Thursday, February 25, 2016

Vengeance of Excalibur: Won!* (with Final Rating)

Vengeance of Excalibur
United States
Synergistic Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 14 February 2016
Date Ended: 22 February 2016
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 140/208 (67%)
Scenario 3 opened with the intelligence that several of Camelot's treasures had been taken to the mysterious City of Brass, occupied by thousands of "skeleton soldiers." Al-Mansur, Breuse's supposed ally, was besieging the city, and might agree to sell out Breuse in his desperation.

The party meets the most powerful figure in Muslim Iberia.
I went to the city and spoke to Al-Mansur. He agreed to help me if I could get into the city and open the gates from within. "If only men could fly," he added, hinting at what the manual makes explicit: I need a flying carpet. Fortunately, the djinni in my service had a "Flying Carpet" spell. I went to the exterior of the city, summoned the Djinni, and cast the spell.
I have to provide the carpet?! What kind of a djinni are you?!
Time to scour all of Iberia for a carpet! Figuring it wasn't in any of the places that I had explored in Scenario #2, I concentrated on the other cities. I first hit all the ones without garrisons, but found nothing except some traders selling healing balm and herbs. These turned out to be handy later but they weren't the object of my quest.

In my explorations, I ran into a Christian army led by someone named Enrico. He was hoping to get my help reclaiming Barcelona. Figuring at the very least this was a side-mission, I accepted and we conquered the city.
I like my odds.
Barcelona turned out to have several merchants, one of whom was happy to sell a carpet.
Something about the way he said this made me a little suspicious.
I bought the carpet, returned to the City of Brass, dropped it on the ground, summoned the djinni again, and cast the spell.
Right. What does "house of a flying creature" mean!? I went back to Barcelona, poked around some more, and found a merchant who would sell me a silk carpet. 

Okay, I suppose the cocoon of a silkworm is a "house of a flying creature" in some twisted way. When I went back to the City of Brass with this carpet, the spell worked and I was able to fly over the walls into the city.
I'm not sure I wouldn't want to sit for this.
As predicted, the city was full of skeletons. They were tough enemies, and I had to use a lot of healing balms and "Healing" spells from Nineve to keep my knights alive. Even then, the skeletons occasionally killed someone before I could react, and I had to reload. There were several combats with multiple skeletons at once, in which case three of your party members engage at once.

Throughout the game, I was never able to figure out how to re-order the knights in combat or send the warriors I actually wanted into the fight. For instance, in the battle above, if Palomides withdraws, Amadis will take his place. So far, so good. But if Bedivere then withdraws, Nineve won't take his place--Palomides will head back into action again. In other words, you can only have one substitution at a time, and it always substitutes the next highest-ranked character. Later in the game, I got the ability to summon a bunch of my own skeletons, and it would have been nice to have them do all the fighting, but they only ever took the place of whatever knight was third on the list (in a battle against three foes).

Anyway, eventually I reached the gate of the city from the inside, and Al-Mansur's forces were able to conquer it. But that still didn't end the scenario. I had to wander around the city until I found the source of its evil: an evil djinni constantly summoning skeletons. Every time I defeated one, he just summoned another one.
I couldn't break the cycle no matter what I did or what spell I used. Thus, I reluctantly consulted a walkthrough. I discovered that to defeat the djinni, I needed an empty bottle and a cork. This would have required me to buy a bottle of wine back in Barcelona, drink it before meeting up with the djinni, and then "use" the cork to trap him. I guess the evil djinni couldn't possibly see me coming with a bottle and cork held out menacingly in front of me.

This was exactly the kind of thing that drove me crazy about Spirit of Excalibur: fail to visit some random place or acquire some random object, and you're screwed hours later. Even classic adventure games don't typically put you in this kind of situation. They allow you to backtrack to previous screens and work out puzzles logically. When you have the entire Iberian peninsula to explore and events progress in a linear manner, it fundamentally isn't fair unless the goal is to expect the player to tread the same ground multiple times, fighting the same battles. RPG's typically aren't like this, and when they are--when I have to hunt around for an "earlier save"--I get annoyed.

