Room-in-a-box, May 2018
This review comes perilously close to breaking my normal rules, in that it’s for a small taster game put out to raise interest in a crowdfunding campaign for the full product (which is now running, as of two days ago – see the link at the top). However, this prelude works as a stand-alone puzzle game, and is also available to play online in a substantially modified form – more on that later. Both the prelude and the planned full game have a crime story, with a crazed killer taunting investigators with cryptic clues that they might just be able to use to prevent his next murder.
With more space for written text, boxed games often include much more story than physical escape rooms, but usually via descriptive text or cards depicting objects and locations. This one takes the opposite approach and goes full-on for realism: other than a sheet of instructions, every component is presented as one of a collection of items mailed to you by a serial killer. It’s an impressive collection, too: some items are simple printed scraps of paper, but the game envelope contains an intriguing set of convincingly realistic objects, all with clue markings and decorations added by hand. And it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to the game to be found online, with a reference to a YouTube video.
With few exceptions, physical escape games obey a standard set of conventions, such as single use of items, 60 minutes time limit, and no outside knowledge. Boxed games tend to reproduce these conventions even when they don’t have to – such as the 60 minute time limit, which has always struck me as unnecessary for something you play at home. Better for designers to pack in a larger amount of content. This prelude game has no time limit; the associated website shows a timer, but it counts up not down. More unusual is that it requires outside knowledge. That probably sounds like heresy to escape room players, but I don’t mean it expects you to know obscure trivia – rather, it expects you to resort to the internet to look things up where needed. That will seem quite normal and reasonable to anyone who plays puzzle hunts, and indeed the style of this game is in places closer to a puzzle hunt than to an escape room; perhaps the best description is to say that the solving style is that of a puzzle hunt, but the narrative framing and the naturalistic presentation of the clues are straight from an escape room.
Although it was presented as an introductory mini-game, we found it surprisingly challenging. One reason for that was because we had one of the components in French and relied on Google Translate, where normally it would all be played in English. Even without that hitch though, the difficulty level is such that you should expect to chew on the puzzles and brainstorm ideas rather than simply racing through them. (…or maybe we were just bad at it. 😝) In a couple of places the required steps felt like plausible guesses, where we thought we were doing the right thing but needed the game’s feedback to confirm it; but any ambiguities were minor, and the answer that fit most neatly was each time the correct one.
That all applies to the physical version of the prelude. There is also an online-only version, with a YouTube video as it’s starting point. This replaces the physical components with visual clues, and although the game’s high level structure is the same, the details of some of the tasks are quite different. Having played one before the other it’s hard to judge, but I’d guess that the online version is a little tougher than the physical one.
The point of this prelude game is of course to build interest for the full game. Naturally, there’s no guarantee that the taster will be representative of what follows, but what I’ve seen of it shows plenty of promise. This first bite naturally doesn’t have much narrative progression, but seems designed to set the scene for a very story-driven game; and the component quality is at least as strong as any comparable product I’ve seen. The difficulty level makes it well suited for puzzle enthusiasts and less so for mass market. If you expect easy wins, you may find it frustrating. But for those who find most boxed escape games a bit slight, this looks like it will be a more substantial challenge that will be rewarding for those who don’t mind putting some effort into solving.