In Lake, from Dutch developers Gamious, you play as Meredith Weiss, a computer programmer in her 40s who leaves her big-city apartment for a two-week stay in her hometown of Providence Oaks. The year is 1986, and P.O. as the locals call it is a tiny settlement in the American northwest comprising a handful of streets, a general store manned by a chainsmoker, a motel manned by a jerk, a video rental store (Betamax, available), a diner and some dilapidated woodland cabins. Everything is set around a gorgeous lake that sparkles in the late-summer sun and surrounded by breathtaking mountain peaks. It's an idyllic location - exactly the kind of place any of us would love to unwind in.
Except, Meredith isn't home for a holiday, exactly. While staying at her parents' place she covers for her postal worker dad - who's off drinking cocktails in Florida with her mum - delivering letters and parcels to the locals, running optional errands en route, and catching up with old friends as she goes (and rebuilding bridges, where they've crumbled). Occasionally, she meets someone new, and you can choose to hit it off with them, or not. And... that's the game, right there. Get in a van, deliver the mail, speak to some folk, roll credits. Obviously things happen, but it's not the most exciting proposition on paper, is it? And yet Lake is one of the more fantastical games I have played for a very relatable reason.
Watch the launch trailer for Lake, below
Meredith, should you choose to play her in such a way, can make new friends in her 40s. Now maybe it's just me, or maybe it's just men, I can't know for sure - but I know from personal experience, that is hard. Practically impossible. Which makes playing Lake and calling in on new faces and exchanging smiles and small-talk with them - and then arranging a night out, a time and place to rendezvous in this pre-mobiles era - a wonderfully gentle kind of power fantasy. Through this uniformed avatar of slow walking pace and erratic driving skills, I can charm both a bespectacled movie nerd and a firm-muscled lumberjack with a sideline in tree surgery, as a 40-something. If I wanted, of course. Equally, I could be cold to them - but where's the escapism in that?
It's the conversations that Meredith has with the recipients of her deliveries that drive Lake's story further, opening new ways to pass evenings and bring P.O. a little closer together than it was before she arrived. And regarding the driving itself - using the postal van to get from A to B - it's perfunctory at best. There's an option to turn off the follow-cam view for when you're driving, and you should because otherwise the game pulls you in so close to the rear of the vehicle that it's hard to see the road ahead (annoyingly, the game resets to the follow-cam view when you turn it off). I found driving with a slight angle, freely positioned on the right stick, made seeing where I was heading easier; but there's so little traffic around, and impacts do zero damage, that if you just crash your way through P.O., nobody will slap a ticket on the windshield. You can even ram into the back of a police car - nothing will happen.
If you're done with driving yourself, there's an auto-pilot option that can get a little lost at times, and a separate fast travel to a selection of junctions on the map. Doing a complete circuit of the lake doesn't take all that long, though, and the game's chilled-out soundtrack or optional local radio station playing country music makes for a pleasant accompaniment to watching a very pretty world go by. It's not a world without its hiccups, though - the game's framerate can struggle (when played on Xbox One, at least - it's certain to be better on PC), and shadows from overhead telegraph lines can seem a little off - they pop in way too thickly as you drive along. Pop-in, in general, can be quite distracting, with rocks and signposts blinking into existence at the last second, so Lake really is at its aesthetic best when played at a slower pace.
These visual quirks are forgivable, and really don't impact on the enjoyment of Lake. Sadly, there are some other bugs that do. In my review playthrough I carried out an optional extra 'quest' and filled a camera film with 12 shots of the area, ready for development at the general store. I had a lot of fun doing so, too, looking for interesting angles on the local sights. But on collecting my photos, all of them appeared blank, just totally black, nothing to see - and that is a bug, not a feature, I'm sure. "Pick your favourite," the ever-smoking manager says - but how can I? Later, at the start of a morning's delivery run, I'm suddenly teleported from the parking lot of the post office to the property of the lumberjack, to hand them a letter and have a chat - but my van doesn't teleport with me. There's no clear indication of how I got here - I just appeared on someone's drive. Thankfully I can fast-travel back without my wheels, but... that isn't meant to happen. Surely.
There are times, too, where the inputs don't register, or register incorrectly - press A to take a parcel from the van, but Meredith just closes it up with nothing in hand; or press Y to flick the radio on and off, but it gets stuck on and you have to reset to fix it. At one point the noise of the van's engine kept running through a cut-scene in Meredith's parents' home, hours after her round was finished, wholly spoiling the atmosphere. The funnier stuff - a notepad floating above the head of the person who's meant to be writing in it - is fine, but there are too many times where Lake's lacklustre performance sadly undermines its considerable appeal.
And that is a crime, truly, because Lake at its best is a delight. It's a (relatively) short and sweet game of quiet magic, where golden rays break through the treelines, the birds sing of a life worth living, and blueberry pie is so darn hard to get hold of you start craving it, too. Meredith's two weeks in P.O. cover a lot of ground, physically and emotionally. Your decisions will dictate her next direction, to a degree. Her navigating of tarmacked crossroads from a life already lived allows her to realise and understand others relating to her relationships, her identity, her career, and her future. Her delivering of the mail is a real and relatable voyage of discovery - not just of mid-'80s cinema, local radio and primitive video games, but those are things here, too.
You won't want to leave Lake when the credits roll, such is the splendour of its setting and the welcome warmth of so many people who call this place home (assuming you weren't a dick to everyone). But you'll wish its flashes of understated majesty and its softly spoken introspective exchanges weren't compromised by performance that's woefully inconsistent. But if Gamious manages to patch this into a steadier experience, you can add a point, or even two, to the score below. Because there's something special here, beneath the creaks and the cracks.
Pros: gorgeous setting, realistic interactions, relatable themes, great characters
Cons: shaky performance on Xbox, some bugs genuinely spoil things
For fans of: Life is Strange, Firewatch, A Short Hike
Lake is available now on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch versions are planned. Code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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