Remember Myst's brand of puzzles; those first-person conundrums that interweaved with an immersive and magical story? Well, Midnight Hub's new game Lake Ridden harks back to this kind of puzzler, teasing the player's brain while also taking them by the hand and leading them on a journey into a world of the fantastical. Myst was one game that we were reminded of during our journey, although that isn't the only one we thought of when playing through Lake Ridden.
If you slow the pace down enough and focus on story there's no doubt you'll make comparisons with games that prioritise narrative over player agency/interactivity, and that's why from the very beginning of Lake Ridden we're reminded of games like Firewatch, Dear Esther, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Everything from the slow and steady pacing through to the emphasis on the environment around you attests to this, and we're constantly guided through this mysterious world by the narration of Marie, the protagonist, who also talks to other beings in the world around her.
The premise is relatively simple in essence, as you're on the search for your sister, Sofia, who has wandered off and gotten lost in the woods. This becomes less simple as more things are added to further your understanding of events, including mysterious journals from a man who lost his brother, in the same way, decades before, as well as a hidden house and its overgrown gardens, and even supernatural elements which we won't go into too much for fear of spoilers. What starts off as a simple game of chase-the-sister, then, quickly becomes much more, without ever becoming bogged down by all the documents and environmental clues we're given.
We have to say though that we didn't find the characters within the story all that interesting. The environmental writings, like the journal entries, had a lot of flavour and description, helping bolster the story in impactful ways, but the voiced dialogue didn't match up to that. Sometimes when things would befall Marie in the story, for example, the emotion in her voice didn't reflect the situation at hand, whether it be in regards to either fear or urgency, and instead, Midnight Hub maintained a fairytale, bedtime story tone throughout.
The fairytale tone is important though, make no mistake. Without the light, fairy-like tinkling of pianos and innocently sweet music peppering the adventure, for instance, one could easily mistake the dark woods as a horror experience, which it's most certainly not. In this way the music alone dramatically alters the tone and is crucial in shaping our understanding of the world. Rather than a forest full of potential dangers, it becomes one full of wonder and intrigue that encourages you to push on out of curiosity, rather than hang back out of fear.
As much as moving forwards and finding narrative clues in the environment are important to understanding the story, the mechanics all revolve around the aforementioned puzzles, for the most part at least. By puzzles we don't mean a simple case of finding a key to fit in a lock, but rather inventive challenges that require outside-the-box thinking.
Of course being a work of fiction this involves wildly eccentric mechanisms for getting through doors, like arranging a series of stones around a garden or moving a toy ship in a specific route across a grid, all of which is figured out by examining clues and documents in the environment which you can then access via the notes tab of the menu. What's great is that the clues and solutions are almost always included in the same area (i.e. a room or a specific section in the world), so you know you don't have to backtrack too much. Instead it's all about inspecting everything with a fine toothcomb, before taking a moment to consider how to solve the riddle.
Difficulty-wise, there's stuff in there for fans of puzzle games to enjoy, especially those who like inventive solutions for seemingly impossible tasks. There's a ton of creativity in all of these challenges, and what's more is that if you're either impatient or stuck, you get around four hints per puzzle to lighten the load, which gives you that feeling of achievement after solving a tough riddle but without the hours of head-scratching and walkthrough-searching.
Oftentimes navigating the dark can be a royal pain in games, especially in terms of finding your bearings, but in Lake Ridden you can constantly light lamps and candles along your journey not only to guide your way but to also give some indication of where you have and haven't been. In this way the game makes nighttime navigation way more accessible than it has been elsewhere, and the fact that everything is bathed in a twilight glow is also pretty helpful in the long run.
Not all of the game is played under moonlight though, as there are sections in the daytime, which is arguably when the game springs to life, at least visually. Part of the appeal of games like Firewatch, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and the upcoming Winter Hall is the wide natural spaces and the light that covers them, and the lighting effects work a treat in Lake Ridden too, piercing the space in between slats in the wood and gaps in the trees, which also helps make areas you've already explored seem new and fresh.
If you've been itching for a puzzle game that marries together an interesting plot with clever riddles, then Lake Ridden is certainly worth a try, both for the curiously patient who want no help at all, as well as those who don't have time to hang around. The story isn't always the strongest, but the intrigue it entices and atmosphere it creates help make up for it, as do the puzzles, which stand at the centre of this rather subtle and understated game, making for a quiet ride that you'll be convinced to keep exploring.