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SummarySurely a Chinese love story could be more playable...
The GoodThe Chinese developers did a good job with the game's visuals. The graphics are detailed, and the animated sequences are quite impressive. Some of the animations are pretty long, particularly the final one, which is also rewarding from the point of view of the narrative. The music is also appropriately Chinese and absolutely authentic. Attention to detail in object design clearly shows how much the developers were interested in getting the player acquainted with the Chinese culture. Enter every room and you will see veritable pieces of art - well, in fact, the whole game is something like a tour around the garden.
Although the beauty of the game world owes a lot to the actual beauty of the original garden, the quality of the art is still high - objects don't feel "dead", many of them are animated, can be interacted with, taken apart. The graphical style is not too photorealistic, with a bit of hand-painted feeling to it. Check out for example the numerous animals that appear in the game. They are well-animated and nicely integrated into the backgrounds.
I wouldn't necessarily count that as a plus, but the game follows the Chinese aesthetics rather faithfully. Traditional Chinese art values style and beauty more than inner dynamics and content. A great poem is a work that is technically immaculate, but that only insinuates in a beautiful form at something, without saying it directly. A great picture doesn't attempt to reflect reality; it only transmits a certain impression. Great music doesn't stir emotions, it calms them. While this is not at all the way I view art, it is interesting how this game tries to reflect this kind of aesthetics.
Besides the main love story, the game also recounts many other classic Chinese love stories, which serve as a decoration to the tale of Lotus Spring. You are free not to read the diary at all, ignore the "secondary" love stories and all the information about objects. But a lot of this stuff is actually more interesting than the main story itself. Every location has an "information screen" attached to it: by accessing it, you can read about the important objects located in the rooms. In case you are bored with this "tour", you can neglect all those descriptions and concentrate fully on the love story. In every room a short movie awaits you - Xian Feng's memories, awakened by this interesting world of inanimate objects he had shared with his beloved one.
Surprisingly enough, there are quite a few things to interact with, considering the limited possibilities of the game's engine. Besides the places where you must pick and use the six objects that are needed to complete the story, all other locations are not obligatory - you can visit or ignore them if you want. Of course, there is no way to know which location holds an important object, so you'll probably end up exploring every corner of the garden, but you still have the feeling of exploring on your own instead of being lead by someone.
The BadAlthough the developers gave a lot of thought to the visuals, they failed to do the same with the interface, which is the same old "picture-jumping" kind of thing we all know (and not necessarily like) from Myst. Your only means of doing anything in the game is the admittedly cute, but extremely uncomfortable doll-like cursor. If the game decides you should be able to do something, it becomes animated when you move it over the correspondent spot. If you can't, it stands still. In order to take two steps forward you have to click two times, "jumping" forward awkwardly, although you already see the destination point. And sometimes you have to click even four or five times, because the game often refuses to make a normal path for you, instead forcing you to walk like a drunkard, swinging from left to right. You might see a table with an intriguing musical instrument on it right in front of you, but are forced to perform acrobatic maneuvers to access it from behind, climbing on the bed, rolling your eyes to the ceiling to catch a glimpse of a traditional Chinese deity, and sticking your nose into a bowl of fish food, before positioning yourself in front of musical instrument and happily discovering the damn doll is now willing to play it for you. This is so ridiculous that it is not funny any more, it is simply aggravating.
Sometimes the animated sequences are slightly pixelated, and the graphics are technically not so great - object design is excellent, but outdoor areas are not very impressive, to say the least. The two characters who appear in the game (while the box cover speaks about "encountering fascinating characters", you don't encounter anyone but a ghostly apparition of Lotus Spring in the game - or maybe they thought turtles and fish were fascinating characters?) are nicely designed, but very awkwardly animated. There is generally no real movement in the game except a few animated animals and cutscenes - when you make a step, you just jump to another picture. You can't rotate the camera, can't look up, down, or to the sides.
These flaws could have been overlooked if Legend of Lotus Spring offered a solid gameplay system. Sadly, the gameplay here is almost non-existent. For once, the game offers absolutely no challenge. If you can get used to the awkward interface, you will be able to finish it in a couple of hours, even if you've never played an adventure game before. There are almost no actual tasks to accomplish, and no skill needed to do whatever little the game might demand from you. There are no puzzles, no dialogue trees, no activities at all besides walking around and looking at things.
The absence of puzzles means that the entire game is composed of aimless and restricted wandering around. The playing area itself is in fact very small; even if the game did have puzzles, you'd have no trouble at all locating them and probably solving them by trial-and-error only because there aren't many places to try things in anyway. For a while you can be entertained with the educational material, but very soon you begin to crave for gameplay. Alas, this moment never comes: the whole game feels like a pretty demo of a famous historical location rather than a real adventure.