It tickles us that the Holy Grail, the ultimate objective at the end of Lemon Cake is, well, a lemon cake. As the owner of a bakery, the most challenging of all the confections is a slice of lemon drizzle. The Great British Bake Off has taught us that the real showstoppers are wedding cakes or a Black Forest Gateaux in the shape of the Nakatomi Plaza, but here – it’s the fiendish lemon sponge.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, to learn that Lemon Cake is not aiming for the tense and difficult end of cook-and-serve games. Overcooked!, this isn’t. But Overcooked! isn’t a game for every occasion, and don’t we know it. If you want to keep in good standing with your mates, then you probably don’t want to hop into a kitchen and make burgers with them – it will end with garnish across the walls, like streaks of blood. Lemon Cake knows this, and is about as cosy as a sick-day watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy.
You have been given stewardship of a tiny bakery, with a solitary table (two chairs for two customers, trying in a very British manner to not make eye contact with each other), a solitary oven and a solitary bedroom. It is, as you might expect, rather lonely. What you probably don’t want to see in that situation is a ghost (the previous owner? We never found out if they had a sticky end in the oven), who gives you help in growing the business.
Except she doesn’t really help, as the tutorials are scant. You won’t be told about adjacent rooms that become available, or why large pools of creamy stuff (don’t ask) keep appearing on the floor. But she does just enough to get a foothold in the systems that really matter.
Lemon Cake is a brand of game that’s been around for yonks. Our first exposure to it was Diner Dash, way back when. Customers arrive and either sit down or browse your shop window of wares. They have requests – certain cakes, pastries and sweets that are on your menu. So you hop into the bakery’s ‘front’ to take their order, and then move into the back rooms to begin making it. More often than not, this means grabbing some flour and sugar from the main kitchen, and hopping into a further back room where the more elaborate ingredients are kept, like eggs, milk, cherries and blueberries. Most of these come from flora and fauna that have to be maintained, like feeding cows, or watering the plants.
As you would expect, Lemon Cake is a row of spinning plates, and your job is to determine which plate is in the most dire need of re-spinning. Your oven needs restocking with wood. Those oozy patches on the floor need sweeping. Bertha the cow needs feeding. And, of course, the customers need their pastries, and a burnt one won’t quite do.
What other games would do here is pile on the pressure. There would be daily objectives or challenges, perhaps. The customers would bugger off if you spent more than an hour of in-game time to hand them a jam doughnut. But in Lemon Cake there is not much of the sort. Everyone in your village is mighty forgiving, and it lets you sink back into the armchair and stop worrying. This is punishment-free baking.
Customers wait in their chairs for however long it takes, and don’t complain when they finally get their cake (well, you might get a more straight-faced emoji than usual floating above their head, but that’s the limit of how judgmental they are). You can make as little, or as much, money as you want in a given day. Stay in bed and let the day pass you by, and no one will bat an eyelid. They will even come back, even more enthused, the next day.
And you know what? There is absolutely a place for that. Similar games can be more tense than a stint on Warzone. But baking could and should be relaxing, and that’s the case here. It also makes Lemon Cake an ideal gateway game for a younger or more casual player.
The laissez-faire attitude does have its problems, however. For example, you can spend as much time as you want setting up the shop before you turn the Closed card to Open. It can be eternally 8am in the morning, should you want. What this means in reality, however, is that you absolutely should be filling up the trays in the window, get everything fed and watered, and bake some preparatory cakes and put them on kitchen tables ready to be swapped into the shops. You might even want to get some new cakes baking, guessing what the first customer might want.
It doesn’t sound like a problem, but it has a curious effect. Days are short in Lemon Cake, so we soon found that half of our game-time was laboriously doing the same chores every day before the shop opened. After a few weeks of in-game play, we realised – wait! – that playing Lemon Cake optimally actually wasn’t that fun. Sure, we were maximising our profits and getting everything in place for the day’s trading, but it was about as enthralling as doing the real-life version of those chores.
That conflict at the heart of Lemon Cake was amplified by the sheer number of in-game days that we HAD to play it. There is an unlock shop that you can access at the end of each day, and those unlocks are absolutely essential. Aside from the recipes and ingredients that make you the more lucrative cakes, there are work surfaces, additional ovens, more seats and even carts and magical brooms to unlock. These amenities not only make your life easier and more automated, but they inflate your earning potential.
The problem is, they’re priced incredibly high. At the start and mid-game, you can be forgiven for thinking that they will never be yours. There is a curve to how much you earn, and the latter game does have you earning hundreds of pounds per day rather than dozens, but the feelings of grind never evaporate away from Lemon Cake.
Another factor makes this problematic. Lemon Cake has a superb mechanic at play, which is that you can construct your own menu. This harks back to Lemon Cake’s cosiness, as you only ever have to learn and include the recipes that you feel comfortable with. If something is too complicated, you can ditch it and only supply easier, two-ingredient fancies. You might even opt to be a sweet shop, which skips the need for ovens entirely.
But while it’s extremely player-friendly, it doesn’t give you much incentive to learn, change things up, or generally have a varied play experience. You might be the kind of person who wants to create the most lucrative, money-generating menu. Well, you’ll be doing the same things every day, grinding out cakes so that you can unlock a wardrobe for your bedroom. If you are the kind of player who finds their favourite comfort food and then makes it, over and over again, well, that’s going to get old quickly too. There’s no challenge or ‘desirable food of the week’ to entice you to change.
While we’re picking on Lemon Cake, we should also mention the controls, which never quite feel right. There are rules at play with the run, triggered by pressing RB, but we are damned if we know what they are. Occasionally, our character would burst into a super-run, other times a kind of jaunty jog, while other times still they wouldn’t run at all. There is clearly a stamina bar working on the backend somewhere, but Lemon Cake refuses to show it. Hiding important UI is quite common here, actually. Vital stats like the price of cakes aren’t surfaced, and the controlling min-maxer in us hated it.
Precision is a problem, too. We found ourselves picking fruit from the wrong tree, missing the spot where we wanted to drop a cake or a watering can, and generally finding the clock ticking down because we kept making unwanted mistakes. Lemon Cake dearly needs some highlighting or outlining to show you what you’re currently looking at, and instead leaves you guessing. Which of course costs time.
There’s an argument that we’re playing Lemon Cake wrong, and there’s some stock to be put in it. If you don’t choose to optimise, and instead slow down and enjoy the rhythms of it, there’s an ASMR-like calmness to Lemon Cake. No one is looking over your shoulder. You can play it at your choice of speed. Perhaps you don’t even want to prepare your kitchen before each day. It’s up to you.
But while that might be true, that doesn’t obscure the measliness of the grind to unlock things, and the slow, wonky controls that disrupt your intentions. And covering all of this like a tablecloth is a feeling that the grind is hiding something: that there’s not all that much to do. You’re not unlocking new bakeries, or changing the fundamental shape of your business. You are merely tweaking and optimising what’s there.
Lemon Cake hasn’t really risen in the oven: it’s surprisingly flat. For a £25.99 price tag, that’s a problem. It has undeniable charm and makes for a strong gateway to the cook-and-serve genre, but it will take an Xbox sale for us to truly recommend it for that purpose.
You can buy Lemon Cake from the Xbox Store
- Charming and laid-back
- Perfect for casual players
- No time limits or pressures
- Surprisingly thin on content
- Steep price
- Can feel like real work
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - SOEDESCO
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 30 September 2022
- Launch price from - £25.99