Sunday, June 5, 2016

Swords & Sorcery: Summary and Rating

Swords & Sorcery
United Kingdom
Personal Software Services (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for ZX Spectrum, 1986 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 31 May 2016
Date Ended: 5 June 2016
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 26
Ranking at Time of Posting: 98/223 (44%)

It pains me to admit defeat with Swords & Sorcery because I tried my best with it and I sunk about 10 hours into it after the first post. I think I'm reasonably close to winning--if the game is even winnable--and I exhaustively documented every room, treasure, and encounter in the game. No one who's played it showed up to comment on my first entry; I can only hope that some later commenter comes along and solves the game's mysteries.
This message would crop up occasionally, and I had no idea what it was talking about.
As noted before, the "first level" (the only one present in this game) consists of 4 quadrants and 88 rooms. Your stated goal is to find four pieces of the "Armour of Zob"--two greaves and two sabatons. You also apparently need three keys. I only found three pieces of the armour--I missed a greave--but I really didn't see any obvious way to end the game anyway.

Everything about Swords & Sorcery is a bit weird, starting with its approach to character development. As you kill monsters, your combat and magic statistics are supposed to increase, but I found that the game would only increase the statistic that was already highest in the first place. If you start the game with higher combat ability than magic, your combat ability goes up with each kill but your magic never does. The same is true if you start the game with more magic than combat ability. I favored magic--the ability to cast "Heal" a lot is fairly essential--so I started with 20 combat skill and 25 magic skill. By the end of my session, my combat ability had gone down to 19 for some reason, but my magic ability was at 88.

Throughout the game, you have to watch carefully for enemy traps and effects. If you get hit with a "Weakness" spell, your strength is halved permanently, drastically affecting your carrying ability and movement speed. The effect never wears off. Poison causes you to lose a couple hit points per round until you die; it's only curable at higher levels of magic, so it's basically a death sentence at lower levels. "Curse" drops your defense statistic a few points. I generally reloaded when these things happened because they're all so irrecoverable.

It's possible that the game's many potions and items were meant to help with these conditions, but I found the system baffling. The manual suggests that you can test the effects of crowns, rings, pendants, and other wearable items by putting them on and looking at your numbers. Of a couple dozen of the items that I found, I only ever saw one effect on my statistics. A hint guide I found somewhere online refers to a Ring of Jumping, but when I found it, it did nothing to my jumping statistic. (As a side note, I had mentioned that jumping did nothing for one of my characters. That seems to have been a bug with the character, as it worked for later ones.) The manual also goes on about how you can make friends with monsters and get them to assess your items, but all they ever seem to do is to tell you how much they're worth, not what they do.
At one point, I found a Ring of Invisibility or something. Monsters didn't attack me until I acted first. The word "silence" would appear frequently as I walked.
You're supposed to be able to "taste" potions to get a sense of what they do; healing potions, for instance, are supposed to taste like peppermint. The mechanic simply never worked for me. I'd taste potions and the game would just say "OK."

The game has a pretty serious bug by which if you accumulate too many items, it crashes when you try to use one. The number seems to be close to 25.

Very few items did anything for me at all. I got one upgrade to a magic sword at one point, and a shield provided some defensive options. I found that armor was too heavy to be worth the extra defense. Many of the game's items--gold, platinum, gems, crowns--seem to be designed just to bribe monsters to get them to talk with you. This process takes so long, and produces such inconsistent results, that I cheated it: I bribed the hell out of a single monster, created save state just before asking him for information, and then asked him. I noted his answer, reloaded the save state, and asked again. With a single NPC, I thus managed to get all of the game's hints--I think. It's possible that there are special monsters that give you hints that the others don't, but I spot-checked in a few different quadrants and I didn't get anything new.
"Greeting" a monster is one of the only ways to find out exactly what it is.
I did solve one item puzzle. One of the NPCs' hints is to leave cups in The Dining Room. When you finally find The Dining Room in Quadrant 3, there's a note saying that it's closed and to use The Banquet Hall in Quadrant 1 instead. If you drop a cup in either of the two rooms, you get a message that says "ping!," the cup disappears, and your magic ability increases by 2. A hint I found online suggested that something similar might happen from dropping excess swords in The Guard Room, but when I did that, they just made a pile on the floor and nothing happened.

