2023 Games Roundup: The Best

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I mostly took a break from writing about games in 2023. This was only supposed to be for a few months but rapidly snowballed due to a combination of personal reasons and me feeling a bit burned out on the whole “video games” thing. It’s not that I wasn’t playing them, just that I was struggling to find the motivation to write about them – and this made me a bit suspicious that 11 years of doing this blog had made me lose sight of what I enjoyed about them in the first place. I’ve gotten into the habit of mentally composing a review in the back of my head whenever I play something new, and it’s a bit hard to have fun with a game when my brain is constantly in critique mode. So I thought I’d try not doing that for a bit.

Did it work? I’m honestly not sure. I am going to try to write more in 2024, but it’ll probably be fewer reviews and more directed exploration of something specific, like the Lucasarts series I did a couple of years back. For now, though, I need to address the same problem I had last year: the reason I’ve managed to keep this blog going for over a decade is because it functions as a personal record of what I thought about games that I happen to have made generally visible, and I don’t like the idea of 2023 being a void where that’s concerned. So, here’s the customary roundup of the games I played in 2023. Slightly different rules to previous years; first is that because I only did one normal review I don’t have the time or the space to write about everything I played, so this is a summary of only the games I completed (or very close to it). Second is that because I wasn’t pushing myself to carry on playing games I wasn’t enjoying I tended to drop bad games before finishing them, so this list does have a bit of a selection bias to it — and because there’s less of a spectrum of quality it doesn’t make sense to do the four category split I did in 2021 and 2022. This time there’s just two: the Best games I completed in 2023 (and which I’d be happy to recommend to other people), and then the Rest of them, which are mostly decent but which have significant problems that meant I came away from them with a more mixed opinion.

I’ll put The Rest into a separate post. For now, let’s start with The Best, in no particular order:

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Jagged Alliance 3

Jagged Alliance 3 was the most obviously-doomed release of the year. There have been no less than three prior attempts to resurrect the Jagged Alliance series over the last ten years and every single one of them has crashed and burned — not only that, but developers Haemimont deliberately took aim at these failures in one of their pre-release trailers and said that this time, finally, somebody would make a proper followup to Jagged Alliance 2. You could have filed that trailer under the dictionary definition of “hubris”, and by all rights Jagged Alliance 3 should have joined Back in Action, Flashback and Rage! on top of that pile of rejects.

Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that Jagged Alliance 3 is actually pretty damn good. It suffers from some lumpy design and a release version that wasn’t exactly high on polish, but it’s still easily the most fun I’ve had with a tactical strategy game since… oh, probably 2018’s Battletech. It’s got all of the Jagged Alliance bits: wisecracking mercenaries, tinpot dictators, a strategic map where you take over mines to get money and train militia to defend them, and a really interesting take on the tactical combat segment that acknowledges the last 25 years of progress in the genre while retaining enough classic Jagged Alliance elements (like investing additional AP to increase your chances of a shot landing) that it still felt like Jagged Alliance. It even makes some interesting design choices around balancing the game via ammo scarcity — belt-fed machineguns are horrifically powerful, but you’ll easily exhaust your entire supply of ammo for them in a single engagement so you have to carefully pick which fights to use them in — and much of your mercs’ combat power being locked up in their heavily-customised weapons rather than their stats, which I’m not sure I fully agreed with given how it shifts the focus of the game, but which I found engaging nonetheless. The mercenaries themselves are all stereotypes of 90s action movie characters that absolutely shouldn’t work, the joke should get old approximately ten minutes into the 40-hour campaign, but somehow it never does and I grew very attached to my main squad of six. And the music is absolutely phenomenal in places. Yes, I have to admit that Jagged Alliance 3 somehow beat the odds; it’s not perfect by any means, but then neither was Jagged Alliance 2 and it does more than enough right that it’s the first game in twenty-five years that can be considered a worthy successor.

