AI: The Somnium Files Review

Kaname Date is a special agent of a futuristic police department, Advanced Brain Investigation Squad, specializing in exploring people’s subconscious in the course of their investigations. A murder case isn’t necessarily his normal assignment, but …

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors remains one of my favorite games of all time. Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma were solid follow ups to round out the Zero Escape trilogy and quite good in their own right (although they did start to collapse a bit under their own weight as the stories became more involved and grew in scope).

So a fresh start of a brand new mystery game by the same director was something I was extremely excited for. And AI is every bit as fantastic as I hoped.

The gameplay is divided between visual novel-like sections of gathering information and investigating crime scenes, and Somnium sections in which the player explores the subconscious of reluctant persons of interest in a dream-like setting.

It boasts a layered, subtly constructed story that unfolds in pieces across branching paths. Each branch feels solid and satisfying as a self-contained narrative, while giving carefully rationed hints about the big picture that only fully come together as all the branches are played. Using the Somnium sections as the branching points is a great choice, as there’s natural splitting opportunities narratively and gameplay-wise no need for the player to hunt around aimlessly to find the different story paths. The gameplay is top notch overall and brings some nice innovations to the genre.

The technology and sci-fi elements, which are extremely important to AI’s tale, are well used and explained in pieces as needed to avoid too much info dumping.

It’s really amazing how well balanced and executed everything is here. There’s just enough branching, and the way pieces of the puzzle are interspersed between the different tracks is excellently done. The complex story is explored just right, avoids straining to contain its own weight like VLR and ZTD. It strikes me as accessible either by playing down a single path until finished (or temporarily blocked by the need for information from other parts) or by jumping around a bit (which is how I chose to approach it). That’s really difficult to get just right, and an impressive achievement.

The characterizations, twists, general atmosphere and ever increasing feeling of tension all combined to create a tangible “can’t stop playing” feeling, gripping me unlike any other game in quite some time.

The valid possible solutions, suspects, and theories are great and make this an incredibly compelling experience. In fact the red herrings almost too good, as some false leads felt just a touch more interesting than the actual developments. Small criticism though, as the overall tapestry of AI’s tale is still excellent and incredibly well woven.

The limited turn mechanic in the Somnium sections can be a little frustrating mid-game when the difficulty ramps up. But if approached with the perspective of needing to gather information on the first couple of tries to “solve” it and enjoying the additional context exploring “wrong” choices gives this slight negative can be rapidly eliminated.

Certain aspects are also a bit overdone, and an argument can be made that scaling them back touch would enhance the tone and impact of the larger story. But overall it’s all within tolerable limits and the vast majority of the game is pitch perfect.

AI: The Somnium Files is a truly creative game boasting an imaginative story, solid and engrossing gameplay, and satisfying, captivating mysteries. This really covered all the bases for me and is easily my game of the year, something I honestly didn’t expect in competition with things like (the also great) Fire Emblem: Three Houses in the conversation. Simply fantastic.

Dead or Alive 6 Review

It’s been a long time since the last installment of the game series as famous for its fanservice as its fighting, but at last it’s time to take a look at Dead or Alive 6.

 

Dead or Alive 6

 

I enjoy Dead or Alive for what it is, and have always found the actual fighting game beneath DOA’s famous fanservice exterior engrossing. DOA 6 does still have those solid mechanics at its heart, so individual games are still fun and engaging.

It also looks amazing. There’s a real sense of grit and impact during the fights, and the little details are incredible. Visually the game is stunning and another leap forward.

But to be honest if the time/resources spent on battle damage and making little cuts appear on the fighters was at the expense of all the steps backwards… I could have done without.

 

Where’s My Partner?

I’ve always played these games primarily in single player, and with Playstation’s switch to needing PS+ to play online for the PS4, my intension for DOA 6 is exclusively single player. In DOA 4 and 5 survival mode, often the tag version, was far away what I spent the most time playing long term.

So the first major disappointment of DOA 6 is tag mode being completely absent. A lot of the fun of single player was to be had by trying different teams and discovering their tandem moves, how/if they interact, etc. It felt different than the solo modes and made for a nice change of pace. Thus right off the bat nearly half the content I was looking forward to in the game is gone.

