Indie Review Visual Novel

Lotus Reverie: First Nexus – Review

Hi guys! Tim here. I’m the director and writer of The Wind at Dawn, set to be released in July 2021. I’m here as a guest writer on NookGaming to tell you about Keinart Lobre’s newest visual novel Lotus Reverie: First Nexus.

From Itch.io: The Wind at Dawn is a work of literary magical realism that adopts the quaint nostalgia and yearning of Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, the painstaking attention to setting and style of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the heartfelt experimentation in form and medium of Keinart Lobre’s One Thousand Lies.

That last title there is perhaps the most important one. It was after reading One Thousand Lies in March 2017 that I became interested in visual novels (VNs) as a literary medium, especially kinetic novels. Because of my immense adoration for his debut work, I’ve been checking up on Keinart’s new project Lotus Reverie. I’m surely not the only one excited for its release on January 14, 2021!

Lotus Reverie - CG

Since I’m a writer and editor for MAL Rewrite (check out my synopses here), I’ve taken it upon myself to write my own synopsis for Lotus Reverie: First Nexus.

The end of the world came with the Incident, in the form of a giant black monolith extending up to the sky. Inscribed in white letters on its dark face are the binding rules of a game. Every surviving human in the world has a tulpa, a unique being birthed from its host’s subconscious. Though tulpas cannot die through normal means, they have limited lifespans that can only be extended through absorbing another tulpa in a duel. As the lives of tulpas and their human hosts are connected, they are forced to cooperate to survive until the very end, when the last surviving pair will be granted their greatest wish.

Cinque wakes up in this bleak reality with no knowledge of the past — who she is, where she came from, what the Incident was, or whether she is human or tulpa. Taken in by an alliance of six survivors, she soon settles into a calm life at the castle and befriends the people with whom she is fated to fight to the death. As the clock ticks and tension quietly builds, she only has so much time to find the answers she so desperately needs. Why is there an odd number of people? Who can she trust when time finally runs out? And what is she willing to do to survive?

Keinart has kindly provided an advance copy to me and Madeleine for this review. I completed my first playthrough in “Mixed Mode” over the course of a day or two of intermittent reading/playing, then unlocked all the endings in “Novel Mode” and spent some time gathering my thoughts (and replaying some of the content from the beginning) before putting together this write-up. I hope that my comments might help you decide if Lotus Reverie is for you!

Preamble

I personally find it hard to think about this game without comparing it to One Thousand Lies, so I’ll start from there.

While most original English visual novels (OELVNs) either stick with Japanese genre tropes or completely go off on their own aesthetic direction, Keinart managed to strike a brilliant balance in his first VN. He’s clearly an auteur with a strong narrative vision, but also a passionate fan of anime culture playing to the expectations of the international (online) otaku cultural orbit. While reading One Thousand Lies, I could especially see some influences of the seminal Katawa Shoujo, in both the artistic direction (anime sprites over filtered backgrounds) and the writing; Four Lead Studios’ sole work was even directly referenced in the dialogue.

There are excellent titles in the VN format that abandon the beaten path of anime-inspired art (Dear Devere by Katy133 and missed messages. by Angela He are recent titles that stand out in particular), but I generally have a preference for works that expand upon tradition. For better or for worse, there are prominent forefathers in every artistic form to which one can choose to draw reference. And such a choice I tend to make.

Moreover, it might be because I’m a sucker for the rhythm of translated prose (it was adapted by the author from Spanish into English), but to me the quality of Keinart’s prose is insanely high. Seriously. It reads better than many bestselling traditional novels on a line-by-line basis. Don’t get me wrong: surreal humor is great, plot twists are cool, and I do enjoy a little pop psychology with my daily dose of waifus. But the best reason to read One Thousand Lies is to enjoy the cadence of Ciaran Endymion’s musings.

There probably is something to the idea that translated prose has a unique rhythm. This article about Haruki Murakami’s beginnings includes an anecdote about him writing the opening of his first novel in English.