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Chained Echoes

“JRPG” is a bit of a loaded term these days, one which carries a hint of Western supercilicism about it and which Japanese devs are a bit nonplussed by, so I’ll try and stay away from it when describing Chained Echoes. It’s going to be difficult, though, because Chained Echoes is very much a love letter to Square’s SNES-era RPGs, including classic titles like Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. Actually that’s probably being a bit too kind, as Chained Echoes stumbles over the line separating “loving tribute” from “shameless ripoff” several times, and mixes it in with all of your favourite animes plus some incredibly juvenile writing — hey, what if the translation team for FF6 had been able to use the word “Shitface”? Chained Echoes answers that question, and I cringed extremely hard several times when playing it, but I kept playing for two reasons. One is that in terms of visuals and sound Chained Echoes is genuinely quite impressive, preserving enough of the look and feel of those classic SNES games to tickle the nostalgia centres in my brain. The other is that Chained Echoes goes to great lengths to eliminate nearly every single one of the major painpoints typically encountered in a JR… in one of those games. Combat has a fast mode. Your party heals to full at the end of every fight. There’s no random encounters (although there are unavoidable ones). There’s an interesting Overdrive system that stops you from spamming the same spells over and over in combat, Combat in general is about intelligently stacking buffs on your party and debuffs on the enemy and then hitting them really, really hard, not just autoattacking them to death. Couple that with an expansive world that’s packed full of secrets and there’s more than enough here to hold the attention of anyone who has fond memories of Square before they became Square-Enix.

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Brotato

Yes, at first glance Brotato appears to be just another Vampire Survivors-style autoshooter to throw on top of the pile. It even looks to be more limited than Vampire Survivors at first, with only one level filled with the same set of 7-8 enemy types that are all coloured purple, and no metaprogression to speak of aside from unlocking new character archetypes. However, these limitations are the result of Brotato actually daring to innovate in the genre; the reason there’s only one level is because a run of Brotato is split into 20 rounds, and at the end of the round you get to spend the cash you’ve picked up from killing enemies on new weapons and stat-boosting items for your character so that they can kill even more enemies in the next round. And good lord are there a lot of weapons, items and stats to play with in Brotato; the reason there’s no metaprogression is because Brotato is almost unique amongst autoshooters in having enough mechanical breadth to experiment with different builds within the space of a single run. Maybe you go heavy on landmines and turrets and explosive damage. Maybe you get six SMGs and rely on the fire rate to heal you through lifesteal. Maybe you pick a bunch of currency-boosting items early on in the hope that you can stay alive long enough to make the investment pay off in later rounds. Maybe you just ignore weapons completely and concentrate instead on making yourself so tanky that you’re literally unkillable — this is a viable tactic since killing bosses is not required and you just need to outlast the timer on every round to complete the run. The high granularity of the different weapons and stats offers a refreshing amount of variety and flexibility compared to the Vampire Survivors approach, which is usually about trying to get the same 3-4 god-tier weapons over and over again. Brotato is far from an endless game despite this, with a lifespan that expires shortly after you’ve completed the game once with each character archetype — but there’s about 50 of those so it’ll take a couple of dozen hours, making Brotato excellent value for its £4 pricetag.

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Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

I should probably be paying more attention to my Switch. I only pick it up once every couple of years whenever a big tentpole Nintendo release comes along, but nearly every single game I buy from them reminds me that they exist on an entirely different planet from the rest of the industry. This has its good and bad sides; their social features have apparently been designed by a literal alien, for example, but then the actual games tend to bring a totally fresh perspective to genres that I thought had run out of ideas years ago. Breath of the Wild should have redefined the open world RPG back in 2017 with its completely open approach to exploration in a world stuffed full of secrets, but the only lesson the rest of the industry really learned from it was “climbing… good?” And even that got rowed back on a few years later.

