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Happy 10th Birthday ‘Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’

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Hard as it is for me to believe, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune celebrates its 10th birthday this month. Ah, it seems like only yesterday I was marveling at the game’s brilliant characters, entertaining story, and incredible visuals.

To mark the occasion, I considered looking back on the series as a whole and discussing some of its defining moments. However, aside from the fact we did just that in the run up to the release of stand-alone spin-off The Lost Legacy, anyone who visits Goomba Stomp regularly will know we’ve covered Uncharted pretty extensively over the last few months.

From indies editor Katrina Lind’s excellent in-depth analysis of Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves, Drake’s Deception, and A Thief’s End, to site founder Ricky D Fernandes’ effusive tribute to the sheer artistic beauty of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy; editor Mike Worby’s entertaining musings on the series’ future to my own ramblings on the proposed film adaptation.

That being the case, this article instead focuses solely on the progenitor; Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Specifically, how a game that, I think we can all agree, is far from perfect mechanically speaking, became one of PlayStation’s most beloved series and a standard bearer for narrative-driven action games in general.

The thing I remember most fondly about Drake’s Fortune (and perhaps every other game in the series, for that matter) is the ridiculously strong cast of characters, led by the now iconic Nathan Drake.

Superbly written and acted, Nate is that perfect balance of roguish explorer and fearless hero, whose razor-sharp tongue, resourcefulness, and surprisingly powerful intellect make him an utterly compelling and likable protagonist; despite the fact that, by the end of the game, his membership to the guild of mass murderers is all but assured.

As engaging as Nate is, however, it’s his interactions with Sully and Elena that make playing Drake’s Fortune so enjoyable.

Nate’s morally questionable mentor, Sully almost immediately establishes himself as one of gaming’s finest supporting characters, with his charming personality, easy-going demeanor, seemingly endless supply of cigars, and penchant for sexual innuendo. I’d even go so far as to say Sully’s at his best in Drake’s Fortune, simply because, knowing little about his past, his loyalty to Nate is, initially, far from certain. It gives his character an additional layer of depth; an edge that, though gradually smoothed away later in the series as it becomes clear he’s earned Nate’s trust, makes the old rogue that much more lovable.

Elena, meanwhile – appearing at a time when most women in video games tended to be depicted as the archetypal damsel in distress (Mario’s Princess Peach, Resi 4’s Ashley etc.) or an overtly sexualized male fantasy (Lara Croft) – was a breath of fresh air. Tough, intelligent, and governed by her own motivations rather than simply following the lead of her male counterpart, Elena was the first in a succession of strong female characters, paving the way for the likes of Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross.

Admittedly, the villains aren’t particularly memorable by comparison. Neither Gabriel Roman nor Navarro offer much more than standard villain fare in terms of their goals, and thus can’t compete with the likes of A Thief’s End’s Rafe Adler or The Lost Legacy’s Asav. Aside from Eddy Raja, that is.

He wasn’t exactly threatening; as anyone who’s played the game will know, Eddy very much fits the mold of inept yet inexplicably confident and ostentatious, comic relief antagonist. Nevertheless, he was both highly entertaining and an excellent foil to the competent and assured Nathan Drake.

Of course, it helps that these wonderful characters are part of a good old fashioned, Indiana Jones-style adventure story; one that, crucially, has a greater level of complexity than many of the games and films that have tried to capture the spirit of Spielberg’s classic trilogy (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a bad dream, right?) since the 1980s.

Nathan Drake himself, for instance, isn’t simply a mercenary looking to make a quick buck selling his ill-gotten treasure on the black market, or a squeaky-clean paragon of virtue seeking to preserve the world’s ancient artifacts for future generations. He’s something in between these two extremes. Nate is certainly hoping to earn some money for his endeavors – which is only fair, given the number of Nazi-zombie-beast hybrids he has to put down over the course of his adventure – but it quickly becomes apparent his main reason for wanting to uncover the secrets of El Dorado is to vindicate and add to the legend of his spurious ancestor, Sir Francis Drake.

Aside from the character of Nate himself, Naughty Dog’s handling of the game’s supernatural elements display a similar level of subtlety and class that’s not always observable in comparable adventure stories. True, vague hints as to the true nature of El Dorado and the forthcoming supernatural twist appear at regular intervals during the course of the game, but it’s not until the last few chapters that these disparate elements come together. As a result, the sense of mystery is preserved for far longer, increasing the effectiveness of the big reveal in chapter 17.

