungeons.

All of the action in the game takes place in these dungeons, which are randomly generated. What enemies and items you find in the dungeons will be different in every playthrough, and once you defeat a dungeon’s boss, you can move on to a more difficult dungeon.

Here’s the part of Bit Dungeon Plus that I found refreshing and original: when you die, you have to start all over, losing any levels you gained and increased stats you’ve acquired. However, any of the weapons and armor you’ve found can be equipped on your starting character in the next run through. So in each playthrough, you’re likely to find better weapons and armor to help you the next time around.

The core concept behind Bit Dungeon Plus is fun and may have you intrigued to keep playing for a while. Unfortunately, the game has some glaring rough edges.

For starters, close-range enemies are essentially a non-threat, as they move incredibly slowly (if they move at all), and never seem to attack. If a ranged enemy attacks with a fireball or arrow, you can easily defend from the damage by holding up your shield. But with the melee enemies, you basically don’t have to worry about taking damage. Just walk close enough and swing away.

There also could have been a bit more balance with the character progression. After increasing my attack power just a few times, I was able to take down bosses with three or four presses of the A button. As fun as the general idea behind the game is, the difficulty curve seems almost untested, as you can become close to unstoppable all-too soon.

In fact, when I did become this powerful, my play session only ended because the game crashed. In fact, Bit Dungeon Plus crashed on me on two different occasions! And I should add that I have never had a 3DS game crash on me in the past. I also experienced some graphical errors and freeze-ups during the game.

The core gameplay of Bit Dungeon Plus is fun, but the lack of polish and technical issues really detract from the experience. Bit Dungeon Plus is a well-intentioned, retro experience, but it definitely could have used some extra development time to work out the kinks.

 

5.0

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

I have to admit I was thoroughly lost during Spider-Man: Homecoming. Throughout the entire movie, I kept wondering how this Peter Parker kid became Spider-Man. I mean, what’s the backstory here? Why does he just have these powers? This is the kind of thing that begs for an origin story.

I am of course joking. Spider-Man’s origin story is such common knowledge that he, like Batman, doesn’t need another cinematic retelling at this point. 2002’s Spider-Man remains one of the best super hero origin story movies (along with, ironically enough, Batman Begins), and there really wasn’t a need for us to hear it again through the less-than stellar 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Besides, super hero films tend to be at their best once the origin story is behind them, with Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight remaining at the top of super hero storytelling, as they could focus more on the characters themselves and not have to worry about how their heroes earned their costumes and powers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming wisely does away with re-re-introducing us to Spider-Man’s origin story, with the details of being bitten by a radioactive spider only being mentioned in passing, and the death of his uncle Ben only being implied. So Spider-Man: Homecoming not only serves as another reboot to Marvel’s iconic web-slinger, but also, thankfully, works as something of a self-contained sequel to a narrative we are all beyond familiar with by this point.

This “proper reboot” of the franchise is only one of the newsworthy aspects of this new Spider-Man series, with the other big news being that this newest incarnation is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most prominent movie franchise not called Star Wars.

We met this newest Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where he was part of Iron Man’s team who did battle with that of Captain America. But now we have Spidey’s first solo outing in the MCU, and it actually turns out to be one of the best entries in the mega franchise, due in no small part to the film taking cues from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 by creating fleshed-out, relatable characters in both its hero and villain.

Not only does Homecoming show us Spider-Man still trying to learn the ropes of being a super hero (and often stumbling), but it also dedicates a good deal of time to Peter Parker’s high school life, and the real-world problems and hassles therein.

Meanwhile, the film’s villain is the Vulture, whose secret identity is one Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). If the MCU has had one persistent problem – even in some of its better films – it’s that the villains have been largely forgettable, with only a select few standing out, and none of them really being anything more than a villain. What makes Toomes such a winning antagonist (along with Keaton’s excellent performance) is that, much like Peter Parker is depicted as a real kid, Toomes is a very relatable everyman. Tasked with cleaning up the damage that the Avengers leave behind (the film begins with Toomes’ crew beginning reconstruction on one of the set pieces of 2012’s The Avengers), Toomes and his men end up jobless as soon as the government decides to butt in. So Toomes, wanting to provide for his family and to keep his friends doing the same, goes rogue, and leads an underground operation that steals technology left in the wake of the Avengers, SHIELD, Hydra, and any other “super” organization, crafts their own weapons from it, and sells them on the black market.