I expect Tears of the Kingdom will have even less of an impact than Breath of the Wild. This despite it having not one, not two, but three groundbreaking mechanics that other devs would build an entire game around — but in Tears they’re just stuff you do in the course of another massive and open adventure that’s literally Breath of the Wild Redux. You’ve got Ultrahand, which somebody did make an entire game around (it’s called Garry’s Mod); Fuse, which lets you stick anything in your inventory to anything else in your inventory to come up with new weapons on the fly — stick a Keese eyeball to an arrow to get a homing arrow, or a bomb to a hammer to give it some explosive punch, or even just a long stick to a long stick to create an even longer stick — and the game’s crowning achievement: Recall, which allows localised time manipulation and which is breathtaking in its ambition and execution and completely changes how you approach most of the game’s puzzles. It’s not all hits; the vehicle-building which features in a lot of the viral videos of Tears feels more like an optional extra (albeit an unusually polished and fully-featured one) as it’s not baked into the core gameplay the way Ultrahand, Fuse and Recall are, but I think three impossible mechanics before breakfast is more than enough for any developer.

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And that’s precisely Tears’s problem. In order to learn from Breath, other developers would have needed to completely change how they approached world design. They didn’t. Learning from Tears is an even bigger ask; I can’t think of many developers out there who would be technically and temperamentally capable of implementing something with the game-breaking scope of the Recall mechanic, purely because of the vast difference in design mentality between Tears and Breath and every other open world RPG. Other open world games are increasingly made according to a set formula and lean on heavily-scripted set-pieces to liven things up in between robotically clearing the map of points of interest, whereas Nintendo’s approach is to hand the player a set of tools and set them loose in a vast world with very few guardrails to constrain them, because they’re all about experimentation. They’re all about play. Tears might be an example of them trying to do slightly too much in that regard; between Ultrahand, Fuse, Recall, the vehicle building, and separate underground and sky biomes to explore in addition to a remixed version of the Breath of the Wild map, the amount of things that you can do in Tears can feel overwhelming at times, and at others the game feels distinctly bloated. For all of its technical excellence it’s less focused than Breath was and I occasionally missed the comparatively clean simplicity of Breath’s gameplay, but that was only brief snatches of wistfulness in between being completely floored by Tears’s imagination. It’s far from the best Zelda game (it ranks at number four out of the eight that I’ve played) but I’m damned if I didn’t admire its ambition, its inventiveness and its commitment to fun.

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Pizza Tower

If you watch the release trailer for Pizza Tower it’s likely you’ll have the same initial reaction I did: it looks like this hilariously overtuned, bastard hard platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy, and I suspect the reason there’s not more buzz about the game during this GOTY season is because that first impression put a lot of people off of trying it. It certainly put me off trying it; I even refunded the thing on Steam for a month after discovering that the default controls for the maniac pizza chef Peppino are incredibly clunky. Fortunately Pizza Tower is yet another 2023 game with a brilliant soundtrack1 which tempted me back for a second go, and after I changed the controls to a scheme I could live with I discovered a game that’s actually incredibly forgiving. The objective of each level of Pizza Tower is to get to the end of the level and then run back out again. That’s it. Peppino has no health bar; when enemies hit Peppino, he doesn’t lose health, he loses score. Peppino has effectively infinite lives; when he falls into a bottomless pit he respawns right next to it. There is only one way to lose the level, and that’s by running out of time on the escape run — and that timer doesn’t start until you destroy the support pillar at the end of the level, and it’s very generous if all you’re trying to do is get back to the exit.

But there’s a reason for that. Making it to the end with a few collectibles is all you need to do if you want to progress in Pizza Tower and finish the game, and most levels are easily completable on the very first attempt. If you want to get an actually high score, though, you need to first do the normal escape run, and then when you get back to the level exit ignore it completely and instead go through the secret portal that takes you all the way back to the start of the escape run to do it all over again. This gives you a whole load of bonus points but does not add any time onto the timer, which continues to steadily tick down, so what Pizza Tower effectively does here is give you the choice of Double Or Nothing. To get the highest score, the P-Rank, you have to pick up every collectible, find every secret, kill almost every enemy, only get hit once or twice (more than that will break your combo multiplier), and do the end run twice against that merciless timer. Unbelievably there is still room for very minor errors here, if you have the nerves of steel required to recover from them; Pizza Tower does not demand perfection for the highest scores, just very close to it. But it’s your choice to chase them. It’s the most refreshing approach to difficulty I’ve seen in a long time; there’s no difficulty settings here and it’s the same level everyone else plays, the difference is just a (probably misplaced) sense of confidence in your own mastery of the game that prompts you to go through the teleporter for the second run.