Also gone is a new innovation from DOA 5, cliffhanger blows and throws. They weren’t important, but it was something new and entertaining. The main gameplay addition this time is essentially a revised/expanded version of the power blows from DOA 5 and associated elements. The returning characters, which is everyone except two newcomers (and there are of course previous characters missing to “make room” for them), play pretty much exactly the same as in previous games . This consistency is actually mostly desirable, but perhaps more should have been tweaked/added given everything what was taken away.

 

1 out of 1,000 ?! O_o

Part of the interest in continuing to play DOA is getting rewards for progressing in the form of new (admittedly often ridiculous) costumes, and that small motivation does make trying different characters and repeated plays through things like Arcade Mode more interesting and enjoyable.

Tecmo has also monetized costumes and fanservice in DOA to ridiculous degrees via DLC. The trend of DLC in fighting games hasn’t bothered me as much as other gamers as long as what was provided in the original purchase seemed a reasonable core game for the price, and that nothing was “partially” locked gameplay-wise. In DOA5 I thought the initial package was reasonable enough, and supplemented by buying a few of the costumes here and there that amused me the most. I never felt “forced” to buy extra content, or that I had an incomplete or lacking game without it. I did feel they could have included a bit more and been a tad less aggressive about the pricing and packaging of new costumes, but again, enough was provided with the initial game purchase to be reasonable.

That changed this time around. The problem isn’t so much the number of included costumes, which is similar to past iterations (although there are more simple color swaps, which is cheap), but rather the new unlocking methods.

In past games, clearing Arcade Mode (for example) with a character would generally unlock one of the included costumes for that character. Direct correlation to the character being played, reasonable amount of time/effort/achievement involved, and no extra menus/costs/etc.

Here clearing Arcade Mode gets a single digit number of “pattern parts” (unlocking points). Costumes can’t be unlocked until their pattern part threshold had been collected, and then it also requires use of ANOTHER in game currency (admittedly this one is much easier to come by). Parts cost for costume range from 100 to 1,000, meaning time spent in the parts of the game I personally enjoy and play most is USELESS for unlocking things.

Adding insult to injury, the parts earned are RANDOMLY assigned, so playing a favorite character no longer means any progress is necessarily being made towards more costumes/accessories/etc for them, nor can the player concentrate that pathetic amount of points earned into one place to hope it adds up to something semi-reasonable eventually.

The only single player mode that provides a reasonable amount of points is Quest Mode, preset matches with objectives to fulfill while playing (execute a certain number of a a particular type of move, perform combos, etc). The random point assignments are even more maddening here, as when the computer decides for example to allocate a 400 parts reward to a costume that only needs 100 (which has happened to me several times) those other 300 are lost and wasted. As quests are finite, can’t be replayed, and don’t provide enough points to unlock everything even if allocated perfectly, this is yet another design decision that’s a slap in the face of the player.

 

***NOTE: Since I’ve started playing the other single player modes have suddenly started awarding a reasonable number of pattern parts, on par with what Quest Mode provides (although still randomly assigned). A closer look indicates this is because they have decided to run a “Release Celebration” in which the earned amounts are multiplied by up to 100. Short term it fixes one big complaint. Since it’s a temporary thing, this smacks of wanting to quiet valid criticisms while the game is new, then revert to form.  ***

 

Open the Wallet

So now if a player specifically wants costumes for their favorite characters, the ONLY sure way to proceed is purchased content (or playing hundreds of hours and crossing one’s fingers). Costumes are generally bundled by theme with one for each of several included characters, so even when PAYING EXTRA it’s impossible to concentrate on exactly what one wants. The first season pass for DOA 6 DLC was made available on release day, and costs 1.5 times the cost of the game for two characters and three months worth of costume DLC (62 costumes, which may not even include all costumes released in those 3 months). Reminder, that’s just the BEGINNING of their DLC plans.

