Lake Ridden is a new, narrative-driven, first-person puzzle game by independent developer, Midnight Hub available on Steam and PC. You play as Marie, a young woman looking for her sister Sofia who has gone missing on a camping trip. Her search through the woods leads her to a large estate full of puzzles and mysterious residents who may help her in her search. Does the game deliver a narrative as engaging as the puzzles that litter the estate?
The game opens with a trek through a wood that looks realistic, yet feels dreamlike. Dense fog shrouds swaying trees and mossy rocks under a starry sky as the opening narration speaks of dreams and a strained sibling relationship. This sequence immediately pulls the player into a quiet place of introspection as they take in the forest around them. Thoughtfulness and a suggestion towards observation are a great mode to invite the player into when opening a puzzle game and when I encountered my first problem to solve, the relaxing, dreamy mood helped me feel calm as I worked out the solution.
However, Lake Ridden is a narrative-driven game, but the story is actually the weakest part of the experience. None of the characters really felt distinct or interesting so it was difficult to get invested in the overall plot. Each character felt more like a group of characteristics rather than a really fleshed out person. Some of these characteristics actually made most of the characters unlikable for most of the game, either through their jealousy, condescension, petulance, or frivolousness. These traits aren’t inherently unlikable when portrayed in a more nuanced way, but attached to characters with little else to work with made it hard to care about anyone in the game.
Though the game heavily employs supernatural elements, this is not a scary game meant to jump the player out of their seat. There are notes hidden around the environment that hint at some macabre circumstances, but the game never leans far enough into those suggestions to become horrific, rather than curious; eerie at worst. If you’re a fan of supernatural tales but don’t like the constant, white-knuckled tension of first-person, jump-scare horror, this game should be much more your speed.
Speaking of the scattered notes, it’s through this method of environmental storytelling that the game fleshed out its plot and world building, but I can’t say they did quite enough. Without spoilers, there are multiple plot points before and during the game’s action that are left mostly ambiguous. While ambiguity can lead to interpretation and fun filling in the blanks, here it only left me wanting more. Because the characters weren’t able to connect with me in any real way, I was hoping their circumstances would build my interest in the plot more, but I just wasn’t given enough information surrounding multiple major plot points to feel invested. Some characters are only known through these notes as well, which ties in to why it was hard to connect with them. There were times where I could only figure out who was speaking by seeing what names were mentioned in the note, reflecting a lack of distinction in most of the characters’ voices.
As Marie, the player runs up and down every corner of the map and while there are a ton of cabinets and drawers to open and items to pick up, most of the time I only found repeated textures and objects. While it’s fun to be able to pick up and look at a lot of items in an environment, seeing the same doll model or folded up cloth in a drawer lost its appeal fast. Occasionally I was rewarded for my thorough searching with a note, but most of the time I almost wanted some cabinets to not open at all rather than open to reveal nothing.
Though Marie naturally walks at a slow pace, there is a sprint button that’s great for backtracking around the map. Each new objective seemed to send me back to the opposite side of the map I had just visited. However, even though I rolled my eyes each time this happened, but the sprint button made the trips feel a lot less painful.
As for the puzzles themselves, I found all of them to be simple and satisfying. There were one or two where the mechanics of how to solve them were difficult to figure out even if I knew what the goal was, but using the in-game hint feature helped point me in the right direction. All of the types of puzzles were ones I’ve seen before, so people familiar with puzzle games will either be happy to see a format they recognize and enjoy or disappointed at not finding any mechanics that really feel fresh. Either way, once I figured out exactly what I was supposed to do to engage with a puzzle, I almost always enjoyed working it out.
A lot of the satisfaction came from the sound design of the game, which is packed with lots of pleasing sound of metal or wood moving in place or sliding around that made a solved puzzle feel like an even bigger accomplishment in an almost relaxing way. All of the music in the game is also very relaxing with a lot of stringed instruments humming calming, dreamlike music. I never felt rushed or stressed when completing a puzzle because the music was always at a relaxed tempo, which is great when taking your time on figuring out a puzzle. The atmosphere was also elevated by the excellent lighting. There are a lot of candles and lanterns to light and each one gives off a small, warm glow that moves with the flame. It’s a small detail, but one that had me lighting every object I could as I played, making each illuminated space seem to glow with more personality than it did in the dark.
Overall, I can’t say that Lake Ridden is a very memorable experience. Fans of puzzle games looking to solve another batch of familiar puzzle types might want to check it out. Unfortunately, the narrative which ties the puzzles together has major issues when it comes to getting the player invested in its plot and characters. Fans of affecting first-person exploration games looking for a good story will have better luck looking elsewhere.