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Baldur’s Gate 3

I feel a little resentful about having to include this on the “good” list for 2023. Only a little, since mechanically and structurally Baldur’s Gate 3 is a brilliant RPG. It’s not exactly groundbreaking since it’s a natural extension of the ideas found in Larian’s previous work (to the point where it really should be called Original Sin 3 instead of Baldur’s Gate 3) but since nobody else is really making this kind of game it still feels fresh, open-ended and full of possibility in a way that most RPGs don’t. The combat feels very Original Sin despite being a relatively faithful adaptation of the 5th edition D&D ruleset; there’s a heavy focus on teleporting around and applying massively destructive elemental effects to broad swathes of the battlefield, and the newfound verticality in many of the combat locations means a simple successful “Shove” action can send a tough boss plummeting fifty feet down to a hard landing — or into a bottomless pit that instakills them — allowing for far more creativity and flexibility in character builds than “Tank” or “Damage dealer”. Baldur’s Gate 3’s particular success is in marrying the Original Sin combat up to a seventy-hour adventure that’s genuinely sprawling, with multiple paths available for you to take that significantly change up the narrative to a degree that I haven’t seen since Alpha Protocol. Most of the decision points that shunt you onto an alternative story path aren’t signposted, either; they’re pretty subtle and there’s a lot of them, resulting in an adventure that feels genuinely organic and personalised to you. As an RPG Baldur’s Gate 3 is almost as ambitious as Wrath of the Righteous, and unlike Owlcat Larian actually do have the resources and the time to deliver on that ambition without the player having to fight their way through a million bugs.

Why, then, did I say I resent Baldur’s Gate 3? Well, it’s for the reason you’d think, but not in the way you’d think: the original Baldur’s Gate “trilogy” is somewhere in my top 5 games of all time, but while the decision to take the name and apply it to something that looked like it had nothing to do with the Bhaalspawn saga did initially rankle with me quite a bit, Baldur’s Gate 3 had been in Early Access for three years prior to its release and I’d long made my peace with it. I was ready for something new. I was expecting something new. If Baldur’s Gate 3 had just advanced the timeline by 100 years and used D&D concepts and locations to tell a new story, I wouldn’t be sitting here complaining. And initially that’s what it appeared it was going to do, but as I got further and further into the game the scattered callbacks and references to the original games turned into returning characters and major plot points, and then finally into some absolutely incredible retconning of Throne of Bhaal that would substantially diminish the ending of the OG trilogy if I took it seriously in any way. Fortunately I don’t, but that means I can’t take the rest of Baldur’s Gate 3’s story seriously either; it feels rather too much like somebody’s personal Baldur’s Gate fanfiction instead of something with enough sense and courage to try and stand on its own two feet.

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(And then there’s what I’m going to refer to as the “Critical Role” problem, which is more my problem than the game’s but which did significantly contribute to the story failing to land with me in any way whatsoever: the D&D of 2023 is decidedly not the D&D of 1998. No, this D&D fucks, and the game goes out of its way time and again to remind you about it. I remember the original Dragon Age trailers being ridiculed for trying way too hard to be edgy for the sake of edginess, to make fantasy seem cool and adult, but what was ridiculous in 2009 is now apparently normal in 2023 because Baldur’s Gate 3 makes that shit look tame. Times do change, and there’s a lot of people out there who like that kind of thing — Critical Role is super popular for a reason  — but when my character gets propositioned by every single party member during their second camp conversation, well, that’s another big reason why I can’t take the game seriously.)