On last complaint about the DLC approach for this game. I mentioned above that beyond feeling a game is incomplete / feeling like the publishers are trying to force a purchase of extra content, I have any issue with “partially locked” content. I don’t mean locked content being on the game disc. I understand why some have an issue with this, but as I said as long as what I got seems reasonable for the price I’m fine. What I mean is content that is included in parts of the game but then needs to be paid for to be used in others. Of course DOA 6 chose to do this. Two characters are playable in the previously mentioned Quest Mode (and as the quests are preset playing those characters is required to fully complete this mode), but are locked in the rest of the game unless purchased (or unlocked with a pre-order bonus code).

 

A Story Worth Telling?

DOA 6’s Story Mode continues from the fallout of the events in DOA 5. I don’t know if it’s the translation or the original writing, but the dialog is extremely stiff and awkward. I do like the setup of parallel “episodes” in each chapter, but this potentially interesting structure is let down by breakneck, uneven pacing and ridiculous choices on what to show and what to skip. They clearly tried to keep each piece as short as possible while jumping around to feature every character exactly as little as they could get away with, and it makes all the interactions feel unnatural.

The tournament itself, built up to in many of the early segments, is a complete afterthought when it happens, with key pieces skipped (I have extensive feelings and theories about this, but will refrain from discussion due to spoilers). I will say one of the few matches actually shown/played is treated so inconsequentially they don’t even bother to mention which round it occurred in, and its participants (including the winner who presumably advanced) aren’t seen again.

I could keep going (and the absence of an important character in the entire second half of the story is another rant altogether), but the point has been made I think. Some of the plot threads are interesting and I really would have liked to see this come together better as I do like the mythos, but the story mode overall is pretty lacking this time around.

Going back to the above bonus unlocking issues, no pattern points are earned for story mode. But from what I understand it has to be completed for certain costumes to become available for points to affect, so another layer of complication for the top of the pile.

 

One last side note before I wrap up: There was even more of a … debate… about DOA’s fanservice this time around. Without getting into it too much, early on Tecmo seemed to be courting a more serious image with the added violence effects, and what some called a move towards “modest” costumes (although I’m not sure skin tight ninja outfits, etc are really all that modest per se, but more skin is covered in several of the new starting costumes for both women and men than previously). Thing is, the racy, skin bearing costumes are still in the game. They’re just not the ones unlocked to start. The computer is free to use any costumes, and of course online opponents may use anything they have unlocked or purchased, so such costumes will be seen while playing regardless. So anyone wanting a less fanservice heavy DOA isn’t going to find it, and anyone for whom the fanservice is the main draw is back to the purchase/unlocking issues I discussed above. If anything Tecmo created a bit of a false air of “changing the image” of DOA while just shuffling things a bit so they make more money off what a large portion of their established fanbase expects from the series.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Did I enjoy playing this?

Yes, for a time. As mentioned above the mechanics are intact and individual games are still quite enjoyable.

I know the majority of this review was critical, but keep in mind this is all from the point of view of a longtime player of the series and involved discussion of several outside factors. If spending money, tag mode, unlockables, etc do not matter to a player and their only concern is “are the mechanics good and the fighting itself fun?” the answer is yes.

 

Is there anything here to keep me coming back like the previous games did? 

No. Emphatically no. I don’t personally play online, am not going to spend tons on DLC, and while I appreciate the excellent graphics they’re not the end all and be all for me. The things that made DOA games impossible to put down for me personally have largely been gutted.

 

Did/will I get my money’s worth out of it over continuing to play DOA 5 Final Round?

Debatable, leaning no.

It’s technically proficient, beautiful, and has sections heavily tailored to teaching the game, so is an easy recommendation for new players interested in DOAs brand of fighting. But it feels like an infinitesimal step in everything but graphics that it advances and a huge step back in what it offers the player in variety. More of a DOA 5 Part 2 than an actual sequel in my mind, and frustrating even in those terms.

Beautiful Dreams 3: More Art of Juri the Dreamer

It’s been a year and change since my last spotlight on the work of my favorite artist, and I’d like to share and talk about more of her incredible work and some of the inspirations behind the pieces. See Beautiful Dreams and Beautiful Dreams 2 for more about Juri H. Chinchilla’s art, including past pieces I’ll be mentioning in this write up.