Anyway, I restarted from the beginning of the scenario, bought the wine bottle this time, did everything again, and trapped the djinni. This got me Helye's Book, a treasure that I don't recall being mentioned in the backstory and that does not appear in Arthurian legend. It's apparently a spellbook, and reading it conferred to Nineve some extra spells.

From this point, I lost my interest in playing honestly, and I consulted the walkthrough frequently to get to the end of the game. I was able to finish Scenarios 4 and 5 without help, but I sleepwalked through Scenario 6 and consulted it a couple of times in Scenario 7.
Scenario 4 opened with the news that Al-Mansur had betrayed me by taking Arthur's helm, Arthur's shield, Excalibur, and the Holy Grail and rode off for Kurtuba (Cordoba). The world map showed his army on the move towards the city.

Winning the scenario depended largely on getting to Kurtuba before Al-Mansur--difficult enough on its own given that accidentally running into him on the road leads to immediate death. Even worse, I had to reach Kurtuba with a knight named Ruy Diaz, who had a quest to rescue the daughter of the King of Castile. That meant first joining him far to the north in Salamanca. The manual tells you all of this; I didn't have to get it from the walkthrough. What the walkthrough recommended, however, was leaving one knight close to Salamanca during Scenario #3 so he could hustle to join Diaz at the beginning of Scenario #4 and meet the rest of the party in Kurtuba before Al-Mansur could get there. Having not done that, I had to take my entire party to Salamanca and back down to Kurtuba, which took me three tries and left me with just seconds to spare on the last try.
The party gets to Kurtuba too late. These instant-kills are really annoying.
The manual also warned that I would need Sir Breuse's help. I had to explore a large dungeon to find him. The multi-screen dungeons in this game are a good idea, making it more like an RPG than Spirit of Excalibur, but they're hard to map because there's little rhyme or reason to the direction you enter and exit a room. You might go from Room 1 to Room 2 by clicking on a door, but when you arrive in Room 2, you walk in from the left side of the screen. Then, clicking on the left side doesn't necessarily take you back to Room 1.
This is the kind of thing Breuse would do.
With Breuse's help, I found the maiden, Landoine (the name belongs to a couple of characters in the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Grail), and got from her a golden key to the castle's treasury.
In the treasury, I found Arthur's helm and shield, completing this scenario.

Scenario 5 opened with the news that Breuse had stolen Arthur's shield moments after I found it, and that Al-Mansur was headed for Tuliatala. The manual suggested that three cities would ask for aid, and that I would need to help at least two of them to raise an army large enough to take Tuliatala, but if I tried to help all three, it would "enable Al-Mansur to raise an army that is so formidable, even a prayer won't protect your party from certain death." I think the game could have tried harder with that hyperbole.

Anyway, as the scenario opened, I already had one army: King Alfonso's, given to Ruy Diaz in exchange for rescuing his daughter. A messenger came along soon enough with a request from two other cities.
Long story short, I helped defend the cities, acquired their armies, marched on Tuliatala, defeated Al-Mansur's army, and then killed Al-Mansur himself in a very easy one-on-one combat with Lancelot. Excalibur was mine. (Historical note: Almanzor is believed to have actually died in 1002 in the Battle of CalataƱazor, a major victory in the Spanish Reconquista.)
Al-Mansur moments before I eviscerated him with my "feeble weapons."
Scenario #6 inexplicably wanted me to "reforge" Excalibur to kill the Shadowmaster despite nothing ever having been said that it was broken. The manual gave enough hints about what I needed to do that I probably could have figured it out on my own, but the process involved a couple of spells for which Nineve needed specific herbs, and I didn't feel like running around to every city trying to find them.

As part of the scenario, I had to sail to Majorca and kill a dragon in it's cave, recovering a number of treasures, including a "runic blade" that served as a good weapon for Bedivere (Lancelot had Excalibur), a "small chest" that I never found a way to open, and the dragon's teeth which, when used, summoned skeleton warriors to fight for me.
The dragon had some fancy treasure.
Somewhere, I ran into Diego Garcia again, who offered to trade me some meteor iron for the djinni's lamp, which I owed him anyway in exchange for his previous favor. I agreed. That plus some spells were the final ingredient I needed to reforge Excalibur, which I did at a smith's shop, ending the scenario.
And we've finished our destruction of the Arthurian tradition.
As Scenario #7 started, that mysterious canis lupus reappeared and told me that  the Shadowmaster was in the "Ciudad Encantada" northeast of Cadiz. I brought my party to the city. The difficult part of this scenario was finding my way through a couple of mazes, first outside the city and then inside, and killing a couple dozen Saracens, Moors, and guards along the way.