Anyway, my hating the story isn’t going to stop Baldur’s Gate 3 from winning a whole bunch of GOTY awards, and it isn’t even going to stop it appearing on my own “best of” list. As I said, mechanically and structurally it’s an incredible achievement, and I had great fun min-maxing my way through the combat — and because my standard policy was to kill anyone who was trying to stop me from getting to a quest objective without doing their tedious fetch quests first, I saw a lot of combat. I love that Baldur’s Gate 3 let me do that without any judgement (you can’t do it in the original trilogy unless you enjoy being constantly swarmed by hordes of guards that materialise out of thin air). I’m happy it’s been so successful, as it hopefully means we’ll see future RPGs try and borrow from Baldur’s Gate 3’s open-ended approach to quests and combat.  I just wish it hadn’t been called Baldur’s Gate 3, is all.

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Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty

You’ll probably have seen a lot of breathy news articles about Cyberpunk 2077’s “redemption”, that after three years of post-release patches to fix all of the many, many bugs — and to completely redesign the game in some places — it’s now the game that it should always have been. Which, if you squint a bit and substantially lower your expectations, it is. It’s a pretty good first-person open world RPG, nothing more, and nothing less; it’s not the broken mess it was on launch, but neither is it in any way transformative for the genre except for some innovations in how it handles first-person perspective. (And even there I think it’s helped along more by Bethesda having such a death-grip on the genre that any deviation from that formula feels like a breath of fresh air.) You run around doing mostly the same things you do in other open world RPGs, repeatedly driving through a too-large map to clear up an infestation of question mark symbols, and while it’s executed with a bit more pizazz than usual — partly a result of the budget, and partly a result of encounter design that is a significant cut above what you’d find in an Ubisoft game — Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t going to dramatically alter your expectations of what an open world RPG can or should be.

Phantom Liberty, though. I’m not sure if it’s just because 2023 was utterly starved of any decent narrative experiences (mostly thanks to the Final Fantasy 14 writing team taking an extended multi-year nap) but, while it initially didn’t seem like anything all that special, no other game this year came close to the powerful feeling of catharsis I experienced on reaching the end. It’s a spy thriller where you have to navigate a web of shifting loyalties, deciding who to trust and who to betray, and where the major decisions feel genuinely weighty and you never take them lightly. Phantom Liberty achieves this through presentation and narrative structure more than it does any particular spectacular feat of writing, but it’s no less remarkable for this. It’s called storytelling, after all, and there’s increasingly few game devs who can actually leverage the medium they work in to enhance that storytelling instead of just trying to copy a movie. That’s why I reacted to Phantom Liberty more positively than I might otherwise have done; just like Cyberpunk itself I think it’s good rather than great, but even something that’s “just” good still stands out in a field of comparative mediocrity.

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World of Warcraft Classic: Hardcore

A Hardcore mode for World of Warcraft? Where you only get one life, and if you die you’re permanently dead with no take-backs, and can thus potentially see dozens (or even hundreds) of hours of progress disappear down the toilet? For Classic, no less –. the much slower, grindier 2004 edition of the game where nothing is handed to you for free? Sounds like a stupid idea dreamt up by MMO masochists. It’ll never catch on.

…is what I thought the first time I heard about it. Sticking a Hardcore mode in Classic should not work. There’s no accommodations made for it aside from tweaking some quests and abilities that either rely on player death, or make it easy to avoid it. It’s the same game otherwise, and Classic can be notoriously unforgiving at times — hell, make that most of the time. It’s all too easy for a single bad monster pull or monster spawn to kill your all-too-fragile character out of nowhere, and embarking on high-risk elite quests and dungeon runs is kind of like asking them to play Russian roulette.