 

 

Juri’s Personal Sketch Cards (PSCs) have been a great opportunity to request particular subjects and design elements. One of the more unique requests I’ve made was a card featuring one of my favorite professional wrestlers, and I adored it so much that I’ve followed up with several more since. Juri’s done an AMAZING job depicting these previously unfamiliar to her subjects and these are in many ways the pride of my entire art collection. See Another Wonderful Way Pro-Wrestling is Art 2 for more about the above works featuring WWE’s reigning Smackdown Women’s Champion Asuka, Sendai Girls’ phenomenal high flyer Dash Chisako, and the recently retired Happy Maker Aoi Kizuki.

 

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Misaki Ohata PSC by Juri H. Chinchilla.

 

Another favorite of mine also retired in 2018, and Juri’s strikingly posed Misaki Ohata with a wonderful background of venue lights is a great keepsake.

 

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Reika Saiki PSC by Juri Chinchilla.

 

Tokyo Joshi Pro’s Reika Saiki is known as the “Muscle Idol,” and all aspects of her strength and charisma as a wrestler, idol, and body builder are gloriously highlighted in Juri’s drawing.

 

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Mitsuru Konno PSC by Juri Chinchilla.

 

The last wrestler in this batch was also the first of all. Juri’s first rendition of Mitsuru Konno from Gatoh Move for me featured a great action pose capturing and combining Mitsuru’s strength, determination, grace, and beauty in a remarkable rendition. Equally wonderful is Juri’s quite different recent depiction, featuring Mitsuru in her newer wrestling outfit with a palpable sense of celebration and excitement captured.

With the exception of Dash doing her trademark frog splash, I didn’t specify poses and the layouts, details, and way Juri captured each subject are just wonderful. I couldn’t be happier with how these all turned out.

 

 

Juri’s work have are as diverse in creation method as they can be in subject matter. I’ve added a pair of wonderful paintings of hers to my collection, including a striking abstract and an atmospheric, haunting image of night in Rainy Gotham.

Another unique piece is Aquatica, which shows off Juri’s wonderful use of color in a gorgeous image of an original character.

 

 

As always Juri’s work for Perna Studios‘ high quality card sets is pitch perfect for the subject matter. I was lucky enough to get some Artist Proofs (APs)  from her for their most recent sets. For Witchcraft, I requested a female grim reaper from several artists, and I adore the delicate yet powerful feel Juri brought to her version. In the past I got a witch from Juri with some amazing ravens, so loved the idea of getting Celtic goddess Morrigan for her Classic Mythology III metal AP. Rounding out this group is a graceful moonlight scene featuring my favorite Greek goddess, Artemis, with just a touch of lurking menace as she hunts.

 

A very different Morrigan was part of one of the Personal Sketch Cards I got previously from Juri, an incredible depiction of the Darkstalkers character with her “sister” Lilith. Morrigan’s an old favorite and one of my most played fighting game characters ever, so I was thrilled to add this larger, equally amazingly done drawing of her to my collection.

 

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Continuing the video game theme are three new PSCs from some of my favorite game series. Makoto from Persona 5 joins my previous PSC of Elizabeth from the third game in that series, with a bold red background complimenting the deep blues of the other card. The wonderful balance of a sense of motion while still posing is a wonderful touch not only in the two Persona cards, but also accentuates Juri’s drawings of Fire Emblem’s Tharja, and Valkyria Chronicles 4’s Riley, as well as the Bombshells version of DC’s Raven and Clare from the manga/anime Claymore. Finally for this time around is a beautiful depiction of two of Juri’s original characters. The cards are all excellent and unique works showcasing Juri’s attention to detail and mastery of color in their own different ways

 

 

More information about Juri’s art can be found on her artist page. I hope to continue to follow and collect her wonderous creations for a long time to come. 🙂

 

 

 

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince Review

Just your everyday fairy tale about a singing wolf monster who makes a deal with a witch to transform into a princess in order to help try to get a caring prince she accidentally blinded his sight back.

