With a title like Lake, my first thought is of a pleasant afternoon. Whether it’s fishing off a dock or casually boating, there's always an ubiquitous calm associated with it. Developer Gamious tries to capture that breezy atmosphere within a delivery sim/adventure title, only way less intensive than Death Stranding's courier template. It's closer to a new sub-genre for this team: the walking sim. Although it's great to see these developers take ventures away from previous comfort zones, that tightrope balance between the serene and boring is often mismanaged here.
September 1st, 1986. 40-something Meredith Weiss is shelving her software programming job for two weeks. Rather than take a well-deserved break after prepping her program (Addit '87) for launch, she's handling her dad's mail carrier route. I guess the USPS allowed hereditary claims on an occupation back then? While her parents are on vacation in Florida, Meredith makes her long-awaited debut back to Providence Oaks, Oregon. She took the career-focused path after high school and never looked back. This return to discover old and new locals serves not only to rekindle her past but help shape her future.
Part & Parcel With The Job
Providence Oaks is practically the postcard model for modest, convivial lake towns. The quaint neighborhoods surrounding the town square, the secluded farm, the old-fashioned diner, the deep woodland area, and some other expected tentpoles can be found. Similar expectations extend to the people living here too: crazy cat lady, gruff fisherman, sweet diner waitress, and on and on. You may be anticipating this sets up a seedy underbelly to this place, but it's just a Lifetime movie refashioned into a casual game.
I initially wanted to give it some leeway in having such low stakes. Maybe by emphasizing passive game design these mini-stories as a mail carrier feel more personal. It worked to a limited extent. Brief encounters with the sillier types and doing some chores for them felt rewarding enough. But when shifting gears to more consequential stuff like rekindling with your best friend in high school or the like, very little of it feels dramatic. The dialogue takes this procedural focus without any oomph: "I left to pursue this dream, didn't keep up, and now I'm back for a while." You can't just impress by avoiding cheap melodrama; something has to be done to avoid feeling stale.
It's also a shame that story presentation occasionally detracts from the experience as well. The general list of voice actors is fine – for the most part. Some secondary actors are unimpressive, yet others like Whitney Szabo pulling double duty as Angie & Mrs. Jenkins was a genuine surprise. Hats off to this being her first credited acting role too. Whether you're listening to good or mediocre acting, stolid facial animations are universal and have a tendency to distract. I'm not happy to appear so nitpicky, but when story immersion is crucial it's tough to ignore.
Serene Or Mundane?
Finding the moving in the mundane is no small task. Lake is just the latest example to show why. It acts as a palette cleanser amongst more bombastic titles currently releasing, but never finds firm footing between an extended reunion tour and low-stakes drama. An acquired letter without a postage stamp presages an internal USPS investigation, but the obstacles for you are never clear and it eventually goes nowhere. Outside of a big decision towards the conclusion, that kind of listlessness permeates the rote job.
Regardless of the context surrounding them, gameplay routines are part and parcel for most titles. Delivery mechanics are really basic, but I'd be lying if I didn't feel like the work often had a therapeutic aspect to it. Those better intervals are still dampened by some lacking gameplay systems. I'm not sure why Meredith is physically incapable of putting standard letters in the mailbox while driving; instead, they demand physically exiting the van and delivering the correct mail. It's one thing to do that for packages, but the monotony of the fade-to-black micro-loading screen for entering/exiting the vehicle starts to wear out its welcome.
Even the fundamental basics beyond getting the mail to someone's home are quite bland. The disparity between walk and walk faster is inconsequential and the driving feels rather pedestrian; moreover, lacking technical details suggest Lake isn't quite out of beta yet. Examples: crashing into anything sounds like banging Tupperware, no rear lights turn on when braking, and the subdued muffler sounds for every vehicle. I'll admit to delving into the nitpicky (again), but it says something for my excitement when these distractions are easy to spot.
How Lake pares down these courier mechanics could be something others will praise. And despite acting a bit rough, I occasionally realize how that serene design ethos fits this world. Several delivery side-quests have enjoyable outcomes and feel well-incorporated into the wider narrative. Considering the diminished stakes, it's tough to really knock dialogue options for being laidback and honest. Since they're centered on crafting "your Meredith" who's been away for decades, low-key decisions like staying home to do more software work or watching someone's kids fits the tone.
Even though I've been divided about story and gameplay, Gamious' visuals and world design do better at consistently revealing their talent. The dense wood forests and imposing mountains capture the idyllic vacation spot along the Pacific Northwest. Every scenic spot is worth a postcard! Even the modest stretches of road between the local church, farm, motel, and suburban avenues felt appropriate for this era. The soft textures reminiscent of Life Is Strange was an inspired touch as well; it perfectly matches the warm tranquility baked into this environment. Although music artists like Niels van der Leest (Horizon series) and Claynote provide compositions befitting for this landscape, it's still a limited soundtrack that gets repetitive by the end.
Value is a straightforward affair: $19.99 for a campaign that will last in the ballpark of 6 hours – should you utilize fast travel. Although the dollar-per-hour threshold tends to vary between people, I think that tradeoff (on its own) is harmless; plus, further exploring the world or choosing disparate endings will add more time. The biggest (current) contention against replayability is the lack of a 'skip dialogue' option, or it's incredibly sporadic about when it’s allowed. That weird issue aside, this is the most neutral portion of my critique.
The term "Zen game" gets bandied around for many indie games. That may be apropos for Gamious' latest title too, but having chill game systems still ought to feel engaging. From swimming adventures like Abzû to walking simulators like Gone Home, there's still a tangible connection beneath those simplistic mechanics. There's enough dynamism within them to wholly immerse yourself; conversely, Lake's placid philosophy causes its better qualities to become irrelevant by the end.
TechRaptor reviewed Lake on Xbox Series X with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC and Xbox One.
- Pleasant Environment
- Some Endearing Characters
- Decent Voice Acting
- Enervating Repetition Towards The End
- Stale Main Story
- Mediocre Sound Design