Adventure Gamers Awards
The eponymous setting of Lake Ridden sounds like the perfect place for a backwoods vacation: tranquil, green, and full of great hiking trails and camping spots. There's just one teensy problem – children have been going missing, one of whom happens to be your younger sister. Tracking her down through the misty moonlight takes you on a strange journey through an abandoned estate and into the strange and tragic lives of its former inhabitants. It's by turns elegiac, beautiful, horrifying, and creepy, heavy on atmosphere and puzzle boxes but lighter on clear answers. The game relies a bit too much on horror tropes and formulaic puzzles at times, but it's an undeniably haunting and affecting experience.
You play as Marie, reflecting on the events of a trip she took with her sister Sophie in 1988. Were the strange and mysterious events she experienced real, or just a dream? It all starts off innocently enough, if a little worryingly: Sophie has wandered off, somehow managing to wind up on the other side of a broken-down bridge. You can see her right in front of you, and call out for her to stay where she is until you can find a way across. Except, by the time you get there (by tiptoeing your way across a fallen tree trunk) she's gone. It really doesn't help when, shortly after, you stumble across first a cabin and then a cheerily-lit campsite, one with a diary about some guy's missing brother, the other with a letter from a girl whose boyfriend disappeared. Lake Ridden's clearly not all it appears, and Sophie might really be in trouble.
Wandering deeper into the woods, things get steadily creepier, with glowing rune stones and messages about an ancient evil trapped nearby. And then there's Nora. She sounds like a harmless little girl, but she's out in the middle of nowhere at night, and she's invisible. "Sometimes," she says, "when I wake up no-one can see me all day. This must be one of those days." This mix of seemingly-innocent whimsy with an undercurrent of darkness is one of Lake Ridden's hallmarks, immediately reinforced by your next stop in the garden of an old house on a hill. Once elegant and beautiful but now overgrown and tumbledown, it's still full of abandoned teddies and rickety swings. Not that Nora seems to mind; she just wants to play a game of riddles with you, giggling with glee.
From there, you go on to investigate the once-grand house and nearby village, eventually wending your way down to the shore of Lake Ridden itself. Although it's immediately obvious nobody's lived in these parts for years, the whole area's chock-full of letters, diary entries and other notes that paint a vivid picture of life there. You can probably see where this is going: through steady exploration, you open up more and more of the house and town, getting scattered glimpses of past events and people, eventually reaching the shocking heart of the mystery.
It would be easy to sum up Lake Ridden as just a mix of Gone Home's environmental storytelling, Myst-style puzzles and more than a dash of H.P. Lovecraft, but that's not quite the whole story, for two reasons. First, there's the powerful atmosphere that pervades the place: everything's carefully crafted and detailed, and when you add in mist, moonlight, and an air of genteel decay, it becomes the kind of setting that invades your dreams. Second, the characters you read about, while somewhat cartoonish, really grow on you over the course of the game, starting to feel like real (if often distinctly odd) people, by turns tragic and humorous.
The mood is really helped along by lovely 3D graphics. The wooded areas, in particular, are stunning, with gnarled trees, grasses swaying in the breeze, and a natural landscape full of bumps and rocks. There are small details everywhere, like patches of flowers, flitting butterflies, and motes of dust illuminated by shafts of moonlight. The buildings also look good, with rickety furniture, peeling wallpaper, and a general air of faded elegance, but they (fittingly) can't match the outdoor scenery. However, while the environments do their best to display variation, going from a tent lit by fairy lights in the woods to the remains of a refined drawing room and on to a root cellar and a pumping station, there's no getting away from the fact that you spend the whole game in one relatively small area.
Another distinctive feature is the lights. There are candles, lanterns, and oil lamps everywhere, all of which can be lit. There's no real need to do so (things aren't usually that dark), but I found there was something heartening about going through each locale, banishing the cold moonlight with their warm glow. (Not to mention the fact that they helped me navigate through a couple of maze-like areas!)
The music and effects build on this foundation by mixing suitably eerie wind, creaking and hooting owls with gentle string and piano-based melodies that really add to the sense of serene sadness and only rarely step out of the background at times of tension. The voice acting is serviceable, though less stellar. There are only two main parts, Marie and Nora, and while they sound reasonably natural, they don't show a lot of dramatic range. That's somewhat understandable, given that Marie spends much of her time narrating and reflecting on events from thirty years ago and is thus (presumably) feeling a lot calmer than she was at the time, but it does come across as a little flat in consequence.
