Online, Jul 2020
Even though the term has broadened recently to include a whole variety of online experiences, I wouldn’t call Agent Venture an escape room. It uses some of the same skills, and will appeal to a great many of those who like escape rooms, but it’s a distinctively different sort of experience, with strong elements of interactive fiction and immersive theatre, and a whole lot of frantic problem solving in a style that’s its own unique format.
The titular Agent Venture is a James Bond style secret agent, and as his support team you need to guide him into the headquarters of an evil corporation whose CEO bears a resemblance to a certain famously wealthy individual. This is an audio game with no physical play area and no avatar, being run via one live actor. That was easy to forget though – our host jumped with such ease between a half dozen and more different characters, seamlessly shifting voice and personality each time, that it felt like the game had a much larger cast.
You can only play as a team of 4 or 5. The unusually restrictive team size limits are because each player is assigned a specific role, and has a set of information and tasks specific to them. One player has a mass of documents to sort through to find clues to feed to the other players. One hacks computer systems, in the form of solving small (but tough) logic puzzles. Another handles NPC interaction, on the many occasions it’s needed. One has the floor plans and handles navigation. And if there’s a fifth player, they have visibility of everything and can help out whoever is in need of it.
Your experience of Agent Venture will depend to a considerable degree on which role you take, and whether it suits you. The activities you’ll engage in are quite different for different team members, to the point where I’d suggest putting together a team based by finding people who’d enjoy each role, rather than finding a group and then assigning roles. Being stuck with a role that you hate could seriously get in the way of enjoying the game.
Although having defined roles is an unusual feature, what makes me put it apart from audio-only escape rooms is the play style. There are precious few puzzles here, in the usual escape room sense of them. There are logic problems, but only for the one player who’s job it is to solve them. Most of the game involves a much more open-ended freeform type of solving, one where there are multiple possible solutions, where social engineering skills such as bluffing or wheedling may be the best approach, and where you have the freedom to try entirely novel out of the box ideas.
It’s also perhaps the most frantically busy play-from-home game I’ve tried yet. Each player has tasks that only they can do, which the others are relying on them to do well, and most players have a big surfeit of information, more than they can easily sort through. Every spare second is therefore spent frantically juggling your own tabs of information together with the group discussion, up against an unforgivingly short timer.
With a normal escape room, you can expect that each clue will be used exactly once. Here, we had far more information that we used, because of the many multiple paths available to us, and we had to keep deciding which ones to use and what we wanted to do with them.
At times it was exhausting and stressful; it was also wildly entertaining. Key to that was our host, portraying Agent Venture himself as well as every other character we interacted with, and also dealing with all the things we were telling him to do. His management of the game was superb, and really brought it to life.
I suspect it may also be that mythical beast, a replayable game – though two plays is probably the limit. That’s because not only can the players switch roles, but also because at every step of the story you can try taking a route that’s different to whatever you tried the previous attempt. Having played it once, I’d certainly consider going back for a second helping of the same game, and absolutely intend to play the sequel; it might not be an escape game as such, but it’s definitely worth a look.