A couple of items were just mysterious. Quadrants 3 and 4 offered a couple of buckets and brooms (oddly, one of the insults monsters sling at you is "bucket-and-broom man"), but there was never any clear place to use them. The last two quadrants also had a number of fish in various treasure chests and bags, but they can't be eaten.

Bangity-bang. I said a-bang bang bangity bang.
Quadrants 3 and 4 greatly increased the navigational challenges. It turns out that the "bang!" I was experiencing in Quadrant 2 was from "mine fields." These are invisible, but as long as you walk on them, you get injured. You can't jump over them. The only thing you can do is try to skirt them or run through them quickly, casting "Heal" until your spell points run out. There are a lot of pits of various sizes that you have to jump over, respawning enemies that block the corridors, and teleporters that whisk you to other quadrants or other places in the same quadrant.

My annotated map of Quadrant 4, with pits, teleporters, and mine fields. Room #81 had a key and Room #75 had a greave.

A centerpiece of Quadrant 3 was a section of wall that blinked in and out of existence. To make things more difficult, it was surrounded by pit traps. To get past it, you had to jump over the pits, turn, and jump off the square before the wall returned. Not unfair in general, but a real pain with this game's command system.

I fail to make it off in time.
Quadrants 1, 2, and 4 all had pieces of the quest armor in chests, so it seems like Quadrant 3 should be a logical place for the fourth piece. There's even a room in the quadrant called "A Place to Greave," which you think would be a hint. But the chest in the room just has a sandwich, a fish, and a cup. I looked everywhere.

Even if I'd found all four pieces, I'm not sure I'd know what to do with them. The manual mentions bringing them to the Hall of Ascension, but I never found a room by that name. One of the hints is that you need 3 keys to open the exit, but I also never found an exit. Finally, there's the issue of that password, which I've become fully convinced is "COAL," but was never asked for anywhere in the game.

In a GIMLET, I award the game:

  • 2 point for the game world. There's hardly anything to the back story. A few paragraphs of text describe the fate of an unfortunate adventurer, but little else is given about the dungeon or the mysterious Zob.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Most of that goes to the creation mechanic, where you can choose from a variety of trainers to set your opening statistics and thus your basic approach to the game or "class." In-game development, as described above, is disappointing.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. As described last time, it was an original idea that needed some additional care. The game's insults will last in my memory longer than the gameplay.
This never got old.
  • 4 points for a variety of encounters and foes with different strengths and weaknesses, decently described in the game manual. Some limited respawning of skeletons in the corridors allows you to grind if necessary.

The manual's gallery of the foes in this game.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. A very basic system that could have used more refinement. Too many of the results are random.
  • 3 points for equipment, with the issues I describe above.
  • 2 points for economy, which mostly consists of finding valuable items to give to NPCs.
  • 1 point for a confusing main quest that may or may not even have a resolution in the game.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. It goes to the barely-adequate graphics. The rare sound isn't worth hearing, and as I covered last time, the interface is simply awful.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The challenge is right, and I could see some replayability with different "classes," but overall it's quite linear and too long.
The final score of 26 puts it in the range of games that tried to do something interesting but didn't do it well enough to make it to "recommended" territory.

As I mentioned last time, contemporary reviews from the U.K. and Europe were quite good, and despite my reservations about the game, I can see why. When 1985 rolled around, Europe still didn't have many good RPGs. There was a port of Rogue that doesn't seem to have made much of a splash; the Ultima clone The Ring of Darkness, handful of gamebook adaptations that made poor RPGs, and a bunch of odd, minor titles like Out of the Shadows, The Valley, City of Death, and Mandragore. Lacking their own Wizardry or even Dunjonquest series, Swords & Sorcery might have been the first game to come along and at least try to replicate the tabletop RPG experience on the computer. Particularly given that Swords & Sorcery owes nothing to any obvious precursors, it's a somewhat impressive achievement.

I practically had a walkthrough finished before I had to give up.
As we discussed last time, though, the developer promised far more than he could deliver. Four additional modules advertised in 1985 never shipped, nor did the planned sequel, HeroQuest. No more titles followed in the MIDAS "adventure concept" series.

