Review: Rusty Lake Hotel

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The macabre has ironically been beaten to death in the gaming world, what with blood and viscera having become a more common room decor than wallpaper. That makes it all the more refreshing when a game takes a more cerebral approach to murder, such as with a sophisticated murder mystery. If you’ve come to Rusty Lake Hotel looking for that, however, you’re not going to get much more than the appearance of sophistication. There are hints of something special here, but it’s obfuscated by a thin plot, awkward puzzles, and literal boar shit.

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You are introduced to the proprietor of the Rusty Lake Hotel, one Mr. Owl, as he guides a raft of five guests across the quiet waters to their lodgings. Each of the animal-faced visitors has their own reason for attending Mr. Owl’s gathering, and it’s your job to attend to their needs during their stay. Every evening the guests will set down to dinner, and then afterwards you will follow one of them to their room to assist them in some way. There is an ulterior motive to your service, of course, and it will see more and more vacancies open at the hotel as you progress.

Spoiler alert for the main plot which you will learn about maybe five minutes into the game: The hotel has no main dishes to serve the guests, and said guests happen to be comprised of delicious meats. Whatever you may have been imagining about mysteries and intrigue, you can dump it because what you are actually doing here is murdering guests to feed to other guests. Most of the game takes place in the five rooms of the visitors, where a complex series of puzzles and brain-teasers will allow you to engineer a fatal encounter with the occupant and harvest their flesh. The next day you serve it to whoever remains, and then roll on to the next unlucky critter.

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That makes the meat (heh) of the game the puzzles, and this is where most people are going to stumble. Each room is four walls covered with shelves, portraits, tables, and other decor that will be clicked upon and used to eventually kill someone. Expect plenty of locked cabinets with hidden keys, letter and number substitution puzzles, classics like unlabeled weights and measuring water out, and using strange items on other items. About half the puzzles are pretty logical and easy to spot but the other half is the killer, requiring you to click on sprouts until they randomly blossom into keys, or click on toy monkeys in a specific order, or look out a window at the right time, or feed a boar shit sandwich to the boar who shat it out. And let me assure you, I do not possess the capacity to make that last one up.

Mr. Boar’s room was where I almost gave up on the game, between the fecal snack and the bleeding toilet and the insipid, confusing puzzle-locked cabinets. I stuck with it to see where the game went and I’m happy to report that the ending is interesting, even if the means of getting there were not. Rusty Lake Hotel feels like an excerpt or aside from a much longer tale, one that needs context that isn’t given anywhere. Things happens because they HAVE to happen to advance the plot, not because they make sense. There’s a dark aura to the proceedings but the ridiculous elements like animal heads and poop take the Lynchian edge off and make it all feel awkward and arbitrary.

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This one rides the line between yea and nay moreso than any other game I’ve reviewed thus far. It’s mechanically thin, the puzzles are poorly designed, and what little story there is is tainted by absurdity. But once you understand what it expects of you and what it offers it becomes a much smoother ride, and honestly the ending was a very bright point of darkness that helped color the game in retrospect. It’s hard to recommend but I don’t regret playing it in the end, and I must admit I’m interested in seeing what the rest of the series can offer.

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