STAFF REVIEW of Lake (Xbox One)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Lake Box art Xbox’s Summer Game Fest was a great event, as there were a ton of games that released limited timed demos that we got to try and get an early look at. One of the games that easily stood out for me was Lake, a gorgeous narrative driven game that revolves around you fulfilling your duties as a mail courier and speaking to your customers. I’ll admit, as someone who is a courier for their day job, this was the main draw that initially intrigued me with Lake, but by the credits rolled I was glad to have gone on such a unique journey.

Now and then I need a completely different gaming experience to take a break from the high action and multiplayer games I normally gravitate towards to. I also like to reminisce about my youth, a time where things were just simpler. There was no internet, no cellphones, people knew one another and talked to strangers in public without much worry. I’m glad to have had the childhood I did, so when a game is set in the same time period, it’s almost like going back in time.

Developed by Gamious and published by Whitethorn Digital, Lake is set back in 1986 when life was much simpler, set in the small sleepy town of Providence Oaks, P.O. for short. Life in Providence Oaks is as laid back as it gets. There’s a corner store where everyone gets their supplies, a local diner that has that old classic style with vinyl covered booths and blueberry pie that is unlike anything else you’ve ever had, and a few people that live off the main road up a dirt trail, all surrounding a vast and gorgeous lake.

You are Meredith Weiss, a successful woman who works in IT in a large city, coming back to her hometown of Providence Oaks to not only take a break from her busy city life, but to help her dad who’s taking a two week vacation down in Florida. You agree to give a hand, as a small town like this really only has the one mail courier, so what better person to fill in for your dad other than his daughter who grew up in the small town? Can you readjust to a slower paced lifestyle after all these years away or you will return home at the first opportunity? The choices will be up to you.

For the next two weeks back in your hometown you’ll be tasked with delivering the mail. This is a small town though where everyone knows everyone else, and their business, so naturally many of the people are going to talk your ear off, especially when they recognize Meredith who has been gone for twenty years or so. You’ll come across many familiar faces that you haven’t seen since you were quite young, catching up on all the latest news and gossip of the small rustic town. Some people you won’t recognize as well, so maybe you’ll want to get to know them more, possibly igniting a spark of friendship or something more between you and them.

Lake tells a simple but interesting narrative in one of the most laid back ways I’ve ever experienced. Lake is very grounded in reality, having you perform a mundane job but allowing you to take in beautiful vistas during your route, talking to interesting characters both quirky and rude. There’s no right or wrong answers when choosing dialogue or way to play, further reinforcing the laid back atmosphere Lake exudes. When your two week vacation is up, will you decide to return back to your fast paced city life, or was your time in Providence Oaks an eye opener for a lifestyle that you missed for a long time? You’ll be able to see the final choices and endings coming a mile away, and while my first playthrough didn’t have the most satisfying ending, I still felt like I made the right choice for my Meredith.

Lake is such a laid back experience that you’re not forced to play in any specific way, even to the point where you can even deliver the mail in any order you desire as well. I honestly thought the mail delivery gameplay portions were going to be much more structured or timed, but they are not, completely fitting for the slow paced setting of Providence Oaks. More importantly than your day job during your vacation is talking and reconnecting with people in your hometown, all of which are interesting in their own way with their own quirks and personalities.

Because this is such a small town set back in the mid 80’s, as you deliver mail, certain people will want to chat with you, seemingly forever sometimes. It’s a good thing you aren’t timed for your route or have a quota to complete other than your dozen or so deliveries a day before you return back to the post office to complete your day. After a hard day at work you’ll have the choice of watching TV or reading a book if you didn’t make any other plans with other people during the course of your day. Some people will ask you for favors if you choose certain dialogue options, such as bringing their sick cat to get checked out, or maybe cat sitting after work one night. You can choose whatever you think is best, as there are no right or wrong choices. Maybe doing favors will open other dialogue options with people, or maybe you’ll get in trouble from your boss for sending some mail when they didn’t pay for any postage.

Meredith can choose how involved or not she wants to be in people’s lives, completely blowing them off and ignoring their requests, or try to reconnect with old acquaintances and possibly patch up a long misunderstanding after all these years. Don’t expect anything too farfetched or crazy in the story, as this is based in reality, more focused on relationships. There are two obvious choices for a love interest should you pursue it, but I didn’t end up choosing either in my first playthrough, as I simply didn’t feel all that connected to them, though will certainly see how that differs when I get around to playing a second time.