The map culminated first in a fight against Breuse. Killing him got me Arthur's shield.

Breuse, just before a quick death.
After that was the Shadowmaster. When I faced him, Lancelot was equipped with the Gauntlets of Power, Arthur's helm, Arthur's shield, and Excalibur/The Sword of Vengeance, but I still couldn't defeat the Shadowmaster. He kept killing me with fireballs before I could even get up to him.
This guy wasn't trash-talking.

The game had screwed me one more time. It turns out that to defeat the Shadowmaster, I first had to use something called a "Citadel Scroll" on Arthur's shield. But only a knight with a piety of 25 or greater was capable of using the Citadel Scroll. And the only way to build piety is to spent hours praying at a church. Thus, I had to reload a save from the beginning of the scenario, have my knights sit at a church until their piety was at the sufficient level, and replay everything again.
Trust me, I wasn't feeling particularly "pious" right now.
With the shield thus enchanted, the Shadowmaster could hardly do any damage at all, and Lancelot killed him in a few hits.
The endgame text describes how the party returns to Camelot and heals Constantine with the Grail and the land is saved, at least until William of Normandy shows up.

How the paralyzed Constantine "sips" from the Grail isn't well explained.
Mind if I add a quick GIMLET to this already-long post?

  • 4 points for the game world. It uses an unusual historical setting--maybe the first and only time that we see Islamic Iberia in an RPG--but merging this history with Arthurian legends doesn't really make any sense, and I can't say that the backdrop contributed significantly to the story except for a couple NPCs and of course the landscape. The Shadowmaster was just a generic "big bad," and his nature and threat is never well explained in the game or backstory. I did, however, like the concept of a living world in which events happen independent of the party and yet you can still influence them.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. You "choose" characters rather than create them, and the game doesn't give you a lot of help with that. There's little reason not to just pick the strongest knight (Lancelot) and have him wield all the best equipment and get all of the combat points. "Development" consists of an occasional combat or magic point--definitely the bare minimum to be considered an RPG at all.
Some character stats that increase with use and equipment.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. A key part of the game is finding messengers and allies and agreeing to help (or not) with their quests. Some of them are historically based, which adds some more depth.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The enemies in the game are a bland selection of skeletons, Saracens, dwarves, and such--nothing to celebrate. As I often do, I give a couple points here for the adventure-style puzzles, but not a lot because I don't think they're very good.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Both individual and army combat are boring, automatic, and overly random. There is little in the way of tactics except for the occasional spell.
  • 3 points for equipment. There are a handful of items to buy, find, wield, and use, but they make permanent changes to the character's attributes and are not the types of tradable, swappable, droppable inventory that you really seek in an RPG.
  • 5 points for the economy. Because hiring armies costs so much, I was too paranoid to spend gold through much of the game, but it does have a lot of value, both in hiring allies and buying various potions and spell reagents, and you earn it both from quest completion and searching slain foes.
  • 3 points for a main quest and a number of optional areas.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are fantastic--probably the best part of the game--but there's no sound beyond music and I found the mouse-driven interface clunky. It was too easy to click on the wrong thing.
Beautifully-composed scenes like this gypsy camp are the highlight of the game.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It's deceptively linear, meaning the ability to traverse the Iberian peninsula makes it seem non-linear, but really each scenario confines you to a couple of cities. I suppose it's slightly "replayable" for different experiences with different knights, and different ways to accomplish some of the missions. I find it just a tad exasperating, but at least it's over quickly with a little help.

