Rusty Lake: Roots review: A grim sequel for one of 2016's best surprises

You can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family

Rusty Lake Hotel is one of those rare games I played completely at random. Earlier this year I was browsing Steam’s new releases, loved the art (weirdly reminiscent of a cartoon American Gothic), grabbed it, forgot about it for a few months, and then booted it up one night on a whim. And what I got was one of the best adventure games of 2016.

The mundane nature of Rusty Lake Hotels puzzles sat in stark contrast to its grim undertones, a darkly humorous story about guests being killed off at a Victorian Era hotel. Oh, except you’re the murderer, the guests are all animals, and every time you kill one off (always in bizarre fashion) the other guests eat the corpse.

Rusty Lake: Roots

“Strange” doesn’t come close to covering it, but I was suitably hooked. So when I found out the developers had already wrapped up a sequel for October? Yeah, I was excited.

The result is Rusty Lake: Roots, an altogether more sprawling adventure than its predecessor. Following a single family (the Vanderbooms) across three generations and half a century, the story is broken up into 33 individual vignettes arranged on a pseudo-family tree. This ain’t no happy family reunion, though. Casting about for a rough analogue, I’d compare it to the grim trilogy of Family Tree albums by Radical Face.

It’s impressive in scope, especially coming so soon after the comparatively restrained Rusty Lake Hotel. Roots includes stories of love and marriage, stories of betrayal, stories of war and redemption, many containing some sort of morbid twist. And then there’s a whole deeper layer of Rusty Lake weirdness, drawing on symbolism from earlier games and generally reminding you that, yes, there’s some method to the madness here.

Rusty Lake: Roots

Not that you’re likely to uncover that method immediately, if at all. By the end you’re likely to have some idea of what happened, some surface-level take on the fate of the Vanderbooms, but Rusty Lake: Roots is in part about just enjoying the ride, asking “What the hell was that?” and then filing it away for quiet contemplation later.

It’s a game where you poison a man, flick his nipple until it falls off, shrink, crawl inside his chest cavity, remove his heart, and then crawl back out his mouth—all rendered in the same Saturday morning cartoon fashion, of course. Or perhaps you offer a rose to your belle and when her nose starts bleeding you take the opportunity to write her a wedding proposal. In her nose blood.

As with Rusty Lake Hotel, the standard (and rather simple) adventure game puzzles are augmented here by a dash of the odd. In the nature of the room escape genre—from which Rusty Lake draws most of its DNA—puzzles are of the “Square Peg Square Hole” variety. You find a key, it opens a lock. You find scissors, they cut. You find a shovel, it digs up dirt.

Rusty Lake: Roots

But the outcome of these simple actions is often anything but. Perhaps opening the lock reveals a hand nailed to the wall, or you use the scissors to snip the umbilical cords from a set of triplets, or the shovel to dig up graves. Rusty Lake: Roots is one part ominous, one part absurd. It’s constantly prodding at some strange gray realm in between, to great effect.

Some of the puzzles in Roots are admittedly not up to par. The “Six Frogs” puzzle makes an appearance, which I imagine is the puzzle game version of a standup comedian asking about airplane food. And the final final puzzle (which comes after solving some other optional puzzles) is about as frustrating as it is broad. Too much experimentation combined with too much repetition makes for a dull time.

There’s also ample evidence that Rusty Lake: Roots is intended for tablets, not PC. There’s quite a bit of “Click-And-Drag,” both in puzzles and exploration, and none of it works too well. I would’ve especially appreciated being able to pan the camera back and forth in rooms using the arrow keys instead of clicking and dragging the screen itself.

Oh, and it’s built in Flash. Icky.

Rusty Lake: Roots

But if you can look past those failings, Rusty Lake: Roots offers something wholly unique and fascinating. It’s got such a clear sense of identity, such a specific style and tone, such a refreshing grasp of symbolism in a medium that generally relies on surface-level storytelling. The puzzle solving is what guides you, gives you purpose, but it’s morbid curiosity that keeps you going. “What’s wrong with this family?”, “What messed up thing will happen next?”, and most of all “Who the hell is this creepy crow-man?”

I guess I’ll eagerly await the next sequel.

Bottom line

Rusty Lake: Roots is an excellent follow-up to Rusty Lake Hotel—grander, grimmer, and more gruesome than ever. The Rusty Lake games are quickly carving out a niche as my favorite point-and-click series of the modern era, with a bold confidence underpinning their unconventional and inventive world. I highly recommend picking up the pair for a night or two of surreal horror.

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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