The dialogue is written well and acted quite decently, but the problem is you cannot skip any dialogue or cutscenes, even if playing for a second time to see different options, forcing you to sit through it all. At a design level I can understand this choice, as you want players to be invested in the story and characters, but when I had my game crash out and lost an over an hour of progress, having to sit through all of the same conversations again was excruciating. This is also why I didn’t delve directly into a second playthrough right away even though I do want to see the other choices and endings eventually.

Just as frustrating is the walking speed of Meredith. By default she is set to walk, which is no big deal when there’s an included run button, but even running only makes her walk ever so slightly faster, not even at a power walk speed. Again, I get that Lake is supposed to be a slow burn experience where life is a slower, but this is beyond agonizing at times when I just wish she would walk at a normal person’s pace. Take your time and enjoy the views, as you can’t force the experience to go any quicker anyways, so might as well appreciate it.

The majority of the gameplay will revolve around Meredith completing her mail courier route, driving from place to place that has either mail or parcel deliveries for the day. Pulling up the map will show you your list of deliveries for the day. There’s no path you’re forced to take or timeline it has to be completed in, so simply deliver in any order whenever you like. If that means taking a few minutes break to take in some great views around the lake or in the woods, so be it.

For those that have mail, you’ll simply pull up to their house, press ‘A’ on their mailbox and it will come off your list. If they ordered a parcel, you’ll need to go to the back of your curbside truck and choose the correct package listed by addresses. Knock on the door and if they answer you’ll get some dialogue and possibly some narrative choices before delivering. If they aren’t home you’ll simply leave it on their front steps or porch and move onto the next. The gameplay for the delivering is quite basic and really only acts as a mechanic to get you from one person to the next to forward the dialogue and narrative day to day.

Oddly enough, there’s no reason to follow any road rules, so you don’t have to worry about speeding, parking on the wrong side of the road or even hitting cars or objects. Again, you’re not graded or scored on any of this, so it doesn’t become stressful unlike doing the job in real life. An annoying design choice though was the default camera view chosen when driving. It’s actually quite low behind the truck, and because the curbside’s are quite boxy and tall, your view is obstructed partially at all times.

The main buildings in town such as the Post Office, Diner, your home, etc, will allow you to enable an auto pilot if you want to simply enjoy the scenery as Meredith drives herself there. It would have been great to have this for any address or house on the map though. There are also four major points on the map around the lake that you can instantly teleport to should you wish to save some time from the serene driving if you simply want to get through Lake quicker, though this defeats the whole purpose behind Lake’s relaxed atmosphere.

Sadly there’s also no reason to explore other than for your own curiosity or to get some gorgeous screenshots. I was hoping there would be some sort of collectables, even for some behinds the scenes artwork or something, but alas, there’s not.

One of the things I love most about Lake is its visual aesthetic. It utilizes a comic-like art style but is very colorful and has beauty everywhere you look. Lake has a very unique and distinct artistic style, one that takes your attention right away even though it’s not meant to be realistic. The audio also sets the tone, from the local radio station that you listen to during your daily courier route to the overall soundtrack that is something you’d totally expect to hear on a local indie station. All of the main characters are voiced well, adding to their own personalities and making for some memorable encounters, even the guy that works at the motel that is a jerk because he’s too busy playing video games instead of accepting the package I’m trying to deliver.

While Lake’s visual style is more than impressive, there was a laundry list of issues I encountered. At one point I had a dialogue choice not appear on screen, making it so I wasn’t able to progress. This meant I had to force close the game, losing over an hour of progress because I forgot to manually save. Because of the unskippable dialogue, I had to endure the same cutscenes all over again as well. There’s also a lot of polish that is lacking, especially in the final stretch where many shadows were glitchy and whole animations completely missing. Not a deal breaker, but it certainly stood out like a sore thumb, taking me out of the immersion of Meredith’s journey near the finale.

Lake’s atmosphere is as cozy as it gets, never forcing you to rush or engage with people more than needed if you don’t want to. After a week in I was able to drive to certain houses for deliveries without needing to reference the map, enjoying the views along the way, especially along the lakeside. Lake has a ton of flaws, but even after sticking through it until the credits rolled, I was glad to have had my experience with Meredith in Providence Oaks for her vacation.

Lake is a relaxing gaming experience that is quite unique, not just mechanically, but with its laid back game design. You can tell that Gamious made Lake with a lot of heart, as it’s a charming experience that can be enjoyed in any way you see fit. While the courier parts may become dull after a while, Lake is a great example of a charming and unique gaming experience unlike anything else if you’re looking for a comforting game to unwind with.

**Lake was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.3 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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