The final score of 34 puts it right below my "recommended" threshold and 1 point higher than I gave Spirit of Excalibur. Spirit had a much better story and game setting, but Vengeance has a better economy. The rest of the categories rate about the same. Reading over my Spirit rating, I see that I made a lot of the same comments, particularly on the nonlinearity issue: "I hold a special contempt for games that seem nonlinear but actually expect you to follow a precise path. What starts as, 'Wow! I can go anywhere in Britain!' soon becomes 'Wow! If I don't hit these towns in this precise order, there's no way to defeat the Saxon armies!'"
This title should have been rejected for the same reason that Revenge of the Jedi was.
Contemporary reviews tended to praise the original setting but gave poor overall ratings. Most noted that the problems inherent in Spirit of Excalibur hadn't been fixed. Amiga Power, wrote, "Back in May last year we less-than-eccstatically [sic] reviewed this game's predecessor, Spirit of Excalibur. This one's no better." Amiga Action in June 1992: "Following on the heels of Spirit of Excalibur, Vengeance revives the previous disappointment with a sequel of equally low stature."

The January 1992 Computer Gaming World offers a nuanced review, making most of the criticisms that I do: lack of information about the knights and spells, the horrible blow to role-playing in the dwarf caverns, and the tactically-bereft combat system among them.
Both Spirit and Vengeance exemplify Synergistic's refusal--going all the way back to Robert Clardy's Campaign series--to define itself by a single genre. But while originality is admirable, it has to be tempered with strong game elements. The games blend some strategy, adventure, and RPG characters, but they don't go deep enough into any of these genres and thus leave fans of all of them feeling a bit unsatisfied. The company is only going to have one more chance--1996's Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance--to get it right.

I needed a quick one after Disciples of Steel, and that served okay. The next 1991 game is one I know nothing about--Dusk of the Gods--followed by the familiar comfort of a Gold Box title.


Further Reading: Check out the other games made with Synergistic's "World Builder" engine: War in Middle Earth (1988),  Spirit of Excalibur (1990), and Conan: The Cimmerian (1991).


  1. Dusk of the Gods is pretty good, if very RPG-lite. A tip (although it's probably too late): your combat and magic ratings can be increased in game, while your god skills only in the character creation, so don't neglect them.

    1. No, not too late. I haven't even started yet. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Sometimes, you play a game and wonder why the endboss just sits in his lair and waits for you. This game tells you why - because it wouldn't be fun otherwise.
    A lot of games work with some triggers - you do an action and just at the same time, the endboss progresses as well. Sometimes by chance (o forced storytelling), sometimes caused by your actions.

    I could even imagine a game where both you and the antagonist race for something. But it wouldn't be in an open world, where you have to solve puzzles and travel to places in a fixed order. Side quests would have to be of a smaller scale and optional, so you always have to consider if you have the time for solving one or not. "Sorry, somebody else has to get your vital herb from the woods, I have to stop the antagonist."

    But this game sounds like playing a platform game, where you have to learn all those difficult jumps and timing and repeat everything until you got it right. I always hated that.

    1. In the Dr. Who Episode, Pyramids of Mars, the villain, Sutek, just sits on his throne and watches T.V. all day, until Tom and Sarah Jane show up. One reviewer said it best, "Hey a villain all we anoraks can relate to!"

    2. What's an anorak?


    4. This may be more useful than Tristan's link.;f=2;t=006467;p=1

    5. There was a patch I remember seeing for Morrowind that makes the main storyline's progression time driven rather than event driven, and slowly adjusts what maps monsters are allowed to spawn in. Ignore the rise of Dagoth Ur long enough, and somebody critical to the plot will eventually get killed, leaving you to figure out what's going on for yourself...

  3. Dusk of the Gods looks like it'll be enjoyable, not horrible, not great. I've never done it before, but I'm going to try playing Dusk of the Gods along with the blog. I likely won't finish first though.

  4. " but if I tried to help all three, it would "enable Al-Mansur to raise an army that is so formidable, even a prayer won't protect your party from certain death."

    Was this true, or did you comfortably defend all three cities and not just two?

    1. I only defended two (I don't think Tuliatala counts). I never even heard from the third.

  5. "Even classic adventure games don't typically put you in this kind of situation. They allow you to backtrack to previous screens and work out puzzles logically."

    Hahaha. No, they don't.

    Anyway, is that the Holy Grail in the winning shot? The knights have chosen... poorly.

    1. I guess I was speaking partly from ignorance there, but I had the Zork series in mind, which hardly ever puts you in a "walking dead" situation.

