Lethe: Episode One takes your character in search of his true origins after he discovers a letter from his deceased father. The journey leaves him shipwrecked on the shore of a small mining town that has been abandoned, largely due to a mysterious illness that swept through the population. After wrenching out a large splinter of wood that has gone through his palm, you’ll guide him to a nearby house with a bear trap and blood on the front porch. Inside, you’ll find a letter: the former resident had taken the mining company’s offer to purchase his home, and just in time too.
The mining company eventually closed-up shop, leaving you a nice empty place to go urban spelunking. From there, you’ll navigate your way through twisted hallways of heavy machinery, elevators, and a few monsters and monstrosities. What little glimpses you get of the world above, they are nothing more than big teases. You want out? Nope, sorry. You’re stuck in a quarry. Oh, you really want out? We’re going to lock every single exit to the surface. It would be appropriate to place a placard at the entrance to the mine that read “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
There are several things that Lethe does right in its first episode, mostly dealing with the ambiance. The sound of your feet stepping over a skeleton-covered ground is almost too real. The environment is claustrophobic and musty. You’ll hear screams, creaks, and groans echoing throughout. Bodies are liberally spread around, covered in sacks from head-to-toe, or hanging by their feet or necks. There are no cheap jump scares – just anxiety and dread.
However, the story doesn’t find the right balance between vague and mysterious. Rather than leaving players with comfortable shivers at the end, it ends in confusion. The connection between the background story revealed via notes/letters and the changing underground landscape is disjointed; there isn’t enough clear information to tie the emerging narrative together in a cohesive way. We go from toxic glowing mushroom spores to kill-happy cult in the span of a few hours, and without a hint at how the protagonist’s origins is connected.
Some notes were left from former employees, first happy about going home after spending too long working in the mine, but slowing realizing that they have been left there by management without a means to communicate with the surface. Most, however, are written by a Dr. Rosenbergh, who is trying to extract medicinal properties from a black liquid that he believes can cure whatever illness the mushrooms are causing… on top of getting messed up in some demonic stuff.
The further you descend, the more graphic the notes become, like pieces of flash fiction almost. At times I found myself more interested in these written descriptions of past events than in my surroundings, but for the most part they were over-the-top, and it was hard to distinguish who wrote the notes (unless their name was on it) because the written voices all sounded the same. I assume most were written by the same two or three people, but things start to get murky toward the end when new characters are introduced via note.
The pacing is a little off-kilt, with long stretches of time in which you walk uninterrupted along the corridors and offices of the abandoned mine, nerves untested. The length of time between encounters is a bit long, letting the player get too comfortable in the surroundings and dampening the intensity of future encounters. You seldom run into any creature or monster, making the first chapter of Lethe less of a survival horror as it seems.
When you do encounter a creature, it is easily avoidable. It will not sense your presence unless you are close to it. Causing a ruckus does nothing either; break all the wooden crates and ceramic vases you want, because nothing will come after you. One of the creatures is humorous rather than scary, with a scream that sounds more like an impatient child waiting in a long line at the grocery store than something that wants to kill you – still entertaining, but in a B-movie sort of way.
Also, for as central of a mechanic as telekinesis would seem to play, you don’t get to do many exciting things with it. Granted, this is only episode one so maybe you will be able to further develop your abilities in the next installation, but your abilities don’t evolve at all throughout episode one. Telekinesis could be completely removed from the game and Lethe would not suffer from the loss. Maybe this is because there isn’t a clear link as to how telekinesis relates to your character or how it fits into the overall narrative. It does come in handy when you need to pull a lever on the other side of a locked gate, but in those instances it feels like the “puzzles” were inserted to justify the use of telekinesis.
Some players have compared Lethe to Outlast and Amnesia. While there are some minor similarities, Lethe diverges in story, character development, pacing, and feels incomplete. The developers state on their Steam page that “each episode is considered to be a stand-alone experience. Future episodes will expand upon Lethe’s lore and backstory, but not necessarily the same protagonist’s story.” It’s fine to switch your protagonist between episodes, but the focus on the lore needs to shine through. In Lethe, the lore peeks through barely cracked blinds, putting too heavy of a focus on the protagonist from the moment you press start and misleading the narrative to seem to be about him rather the lore itself.
Lethe: Episode One was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the developer.
Developer: Koukou Studios, Faber Interactive | Publisher: Faber Interactive | Genre: Survival Horror | Platform: PC | PEGI/ESRB: NA | Release Date: August 1, 2016