Nonetheless, the game was in no way the end for developer Mike Simpson or his publisher. Simpson remained at PSS through 1987, when it was acquired by Mirrorsoft, then worked for Mirrorsoft until it was sold in 1991. He transitioned to Psygnosis in 1991, then joined The Creative Assembly in 1996 and remains there today as Creative Director, overseeing the Total War series. We'll run two titles that he produced: Psygnosis's Obitus (1991) and Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard (1994).

And that wraps us up for 1985, with the exception of a return visit to Wizard's Crown, a game I abandoned prematurely back in 2010. I continue to make slow progress in Fate: Gates of Dawn and I don't really have enough material for another posting yet. I'll spend another few hours with it before getting started on The Magic Candle II, so the next post should be about one of those two games.


  1. As someone who played this game back in 1986 (I recall it came out near the end of 1985 and I didn't get a copy for a while), the progress in this blog far surpasses anything I achieved, having never got out of Quadrant 1. If you can imagine playing this game without save states then you probably understand why I gave up as a 13 year old with a lot of other options for my time...

    1. Reading your progress has been fascinating though, I had no idea the game has the level of complexity you found... (Though I do remember the bugs and awful control system)

    2. I also played a lot of it back in the day, but never got very far (no save states, and it was from a pirated copy, as was normal in Portugal, so no manual). I remember the game being quite buggy, which both these posts and other people's comments have confirmed.

      One thing I have to disagree with you, Chet, is about the graphics: I think they were very good for a Spectrum, and also very good for the time (far better than any Wizardry before VI, for instance, IMO).
      I'd say no Spectrum RPG looked as good as this until 1988's port of Bard's Tale (and even that is arguable).

      I also found these two posts a fascinating read, by the way.

    3. Again I must emphasize that in calculating the final rating, "for the time" or "fort he platform" don't enter into the equation. Do the graphics look all right on my Windows PC in 2016? No? Low score.

  2. Cup + Fish makes me think Fisher King, who was wounded in the lower body - which greaves are meant to protect - all of which makes me think that the solution was meant to be tied to that legend somehow, but I'm reaching and have no idea how a sandwich would come into play.

    1. Broom and bucket likewise gave me flashes of Fantasia. Is there a room with a well they could go into?

      Also, just to make sure I've got it right: you can eat your weapon, but you can't eat the fish? That sounds, well, fishy.

    2. You can technically eat anything, in the sense that if you choose "Eat" while you're holding it, it disappears. But fish doesn't satisfy your hunger like other foods.

    3. When you drop items, can you pick them up again? Because I'd have tried dropping one greave to see if it made the other one appear.

    4. Yes. Good thinking, but I tried it and it doesn't work. I tried dropping and using literally everything in that room.

  3. This is definitely one of the weirder ones you've played. All of the on-screen text looks like it's been sieved through Babelfish or something . . .

    1. I'll say. Nostril sack? Dog bottom? Slimy yellow zit? It sounded more like what one might hear during a playground scuffle. I'm all for creative cussing but this is way too much, even for me. And that's saying a lot.

    2. Standard ZX Spectrum graphics. All of the Spectrum games looked like this. I had ZX Spectrum back then

    3. It's not the graphics I have gripes with, mate.

  4. This game also had an interesting level of controversy around it, some of the gaming magazines of the time were keen to see it succeed due to the perceived advances in programming it included. This led to one of the strangest reviews ever in the usually reliable magazine Crash, almost a plea to give the game a chance -

    (It also led to a fair amount of backlash when people bought the game and felt conned)

    1. That's a great review. I'd wish I'd noticed it when I was Googling. It confirms my thesis that the platforms available in the UK at the time were being horribly under-utilized in the RPG department. Swords & Sorcery tried to correct that--and it did so without ripping off an American title. It deserves some credit on both counts.

      I'm glad to see that even a contemporary reviewer had issues with the control mechanism.

  5. "When 1985 rolled around, Europe still didn't have many good RPGs"
    the first good European RPGs I remember playing were were the Realms of Arkania trilogy (German) and the Ishar trilogy (French). Other awesome RPGs are Ambermoon (amiga) and spiritual successor Albion (PC), both German. Albion is in my personal TOP10 RPGs ever. Another amazing German RPG is Gothic I and II. Gothic II is also in my personal TOP10 - the best open-world design to this date. Bethesda should learn how to make open world RPG.

