No walk in the park.
Reviewing a puzzle game is no easy task. If I get stuck, who’s at fault? Is the puzzle poorly conceived, with illogical reasoning and mechanics? Or am I just an idiot? Do I merely need to – shudder – ‘git gud’? These are questions I found myself asking while playing Lake Ridden.
Lake Ridden is a puzzle game that features exploration and narrative elements. You play Marie, a 13-year-old who loses her younger sister Sofia in the woods. Upon searching the area you discover that there are supernatural forces at work. An old and forgotten manor house appears to be at the centre of the mystery, so it’s up to you to explore it, work out what’s happened and find your sister.
Some of Lake Ridden’s story is told through dialogue between Marie and the few souls she encounters on her otherwise lonely journey. This doesn’t work so well, with voice acting that’s decidedly hammy and unconvincing. Marie projects a nonchalance unfitting of a 13-year-old girl who’s lost her sister and been left all alone in a strange location.
Lake Ridden’s real strength, then, is in its environmental storytelling. The manor and its grounds are majestic but conspicuously abandoned, frozen in time. Neatly-set tables indicating a sudden, abrupt departure are juxtaposed with outhouses that have been burned to the ground in apparent turmoil.
You’ll piece together what’s happened through scraps of notes and journals left lying around. It’s a tried-and-tested narrative device that works well here, making for an organic way of uncovering the secrets of the mysterious setting.
The pacing suffers a little when the whole of the manor and its grounds are opened up to you, however. It’s a little disorienting trying to get your bearings, and the level’s packed with cupboards and drawers to sift through. Most of what you’ll find is inconsequential junk, but when there’s occasionally something worthwhile it necessitates exploring everything.
Mercifully, there’s a sprint button. This shouldn’t be something that needs mentioning, but walking simulators like Dear Esther and Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture were infuriatingly pedestrian at times due to their forced slow meandering.
While exploration and narrative are reasonably strong points of Lake Ridden, the puzzles are its bread and butter. There’s a variety of creative challenges that’ll put your noggin to the test, from uncovering secret passages to brewing potions from a recipe and even solving a petty theft. One of the manor’s previous inhabitants was an inventor, and as such you’ll encounter plenty of riddles, puzzle boxes and other strange contraptions to fathom out.
The best puzzles challenge you but provide all the tools you need to succeed, and make you feel like a genius when you do. It’s not an easy balance to strike. Some of Lake Ridden’s puzzles nail it, cleverly tying together observation and logic in cryptic but entirely solveable ways. Unfortunately, some of them miss the mark.
There’s a real low point only around a third of the way through, where you’ll likely be brought to a grinding halt by a couple of poorly thought-out challenges. You may find the core components and work out the mechanics, but then you have to carry out steps in a certain order – an order which is not quite arbitrary but not particularly rational either. There are other points throughout where Lake Ridden takes some real liberties with its leaps in logic and it’s a shame, because many of its brain teasers are satisfyingly well balanced.
Thankfully there’s a hints feature, providing clues and prompts in increasing detail with every click. Often this will rescue you out of sticky situations, though on the odd occasion it failed to tell me anything I didn’t already know but I still couldn’t solve the puzzle.
While a frustrating puzzle may pull you out of the flow at times, Lake Ridden’s visual design does its best to drawn you back in. Its scenery is wonderfully picturesque, with lighting being the star of the show. During the day, the sun’s rays bask the rural setting in a warm, orange ambience. At dusk the landscape is suffocated by a deep, oppressive fog. Buildings and paths are lined with candles and lanterns which you can light, bathing the area in a reassuring glow. A simple touch, but a surprisingly satisfying one.
It’s a setting that drips with evocative atmosphere without being off-puttingly scary. Developers Midnight Hub are quick to point out on both their website and Steam page that ‘Lake Ridden is not a horror game, nor a walking simulator’. But it takes a pinch of what makes both of those genres work – the creepy tension and beautiful environments, respectively – without adopting their trappings.
I did encounter a few technical issues during my playthrough. This was mostly minor stuff, like little framerate hitches and pop-in when entering new areas, and once I got stuck in scenery and had to reload my save. More problematic was when the autosave quietly stopped working and I lost half an hour’s worth of progress, but this only happened once.
Lake Ridden is an atmospheric and oft-captivating mystery. A handful of obtuse puzzles tarnish the experience, though I’m willing to somewhat give these the benefit of the doubt. As long as you’re willing to swallow your pride now and then and use the hint function – or even refer to a walkthrough – Lake Ridden is worth losing yourself in.
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.