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Paradoxically, though, it’s the very fact that it’s the same game that means Hardcore mode does work. Since Classic hasn’t changed and is just as dangerous as ever, it’s up to you — and the wider playerbase — to change how you play it in order to maximise your chances of survival. Classic has always been a slow game (and in comparison to modern WoW it’s borderline glacial), but in Hardcore mode you have to take it even slower than that, sticking to safer areas, taking the time to grind up extra levels, and never, ever taking any risks — or at least, not taking risks without Batman levels of preparation and planning. Remember those crappy Minor Potions of Vitality that add a paltry couple of dozen HP onto your health bar, and which you’d never ever bother with in regular Classic? In Hardcore mode those extra health points could be the difference between life and death. Buffs from passing players are, similarly, an absolute godsend. Optimised quest paths have long relied on using your hearthstone to teleport long distances and cut out some of the grind, but in Hardcore you suck it up and walk everywhere because the hearthstone has a one hour cooldown and it’s your last resort for getting yourself out of a mine that’s turned into a deathtrap. Seeing other players doing the same quests as me annoyed the crap out of me in normal WoW as I’d have to fight with them for mob kills, but in Hardcore it’s reassuring as they’ll probably help you out if a pull goes bad and it looks like you’re about to die — that is, as long as it’s not too risky for them, so if you’re being chased through Darkshire by Stitches don’t expect them to lift a finger.

This is not a playstyle that will suit everyone. It’s slow, it makes an already grindy game even grinder, and it can be dreadfully boring if you’re actively focusing on it 100% of the time. More than that, it relies on a lot of pre-existing game knowledge of what the most dangerous quests and enemies are so that you can avoid them; I definitely would not recommend Classic Hardcore to anyone who hadn’t put serious time into vanilla WoW either on its original release twenty years ago, or upon its rebirth as Classic in 2017. But if you do have that knowledge, and a second monitor to watch Youtube or listen to podcasts on, there’s something weirdly zen about Classic Hardcore. It’s the last thing I was expecting from this mode where I could potentially lose it all at any moment, but being forced to take it slow because of that risk gave me a new level of appreciation for WoW; the base game really was something special, and while the game’s been solved for decades and it’ll never be possible to recapture the sense of possibility and adventure WoW offered back in 2004, Hardcore mode at least presents an opportunity to experience it from a different perspective, and through fresh eyes.

  1. I found 2023 a bit underwhelming in terms of games, but at least it’s given me a lot to listen to at work.
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11 thoughts on “2023 Games Roundup: The Best

  1. ilitarist says:

    I really hope you find a way of enjoying games while still writing these essays about them. Was very happy to see you making a new post.

    I also feel resentful about BG3. I couldn’t stomach Pathfinder games but they look cohesive and interesting in a way BG3 doesn’t, even if my co-op playthrough of BG3 was smooth and enjoyable. Larian’s writing felt out of place in an established world and established story, they never even written sequels to their own games, discarding and replacing elements of thier fantasy world at a whim, and it all felt very unfaithful to BioWare approach. Replace all the toponyms with the ones from the Larian world, rename Elminster to Zandalor and it makes much more sense. Gameplay actually had a similar problem: it’s all nice you guys have these special stats and abilities, but absolutely anyone can use any scroll, so anyone can become boss-murdering shove-into-the-pit machine. It’s as if Dark Messiah of Might & Magic had involved character system and retained The Kick button. I much prefer similar games that are more cohesive in every regard, like Pillars of Eternity 2. Even WH40k Rogue Trader from Owlcat seems much more interesting to me, if only as a version of Pathfinder games without 3-minute pre-buffing sessions.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s kind of funny that Chained Echoes is a love letter to a certain era of games while seemingly lifting some design choices from Chrono Cross, an unfairly maligned game that was decades ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

    • Anonymous says:

      You’ve got the freely enterable giant robots for exploration from Xenoblade Chronicles X, you’ve got the island/castle/base that gets built up as you find characters, like in the Suikoden series…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Insightful, as always. I didn’t realise how much I missed your writing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hell yeah!!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Welcome back! These were a pleasant surprise.

  6. paulkeen9d68b6c648 says:

    Delighted you’ve reappeared!

    Loved this: “and because my standard policy was to kill anyone who was trying to stop me from getting to a quest objective without doing their tedious fetch quests first, I saw a lot of combat.”

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Welcome back!

  9. Jack says:

    Really glad to see you back! I’m currently playing through Roadwarden on your recommendation from last year, and it’s truly something special

  10. Anonymous says:

    Great to see you’re still writing.

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