Lake Ridden Review
Good puzzles can't save a dreary adventure riddled with ambiguity
There have been many successful first-person adventure games over the years, covering a broad spectrum of experiences. Last year, What Remains of Edith Finch presented a family's history with impeccable visuals and strong emotional delivery. Long before that, Amnesia: The Dark Descent took players through oppressive locales with puzzles and invisible horrors. Lake Ridden can be thought of as a blend of these two games, without horror, a good story, or strong execution. The best parts in Lake Ridden are the occasional brain teasers, although these are not enough to sustain the dull adventure.
The estate has seen better days
Lake Ridden's biggest puzzle is its own story. Whether the ambiguity is intended or not doesn't change the fact that events are impossible to link together. It begins in cryptic fashion. You arise in a forest with one task: find your sister. Eventually you stumble upon a lakeside estate that was once owned by an inventor. This inventor took in destitute children and made puzzle boxes for them to enjoy. You'll need to explore the area and open these puzzle boxes to follow the breadcrumbs. Part of this means uncovering what happened with the previous occupants, but that's a challenge in itself because the story is a confusing mess.
The narrative has many characters and spans multiple time periods. It's not always obvious who wrote the notes found in the world. And if you know who did, it's not clear who they were in the grand scheme. Only three characters in the game are voiced, and two of them sound alike. Because the estate was home to many kids, there are fictional tales, made just for them, which further muddy the waters. It may be that Lake Ridden does not want to be fully understood, or that it was striving for players to come up with theories. Whatever the reason, the story flew over my head.
Time for the supernatural
Supernatural elements add even more mystery, but this is not a horror game. On rare occasions, objects move, doors close, and light orbs guide the player. These incorporeal incidents are either expected or play out like Casper the friendly ghost being chased through hanging laundry. While the adventure gets a little ominous towards the end, it is never scary or dangerous. None of the apparitions take on a physical form, so, once again, tracking who, or what, is tossing bottles around requires hidden knowledge or a better grasp of the story.
The puzzles are probably the best part of the game, even if the initial tasks give the opposite impression. Many of the gates around the estate need to be opened by aligning hard-to-see symbols on concentric circles. Most of the puzzle boxes are solved by repeating a button sequence, which tests short term memory and patience. These busywork tasks are not optional and half as many of them would have been more than enough.
Some puzzles involve matching symbols
When the hard puzzles come around, it may be time to get the pen and paper out as you briefly revel in their cleverness. One of the best puzzles involved matching symbols on a projector with a grid code on another puzzle box; with over a million possible solutions, it would be hard to brute force. Other challenges involved matching glyphs, mixing a potion, and placing bone charms on monuments so the supernatural forces could do their thing. The variety between these harder puzzles is good and some have twists that ensure the first answer won't be correct. Coming across these challenges was the best part of the adventure, but too rare.
As the six hour adventure nears a conclusion, the player will be required to go back and forth between areas for some basic fetch tasks that are linked with puzzles. This is boring. Run speed is slow and nothing much happens as you move between previously visited locations. Navigating the estate and its surrounds overstays its welcome before these tasks begin, so the ending just drags the game down further.
Lake Ridden uses the Unity engine and it looks okay for a game that's mostly set at night. It's depressing to walk through a world that is barely visible. Rooms are cluttered with nondescript trash and the poor light conditions make it hard to locate notes or objects of importance. You'll get a lantern eventually, but the only thing it makes easier to see is the lantern itself. This light source doesn't work outside, for some reason, so any exterior lighting comes from hanging lamps or candles that can be lit by hand, but they are mostly useful as distant points of reference through the grey murkiness. Even though the game is not a horror experience, the dreary environment would certainly work as one.
Much of the adventure is gloomy and bland
Lake Ridden has little that matches the best games in the genre. The story is messy and confusing to the point where it becomes uncomfortable just trying to keep track of the supernatural elements and the estate's history. Tedious puzzles and fetch tasks elongate the adventure hours beyond its expiry date. Maybe if the game wasn't so dark, it wouldn't be so dull. Then again, more interesting things would need to happen than sheets being shoved aside by apparitions. Lake Ridden has a few decent brain teasers to solve, but everything else is just stumbling around in the dark.