    And since I am Czech, the first good Czech RPG comes probably from 1998 - The Gates of Skeldal

    Now a Czech company is making the Kingdome Come RPG, so hopefully we will contribute another good RPG to the world :-)

    1. In case you didn't know, the guys behind Gates of Skeldal have recently released a sequel called 7 Mages. It's out for mobiles and technically in early access for PC, although the EA version is a full game that is fully playable and mostly bug-free, just lacks the PC-specific improvements. Pretty good too.

    2. I remember Albion depicting a topless female alien early into the game. I haven't played it since, but it doesn't surprise me to see that it was originally European.

    3. I seem to recall that it was a cheetah chick. Furries, maybe? And there were commodes that grew out of plants that sucks the sh!t out of you to nourish themselves.

    4. @Raifield?
      do you mean this one?
      you crash land on an alien planet and after you wake up, you see this alien caring for you.
      Europeans are not so neurotically sensitive to nudity as the Northern Americans :-) If you travel to Africa and Asia, in some of the tribes, females are still topless (I have seen it in Laos)
      but AFAIK, there are no other topless females in the game except for this one (nonoffensive) picture

      the looks and feel of the game is almost like Avatar (the movie), except with a much more insteresting world and plot

    5. Yeah, that's what I remembered. Mobygames seems to depict the creature equally un-dressed within her inventory screen. Just one of those cultural things between America and...everyone else, probably.

      I've always heard its a great game, but it looks like one that will take far more time than I have available, unfortunately.

    6. I agree. Putting human-like breasts on an anthropomorphic cat clearly demonstrates that Europeans have much healthier attitudes about female nudity than Americans.

    7. That and the whole nude-beaches-nude-parks-nudity-in-ads-nudity-on-TV thing.

    8. Anthropomorphic, Chet, anthropomorphic.

    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    10. I'll respectfully disagree that greater prevalence of nudity somehow equates to a better attitude about it. And you're never going to convince me that breasts have somehow become non-sexualized in Europe. I've been there and I know too many European men.

      Do you honestly think European ads, games, and TV show nudity because they're more "authentic"? Like they were going to make a normal ad but the model happened to show up topless, so they just shrugged and went with it? Games, ads, and TV shows aren't candid shots that just happened to pick up a female subject au naturel. If nudity is in them, it's deliberately placed. And if it's deliberately placed, it's deliberately placed for a reason--namely, that advertisers and TV producers and game producers expect it will titillate audiences and sell copies. You want to see something artistically noble in what is clearly a commercial decision.

      America has plenty of topless beaches and parks and nudist resorts. No, we don't have breasts on prime time television. Congratulations, Europe: you get the pleasure of getting erections while your family is in the room. I envy how much healthier and well-adjusted you are.

      I think this argument is 99% myth and I'm getting sick of seeing it on my blog.

    11. “I'll respectfully disagree that greater prevalence of nudity somehow equates to a better attitude about it. And you're never going to convince me that breasts have somehow become non-sexualized in Europe. I've been there and I know too many European men.”

      Seeing as how in the U.S. you are more likely to be arrested and thrown in a cage for nudity, I’d say the European prevalence of nudity and their tolerance for it is a better attitude. But if one is of a prudish nature and doesn’t care about freedom, I suppose the opposite would be true. And who’s saying it’s (completely) non-sexualized? Of course it’s not. But so what? Why is sexuality bad? And I can tell you after being to dozens of European beaches, all of which were topless or nude (with the exception of Turkey, for obvious reasons), familiarity breeds apathy.

      “Do you honestly think European ads, games, and TV show nudity because they're more "authentic"?”

      I don’t know how you’re using the word “authentic,” but I will say that it shows that they are less uptight. I consider that good, but to a prudish person, it may be seen as bad.

      “You want to see something artistically noble in what is clearly a commercial decision.”

      I just re-read the comments above. No one said that nudity qua nudity was artistically noble. You’re fighting a strawman. And there is no necessary conflict between making great art and making a commercially viable product. Horace, Raphael, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Handel, Beethoven, Rossini – I could go on and on naming great artists who made great and commercially successful art.

