At first glance, it seems like an odd choice to set Lake in the 1980’s. There’s not much about the story or gameplay that would change if it took place during any other decade. I soon came to realise that the infectious positive feeling that runs throughout is comparable to any good cheesy 80’s movie.
This cosy feeling is present in nearly every moment, creating such a nice atmosphere that its technical faults can almost be ignored. The narrative-driven adventure is developer Gamious’ most ambitious project to date, having previously made small puzzle and platforming titles. So a few teething problems in the transition to a 3D story-focused game should almost be expected. However, some performance issues are greater than others, and they do have a negative effect on the experience at times.
Story – Wholesome meets melancholy
It’s 1986 and Meredith Weiss takes a break from her busy programming job in the city to come back to her small hometown of Providence Oaks to fill in for her mailman father. A little silly, sure, but it sets up an interesting dilemma for Meredith during her two week stint delivering mail; is she going to go back to her busy job that she’s talented at, or will she stay in the beautiful yet relatively boring laketown? Developer Gamious lets you make this decision, and the answer may not seem as obvious as it looks. Especially with more options opening up as the time passes by.
Meredith’s days are made up of delivering mail, and having conversations with the town’s community. Every character feels like they could be a real person, and some even get their own side stories. Others seem constructed to sprinkle a little flavour into each day, serving as a way for you to get Meredith’s character traits across. Is she going to call out the rude motel owner, or will she ignore him and politely deliver the parcel? I chose to let Meredith enjoy her time in Providence Oaks, like I was enjoying it, by helping out where I could. However, it’s entirely possible to play the game as a big grump who just wants to escape.
The small interactions are a nice touch, but I particularly liked the residents’ side stories. They felt appropriately smalltown, tasking Meredith with jobs like helping a sick cat, delivering VCR players, and taking photos. These optional tasks are usually a way to get to know the residents a little better, and there’s even some romance options available. By the end of my six-hour playthrough, I was sad to leave all the residents behind, even the rude ones.
I also really appreciated the choice to centre the story on a middle-aged woman. Meredith could have easily been a twenty-something wondering if she made the right decision to move to the city. Instead, she has lived a whole life and had a career already. As well as providing some lacking representation in this age group for women in video games, it makes the stakes of deciding Meredith’s fate more weighty. Staying means throwing twenty-two years of work away when she is finally seeing the fruits of her labor.
This decision is one of the only stressful times I had playing Lake. Everybody kept asking Meredith what she was going to do, and I was feeling the pressure right along with her. Until Maureen gave Meredith some advice. For such a short speech, I was surprised by how much it moved me, and I ended the game soon after with a melancholic feeling. I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision for Meredith, but felt content with the choice anyway. This conversation with Maureen might be a little cheesy for some, but if you let yourself get lost in Lake‘s modern fable concerning looking to the future, you will appreciate your time with it more.
Gameplay – Here’s your mail!
Gamious thanks those who deliver mail in the credits for their hard work, as it is aware the job isn’t as easy as they portray it. If it was, there might be a sudden increased popularity in the profession, as Lake achieves serenity with it’s simple gameplay as much as it does with the writing and characters.
Meredith starts every day at the Post Office with a list of houses she has to deliver letters and parcels to. There’s no time limit, and she’s accompanied by an easy-going soundtrack while on the job. It’s a very simple mechanic, only tasking players with driving and clicking a button every once in a while—and it totally works. Navigating between stops is a quiet, reflective experience.
Other than delivering mail, small conversation decisions are the only other gameplay elements found in the indie title. Meredith can be kind, grumpy, sarcastic, or simply ignore the problems presented to her. It’s not always obvious when Meredith is being sarcastic. This results in her coming off as a little rude at times, but it doesn’t happen too often. Most dialogue leads to the expected response, and as mentioned, it helps build Meredith’s character. It all comes together to firmly place you in the world of Providence Oaks and its tight-knit community. When everything is working right, playing Lake is as pleasant as wrapping up with a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. So it’s a little jarring when glitches and bugs interrupt this experience.
The graphical hiccups aren’t too bad, but there are a fair few of them. Some objects would float where they shouldn’t, pop-in occured a lot when driving, and lighting went a little crazy at times. Then there’s the random bugs that occur. There were multiple times I had to reload a save because I didn’t have the prompt to get in the van. While reloading the save, I couldn’t hit yes or no on the sub menu.
There’s a side quest to take photos, but when I got them developed, they appeared as a black void. Meredith and Nancy were left musing over pictures that didn’t exist. These issues didn’t ruin the experience for me, but it was annoying and disappointing at times. Gamious do seem dedicated to releasing quick fixes to the more major issues. So hopefully these problems will be ironed out sooner than later.
Graphics & Audio – Last Days of September
When the graphics aren’t glitching out, they make a solid addition to Meredith’s journey. The environments aren’t particularly inspiring, but the character models have a nice polygonal look to them. Even better is the garish clothing that Meredith wears when she’s not working. Bright jumpers and big belts are her style choices, fitting right in with other 80’s references, like The Flick Shack. It’s the town’s video rental store, and is packed with knock-off versions of popular movies. The Bee, Ghostblasters, Grimlins, and Back to the Present are just a few titles on display. There’s a cool playable arcade machine at the diner, but more than anything else, The Flick Shack (and its owner Angie) help place Lake in the 1980’s.
A great accompaniment to Meredith’s driving is the local radio station. Every day starts with a call-in from one of the residents, a weather report, and then the country-pop tunes start playing. The tracks might not be to everybody’s taste, but they fit undeniably in with the setting. There’s not a huge variety of songs, and I must have heard the line “those were the last days of September” a few hundred times by the end, but I kind of liked the repetition. It was comforting and familiar, but I can see how it could be a problem for others. Especially if you don’t enjoy the genre of music offered. The game does have an original song “Game of Chance” that plays over the credits. It resonates with pure 80’s comfort vibes, and really manages to capture the bittersweet feeling of finishing Meredith’s story.
Another stand-out feature is the voice acting. Everybody seems perfectly cast, with Whitney Szabo (Angie Eastman), Cassie Ewulu (Kay Evans) and Todd Ellis (Robert Harris) giving the best performances. It helps that they also have some of the more memorable stories in the indie title. With Angie and Robert featuring as the two love interests available to Meredith, and Kay as her childhood friend. Their excellent acting, paired with the great writing, helps Lake become more than some wholesome flash in the pan. I’ll definitely be visiting Providence Oaks again when I want to unwind by delivering some mail, and talk with a few friends.
Lake was reviewed on Xbox Series X with a review code provided by The Indie Bros.