Discover your true birthplace and the horrors it hides.
PC Release: August 1, 2016
By Ian Coppock
A good survival-horror video game is rarer than gold dust. The new games list on Steam would imply otherwise, with dozens of “horror” titles constantly pouring forth, but nearly all of these are either a five-minute tourney of cheap jump scares, or an asset flip that barely runs. The remaining 1%-2% of horror titles are the ones that require effort; a steady hand to procure a dreadful atmosphere, rife with danger and a good story to boot. With Outlast 2 still a few months away, horror fans everywhere could use an unexpected reprieve from all the Five Nights at Freddy‘s clones and cheap Unity Engine parlor tricks. Lethe – Episode One might be that reprieve. An exhausting, terrifying reprieve.
Lethe is a first-person horror game and the debut project of KoukouStudios, a Greek indie developer. Like other video games in this vein, players have to navigate a spooky environment, solving puzzles and avoiding monsters. With no guns or weapons of any kind, being quiet and being fast are players’ best hopes for survival. The puzzles can be hard, the monsters are always unforgiving, and the dread is always thick. Episode One is the first installment of a planned Lethe series, one that, like the Doorways series from Saibot, will hopefully only get better with each release.
Lethe – Episode One begins the story of Robert Dawn, an unassuming British man whose father suddenly dies shortly before the game starts. After the funeral, Robert starts going through his late father’s paperwork, and discovers an old letter sealed and buried beneath the rest of the possessions. To Robert’s shock, the letter reveals that he was born not in Britain, as he’d been told his whole life, but on an obscure island home to a once-thriving mining community. The letter implies that Robert was taken away from the island as an infant to avoid some sort of disease that had stricken the town, though any other details are vague at best. Intent on discovering the truth of his origins, Robert charters a boat to take him to the island and discover what exactly happened there years ago.
Robert washes up on the island after a fierce storm, and immediately sets about exploring the island for clues. He discovers that the entire island is indeed abandoned, and looks to have been for some time. Letters secreted throughout a dusty shore house indicate that the island was once a thriving community, but all of that changed when the town’s miners accidentally unearthed a wellspring of a strange black liquid. The liquid unleashed a disease that killed most of the island overnight, but a group of survivors managed to hole up in the mine itself.
Against his better judgment, Robert decides to descend into the mine to solve the mystery for himself, initializing a horrifying chain of events and discoveries that, in the grand tradition of horror game protagonists, he wishes he’d left well enough alone. For what lies in the mine is no mere pathogen and no mere trail of destruction, but a chilly tale that will take all that he is, and then some, to survive.
It’s pretty clear from the get-go that Lethe is a love letter to the works of Frictional Games, the studio that created such horror greats as Penumbra, Amnesia, and Soma. Love letters are great, but inveterate horror gamers will immediately wonder if this game isn’t too derivative of those other titles. For one thing, the game’s premise is virtually identical to that of Penumbra; a very British man receives a letter after the death of his parent, and descends into a spooky mine to learn the truth about his origins. Though Lethe – Episode One takes a few creative liberties with this premise, there’s no denying the similarities between the two. The game is still fun to get into, but there’s no denying the “I’ve done this before” whispers creeping into the back of the skull.
The game borrows more than a few ideas from Amnesia: The Dark Descent as well. Though most of the game takes place in the mines, players will also traverse an underground dungeon eerily reminiscent of Castle Brennenberg. To be fair, it’s not like Frictional has a copyright on spooky castle dungeons or anything, but a few scenes from the game bear an eerie resemblance to the events of Amnesia. It’s not totally fair to write Lethe off as a combination of Penumbra and Amnesia, but it’s also not totally inaccurate.
Despite borrowing heavily from the motifs of other video games, Lethe – Episode One is still a competently delivered horror game. The game has dreadful pacing, timing out monster encounters well and leaving players wondering when something will be around the corner. The atmosphere in Lethe is intoxicating; whether Robert is trudging through the dusty mine tunnels or sneaking through the tables of a laboratory, the sense of isolation is almost suffocating. For anything that can be said about Lethe‘s reliance on what other horror games pioneered, it does what those games did expertly.
The atmosphere in Lethe relies chiefly on lighting and sound, two sorely underestimated design elements in the world of video games. The lighting in Lethe is an absolute masterpiece; from the dour glow of mine lights, to the sterile shine of the labs, to the morbid flickering of dungeon torches, every bit of lighting was put into this game to convey a sense of despair. The interplay between light and shadow is arguably more important in horror games than any other genre, and it’s superbly executed here. Combine the lighting with excellent flare effects, and Lethe – Episode One becomes one of the best-lit horror games in recent memory.
