Lethe – Episode One is called a “first person adventure with survival horror elements” by its developer, KoukouStudios. It comes to us in a time of both well-designed and horrible horror games – some of which lose our attention within minutes of starting, and others whose haunting moments we’ll never forget. Lethe falls somewhere between these extremes; it’s functional and polished, but something is missing. I think back to games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, which have beautiful, atmospheric environments but also provide enough tension to keep the player from feeling free to stop and smell the roses. Lethe doesn’t provide that tension – but the roses smell lovely.
Like many modern indie adventure games, Lethe drops the player in an empty world without knowledge of what has happened to its inhabitants. Also following suit, the game’s story is centered on unexplained occurrences, many of which are vaguely referenced in notes scattered throughout the world. The linear level design functions well here; I never felt misguided and seemed to encounter everything I was meant to, but also felt like I was doing it myself, without much help. While progression through the game is very constrained, every single area feels detailed and realistic enough to warrant a slow walk-through.
It’s after the first walkabout, however, that the game’s fun fades fast. Getting my bearings after washing up on the eerie shore of a small mining town, I slowly wandered through the opening area, content with the pretty views and short notes about unfortunate events. And after falling tragically into the mines below, I assumed my slow-walking, note-glancing, light-switch-flicking abilities would be upgraded: faster movement, beefier chunks of story content, and more meaningful interactions. My wishes went unanswered as I got into a rhythm of checking often-locked doors, solving simple physics puzzles, and hoping after each checkpoint that the game would start picking up. The writing quality was barely good enough to keep me interested in the greater scheme of events, but curiosity helped me press on.
Now, without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the game is definitely creepy. Its environments, sound design, and mysterious supernatural underpinnings make for what I consider a wholly immersive experience. A few encounters with unsettling antagonists gave me a momentary scare, in the same way that jump scares in horror films do, and I enjoyed those moments. But about half of my scares came from the sound of bear traps snapping closed as I walked up to grab cans of food, which only annoyed me more and more as I repeatedly forgot they existed.
Encounters with bad guys, while aptly startling, lost their fear factor as I gradually felt less endangered by them. Possibly the most cumbersome design decision, though, is the slow walking speed. It’s as if the developers needed to make sure that players would look at the game world; the “sprint” button functions more as a “walk at a normal pace” button, and hints at what falls flat later in the episode: moments where the player needs to escape from enemies, but struggles to do so.
Lethe shows real promise, but perhaps not as a hardcore horror experience. Its well-crafted environments make for an adventure that’s less than scary but more than unsettling – an imperfect but enjoyable journey into a dark world that looks realistic but feels hollow. KoukouStudios says each episode is to be a “standalone experience,” and I look forward to seeing how they take Lethe further.
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