The Great Escape
Escape Academy is a game that I was mildly interested in while watching preview coverage. It seemed like a pretty natural progression of things. Escape rooms have gotten fairly popular so why wouldn’t someone try to make a video game out of that? Video games have been including escape sequences for years, whether it was Nathan Drake scaling a series of falling train cars or Cloud and crew attempting to get out of the Mako reactor before it exploded. The idea of escape is not new to games. However, not many games have attempted the “escape room” idea successfully. The only one that pops to mind as I type this is a particularly memorable sequence from Resident Evil 7 where Ethan is stuck in a tortuous puzzle room by one of the members of the Baker family. I remember solving that puzzle, getting out alive, and feeling satisfyingly exhilarated. Satisfyingly exhilarated is the way I felt playing almost all of Escape Academy.
I was a little worried about the structure of Escape Academy going in. Would this just be a series of Escape Rooms that you would pick from a menu? Would that get dull? Would there be enough variety to keep me engaged? From the game’s first mission on it became clear that not everything was as it seemed. Much to my surprise the game was narrative driven and this really enhanced the experience. As a patron of an escape room you are recruited to join the Escape Academy, which by its name alone you can probably guess is a school for aspiring master escape artists. After you pass the initiation you are whisked away to the campus where you become a novice escape artist gunning to the top of your class. It is in this setting that a majority of the game takes place.
From this point on you are going to each class and attempting to escape successfully in order to earn badges, pokemon trainer style. Once you complete all your badges, boom, you’re an escape artist. The narrative takes some twists and turns, none of which I will spoil here, but it is just compelling enough to keep you moving, to keep you solving. And thankfully, the puzzle rooms themselves are excellent.
There isn’t much of a gradual difficulty curve in this game. Each puzzle has a difficulty rank assigned to it but, aside from the very first tutorial puzzle, most of these puzzles throw you in headfirst and the game is better because of it. Once I was at the academy and went to my first class it became aware that the objective would be clear but the method obscure. Objective: get out of the room you’re in. Then the game just plops you in a room by yourself and it is up to you to figure out what to do next. This lack of direction is exciting. You hit the floor, the timer starts ticking down and even though the times aren’t particularly punishing, the constant click of the seconds and minutes adds a level of pressure that creates for some good and manageable levels of suspense.
The gameplay is not unlike that of a point and click adventure game. You are consistently picking up items and using them to interact with others. You are noticing patterns on the walls and on screens that reference a puzzle you will need to solve later on. The game suggests you play with a notebook and I mostly agree as it will cut down on backtracking to reference things you had previously observed but not committed to memory. As you progress the puzzles become more intricate and obscure, giving you the feeling that you are actually solving this mystery and not just following bread crumbs laid out by the developers.
Then came the prison level.
Maybe three or four classes in you are tasked with orchestrating a prison break, but in a unique twist you are not the one doing the breaking out, you are the central communication center for the escape. You are watching video monitor feeds, using coordinates to track locations, using floorplans to direct the escape from afar. While running the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this was one of the most fun and tense video game levels I have ever played. It was consistently inventive. The minute I thought that I knew what was going on a new wrinkle would appear and I would have to adjust and adapt. It was at this moment that it became clear that this game was unique. I wasn’t ONLY solving a puzzle room. I was an active participant in something bigger than me, something significant.
This feeling of importance persisted throughout the course of the game. Even though none of the subsequent puzzles hit the high that the prison escape puzzle hit, they were all very good. Each completion of a puzzle giving that serotonin release I had come to crave. That sense of accomplishment. The final puzzle was a gauntlet of tasks and trials, each testing a variety of skills, and as I had come to expect, nothing was what it seemed.
Escape Academy doesn’t get to the level of games like The Witness or Portal where it has you questioning reality and your existence, but it doesn’t have to. What Escape Academy does is take a well known concept and wrap it lovingly in a video game style package. Each puzzle solved made me feel smart, powerful, and academic. No puzzle types or tropes were reused to the game’s detriment and the game never wore out its welcome. I went in feeling like there would be a chance I’d like this game. I came out thinking that this is one of the best games released this year.