Writing Style & Storytelling

Reading Lotus Reverie gave me more of the Keinart goodness I craved for so long. The social and philosophical musings found in One Thousand Lies are in abundance in this new title, and in my opinion becomes more poignant due to the bleak setting. The choice to have a surreal slice of life in an apocalyptic setting works out well, and perhaps even better than in the author’s previous work with a more typified school setting. I find that listlessness in any particular scene needs to be offset by a sense of urgency elsewhere, and high school graduation is certainly less strong as a deadline than literal imminent doom. As such, I can happily say that fans of the characters’ dynamics, commentary, and humor in One Thousand Lies would probably enjoy it even more in this new title.

But like I said in the preamble, my personal reasons for enjoying Keinart is the spark of brilliance I see in his narrative prose. And though he still gets some opportunities to showcase it here, the use of second-person tense in the narration has resulted in a terser style in general. Which I personally feel is a great loss, but others might prefer. If you thought One Thousand Lies was too wordy or pompous, then you’d probably like Lotus Reverie’s style better. If you’re more similar to me, you’ll still have the same quirky dialogue to look forward to. Look forward to a new batch of fresh intellectual property jokes and absurd imagery.

Regarding the story as a whole, I found it to be quite poignant. Most apocalyptic tales end up diving into the philosophical and the metaphysical, and this work is no different. However, I really appreciate the angle that Keinart is taking here. Rather than showing the panic that likely ensued right after the Incident, the story starts at a point where all the remaining survivors have already come to terms with the situation (or, in Cinque’s case, woke up none the wiser). If people are forced to kill each other for their own survival but otherwise have no hard feelings, what’s so wrong about becoming friends and enjoy the peace while it lasts? That is the central concept behind this slice of life at the end of the world. The characters each have their reasons for wanting to be the last one standing, and this conflict between ideals and desires is elevated far above the physical conflict that inevitably comes. Less than a test of skill or strength (even in “Battle Mode”, you can try as many times as you want until you win), this story shows survival as a test of one’s force of will. Cinque, in rediscovering her desire to live, also rediscovers the very strength she needs to do so. This sort of aesop is hardly rare, but it especially works well here when the reader becomes attached to the enemy. Why Cinque and not them? One can come up with any answer they’d like, but ultimately the decision to survive at the expense of another is the only one that allows us to keep standing. To achieve victory, to see the end of the world, there is but one choice.

On top of that, this game showcases a new aspect of Keinart’s storytelling skills that went untested in One Thousand Lies. While his first VN was set ambiguously in some small European town in the modern day, the setting in this work is much better defined. Which makes sense; setting is to plot what characters are to story, and the activity of the plot in Lotus Reverie has elevated significantly from its predecessor. Rather than stay within the confines of Maya, the capital city of the kingdom, the world extends far beyond the shadow of the black monolith. The world has its own culture, with greetings and customs that are not only evocative and relevant to the story but also serve as a lens of analysis for our own world. I won’t get too much into it because I want the reader to discover the world for themselves, but I’ll say that by the time Keinart releases the last Nexus of Lotus Reverie, the fanbase will probably need to build a wiki.

A final note on translation: I personally found the translation to be more “native” to English this time, but not necessarily in a good way. There are some small spelling and grammar mistakes that need to be cleaned up, the text sometimes extends beyond the confines of the text box (I had to go back in history to read the last word or two of some lines) and the writing style is not quite as tight as in One Thousand Lies. But that title has gone through a few more rounds of edits and I read the most recent version on Steam, so I expect that as more people play the game and offer suggestions the errors will clear up. Something that I do not like so much is excessively trying to emulate people’s exact patterns of speech, and there are a few examples in this work where going lighter on emulating stammering and trailing off probably would’ve made it more readable. But I’m being picky, and it’s not really a big deal.

Lotus Reverie - Gameplay Map

Gameplay

Keinart compares this work to Persona, but I personally saw it more like a single route of Fate/stay night. Besides the obvious parallel of a battle royale and NVL-style textboxes in combat scenes, there’s also the presence of a mostly linear storyline with flag-triggering decisions rather than ones leading to wholly different endings. Again similar to Fate, there are quite a few insta-death endings that don’t really add much to the story and so can be skipped entirely unless you want the achievement for dying every possible way.