 

PrincessLiar

 

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince has a whimsical story with just the right amount of emotional beats at its center. The wolf’s anxiety of being discovered while trying to do the right thing despite the lies she thinks she needs to maintain is a compelling framework for the puzzle platforming core. There were admittedly a couple of spots where imprecise mechanics were frustrating, but generally the gameplay is solid and engaging as the player switches between the wolf’s forms to guide and protect the prince as they venture through a dangerous forest. A well done storybook aesthetic completes the package nicely, and overall I found this game extremely engrossing.

 

Gris Review

 

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Gris is an enjoyable platformer with a melancholy atmosphere and a sense of wonder. It’s absolutely GORGEOUS, with an evolving look as color slowly comes back into the world as the player progresses. I found the controls, evolving abilities, and game design well implemented (for the most part) and most importantly, fun.

On the flip side, there’s a touch too little exploration to be done of/in the engaging landscape, particularly in the wonderfully stark early section. The game will kind of railroad the player around at certain points, making it hard to get a sense of geography. When the visuals change dramatically and the game spins me around rapidly down several unclimbable slopes I often couldn’t tell if I was re-exploring an area I’d already visited or not. It didn’t significantly impact my progression, but did break immersion a bit. Also, some dramatic moments have their impact pretty much killed when control is either forcibly (by turning things into a cut scene in the middle of a pivotable moment) or subtly (having the player apparently in control but without their actions actually making a difference in outcomes) taken away.

So it’s not without its drawbacks, but there’s still a solid, engaging game in Gris well worth checking out for anyone who likes the idea of an “artsy” platformer shaped by its underlying themes.

“The room gives you a feeling of deja vu… or has that not happened yet?”

The Sexy Brutale mansion and it’s extensive casino is home to a bizarre string of murders of the masked guests, a day of tragedy Lafcadio Boone will experience in a horrifying loop forever unless he can figure out how to prevent them and uncover the Brutale’s darkest secrets.

 

sexybrutale

 

As comes up often in this blog, I’m a sucker for a good mystery. I also have a soft spot for well done time travel elements. So when I stumbled upon The Sexy Brutale, a time travel mystery where the player explores the titular casino/mansion trying to prevent a series of gruesome murders, my curiosity was certainly piqued. I had no idea however of the full depth of wonders to be uncovered.

It’s made clear from the outset that the Brutale’s staff are committing the murders, so this isn’t a traditional “whodunnit” but rather a larger scoped mystery with deeper answers to uncover. The priest Lafcadio Boone is “blessed” with the ability to rewind the fateful day to gather information and attempt to prevent the murders and find the masked ball’s conspicuously missing host. The brilliant catch is Boone’s partially relegated to an observer’s role. He generally can’t be in the same rooms as the staff or guests so rather than being able to intervene directly the player has to sneak around the mansion, listen in on conversations for information, and take indirect actions to influence things. The approach is really unique and interesting in an adventure game, and beautifully executed.

The balance of story, with heavy amounts of intrigue and compelling mysteries to unravel, and gameplay, with engrossing puzzles and a real sense of exploration and progress, is perfect. The striking visuals that bring the mansion and its inhabitants to life and the haunting atmosphere they help establish were just some of the other excellent touches that made this a game I found it near impossible to put down. Every step of the way I was dying to tackle the next puzzle, piece together the next riddle, and plunge deeper into the Brutale’s world. I honestly can’t recommend this enough.

 

Beautiful Dreams 2: More Art of Juri the Dreamer

As I mentioned in Beautiful Dreams, I’ve been a fan of Juri H Chinchilla’s amazing art for several years and have been fortunate enough to develop a nice collection of her work. Here I’d like to share and talk about more of it (as well as ramble a bit about the stories and inspirations behind certain pieces).

 

 

Juri continues to be heavily featured in Perna Studios excellent card sets. I’ve been lucky enough to get several diverse, beautiful sketch cards of hers from sets like Witchcraft, Elementals, etc, in addition to having the opportunity to commission some incredible Artist Proofs (APs) as well.

Juri’s also done promo and base card art for Perna’s sets, and special cards including metal and spot foil chase cards and variants.

 

 

Some particularly interesting pieces of my collection include unique original works, such as Juri’s original pencils underlying her Mistress of the Night piece (the final version of which I featured in Beautiful Dreams) and colored and original art versions of her page from Sarah “Sakky” Ruth Ford’s Magical Girl Coloring Book.