      “America has plenty of topless beaches and parks and nudist resorts. No, we don't have breasts on prime time television. Congratulations, Europe: you get the pleasure of getting erections while your family is in the room. I envy how much healthier and well-adjusted you are.”

      There is no comparison between the number of topless and naked beaches and places in Europe and America. Nearly every beach in Europe is, at a minimum, topless. There are entire states in America where showing some boob can land you in jail. And if someone is getting erections from catching sight of a breast on television, maybe that person should be exposed to more breasts. Parit enim conversatio contemptum; raritas conciliat admirationem

    12. Posidonius, I'm curious: if a man walked around Paris or Rome with his penis hanging out, would that be accepted, or would he be arrested just like in the U.S.? What about a bottomless woman? And either way, is the attitude prevalent across Europe or just in a few countries?

    13. Man, as an European I have to say that every time nudity is mentioned on this blog, the comments get extremely weird.

      BronzeBob, all those things are likely to end in a police arrest. It's true that going topless on beaches is in many places legal or at least tolerated, but that's usually also the limit of what is permitted.

      Also it's weird to see people pretend that there's no nudity in American games (Wizardry VI) or on American primetime TV (Game of Thrones)...

    14. "I think this argument is 99% myth and I'm getting sick of seeing it on my blog"

      sorry to have brought it up. I really find it strange that naked breasts are such a taboo but violence is not. In movies, people get shot, murdered, tortured, decapicated, dismembered on a regular basis (which is OK and is shown on TV), but naked breasts are a taboo. But which is more natural?

      Freud believed that repressed sexuality leads to neurosis
      Basically, if you repress it, it will find other means of coming out, such as violence. People need to find a healthy attitude towars sexuality, which is neither supression, tabooization nor vulgarization. Not showing breasts on public TV? People will find it privately on the internet. 30% of global web traffic is p0rn.

      I did not want to start any of the US vs Europe debate. You probably do not understand the European culture and are fighting strawmen, just like Europeans do not understand the American culture and might be fighting strawmen. I spent about a year in Massachusetts - Boston, Cape Cod - and I remember the atrocious alcohol laws :-) All bars closed at 1am, alcohol only from liquor stores and in brown bags etc. But Provincetown (a famous gay resort in Cape Cod) was fairly liberal, gays kissing in public all over the place. I am not a gay myself

    15. Considering that Freud was a complete hack and pretty much all of his sexual theories have been discredited by modern psychology, namedropping him doesn't help your case any.

      @ignoble Bork

      "Also it's weird to see people pretend that there's no nudity in American games (Wizardry VI) or on American primetime TV (Game of Thrones)"

      Game Of Thrones is an HBO show. HBO is not only a cable-only network, but one you have to specifically request pay extra to get. The only nudity on US TV is found on channels like that, as it is explicitly forbidden on all non-cable broadcasts.

      As for games, Wizardry VI and other games from that period were able to do so only because nobody was watching. It is extremely rare to see such after the mid-1990s, and even anything close in major commercial productions is going to cause massive controversy.

    16. In response to BronzeBob, probably that would lead to arrest, but I do recall being in Amsterdam once when a group of acrobats/performance artists were busking entirely in the nude in a public square. This was in the middle of the day; families were walking by and some stood to watch. Surprisingly, we all lived to tell the tale.

    17. I think there's some confusion as to what cable is in the US.

      In the US there are the networks, which broadcast over the air using affiliate stations, and cost nothing besides a receiver to get. Since those signals travel over the air, they are regulated by the FCC here, and the FCC has fairly strict rules about what is allowed on the *public* airwaves (in addition, the networks have to devote a portion of their airtime to news, and that used to be a money pit, but note since they found out how to monetize it quite well).

      Cable, as the name implies, are additional stations delivered over a cable (which often brings the networks as well for convenience). Cable stations are not subject to FCC limitations, but often don't push the envelope much, because the advertisers are fairly sensitive to this subject, because there *are* segments of the population that respond negatively, and the cable providers also don't want people to complain. Generally, cable channels tend to restrict nudity until after 9 or 10, and keep it fairly benign (an occasional breast).

