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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Whitethorn Digital
Developer: Gamious
Release Date: Sept. 1, 2021


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PC Review - 'Lake'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 1, 2021 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

Lake is an adventure game where you play as Meredith Weiss who takes a break from her career in the big city to deliver mail in her hometown.

Games tend to stick to a specific set of genres and plot points: rescue missions to save someone important, treks to vanquish a great evil, solving a mystery, and exacting revenge on those who wronged you. There's nothing wrong with having any of these be the focus of a game, and so many great titles often run with these basic plot points, but with so many offerings out there, they do start to blend together. Lake is very different because it takes on a plot point that's rarely seen in games. Whether it's executed well depends on what you're seeking.

It's September 1986, and you play the role of Merideth Weiss, an engineer working on productivity software for PCs. With the project pretty much wrapped up, you head to your old hometown of Providence Springs to temporarily take over your dad's postal service job as he starts retirement. For the next two weeks, you'll be out delivering mail while also reconnecting with people you knew and making connections with those who are new to the area. Ultimately, you'll have to decide if you want to return to your city life or stay in your hometown.

There's something novel about playing a game with such low stakes. Compared to a great many other titles that work your brain, give you a dopamine rush, or scare the pants off of you, it's refreshing to see one that just aims for the slice of life experience. The conversation trees don't have too many layers of subtlety, but they also don't take on any heady topics. There's a hint of romance if you're looking for it, and there's some intrigue with a fellow postal worker's gambling problem, but most of your conversations revolve around taking photos or discussing open mic night at the diner. You get some conversations about missing your childhood and wanting to reconnect with hobbies. Even the ending decision doesn't feel as big as the trailers make it sound, and while the game tries to fill in as many plot threads as it can, there are a few moments with contradictory decisions and results. It feels like something from a Hallmark Channel movie, which is less of an insult and more of a familiar framework for the game.

Solidifying that description is the cast of characters you get to interact with, most of whom fill in the expected tropes of people in small towns. There's the nosy but friendly waitress at the local diner. You have your best friend, who you haven't seen in decades but somehow enjoys her life back in town despite her circumstances. You've got the teenager aching to leave and a lumberjack trying to stop the forest from being cut down for buildings. There are a few oddballs, like the grumpy general store owner and the crazy cat lady, and while you should only expect a few of them to have any character depth beyond their initial impressions, they make for interesting conversations.

Despite this, there are several things that make the experience fall short of expectations. Some of that is due to the characters and their animations. The voice acting sounds great, and the cartoon style fits the atmosphere quite well, but the faces lack any emotion, with bad lip-synching and dead eyes to round out the package. Most of the characters simply stand around or take on certain poses as they sway back and forth, while two characters look unnatural when going in for a hug. You might be able to hear emotion, but the attempt at conveying that with action falls flat. It also doesn't help that some of the scenes have characters disappearing at the last moment, blocking a view, or even having a blur effect when it isn't supposed to.

It also doesn't help that Lake's overall pacing feels off as the game rushes to hit story beats. As soon as you end your delivery day, the game transitions to the evening with a phone call at the house followed by a brief glance of you either reading a book or watching TV. If you planned on an activity with another townsperson, you'll see the conversation bits but nothing else. Have dinner with the lumberjack, and no one can be seen eating. Offer to babysit your friend's kids or the elderly lady's cats, and you'll arrive but not do anything. There are instances when you get more, such as a car ride to and from the theater or hanging out with a pair of campers before they move on to Canada, but you're left unfulfilled by most of the encounters when you're off the clock.

Although your conversations, choices and results are the most important part of the game, they don't make up the bulk of your playtime. Most of your time with the game is spent on delivering the mail, with the occasional non-mail delivery tasks thrown in for good measure. This is usually how the conversations between major characters are initiated, but you'll also spend a good amount of that time putting letters in mailboxes or ringing doorbells before placing packages in front of doors without interacting with anyone. Due to the size of the town and surrounding areas on your route, you'll either manually drive the mail truck down these roads or, in a few instances, let the auto-pilot take over. There are only four spots where you can initiate fast-travel, and all of them are located in the cardinal directions of the map.

This is where the patience of some players may be tested due to a few interesting design decisions. After a couple of routes, you'll have seen almost all of the town highlights, with later mail routes showing portions of the outskirts, which aren't that intriguing. The dearth of cars on the road and relatively few people walking around the town paints the picture of a town in decline. The soft rock and country songs you hear on the radio are nice, but the lack of musical variety quickly gets tiresome, even with the game referencing this and not improving on it until the very end. Turn on the auto-pilot, and the game drives the truck rather poorly with unnecessary speed shifts, abrupt turns, and even an instance of the vehicle spinning in place at an intersection. Leave the truck, and your walking speed is slow enough that you don't want to explore Main Street on foot. Unless you're at the deer statue facing the lake, don't expect any interactivity with the rest of the world.

To be fair, there is a sort of catharsis at just driving and taking on a regular job without facing any consequences. While the destinations are predetermined, you can take any route you want. There's no worrying about timetables, and it's fine to always take the scenic route. It's relaxing, and that goes perfectly with the vibe that the developers seem to want, but it is a shame that the game wants to shuttle between work and home life with no opportunity to let yourself get reacquainted with your old hometown.

In the end, Lake delivers on producing a "slice of life" experience but with some issues that keep it from being excellent. The characters are interesting to talk to, even if only a few of them break out from being one-dimensional. The vocal performances are good, but the stiff facial and body animations and rushed story don't give it a chance to connect with players. If you can forgive these shortcomings and don't find the mail delivery mechanic to be tedious, Lake is relaxing and different enough from other offerings to warrant a glance.

Score: 6.0/10

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