The fact that Toomes is selling super-weapons to criminals obviously makes him the villain, but he’s also presented as a relatable figure who was wronged and simply wants to set things right. Unlike so many past villains in the MCU, Toomes actually has a strong motivation for his actions.

It’s because of how wonderfully realized both its hero and villain are that ascend Homecoming to being one of the better super hero movies of recent times, though unfortunately, it does suffer a bit from its supporting characters, which can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) provides some good comic relief, but some of his actions may not endear him to audiences (the trailers already reveal that he learns of Peter’s secret life as Spider-Man, and he almost outs his best friend’s secret at the first opportunity). Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier) works well enough for the plot, but she doesn’t exactly get a whole lot of character development. They are forgivable though, since their characters have enough likable qualities about them. Less forgivable is the character of Michelle Jones (Zendaya) who, as you may guess by her initials, is to be the MCU’s equivalent of “MJ” Mary-Jane Watson.

Seeing as this is the second cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I perfectly understand the filmmakers trying to change up the characters a bit so we can see something we aren’t already overly familiar with. But the Michelle character is simply unlikable. Zendaya’s acting is fine, but what she has to work with doesn’t exactly make Michelle an appealing character. She’s obnoxious, pretentious, brags about not having any friends… She’s basically like a checklist of all the things older generations ridicule millennials for.

But the rest of the characters are all well and fine. This being the MCU, we of course have to have crossover characters involved, though Homecoming is wise to keep them to a minimum as to not take the focus away from the story at hand: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Peter’s mentor. Meanwhile, Stark’s former driver and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) returns to keep an eye on Peter while Iron Man is off with bigger things. And in perhaps some of the best uses of MCU cameos, Captain America (Chris Evans) is featured in public-service announcements in Peter’s high school.

I really enjoyed how Homecoming is a relatively smaller-scale Marvel movie. We’ve seen so many cities get leveled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by this point, that I’m starting to get more tired of the mass destruction than anything. But Homecoming takes the time to humanize both Spider-Man and the Vulture, while also showing us how complicated the lives of Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes can be. The stakes aren’t to save the planet, or even a city. It’s just about a kid trying to be responsible and to do the right thing, and trying to stop a downtrodden, misguided man who’s caught up in doing wrong. And by this point, that’s pretty refreshing.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the super hero genre, but it does take inspiration from the better films from the genre’s booming early years (most notably Spider-Man 2) to make a film that may not be the most grandiose of super hero outings, but one that succeeds in the two areas where it most counts: story and characters. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great action set-pieces, because it delivers on just that as well. But for the first time in a while, I feel like the MCU has a hero worth rooting for not just because of a charismatic on-screen presence, but also for his relatability. Just as noteworthy, the same can be said for its villain.

 

8.5

CrazyBus Review

In the darkest corners of the video gaming universe lie the most irredeemably horrendous titles. These are games so terrible, that referring to them as video games should contain an asterisk. Hong Kong ’97 lurks in these murkiest of depths, with its non-existent gameplay and utter disregard for basic decency. Sitting alongside Hong Kong ’97 – albeit for somewhat different reasons – is CrazyBus.

The very existence of CrazyBus is one of gaming’s great anomalies. CrazyBus was little more than a test by its mysterious Venezuelan creator to try out their computing skills. For reasons unknowable, the creator then self-released the game as  an unlicensed title… on the Sega Genesis… in 2004.

The most immediate of CrazyBus’ great sins is its soundtrack. As soon as you boot up the game, your ears will be bombarded with horrible noises lapping over each other in a chaotic attempt to produce music. It is the most cluttered, ear-assaulting noise you are bound to hear in any game (I use that word loosely here). I wish I could say I’m exaggerating, but the truth is any and all sounds that emanate from CrazyBus really are just terrible noises. No other bad gaming soundtrack I’ve ever heard even comes remotely close.

As for the “game” itself, well, it’s the single most shallow and empty experience you could possibly have on any gaming platform. You have a selection of Venezuelan buses to choose from (represented by heavily pixelated stock photos of said buses), and after you decide on your vehicle (all of which look like they were spat out of Microsoft Paint, and bear no resemblance to the photos on the select screen), it’s time to play the game.

You hold right on the D-pad. That’s it.

I wish I were joking, but that’s all CrazyBus is. You hold right on the D-Pad, and your visual-eyesore of a bus will go right and rack up points. These points, I might add, go outside of the point counter, and oftentimes can’t even be properly read, as their garish colors clash with the backgrounds (with these backgrounds also being stock photos of buses). The only other input the player has is to honk the horn on the bus, just in case you wanted any more audial abuse.

