Midnight Hub’s recently released puzzle game Lake Ridden does about as many things wrong as it does right. Still, despite its technical shortcomings, its story completely hooked me in, compelling me to see the ghostly tale to its end.
Lake Ridden shirks certain common UI conventions, recycles puzzles and keeps you in the dark both literally and metaphorically until its final moments. But Midnight Hub also crafts some serious challenges that pushed me to think levels beyond what I’m used to, even in this genre.
That same dark environment injects a mounting tension as you journey into the unknown, not quite dipping Lake Ridden into the horror genre but borrowing heavily from its cues. Most of all, Midnight Hub’s delicate storytelling sprouts more questions with every revelation, making its less polished mechanics easier to stomach.
Lake Ridden begins with the narrator, Marie, musing about a letter she received from someone she could have sworn wasn’t real. ‘When you were little, did you ever have dreams that felt so real you believed they were true?’ she asks cryptically. ‘But did any of them really happen? One did to me.’
Cue a jerking cut to a camping trip where she wakes up in the dead of night to find her sister, Sofia, missing. As she searches, Marie catches glimpses of her in the distance, only for her to disappear like a ghost when she approaches. The environment gradually becomes more surreal as she pushes forward, trees wind together in impossible spirals, ghostlike voices sound out in the night, but she explains them away as just part of the dream she clearly must be having, an excuse that feels as flat as it sounds.
It’s when she discovers an estate lost to time in the middle of the forest that Lake Ridden begins to hit its stride. Well-spaced clues gradually paint a picture that something sinister left this place empty, and the ghosts still trapped there are the only hope of finding your sister and solving the mystery of what happened. Unfortunately, most of the key information surrounding their fate doesn’t become clear until the last five minutes of the game, when you’re given so much exposition that it distracts from any hope of a satisfying ending.
Like onions, puzzles have layers
Faithful to the genre, Lake Ridden’s pacing breaks down into a series of puzzles that must be solved to progress. For the most part, it weaves these hard stops gracefully into the story, occasionally prompting an eye roll when simple tasks like opening a door require unlocking at least three intricate mechanisms. But each puzzle’s multiple tiers manage to keep your interest despite their thin premises for existence. Each one challenges you to think at a higher level when you think you’ve solved it, because usually that means you’ve only cracked the first layer.
One of my favorites involved a very creepy projector you assemble in a decrepit attic. Once all parts are found, it flickers between slides, picturing marks on a grid — an obvious reference to a similarly gridded puzzle box around the corner. But a one-to-one correlation would be too easy. Certain slides are red herrings meant to confuse, and the method for sorting out the right ones lies in deciphering small markings on each slide, easily missed on first look.
Unfortunately, another red herring that constantly derailed my progress didn’t seem all that intentional. Nearly every locker, drawer and cabinet in Lake Ridden can be opened, but few hold anything worth stopping for. It would be easy to ignore them altogether, except a few puzzles require you to search the area to find components, either to power a machine or create a key essential to the solution. Just as I got sick of throwing open every piece of furniture and sworn off the practice as useless, I’d spend ten minutes pulling out my hair over a puzzle only to find the answer in that 101st cabinet I didn’t search. And it didn’t help that important objects look identical to the interactable home goods littering every location.
Several smaller puzzles also appear periodically throughout the campaign, their difficulty increasing each time to keep things challenging but not enough to distract from a feeling of déjà vu. Only the final iterations felt like truly new beasts of their own.
My kingdom for a waypoint
For each truly innovative moment, Lake Ridden trips over its own delivery with technical and design issues. Auto-saving halts you constantly, even in mid-sprint, mouse sensitivity skyrockets after the camera zooms in on puzzles — exactly when you need precise movements — and the opening tutorial slide leaves out basic controls like accessing the inventory.
Normally the latter would be too small a gripe to be worth mentioning, if it weren’t for Lake Ridden’s genre. Figuring out a game’s puzzles requires you operate within its established logic of possibilities; if a game fails to fully lay out its rules, how are players expected to think within the realms of the solution?
Finding where you were supposed to go also became a puzzle of its own, as its sizable environment lacks any sort of map or fast travel system. What I would have given for a waypoint marker as I crisscrossed the estate for the umpteenth time looking for a specific location amid dozens of similarly gray buildings. In the fog. At dusk.
There is a friendly ghost that accompanies you but she keeps her directions meant to help you vague, a bit too in character with her gratingly childlike speech patterns. Frequently, the only point of reference I got was ‘it’s in the courtyard’ (along with every other building) or ‘over there by the trees’ (the game’s in a forest).
By far the most infuriating experience I had should be fixed for the release copy. As if the puzzles weren’t challenging enough, eight hours in I experienced a game-breaking bug that rendered the key to the solution invisible. Again, easy enough to forgive and forget in other games — my heart goes out to indie developers, after all — but given Lake Ridden’s genre, I thought I was simply being thick and continued trying everything I could think of for the better part of an hour.
A reason for trudging along
As frustrating as that experience was, it speaks to the skill of Midnight Hub’s storytelling. Even after playing for so long, I still needed to see how things ended. The developers do a great job of hinting that there’s more to the story, that there’s something more sinister just beneath the surface.
A scribbled letter found in a locked basement tells how a woman hid down there so ‘she wouldn’t take control of me’. A hiker’s journal entry mentions a dark force that threw his brother into a tree, and how his body was never found. There’s something evil hidden within the estate of Lake Ridden and I refused to be done with the game until I found out what.
And, while Lake Ridden’s Steam page says it’s not a horror game, the dreary environment, perpetually at dusk, along with the isolation due to a lack of face-to-face interaction with other characters, all combine for a chilling ambiance. Playing at night, I couldn’t tell if the tense atmosphere was part of the game or my overactive imagination. Exploring a dead-silent crawlspace will do that to you, especially when it’s suffocated by dust and spider webs lit by a single, flickering projector.
The environmental storytelling reads like something out of the horror genre as well. Like when running after your sister, you spot her mitten on the ground before later seeing its pair through a wrought-iron gate spoken of in the frightened hiker’s journal entry. Or when solving a garden’s puzzle releases friendly, yellow, guiding lights, only for them to turn blood crimson when they reach a certain statue. Spirals of gnarled tree branches wither as the light grows brighter. The music deadens.
So, while Lake Ridden lacks significant UI polish — particularly given its expansive map size — its storytelling and challenging puzzle mechanics kept me interested in seeing more of what Midnight Hub had to offer. The plot kept just enough out of sight to tempt players forward despite being lost or frustrated yet again, though this may have hampered the game’s ending, which felt more like an information dump than a satisfying conclusion.
Lake Ridden is available now for Windows PC