    2. Which game from Sierra puts you into "walking dead" situation?

    3. Sierra was so notorious for walking dead situations that TVTropes has an entire page dedicated to them...

    4. (Of course, Infocom wasn't any better --

    5. Yes, ohorg, naturally when I said "the Zork series," I was primarily thinking of the weird one published 5 years after the others.

      Me: "Wow, Star Wars is a great franchise."

      You: "Seriously!? You like the Holiday Special?!"

      The previous games aren't "just as bad." You can wander all over the maps In Z1-Z3, Z0, BZ, but events aren't (generally) happening elsewhere in real-time while you do so, and you have plenty of time to take notes, figure out puzzles, and backtrack. If there are a couple of exceptions, they don't change the overall approach that the games take.

      People in the rest of this thread are talking about games that I don't have any experience with, and I admit I shouldn't have made a broad point about adventure games without having experienced them, but please don't nitpick me on Zork.

    6. If you look at the TV Tropes page it gives you seven ways that Zork I puts you in an unwinnable situation. It calls these "highlights," implying that there are more. A quick look at shows that there are multiple ways Zork II and III put you in a walking dead situation.

    7. To be fair, it's normally very obvious when you've screwed yourself in Zork -- it almost always results in breaking an item that you need to continue. I can only think of one instance where you can be walking dead by missing an obscure item in an area you can never return to.

    8. I read them. Most of them are things that you have to deliberately screw around with to cause the later walking dead scenario. They're not things like, "If you don't pick up the torch when you pass through the room the first time, you'll never be able to pick it up again."

    9. Some of them, maybe. But others I could see happening as a result of natural experimentation (and these games usually require you to do outlandish things to solve puzzles). Zork can be unwinnable after six moves if you eat the garlic and forget to reload. It's very easy to let the candles or lantern run out, and if they do, too bad. You can't go back to a merchant and buy more.

      Apparently Infocom was aware of this issue in its early games:
      "Many other early Infocom games deliberately had the same issues, as a means of extending playing time to justify their cost. Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Head of Marketing, conducted a customer survey in late 1984 which showed a distinct correlation between the Infocom games players considered their favorites and the games they had actually finished. This piece of marketing intelligence led to the more foolproof design of Wishbringer and later games. Modern graphical adventures are much more resource-intensive, and it can be an arduous task to search through earlier parts of such a game for a missed object. Therefore, "dead ends" have recently come to be equated with design flaws that designers overlooked, bugs, or poor game design."

    10. I've finished most of the Sierra adventures mentioned in the article and never reached a walking dead scenario. Why would you for example drop one of the items in King's Quest 1? That's nonsense. You must be stupid to do so. It's your goal to get them. Yes, the dwarf is annoying, but you know that when he steals the mirror, you are screwed. I think this is all about some players just being pus*ies and crying when the game is a little bit harder.

    11. In Space Quest 1 you can ignore some items (cartridge, gadget) that are needed later. If you don't use cartrige in another location you won't be able to win the game.
      Similar in King's Quest V: don't rescue rat or forget rope and it's game over.
      In KQ2 there's a bridge that can be crossed only limited times so you can solve 3/4 of the game and just die.
      I can remeber all of them but yeah, there are many dead-ends in Sierra adventure games :)

  6. Rather lucas arts games don't but sierra does and also kills you stupidly with insults while doing so.

    Also funny thing was that when I replayed KQ3 with graphical interface the game was stupidly easy compared to the old parser based UI.

    1. LucasArt games are hardly "classic" adventure games with their fancy digital voices, mouse-driven UI and 256-color palettes.

      Also, even though LucasArt games don't have deaths, their puzzles are as contrived & convoluted as Sierra's. I believe those conmen are in a continuous contest to confound consumers.

    2. Almost the exact same puzzle as the Addict complained about here showed up in a Lucasarts adventure game - in the first Indiana Jones game you have to collect a wine bottle (which you initially aren't allowed to pick up, for added annoyance) that is vital to finishing the game quite awhile later.

      These puzzles are usually not intended to be malicious, but arise from a combination of short deadlines, limited playtesting, and the fact that what looks blindingly obvious to a developer often isn't (and if you use the same playtesters a lot, they'll be so used to it that it will be perfectly obvious to them as well.)

