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

Hayden Dingman | Oct. 31, 2016
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.

 

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