The long-running saga of Rusty Lake continues in Rusty Lake: Paradise, and I'm pleased to report this is one of its finest outings. I wasn't sure at first, but by the end I was deeply embroiled in its Lynchian psychic dystopia, once more tangentially exploring the lives of a creepy family, crow-faced creatures, and that fuzzy black man-thing that haunts my dreams.
If you haven't played any of Rusty Lake, then I've got some good news for you. A whole ton of it is free. Developers Rusty Lake (for it is they) have created twelve entries in the series, nine of which are titled Cube Escape, and are free on both phone and PC. Each is a short game set in the Rusty Lake universe, that gives you a skewed perspective on one of its esoteric angles. Which is to say, it's really fucking creepy and weird. Think, shadowy creatures, cult-like men in animal heads, gruesome cartoon murders, and shimmering white squares of impending doom. Playing through them will entirely pull you into their unsettling world, and quickly have you forking out the couple of quid the longer games cost.
I have, in saying all that, not said anything actually about the games. But I sort of don't want to, beyond explaining that the Cube Escapes are superficially room escape games, but more realistically clicky worlds of unnameable anxiety. They stop short of being accurately described as "point and click adventures", although there are inventories, and puzzles to solve. Each is very disparate, and to describe their shared themes is to take away the entertainment of trying to understand Rusty Lake itself. The three longer games, Rusty Lake Hotel, Rusty Lake: Roots, and now Rusty Lake Paradise, get a bit more involved than the escapers. They still occupy similar territory, their puzzles more familiar to youngly mobile adventure gamers than veterans of the early 90s, and this latest is the best of the bunch.
I wasn't sure at first though. As the game begun, I worried that I was going through the Rusty Lake motions. A creepy island, oddly blank-faced family members grumbling peculiar epitaphs, and some extremely rudimentary puzzles. I love the vibe, but after the slightly disappointing Roots I was worried Rusty Lake was going to stretch its concept out too thinly once again. It turned out not to be the case.
Paradise is themed around the biblical ten plagues of Egypt, although taking place on an extremely small lake island in the 19th century. Each vignette of the game's ten chapters has you eradicating a plague, to some vague extent, although in practice you're encountering the dead-eyed members of a family that could have been created by Grant Wood, bringing about the deaths of a surprising number of woodland creatures, and solving puzzles to discover the really bloody creepy black cubes that are found throughout the Rusty Lake world. The room escape feel is always there, trying to work out how to open a particular puzzle box by gathering clues and information from all parts of the island, deducing connections, and finding yourself speaking its own language like some possessed ventriloquist dummy.
Once again I was quickly dragged into this twisted world, beguiled by its unbecoming ways. What the Rusty Lake games achieve more than anything else is having you think nothing of bringing about events such that the cute furry creature gets grimly devoured by the impossibly tall monstrous preying mantis, because that'll get you the heart you need to feed the owl statue. I've finished the game with pages of notes in front of me that make me look like I've joined an astrological cult that worships crows. I have a page that contains the list:
"Blood = 9
Snot = 11
Tears = 6
Saliva = 1"
(I've changed the numbers, or that'd be a real puzzle spoiler.)
The Twin Peaks vibe perhaps feels more present in this instalment because it comes out after the show had its epic return. The previous games were clearly inspired on some level, but, rather gloriously, this outing leans right in, re-doubling the presence of owls. (I think a direct reference with "THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM" painted on a wall was perhaps a little too on the nose, but it could of course have been just a direct acknowledgement of debts owed.) But Rusty Lake does its own things too, and those scratchy, glitchy white squares that draw themselves into scenes continue to be utterly terrifying for reasons I cannot explain, and there's splendid use of cacophonous white noise to accentuate moments of unplaceable horror. Oh, and that shimmering shadow figure with the eyes. Brrrrrrrrrr.
Unlike Roots, Paradise paces itself well, and while the first few static logic puzzles are far, far too easy and simplistic, the start to get really good too. By the end there were some ideas that could sustain a little puzzle game of their own, and it features the most peculiar version of picross I've seen, involving vegetables.
As ever, more questions about what exactly Rusty Lake is about are asked than answered. But it tells its own story in its uniquely incoherent way, and all feels like it's perhaps, just perhaps, going somewhere. Or, like its Lynchian inspirations, it might just be asking questions because there aren't any answers. Either way, Paradise is a very satisfying and deeply peculiar game.