There are two paths to the ending with one of them branching again rather late, for a total of three different “storylines” that end up in the same place but contain pretty much the same total amount of content. One could argue that a different order of events leads to different emotional impact, but I think they’re comparable enough that there’s no problem.

You can see only two out of three battles in one continuous playthrough (with one of the three being somewhat hidden), but the third battle is only accessible through one of the two main paths. If one followed a walkthrough, this game could effectively be experienced as a quasi-kinetic novel with optional minigames. You would just have to save at the last major choice and then load up again in order to experience all three battles. 

There is a simple relationship system, but I’m not sure it’s especially worth worrying about in the first playthrough. The time mechanism seems to be much more generous after you’ve finished the game once, so I’d say you can safely just jump right in and make whatever choices you want.

Lotus Reverie - Combat

The relationships do not affect gameplay much (except for one of the three battles which can only be unlocked through gaining one character’s trust), so if you’re like me and don’t care that much about the extra abilities you gain, the only other reason to gain all the characters’ trust is to unlock all the Steam achievements. To do so may require a second playthrough.

Regarding “Battle Mode” and “Mixed Mode” (which is just a full hybrid between “Battle” and “Novel”), I’d say that the gameplay is interesting but unnecessary. It was fun while diving into the game, but it appeared so rarely and was of so little consequence to my enjoyment of the game compared to its mechanical complexity that I solely played in “Novel Mode” after my first playthrough. I wouldn’t say that the strategy is especially deep or difficult, but you should probably expect to die a few times while figuring it out. Don’t worry, you can restart the battle over again without any hassle.

As an aside, I’m curious what kind of design space there’s left to explore of Keinart’s Parallel Strategy System in future Nexuses. It definitely is nice being able to dictate general strategy instead of just spam skills with high average damage per round like in most combat systems.

Playing in “Battle Mode” has the consequence of needing to train skills and abilities in the Library and the Armory, which might not be everyone’s idea of fun. I personally found it to be more work than it was worth, but if you want an “authentic” experience then I do think having to choose between training and relationship-building events adds another dimension to the game. So many in-game days were spent spamming the “Train” button. No, five skill points did not take only five training sessions.

Art and Music

The art in this game is undoubtedly a step up from One Thousand Lies. The budget is obviously much larger for this title, with beautiful backgrounds and character sprites setting the scene. The CGs are also much better done here than in Keinart’s first title. And just like in One Thousand Lies, the sprites darken when a character is not speaking, which is nice if you don’t like always glancing at the name of the speaker.

The switch to NVL format in action scenes is much appreciated, as it really lets me experience the art and writing all at once. The Fate-style attack screens look awesome and are an efficient and classy way of demonstrating different attacks.

There’s definitely still some degree of shortcutting. Reused backgrounds for different locations are hardly unique to this game or VNs in general, so it can be readily forgiven.

Something I noticed quite fast was that some of the sprites seem to use different art styles than for the main cast. I won’t show examples for fear of spoilers, but I’ll say that there were at least three major shifts in style that I saw. To remain neutral in my review, I have refrained from asking the original creator for context before writing this up. I assume what happened was that different sets of sprites were created at different points during development, and perhaps it was hard to maintain consistency when the art was done in multiple batches. It wasn’t the end of the world for me, but it certainly makes the game feel less polished. Also, for both the sprites and the GUI the effects of improper scaling can be seen if you look closely. Aliasing can be seen at some zooms, leading me to believe that the art is just being scaled up and down. This saves hard drive space and is also standard for VNs, so again I would not consider this to be a deal-breaker.

Part of what lets me forgive the above much more readily is the music. Oh boy, were some of the tracks ever sublime. “Reverie Memories” is a wonderful track that I’m glad was featured in the trailer for the game because it has a very unique and unforgettable sound. “Choose Your Own Life” (as well as its variation track that will not be named…) managed to convey a sense of passing time in the lobby screen and never became tiring to listening to. There are many times where I turn off the music in visual novels and put on my own, but for this title there’s absolutely no need unless you really hate the lobby track for some reason.

