London, Nov 2018
A new game from Cluequest is a rare and much-anticipated thing. One of the very first U.K. operators, they took the approach of running many copies of their games in parallel rather than churning out lots of different games, and when they do release something new, each time it’s easy to see that they’ve put a lot of work into making it a clear step up from the last, not just more of the same.
All their games share a secret agent theming with players being recruited for a super spy agency run by a yellow mouse named Mr. Q. The awkwardly named cQ Origenes explores that premise further, being based around the origin story of your mousy spymaster and his ovine nemesis. This was explained along with our goals for the mission, plus a great deal of the usual pre-game advice, in a briefing that turned into a barrage of information but which I thought still showed Cluequest’s skill at making sure players of any experience level are given the right instructions to help them have a smooth game.
It’s not quite accurate to say that this is a zero-padlock game, though the one instance of a padlock is a moment of genius. I’m not going to explain that for spoiler reasons, though it’s part of the central idea of the story, a smart and original concept that allows them to use all kinds of familiar objects in novel ways. I’ve been saying for some time that something like this would make a great sequence in an escape room, but rather than be bitter at finding a company had also thought of my brilliant idea, instead I’ll just be smug that it does indeed work so well.
To be fair, while the idea gives great material to work with, it’s the implementation that’s stand-out. One of the key features that distinguishes escape room puzzles from those you might find in a puzzle magazine are that in an escape room, you work out what the puzzles are and how to solve them through a process of exploration and discovery. Many games do resort to giving their players some form of explicit instructions, but that’s a relatively crude approach – much better to use similarities of shape and structure to signpost the right direction, coupled with feedback to let players know when they’re on the right track. Cluequest show an exquisite understanding of how to do this. One puzzle after another initially appeared bafflingly intractable, only to yield to persistence and resolve to a solution that seemed retrospectively inevitable. That’s a high standard but one that many top-tier games achieve; it’s doubly impressive in Origenes because their puzzles are also consistently creative. I normally feel I have I have a big advantage as a player through recognising familiar puzzle types, but here I found it much harder to predict how any given set of clues was going to be used.
By the standards of really top-tier games, Origenes’ physical footprint is definitely on the small side. One anticipated reveal turned out to be something of a disappointment; and separately, the game’s main transition could be beefed up with more drama. It has a sophisticated and fully custom build with lots of pizzazz, but these days you can find more sprawling or obviously spectacular games. However, I think it excels in a more important way. Many very impressive games have taken the route of focusing on the theatrics, and while they still have plenty of puzzles to solve, those puzzles feel less challenging. Origenes doesn’t do that. The puzzles here are the main focus, and they’re smart and tricky in a way that experienced players in particular should appreciate. The relatively small game area also boasts lovely efficiency of design, where it manages to feel absolutely packed with things to look at, and at the same time everything is there for a reason.
That all added up to a game that I hugely admired for its game design and had a great time playing, that was consistently challenging and interesting. The escape game industry has relentlessly advanced in sophistication and quality, but Cluequest have stubbornly kept pace, and Origenes immediately joins the shortlist of must play recommendations for enthusiasts visiting London.