 

 

Juri’s Personal Sketch Cards (PSCs) have been more fantastic additions to my collection, with the great opportunity to request particular subjects and design elements.

As always I adore her use of color, particularly in her hand drawn work, and like with her Perna sketch cards and APs above that aspect also really shines in her PSCs. Seeing her visions of some of my favorite characters come to life has been a real treat. I’m a diehard gamer, with particular preference to RPGs and fighting games over the years. With Juri’s pitch perfect confrontation between Kasumi and Ayane from Dead or Alive and jaw dropping melding of Morrigan and Lilith from Darkstalkers joining the original sketches I got from her featuring Millia Rage, Jam Kuradoberi, and Dizzy from Guilty Gear, I now have incredible renditions of all of my favorite characters to play from each of my favorite fighting game series.

 

 

Valkyrie Profile is my single favorite RPG of all time, and Juri’s intricately detailed, soft yet strong interpretation of Lenneth Valkyire is exquisite. Favorite series honors go to Persona, and I adore Juri’s vibrant, striking depiction of a key supporting character from one of the series’ best entries.

 

One of the more unique requests I’ve made is a card featuring one of my favorite professional wrestlers, Mitsuru Konno from Gatoh Move. Mitsuru’s already showing great potential and instincts even with only a little over a year in wrestling, and I adore the incredible way Juri’s captured and combined her strength, determination, grace, and beauty in this remarkable rendition.

 

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Mitsuru Konno PSC by Juri Chinchilla.

 

The last two pieces I’d like to talk about are anime/manga related. I’m using the word “favorite” a lot, but in explaining the inspirations for choosing these subjects across various mediums it has been appropriate and illustrative in every case. Gorgeous animation, thought provoking stories, and an incredible atmosphere come together to make Kino’s Journey my all time favorite anime. Juri perfectly related Kino’s cool, somewhat detached demeanor resting for a moment atop Hermes against a wonderful background horizon that evokes the show’s sense of traveling through a vast, intriguing world.

 

Rosario Vampire is an amusing, fan-service and action heavy harem style manga based around a high school for monsters where students regularly get into fierce battles with one another. It has solid story progression once it gets going, but is admittedly largely formulaic and trope ridden. However halfway through the second “season” of the manga there’s a side story,  introducing a relatively minor supporting character (who didn’t even make the anime adaptation), which embraces and upends cliches in equal measure to present a nuanced, emotional story that is easily at the top of the (long) list of things I’ve read. San Otonashi is a phenomenal character and (here’s that word again 😉 ) an absolute favorite of mine despite her relative obscurity. Even with being initially unfamiliar with San, Juri was able to create a gorgeous, spot on card of her, conveying both delicacy and strength and again really elevating the final work with her incredible coloring.

 

 

More information about Juri’s art can be found on her artist page. I hope to continue to follow and collect her incredible creations for a long time to come. 🙂

 

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Edit 2/9/18: I recent received three more wonderful Personal Sketch Cards by Juri, and wanted to add them to this celebration of her art.

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is an incredible, unique adventure. At its heart are Kuro’s ever curious companions Ninjuku and Sanju, enjoying their journey but also gradually losing their blissful ignorance of the larger world around them. Juri’s wonderfully captured their playfulness and variation of personality.

 

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Brian Q Miller’s Batgirl series was an wonderful comic with the headstrong yet lovable Stephanie Brown in the titular role. One of my favorite issues of the run was a lighthearted story about her friendship with Supergirl. I absolutely love Juri’s rendition of the two of them together.

 

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Finally, Food Wars is a surprisingly fantastic manga/anime with a sports competition manga feel applied to idea of a highly competitive cooking school. Beneath the (admittedly enjoyable) humor,fan service, and general ridiculousness are compelling story arcs featuring an interesting, fun cast. A personal favorite of mine is prodigy Alice Nakiri, who’s simultaneously sheltered/immature and world traveled/formidable in a highly amusing way. Her confidence and attitude are perfectly reflected in Juri’s depiction.

 

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