Lotus Reverie - Lobby

Technical

On the technical side, I do have to point out some issues. If you use the Ctrl key to skip dialogue, things will sometimes break. The first and second battles glitched out when I skipped through the first time and could only be fixed by closing the game and reloading. Honestly, this reason alone was enough for me to never go back to “Battle Mode” after the first playthrough. It wasn’t the main draw of the VN for me anyway, and anything that makes my life harder while trying to unlock all the story content is stuff I will readily try to remove from my experience. So far, others have not been able to replicate the glitch that freezes the game. I’ve gone back and tried to do so too, and haven’t figured out what sequence of inputs led to it.

Backgrounds will also sometimes appear incorrectly while skipping, but that’s not as important as the previous issue. I’m sure the issues will be fixed soon, but buyer beware. The game in its current state cannot take much abuse from the player, so if any issues come up just reboot the game and try taking things a bit slower.

A final point: I found the default text speed to be far too slow. I bumped it way up after just the opening scene. I’m not sure about others’ preferences around this, but I usually like super-fast speeds unless the game is voiced.

Verdict

Lotus Reverie: First Nexus was an excellent experience for me. Getting to read Keinart’s writing was a real treat, and I especially enjoyed the music, the character dynamics, the worldbuilding, and the central thesis of the work. But though in some ways I enjoyed it more than One Thousand Lies, in others it left me wanting more. I understand the change to second-person tense, but I personally find first-person to be much more intimate, like someone is confiding in you. My relationship with Ciaran was much stronger than mine with Cinque, even though I was ostensibly walking around the world in her shoes.

It certainly isn’t perfect. I’ll say this in no uncertain terms: the combat alone is not worth the money. It’s interesting, but not fantastic enough for me to want to play it again after I finish the game. As well, there are some minor issues with sprite art inconsistency, text box limits, and background placement while skipping; and the game might break if you go too fast at the wrong moment. Some of these problems might be fixed, and others might not. I had the great privilege of playing this game for free thanks to Keinart’s generosity, but for those paying to play the game I would say that you should go into this only if you were a fan of One Thousand Lies and specifically want more of Keinart’s storytelling and humor. Treat this as a normal VN or book purchase, and you’ll avoid any sort of unrealistic expectations regarding this game.

Just to reiterate, the issue with text outside the text box has been resolved, and so far others have not been able to replicate the glitch that freezes the game.

I really hope to read another Keinart work soon, whether it’s the next installment of Lotus Reverie or some other project in between! He’s an awesome writer, developer, and human being, and I hope that this review does justice to his wonderful game. He’s a great inspiration to me, and playing this has reinvigorated me as I continue development on my own visual novel. Both this game and One Thousand Lies will stay with me as I, too, strive to realize my artistic vision. I won’t forget.

LOTUS REVERIE: FIRST NEXUS IS RECOMMENDED

Platforms: PC
Purchase Link: Steam (PC)

If you enjoy visual novels with gameplay, perhaps you’d like to take a look at Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen.

Many thanks goes to Keinart Lobre for a PC review code for this title.

Please remember to check out The Wind at Dawn, which the author of this review is the director and writer of. If you are interested in submitting a guest review or other feature, please get in contact via e-mail or Twitter.

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One thought on “Lotus Reverie: First Nexus – Review

  1. I just finished the first play-through and I’m beyond confused. I can look past the incoherent philosophical musings of the various characters, but the ending was so abrupt and confusing that I’m at a total loss for words.

    I’m left with a mountain of questions and absolutely no answers. I spent a good two days of my life trying to understand who this Cinque person was and ended the game perhaps more confused than when I began. Who is she?

    And what the actual **** happened in that ending? I’m trying not to spoil it for future players, but I’m left with a feeling that absolutely nothing was explained, and the entire game was just a long character buildup with no real conclusion whatsoever. Am I missing something?

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