But here’s where things get downright laughable. You can instantaneously claim the game’s highest possible score (65,535 points) simply by pressing left on the D-pad at the start of your session. And that is that.

There is nothing more to CrazyBus. Though it’s understandable that someone would dabble with their novice programming skills just to see if they could make anything at all, it’s considerably less understandable that someone would then take such a test and actually self-release it. And how such an individual could imagine that the noise of CrazyBus constitutes music is dumbfounding.

Why was this released? And on the Sega Genesis in the mid-2000s, no less? There’s absolutely nothing to it as a game, its visuals are beyond ugly, and the noise that emanates from it is simply ungodly.

Even as an unlicensed title, why on Earth was CrazyBus ever released?

 

0

Deadly Towers Review

Few games are as unplayable as Deadly Towers. Though it was seen as a novel gaming experience back in 1987, retrospective looks have widely deemed it as the most frustrating game on the NES, and in some instances, the worst game on the console (and boy, is that saying something).

Deadly Towers is supposedly an action RPG, with players taking control of a warrior prince who’s out to destroy in evil force within the titular Deadly Towers by burning the “Seven Bells” in a sacred flame.

Problems immediately arise as soon as players step foot in said towers. Our hero has little health, moves at a snail’s pace (while enemies can move across the screen in an instant), and his only means of attack is by throwing swords (which he has a limitless supply of), with only one sword able to be thrown at a time. You have to wait until a sword passes through the screen or hits an enemy before you can throw another.

“Gotta love those puke-green walls!”

One of the biggest issues with Deadly Towers is that it’s beyond confusing. The tower in which the game takes place is an absolute maze. And of course there’s no map to speak of, so you’re just going from one garish room to another, hoping you’re making some kind of progress. This is made all the worse by the fact that you often can’t tell what is and isn’t a doorway to another room. Sure, there are a lot of entrances/exists that look as such. But just as frequently you’ll be walking near what appears to be a wall, only for the game to suddenly load another room. Worse still, there are some entrances to rooms that are marked by what I can only describe as scratches at the bottom of the screen, with these same scratches also marking many bottomless pits that lead to instant death! If that isn’t a cheap and poorly thought-out trap, I don’t know what is.

The enemies are an uninspired assortment of blobs, orbs and generic spider and bat monsters. As stated, they move much faster than our hero, and can often drain all of your health in a matter of seconds. In case that wasn’t bad enough, the enemies knock you backwards considerably whenever they make contact, which can send you into another room or off a cliff. I’m not exaggerating when I say I experienced multiple instances of getting knocked back by an enemy into another room, only for an enemy in that room to knock me into yet another room, with the process bouncing me around like a pinball until I died.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of Deadly Towers is that, upon death, you start all the way back at the beginning of the game! You do receive a password upon death (a password which, strangely, is already imputed, leaving the player only to press start), but these passwords are ultimately useless. You still start back at the beginning of the game, losing any money you’ve acquired along your journey. The only thing you retain is the boosted maximum health you gain by grabbing health-boosting power-ups. But here’s the kicker; you don’t start out at the new maximum health level. No matter how many health-boosters you pick up, you’ll always go back to the start of the game at 100 health. But hey, you can slowly farm enemies in the vain hope that they’ll drop enough hearts to get you to your new maximum health.

Deadly Towers is not a fun game to play: Between the slow character and attacks, swarms of enemies, labyrinthian level design, unknowable pathways, misleading traps, and constantly restarting the game, Deadly Towers is nothing short of a painful gaming experience. But it’s also butt-ugly to look at, with grossly colored environments being “complimented” by the aforementioned uninspired character designs. And the music is as obnoxious as anything else in the game, consisting of a single track of music that is not only constantly playing, but doesn’t even loop! Instead, the music starts over every single time you enter a new room, so get used to those first few notes. You’ll be hearing them a lot.

Longtime gamers often look back at gaming’s yesteryear with nothing but delight. That’s probably because they’re reflecting on the Super Marios and Mega Mans of gaming’s early years. But there’s also the ugly side to the retro gaming, especially when it comes to the 8-bit era (and the 32/64-bit generation). Gaming was still young, and there was plenty of experimentation to be done. While some of these ideas soared to greatness, others just feel archaic. But Deadly Towers is a game that feels so prototypical and unfinished in every way, that it might just be the poster boy for this uglier side to retro gaming.

 

1