That’s not to say Drake’s Fortune is a flawless example of modern video game storytelling. The similarities between it and the aforementioned Indiana Jones franchise can’t be ignored, while, as stated above, primary antagonist Gabriel Roman’s motivations are pretty unimaginative. Yet, despite the presence of such common elements as Nazis, inexplicably well-preserved and efficacious ancient traps, and a ruthless villain whose only concern is money, Naughty Dog manages to construct a relentlessly compelling narrative that, though not completely original in tone or content, never feels truly derivative either.

Moreover, it provided a solid narrative foundation on which the rest of the series was built. We didn’t pick up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for its gameplay mechanics, after all; it was to enjoy another one of Nate’s thrilling tales, reunite with some old friends, and enjoy an array of stunning vistas.

Indeed, although it’s easy to forget when comparing the PS3 original with modern titles like Forza Motorsport 7 and Horizon Zero Dawn, Drake’s Fortune was a visually stunning game by 2007’s standards.

My 18-year-old eyes were astounded by the cutting-edge graphics: the character models which, at the time, looked almost photo-realistic; the parade of wonderfully rich, vibrant environments; the incredibly detailed, and distinctive textures that brought these locations to life.

Every new location was a feast for the eyes. From the derelict 16th century Spanish buildings Nate and Elena explore either side of the game’s laborious jet ski sections; to the dark, dank, rubble-strewn corridors of the secret Nazi bunker the pair find themselves trapped in during chapter 18 and, my personal favorite, the lush jungle environments of South America, in which much of the action takes place.

The dazzling color and evocative sound effects, the detailed textures, the interaction between the characters and the terrain; every inch of in-game geography left me in awe of the power of the infant PS3. I vividly remember, for example, how impressed I was when, shortly after witnessing Nate emerge from a waist-deep pool of water for the first time, only the lower half of his body showed signs of recent submersion. Pretty innocuous by modern standards, certainly, but for me, at the time, it symbolized how far the industry had come in just a few short years and how far it would eventually go as video game technology continued to evolve.

Now, I realize that, thus far, I’ve barely mentioned gameplay. In fact, aside from labeling it as unspectacular in the intro, I’ve not mentioned it at all. The combat and parkour mechanics are, I think it’s both fair and accurate to say, the least impressive aspect of the game.

That being said, Drake’s Fortune still offers players plenty of entertaining set-pieces to enjoy, albeit smaller-scale versions of the cinematic sequences that would come to define the series.

Nate’s desperate chase to stop Navarro escaping with El Dorado (spoilers: turns out, rather than an ancient city made of gold, El Dorado is a large, ornately carved golden sarcophagus filled with some sort of nefarious gas) at the game’s climax is a good example. Though not as gloriously over-the-top as the train or cruise ship sequences from Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception respectively, it captures the spirit of both. It’s tense; it’s hectic; it’s interrupted by waves of low-level grunts who don’t seem to appreciate the urgency of the situation; and it culminates in a desperate, last-ditch display of heroism during which Nate disregards his own safety for the greater good.

It’s not the only one, of course. The plane crash that marks the end of chapter 3 bears all the hallmarks of a traditional Uncharted action scene, complete with witty one-liners and a conspicuous lack of serious injuries, while the car chase at the beginning of chapter 7 provides a spot of simple, mindless fun; a welcome distraction from the trickier free running sections and the more tedious shoot outs.

Even the jet ski sequences, bad as they are, had one redeeming quality: they made Naughty Dog understand that the hitherto obligatory video game water level was somewhat passé in 2007 and should thus be removed from all future sequels.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune might be the weakest title in the series, but it is nonetheless a fantastic game in its own right, with its immersive story, wonderful cast, and astounding last-gen visuals.

More importantly, it provided the blueprint for the rest of the series, helping Naughty Dog understand how best to refine some of the game’s deficient elements and turn  Uncharted into one of the medium’s most popular modern franchises. For this reason alone, Drake’s Fortune earns its place in the video game hall of fame.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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garden story

Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together

Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.

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Death Stranding

Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.

While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death. 

Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.

Death Stranding

This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s. 

Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.

The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.

Death Stranding

The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .

In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.

Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope

One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community. 

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.

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‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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