I’ve had my eye on Lake Ridden since playing the demo at EGX last September. It had been added to my event to-do list after I’d read that developer Midnight Hub was aiming to create ‘something that evoked a creepy atmosphere without relying on the usual use of blood and gore’ and was instead going for ‘an intriguing story woven together with interesting gameplay’.
As I’ve written before, I find it incredibly difficult to play titles like this while at expos as their narrative tends to get lost among the noise and crowds. But even after a few minutes at the keyboard I knew Lake Ridden was going to be a game for me; the twisting and overgrown path ahead led to a sunken garden before branching off into various directions, and the impression of secrets being hidden in the shadows hung heavy in the air.
It’s early autumn in 1988 and players step into the shoes of 13-year old Marie, who has reluctantly joined her younger sister and friends for a camping weekend in the wilderness of Maine. An argument results in her running off into the forest where she vanishes, and while you’re searching for her you encounter an abandoned house. Can you find Sofia and piece together the dark secret of the forgotten estate while the shadows are watching?
Midnight Hub contacted me through Twitter just before the game’s release on 10 May 2018 and very kindly sent a Steam key for their project. The following weekend, my other-half and I took the opportunity to try it out while the stepson wasn’t with us; and we ended up sitting in front of the screen for over six-hours. We were so hooked that we went straight back to it the following morning and completed the title a few days later.
It was the atmosphere which had initially pulled us in and not let go. There were no jump-scares or any of the other tricks usually relied upon to create that feeling, simply an eeriness which urged us deeper into the forest and abandoned house. It was hard to believe that an environment so gorgeous could shelter anything dark and sinister, but there were several moments when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end.
A number of reviewers have mentioned Firewatch or Myst in comparison and I’m afraid I must disagree with them. The former’s focus was on the protagonists, Harry’s conflicted emotions and his developing relationship with Delilah, while Lake Ridden’s attention is on something else entirely. The latter is a much closer assessment due to both games taking place in a good-looking environment and featuring puzzles but it’s still not quite right.
The vibe I got from Midnight Hub’s project was more The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The awareness that something more was going on under the surface of the story, something threatening and fearful; I got that same feeling from Lake Ridden. I’d say the puzzles throughout this title are more complex than those in Ethan Carter and so those looking for a story combined with a bit of a challenge will be pleased.
Speaking of the puzzles, the developer hit the sweet-spot between ‘too easy’ and ‘so frustrating I’m going to throw my mouse at the wall’. They can all be figured out if you take your time to think them through. Pete and I ended up only having to use the hint-system twice: once when we’d missed a visual clue, then again when we overthought a challenge and went off in the wrong mental direction (something we’re occasionally guilty of!).
We kept a pad and pen handy while working our way through Lake Ridden as it soon became obvious we’d need to make a few notes to help us solve certain challenges. Remember the good old days when it was necessary to draw diagrams in order to figure out a solution? You don’t always get that when playing modern releases and it was weirdly satisfying to end up with a few pages of intelligible scrawl by the end of the game.
It suited how my other-half and I play video games together. I’m a complete wimp and whenever I think something mildly scary is going to happen, even if it’s not a horror we’re playing, I’ll had the controls over to him. But when there’s a tile puzzle involving logical thinking like those which appear on top of the nine hidden puzzle boxes, the mouse comes straight back to me. The result was a nice mix of different play-styles.
The thing I loved most about Lake Ridden was something subtle: a small detail which made me smile when I realised its purpose and appreciate the work of the developer even more. Dotted throughout the title are a number of lights in many forms – candles, lanterns, lamps – which you can turn on and dissipate the darkness as you go past. At first I wondered whether they were part of some elaborate challenge or achievement.
But then I realised they were simply there to help the player navigate through the environment. Like the trail of breadcrumbs from the story of Hansel and Gretel, they left a path of light to show where I’d already been. Some reviewers have criticised the absence of a map but I think a feature like that could have possibly compromised Lake Ridden’s atmosphere; it would have made no sense for Marie to have a diagram of an abandoned estate.
The majority of the story is told through notes and diary entries found around the house and forest and, while this format works for this type of game, it’s not always obvious who wrote them or what their true meaning is. The were a number of questions we still had around the origin of the events and the nature of the game’s antagonist by the time we reached the title’s conclusion and it seems as if other players had similar confusions.
Despite that Lake Ridden is still pretty impressive when you consider it’s the work of such a small team. A number of people have reported a few bugs, some of which we noticed but none of which were totally game-breaking. The developer is keen to collect more details about these via the Steam discussion page and two patches have been released already, so they’re clearly working hard on getting them resolved.
If you’re a fan of mysterious adventures, nicely-challenging puzzles and games with an eerie atmosphere, Lake Ridden is definitely worth checking out. I’m hoping there’s more like this to come from Midnight Hub in the future and if they take the lessons they’ve learnt from their first project, they’re certainly on a bright path.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.