The free-roaming control scheme is fairly straightforward: WASD to move around, mouse to look, and left-click to interact with hotspots indicated by the smart cursor when centred on the screen. You can pick up a lot of background objects (enlarging them in close-ups in the middle of the screen), rotate them with a right-click, then throw them back, but that's generally just for fun. Although there is an inventory (accessed via simple keystroke), it's only rarely used; instead you spend most of your time directly manipulating objects in the world.
There's also a very nicely implemented hint system. Designed to look a bit like old file folders, it both provides multi-step hints and keeps track of all the various notes and letters you find. On occasion, it even stores rough drawings of things you've seen and might need to refer to again. Unlike many reading-heavy games, I never felt the need to take many notes, which (I feel) is how it should be.
The puzzles themselves, unfortunately, are a bit of a mixed bag. While the game does make an effort to explain why you're surrounded by so many logic puzzles and weird locks (as either games Nora plays or the product of an eccentric inventor), Lake Ridden is very definitely an old-school puzzler. That said, I enjoy those as much as anyone, and there are quite a few quality brainteasers here. You'll find yourself navigating a toy ship by decoding clues from a bunch of old books, operating a lift by pulling levers to match the tune of a musical box, and putting together a wine bottle cannon. There's even a minor mystery to solve, involving a lost ring, to get your little grey cells working.
The problem is that, at other times, the same puzzle types are reused over and over again. Quite a few gates are sealed with locks consisting of a series of concentric rings that must be lined up just so, and several boxes are locked until you play the same pattern memory game. There's also a series of (admittedly optional) puzzle boxes that require you to play “lights out” on bigger and bigger grids with only minor variations. Solving them does reward you with some quite entertaining stories from the inventor's life, fleshing out the story a bit, and my lights out technique is now much more accomplished than it was before, but a little more variety would definitely have been welcome.
Navigation can also be a bit of an issue at times. As much as the mist adds to the atmosphere, it also makes it hard to see more than a few feet in front of you. You do find a rough map of the area, but I found myself all too often getting turned around in the fog and wandering off in the wrong direction. There's no quick travel, and several puzzles ask you to make your way from one end of the estate to the other and back again, exacerbating the problem. Sure, getting lost with poor visibility is realistic, but I could really have done with a lantern or something to guide the way. Somehow, even in a world full of lights, they never seemed to be around when I really needed them, dang it!
While we're talking about minor annoyances, the autosave system can also be a little frustrating. It must rely on saving the game periodically in the background, because more than once I jumped back into the game only to find that a little bit of my progress had been undone. Never very much, but just enough to mean I had to re-solve a puzzle on a couple of occasions. Why it doesn't just save on exit or after every significant event is a mystery. That said, one nice touch is that the story is divided into chapters that you can replay at any time. I wish more games had something like that, letting you get straight to your favourite part and remind you how the story fits together.
Lake Ridden is a bit of an oddity in that it never seems quite able to figure out what it wants to be. The central plot, involving a spooky old village, missing children and ancient, malevolent supernatural creatures, is a horror classic, and it certainly does its best with the graphics and sound to build up a haunting, unsettling mood. Having set all that up, though, it then introduces an eccentric and naive inventor as the owner of the house (who leaves some quite hilarious notes about the place for his exasperated housekeeper) and undercuts much of the feeling of immediate threat to Marie by telling the whole story in flashback. The puzzle-heavy gameplay also encourages you to think analytically about what you're seeing rather than reacting emotionally. The game still clearly wants to be a horror story, but one that's not too scary, while making you laugh now and again and keep you thinking.
On top of that, with some definite exceptions, the events you uncover as you piece together what happened on the abandoned estate are more sweetly tragic than horrifying. Although saying "piece together" might be putting it a bit strongly; trying to link all the hints and notes together left me as confused as I was enlightened, particularly as one of the characters spends most of her time trying to mislead you. It's not just a simple case of too many cooks (or plot elements) spoiling the broth, though, because it very nearly works, representing a noble attempt to leaven what could otherwise have been a slightly plodding and clichéd plot and giving us characters that are a little less one-dimensional.
All in all, Lake Ridden comes across as a little unfocused, but comprised of plenty of memorable and interesting elements. There’s much to experience in the 8–10 hours you’re likely to spend there, from eldritch horrors to Poirot-esque investigations, but where it really shines is in the atmosphere and sense of place: its world is detailed, often beautiful, and manages to feel authentic and lived-in. The visual and sound design both really draw you in and create some genuinely startling moments, even if the muddled storytelling and mood serve to undermine all this good work just a bit. This is a game that tries to include something for everyone, from the horror fan to the puzzle fanatic, even if it doesn't fully gel together seamlessly. Still, the end result is well worth a try if you love logic puzzles with a side of the creepy, creaky, and mysterious but still want to be able to sleep at night.