Insofar as the game’s sound design, Lethe – Episode One comes chock-full of spooky noises. The sounds in this game are rich, from the creaking of an old oak door to the distant crash of mine equipment, and they all work together in the background to keep players on their toes. A lot of Lethe‘s sounds induce cringe as much as the sight of a monster, like when Robert has to traverse a catacomb and step on skulls as he goes. The soft, squelchy crunch of bones breaking will haunt Lethe players long after the fact. Hopefully KoukouStudios was ethical in their sourcing of that sound effect.
Too many horror games these days rely on cheap jump scares to convey terror, but not Lethe. The game aptly balances between hair-raising encounters with monsters and long, solitary treks through abandoned areas. Players have no idea when a monster might show up, which, when combined with the sounds and lighting, keeps the tension high. The game has a mournful soundtrack, with low sounds for the walking parts and frantic horns for the running parts.
The gameplay in Lethe – Episode One is nothing that horror fans haven’t seen before. Robert can’t arm himself with a weapon, despite being in a mine replete with power tools, and can only run or hide to avoid the mine’s less amicable denizens. He also has a very finite health meter that he has to maintain, though it can be replenished with food and medicine found around the island. In a rarity for a first-person horror game, Robert also has a stamina meter, meaning that he can only run from a monster so long. Amazingly, such a feature is absent from the horror games that Lethe tries to emulate, and it makes Lethe, in some respects, scarier than those other games. A stamina bar means that players have to be very strategic in how they move about the environment, lest they be out-chased by a monster. No infinite running for Robert.
Lethe – Episode One includes another gameplay element that becomes crucial to solving puzzles and moving about the world. Robert accidentally comes into contact with the black liquid that killed off the town, but instead of making him sick, it gives him psychic powers. Players can use telekinesis to open locked doors and distract monsters, though the mechanic is clunky in its execution. Items will immediately get sucked to Robert’s hand as if they’re magnetized, and the mechanic can only be used so often before draining Robert’s mana bar. The puzzles in Lethe – Episode One can usually be solved by a combination of psychic awesomeness and good ol’ human ingenuity.
The puzzles in Lethe – Episode One are also more difficult than in most horror games. They comprise a combination of simple physics puzzles and more complicated door-and-lever puzzles. Although the methods may vary, like using telekinesis to pull a lever through bars, or making a bridge through acid with barrels, most every goal comprises unlocking a door.
Some of these puzzles can venture from hard to plain old obtuse. There’s one puzzle at the very end that requires levitating rocks over some bars, but most puzzles in the game are reasonable. Just don’t be surprised if a few require some deep thinking to get past.
Though the puzzles are the most difficult part of Lethe – Episode One, by far the most dangerous part is the monsters. The mines running beneath the town are home to a few unfriendly creatures. As it turns out, though the black liquid killed most of the town, it had different effects on a few of the townsfolk. Robert managed to touch it and get psychic powers, but a few people who touched it were turned into something less than people, and are very dangerous.
The monsters in Lethe – Episode One are arguably the smartest of the survival-horror genre. The creatures are adept at quickly backtracking to catch players who try to sneak behind them, and they move quickly; there’s no question that this game was created with experienced horror gamers in mind. Each monster is prefaced with a lot of spooky buildup, like seeing them in a distant hallway, which finally culminates in a confrontation that will see Robert either barely escaping with his life, or hanging from the business end of the creature’s weapon. Sometimes, the creatures are a little too good; a particularly gruesome one can somehow see Robert through walls, but typically their intelligence is within reason. Just don’t underestimate them.
Although Lethe – Episode One is rather unabashed in how it borrows from other horror games, it still executes those motifs with deft competence. The game is a far cry from the cheap Unity Engine jump scares that overload the Steam store. Rather than being a crappy game made for a quick buck or for Youtubers to obnoxiously overreact to, Lethe – Episode One is a thoughtful, visceral journey. It’s not interested in gamers whose attention spans are too short for detail, but it rewards adrenaline junkies more powerfully than those Unity flips ever could. Its writing is clear and remarkably error-free for a foreign-made game, and its atmosphere is sound.
Lethe – Episode One doesn’t do much that other horror games haven’t done already, but it’s fallacious to say that it doesn’t do those things almost or just as well. Its plot is nothing new and has a few holes, but it’s still good. Its mine setting is nothing new and has a few holes, but it’s still good. Its monsters are no less terrifying than those of this genre’s pioneers. And despite the fact that it’s marketed as an episode in a longer series, it packs 8-10 hours of gameplay. As such, any horror fan looking for something to do until Outlast 2 comes out will want to buy this game immediately. Fifteen bucks on Steam for the first episode; the more copies get purchased, the more resources the developer will have to develop Episode Two. Lethe – Episode One may not be the most original horror game in the world, but it’s one of the scariest to come this way in a long time.
You can buy Lethe: Episode One here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.