Online, Jul 2020
I was immediately intrigued not just by Crimson Fang’s trailer but by the fact that Castle Escapes are building games specifically for remote play, not adapting existing physical rooms. Playing via a conference call inevitably compromises the escape room experience in a number of ways, but also has potential to allow inventive creators to add interestingly novel elements that wouldn’t be possible in person.
This is however a difficult game to review since talking about a major part of how it works is a potential spoiler. When we played, the host talked about it up front in the pre-game briefing, but it appears they don’t always do so, and the website description of the game makes no mention of it. I can imagine some players would prefer to know in advance, to set expectations accordingly, but many others wouldn’t. If you think you might be in the latter category, then I recommend not reading any further until you’ve played it; and I’m hiding the rest of this review in a spoiler tag to make sure no-one accidentally sees more information than they’re okay with.
So the key thing about Crimson Fang is that it’s not actually a livestream game – it consists entirely of pre-recorded video. However, it’s done so smoothly that several people have played the entire thing without realising that it wasn’t live.
This is why it’s hard to judge whether it’s better to know how the game works before playing it. Knowing how it’s done could puncture its magic, like knowing the conjurer’s secret. On the other hand, if you play believing it’s a live video feed, you may be confused and frustrated at the way the avatar keeps doing things you didn’t ask them to do, or not doing some of the things you requested – because they’re limited by the pre-existing selection of video clips.
Although the video is pre-recorded, the host is live – at least, her audio was. She was a well-developed avatar character with personality and motivation beyond simply following our instructions, and that was key to making the experience work. It was her quick improvisation skills that made the action seem to flow smoothly, such that (for example) when the limits of the canned clips meant the camera had to move in a less than natural way, her dialogue provided an excuse for it and made it seem organic. Similarly, we wanted to try a number of things for which no suitable video clip existed, but instead of an immersion-breaking “sorry, you can’t do that”, we’d receive a reply that made it plausible that the avatar was unwilling or unable to attempt it.
And although pre-recorded video imposes restrictions on gameplay, it also offers interesting opportunities for tasks and sequences that couldn’t be included in a livestream game, let alone one played in person. Crimson Fang takes advantage of that, and the places where it does so are the game’s most entertaining and memorable moments. In some cases the puzzles could have tied more closely into the theme, and in a couple of cases were a little dry, particularly in comparison with the well-decorated set and gothic story; but the highlights were great.
What they’ve done is not just novel and interesting, but also slick and effective. Strengths include impressive set dressing and a vampire theme that throws in an eclectic mix of drama, mild frights, and humour, alternating between creeping you out and poking fun at itself. The format has its strengths and weaknesses, but it’s remarkable how well they’ve executed it, and I suspect they’ll be able to develop the idea even further in their future games.
Disclaimer: We played this game on a complementary basis. This does not influence the review or rating.