      The biggest difference is time - an adventure game only lasts an hour or two at most, so even if you have to replay the entire game because of a bad puzzle, it's not nearly as nasty as in a 18 hour CRPG.

    3. "Even if you have to replay the entire game because of a bad puzzle, it's not nearly as nasty as in a 18 hour CRPG." Thank you for making the point I SHOULD have made.

  7. You could have just as well substracted points for the adventure style puzzles. It can be nice when they're done properly, but here they mostly seem to require you to replay scenarios that are already rather poorly designed.

  8. I do remember the Amiga version having a particularly good and appropriate soundtrack, and just went to Youtube to confirm this suspicion.

    Yes, it does.

  9. Unnecessary note: Ruy is an alternate form for the name Rodrigo in old Spanish, so Ruy Diaz is "el Cid". In fact, he is called "Ruy Diaz", not Rodrigo, in "El Cantar de mio Cid". Por cierto, gran blog, Chet.

  10. Haha. Back in the middle ages nobody knew where silk came from. Silkworms were a state secret in China. Obscure historical minutiae IN YOUR FACE, unknown game developer! Seriously, though, I hate this kind of crap, where someone thinks he has uncovered some great secret because he has a little bit of knowledge...while anyone with more knowledge knows it's not true.

    P.S. NOBODY SPOIL THE GOLDBOX GAME. Not a thing about it, nothing about where you have to go, nothing about the quests, nothing about the ending, if the ending is good or bad, or if the game even has one. STFU people. Let him figure it out himself.

    1. It's really important not to lose all your characters in combat in GSF, or the monsters will rejoice, for the party has been destroyed.

    2. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors of the existence of any, what did you call it, "Auric Cube" game.

    3. Silkworms and their cultivation could be found in Constantinople starting around 550AD. The production of silk might have been a closely guarded secret, but it's not like it was totally unknown in Europe.

  11. No worries. I am more interested in our host's retake of Alternate Reality. Chet are you just doing the City module?

  12. The dragon's teeth may be a reference to a particular story in Greek mythology wherein planting a properly-prepared field with the teeth of a particular dragon would cause fully-armed warriors to sprout from the ground to do battle with the planter.

  13. So, are you planning to do the Conan - The Cimmerian game? As far as I can tell, it's essentially the same engine, with the map and the side-scroller in-building and fighting action, but there's a zelda-esque city exploration mode where you get to steal (Conan being a thief and all) from houses depending on lockpick still and key types owned. I think it's at least as much an RPG as the Excalibur series, possibly much more so (alas, I never got very far in it).

    1. It wasn't on my list because none of my sources categorize it as an RPG. I guess the key questions are:

      1. Does Conan have attributes that improve as the game progresses?

      2. Does combat draw from these underlying attributes for accuracy and damage, or is it all action-based?

    2. Okay, so I researched this a bit, watched a few youtube videos, and found the manual, since I honestly can't recall the specifics from close to 25 years ago.

      Here's what I'm getting from the Manual, what I remember, and what I say on youtube.

      There is Stamina, which is hit points, and it raises automatically after each "episode".

      There is defense, which raises with each episode.

      There are the sword swings (techniques) he knows, which he must learn from NPCs, and his points in each, which are raised through training with Master Quan.

      There is his theft skill, which increases with each successful use.

      There is his Damage rating, which is really just showing how good his equipped sword is.

      You sometimes have the option to use bribery to get past an obstacle such as a guard.

      So, yes, I think it qualifies as an RPG, if a bit lighter in some aspects than others. I do recall always having to scrounge for money to buy helpful items, so there's at least an economy, which is something I know you seem to find a lot of games lacking. :)

    3. Okay, I appreciate the research. I'll add it.

  14. A "Ciudad Encantada" northeast of Cadiz? This seems to be another instance of just throwing names into the mix without caring too much about context or (historical or geographical) accuracy.

    The only "Ciudad Encantada" I know of is not a city, but an ensemble of rock formations near Cuenca in central Spain - quite well-known at least in Spain (it has also served as backdrop to a couple movies, including Conan and a James Bond one):


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