      There's an additional tier of cable channels which are "premium", such as HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc which usually require additional fees to get. Generally without commercials, they take a harder stance on showing movies (and higher end original content) as they were intended, which means with nudity. As these cost more, a smaller portion of Americans have access to them.

      Additional info here:

    18. I feel responsible for this comment thread and am very sorry I mentioned my hazy memory of Albion at all.

    19. It got pretty far off-track, in no small part because of my own comments.

      I remain convinced that:

      1. Purported differences between European and American attitudes towards nudity are over-estimated, and in any event centered around only a very specific, minor type of nudity.

      2. Even if I'm wrong, putting unnecessary nudity in games (e.g., on creatures that wouldn't be expected to have the same parts as humans) suggests a GREATER obsession with it, and thus less healthy attitudes towards it, than leaving it out.

    20. Come on. Anthropomorphism. If they can talk like a human, walk like a human, then of course they're gonna be packin' like a human.

  6. It looks like this game as shipped really is unwinnable. I found a copy of the author's "mea culpa" letter that you mentioned in your previous post. It includes a type-in patch that, in the words of the author, "makes completion of the game much less grief. In fact you will only have to find one. (That was a rather puny attempt at a joke/clue.)"!msg/comp.sys.sinclair/ZoPXP0h_Ej4/a5elFBXIO8sJ

    1. Well, THAT's an interesting find.

      I was never able to get the game/emulator to successfully save a character to tape. I would insert a blank tape file, the game would run for a while, and then continue on as if it had saved, but with nothing added to the tape. As such, I don't think I can apply this fix.

      Overall, this means the "won" column gets an "N/A" instead of a "No" for now.

  7. Oh, HK-47 here reminded me of something.

    Chet, do you want to add something to your "master game list"? :) Not very good game, a dungeon crawler called Revolt of Don’s Knights (1997) :-)

    1. Sure! Always looking to bulk up the list with games described as "awful first-person RPGs"! If I ever get to 1997, RoDK will be played.

  8. Those insults are almost definitely procedurally generated. I use the term "procedurally" fairly loosely by today's standards, but they all seem to fit the pattern of randomly selected [adjective] [adjective] [noun]. With a somewhat Monty Python-esque flavour.

    A first for the genre perhaps?

    1. The funny thing about the procedural generation is that it seems to draw not just from a list of insults but also objects and messages within the game. Hence "broom-and-bucket man," "dung-shifting, bang-wielding human" (dung appears as an object, and "bang!" is the message you get when you go over mines), "cup-seeker."

  9. The Spectrum port of Rogue was terrible: it had improved graphics, but none of the randomisation that is the point of Rogue.

  10. Will you be doing a 1985 re-wrap up post? Love to see how your opinions on the trends of the year might have changed even though it's clear that Ultima IV shall now and forever be the "Game of the Year".

    I hope that during your playthrough of 1986, you find the time to do a quick look at Dragon Quest on the MSX. There is a partial fan translation (and I do not know how "partial" it is), but given how much of the future of console RPGs started with that game, it would be enjoyable for you to rip it to shreds.

    1. It's going to be a short one--no dithering over "Game of the Year"--but yes, I'll do one.

    2. I'm glad to hear that as I really enjoy the era/yearly summary posts.

      By the way, there's no link to the 1984/1985 post on the Index of Games Played by Year page.

  11. I'll be here for your revisit to Wizard's Crown. It's another of those "lots of encounters/grinding is the real game, with a quest you can do as well" sorts of deals, back when you wanted one game for 50+ hours of play but the quest content didn't support it.

    If memory serves, the Atari 8-bit was the native platform for the game, so I'd recommend that version if you can swing it. You'll need to do a lot of grinding to advance enough to finish the questline, first by fighting in town, then outside the north gate, then in the ruins screen by screen. Several spots in the ruins (especially outside the ruin walls) are challenging even after you finish the main quest.

    If memory serves, if you grind enough in each screen of the ruins you can drastically reduce the encounter rate for the remainder of the game. I only recommend trying for the first screen or two outside the city gate, though. Encounters change depending upon whether it is day or night.

    One more piece of advice: make sure you have a mix of slash/pierce/blunt weaponry and skills in your party. Some enemies are tougher or weaker against different types. Magic equipment, especially life-draining equipment, is key.


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