This time on Bargain Bits, I’ve come across exactly the sort of stuff I’m looking for. While last time was a mechanically fun, if very ordinary, deckbuilder, this time we have a PS1-style fishing slash mystery game – precisely the weirdness I’m looking for and comfortably in the price bracket at £3.99.
In 10 years, I doubt I’ll remember Mysteries Under Lake Ophelia as an indie game I bought on Steam in December 2021. Instead, I’ll probably be convinced it was a thoroughly weird, fever-dream-ish game from the deep past. One I played one summer holiday, in the very early 2000s, at the house of a friend who hadn’t yet got a PS2, a dusty second-hand copy from Gamestation dug out of a cupboard. At its heart, and for the enormous majority of the time you’ll be playing, it’s a simple, laid-back fishing game. You’re a kid in jorts and a Dreamcast t-shirt and you wander around the titular Lake Ophelia, which seems to possess every variety of fish imaginable. You collect fish and either sell them to a strange travelling fishing equipment salesman or cook them into meals. There’s a sort of eerie overtone to the whole experience, leaning into that slightly spooky vibe that’s a regular feature of 5th-gen styled indie games.
Playstation 1-esque stylishness and powerful vibes
It’s the aesthetic that really sells Mysteries Under Lake Ophelia. I adore the 5th-gen style, and I’m really glad that it’s picked up a lot of traction in the indie game sphere, especially on sites like itch.io (where this game is also available). Its cutscene-ish bits and menus have this claymation look (the trailer is intensely sick) that jives perfectly with the low-poly, low-res look of the rest of the game. The only thing that gives away that Lake Ophelia was made this millennium is the music (which is lovely, if deliberately infrequent). While it’s quite light on UI elements during the fishing/exploration gameplay that makes up its core, what is there during cooking, sleeping and trading matches perfectly. It’s hard to overstate how much I love the way this game looks, and it makes an excellent match for the vibe of the rest of the game, adding undeniable charm to the goofy fish and a nostalgic sheen to the whole experience. From the credits it’s discernible that the developers even got someone to convert the game’s few cutscenes to VHS and then back again for the authentic visual effect; that’s commitment to the bit.
The above-water outdoors environment is a little bit sparse, but that’s because the real ‘exploration’ is to be done underwater, through the expressive medium of fishing. After all, the mysteries are under Lake Ophelia, not around Lake Ophelia. However, there are a few things to discover by poking around the lake’s surroundings, and in a way the relative lack of excitement above the waterline helps signpost these points of interest (though I never figured out if the butterflies did anything). Arguably this fits in with the game’s aesthetic; after all, intense geometric complexity isn’t the first thing I think about when I consider games available for the original Playstation. It’s also pretty concordant with the lonely vibe of the game. The only person to talk to is the guy who sells fishing equipment, and though he has helpful hints and some amusing lines it’s clear that Lake Ophelia aims to make you feel like you’re flying solo. In a chill – but also slightly spooky – way.
The fishy business of fishing games
What of the fishing mechanics, then? They’re quite standard, but well-executed and not too frustrating. I’d never claim to be a true aficionado of full-on ‘fishing games’, but I do love a good fishing mini-game. In all but the most generous of these, you’re likely to spend at least a small proportion of your time swearing at fish in frustration as they doggedly refuse to check out that interesting piece of bait hanging just outside their cone of vision, and Lake Ophelia is no exception in this regard. Much like the real thing, then, the game requires a little bit of patience. The waters of Lake Ophelia are quite clear and you can see the fish lurking below the surface easily enough. You line up your cast (cast distance is based purely on the rod you have equipped, so no timing cast power) and then the bait will sink to the depth defined by the lure you’ve got. There’s a button to reel in, and tapping B (on an Xbox controller) whips it up instantly if you need to reset. Once you successfully bait one of the delightful-looking low-poly fish, you can begin to reel that sucker in – the main mechanic is that they’ll struggle and the line will begin to suffer with an audible cue, forcing you to let off reeling until the fish stops flailing.
There’s a small amount of fish grinding involved, but because of the serene qualities of the experience it doesn’t feel too bad. In fact, if the progression was any looser I think it’d make the core experience feel rushed, and if you’re not a completionist I think the progression curve, and therefore the length of the game, is well-judged. See, the way Mysteries Under Lake Ophelia gates progression is essentially through the two aforementioned fishing equipment upgrades. You collect fish, sell them to the mysterious fella who appears at your campfire, and use the cash to buy new rods and lures from him. These allow you to cast further, sink the lure deeper into the lake, and increase the bait’s attractiveness. You can access the more exotic and expensive fish that live deeper down and repeat the process, until eventually you’ve got free reign over the whole of the lake’s underwater geography. It’s simple, it’s satisfying, it works. I lack the patience to go for the hundred-percenter achievements, but enjoyed the ~3.5 hours I spent with the game a lot.
Mystery, horror, fishing? Mostly fishing, really
The game has a horror tag, and there are a few content warnings included. Thee developer, Bryce Bucher, has made games with this sort of aesthetic before that skew more towards the scary, both full games such as Fatum Betula and for anthologies like the excellent Haunted PS1 Demo Disc. This is arguably a spoiler – though a mild one – so look away now if you’re worried about it. For the avoidance of doubt, this is all centred at the game’s ending. It’s nothing too horrific, more a bit weird, though I’m not afraid to admit that I did not totally ‘get’ it. I suppose it is, in fact, a mystery under the lake, just more of a strange, haunting mystery than the sort solved by detective work. It plays a bit with the game’s camera perspective and controls, which is cool. I’ll not say any more in case you want to experience it for yourself. Just in case you were worried about jumpscares or the somewhat cutesy aesthetic being a horror bait-and-switch, rest assured it isn’t.
Mysteries Under Lake Ophelia is probably my favourite game I’ve played for Bargain Bits so far (admittedly there’s only two others at time of writing). The winning combination of simple but effective fishing mechanics with the immense charm of its styling and attitude make this little game a gem hiding out in Steam’s new releases. I don’t think it’s changed my outlook on life or games about fishing more generally, but the aesthetic juice (technical term) is very potent indeed. There’s something exceptional about that PS1 look but also this game specifically. It’s as if the lack of the now-familiar enormous detail in the early 3D era invites the mind to examine and fill in the flat landscapes, lending the whole thing a wistful, haunting energy. Check it out if it seems like it’s up your alley; I think you’ll know if it is.
Thanks for checking out my review of Mystery Under Lake Ophelia! If you’re interested in reading more stuff I’ve written, check out my review of Metroidvania Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth. If you’re a fishing enthusiast, check out our only other fishing-related article on Bits & Pieces, Nevi’s review of the Dice Fishing board game.