The Legend of Lotus Spring

Review by Orb

The Legend of Lotus Spring tells the hundred-year-old story of a romance in pre-20th century China. It was created by the developer Women Wise in coordination with historians to accurately and in detail fashion a duplicate of the world these people lived within, using original construction plans and historical documents including diaries, paintings, and photographs. It succeeds at bringing this slice of history back to life for the player.

Be prepared to immerse yourself in a portion of the history of China, as well as its music and ambiance. The pleasure of being able to even just walk around in an environment painstakingly recreated from historical documents is truly astounding and worth the price of admission. The story itself is based on historical fact, and it still maintains a great deal of adventure game flavor despite the truth the story carries with it.

Qin is the only gaming title that even remotely comes to mind as having any similarity at all, and this is only a cultural similarity. This game is truly original. There are no spaceships to navigate. Nothing jumps out at you. There is no equipment that I have to drag my husband over to the screen to explain to me what it is or what it looks like and how it works or how he thinks it works. The air pressure gauge from the hot air balloon in Chaos comes to mind as a perfect example of these—extraneous machines inserted into gaming by the male-dominated community. I'm not stupid—I don't understand these things because I don't want to understand them. This is what men are for. But I digress. Back to the game.

The story is based on an 1858 romance between the Emperor Xian Feng of the Qing dynasty and He Han Qu, whom he renamed Lotus Spring as an expression of love. The gameplay takes place in a loving and painstakingly recreated Yuan Ming Yuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness. This garden, in actual fact, was destroyed by fire a scant two years after this story takes place, during the second Opium Wars, and after it was set on fire, it burned for three days and three nights.

You can explore all you like, but the game follows a very linear story, and unless you follow that path in the correct sequence through the garden, you'll have some difficulty progressing forward through the game. I like being able to fully explore the environment rather than be in a place where there are only two rooms open and I'm stuck, so this was definitely a plus. You are given clues as to the direction to take and gently guided through the garden by a series of paths that, I'm assuming, mirror the original garden.

There are inventory-based puzzles that reward you with details about the story or an animation. There is a book that comes to life as steps are done, and there's quite a bit of reading, but this is given out in increments as new things are discovered and solved. There are only six inventory items to collect, and these are shown in inventory as a grey outline prior to collection. Great for a novice, not so happy for this reviewer, who was able to play Riven, JP3, and Morpheus with next to no help.

There is a lot to look at and examine. Activities result in rewards of animations of Lotus Spring with her emperor lover and new pages added to the book. To the seasoned gamer, this would be a bit disappointing, but for those who enjoy visual games with the accent on the immersive environment to wander around in, this would be right up their alley. This style of gaming is reminiscent of the games done by Japanese designer Haruhiko Shono, who made L-Zone, Gadget, and Alice, which were all pretty much click-through fests (although in Alice, you were to find and collect a full deck of cards, a bit more of a task than in the others and making it more similar to Lotus Spring because of the story to be found out and told and the tasks to be done to accomplish this).

The subtlety by which accomplished tasks are interwoven within exploration is quite clever and unusual. You're never hit over the head with what needs to be done next, and this subtlety was quite refreshing. The veteran gamer may not realize in just the normal course of exploration that she's accomplishing game goals right off the bat, due to the seamlessness between story design and task. Tasks to accomplish are written as a subtext to the story and graphics, and this flows right along with the style of design and subject matter. If one is not careful, this is a point that could be missed by the experienced gamer, ever looking to be hit over the head by a sliding tile puzzle blocking the next doorway.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the graphics gently feminine without being condescending. The prerendered scenes are visually stunning. Navigation is quite intuitive. The animation is spectacular eye candy—we are definitely moving to the next level in graphics for adventure games—and this is a particularly good feat for Women Wise, who have managed, despite the arduous number of months and years it customarily takes to develop a game with any amount of depth and breadth, to have a fresh, polished look that obviously took a good while to accomplish without the graphics looking dated.

This game, I must say, has the most clever cursor I've seen since The 7th Guest—a little china doll. In an unusual switch from run-of-the-mill adventure games, the cursor will sometimes change into a character the size of a small child that will perform animated duties needing to be carried out. There was also a particularly thorough and satisfying endgame sequence.

My own kid, leaving his Playstation and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis for a moment, added the comment that these were the best graphics he'd seen since Journeyman Project 3.

On the downside, animations were sometimes choppy and videos would cut out, despite my Mac meeting the game's recommended system requirements. I encountered one script error, but to its credit the game didn't dump out or quit despite these. There is also, I am happy to report, only one disk swap, in a two-disk game, although you must start with the first disk every time.

The music, while being extremely well-produced and atmospheric, played in short, repetitive loops and in some game areas it became redundant. However, the exactness with which this was obviously written and/or chosen helped to create an overall soothing mood in each area of the game, necessary to bring about the sensation of actually stepping into a faithfully recreated-from-historical-fact garden. There is a voiceover narrator who will read the book to you if you wish, and the voice itself is very soothing, with a whisper of accent that's very pleasing.

Women Wise has produced a title that captures the heart as well as stimulates the mind, with breathtaking, elegant style and rich storytelling. There is quite a bit of rich historical detail to be gleaned, which makes this a good title for teenage girls, but it is also satisfying for anyone who is interested in a game with greater depth in its story. Accolades go to Women Wise for smartly developing this for both PC and Mac. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Women Wise
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: 2000

Available for: Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

Mac:
OS 7.5 or higher
90 MHz Power PC (150 MHz recommended)
16 MB RAM (20 MB recommended)
10 MB hard drive space
4X CD-ROM drive (8X recommended)
640x480 display, thousands of colors

PC:
Windows 95/98/NT
100 MHz Pentium (166 MHz or faster recommended)
16 MB RAM (32 MB or more recommended)
10 MB hard drive space
4X CD-ROM drive (8X recommended)
640x480 display, high color
Windows-compatible sound card

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