Room-in-a-box, Jun 2019
I’ve been saying for a while that the convention of a 60 minute time limit is an unnecessary constriction on play-at-home games, and that games would do better to aim for a longer play time and a more substantial experience. Escape Tales appear to have reached the same conclusion, and their debut game The Awakening is listed as 180-360 minutes duration (!). Up to six hours on the trot is on the long side even for me, but fortunately they’ve built in a mechanism for ‘saving’ your game state so that you can stop and continue it on a different evening. That said, I’d expect most groups to take closer to 3 hours than 6 to complete it.
On opening the box you’ll find it looks more like a board game than an escape game, with a small board and some wooden tokens as well as a great many cards, plus a book of rules and a book of story text. There’s also an ‘app’ with which to check answers (which is actually a webpage, sparing you the need to install anything).
You have a deck of Location cards, which illustrate where you are, of which you normally have two face-up at any time. You have a large deck of Game cards, which may be puzzles or items in much the same way as in other card-based games such as Exit or Unlock. And you have some Doom cards, which are revealed as you use up resource tokens – they restore your supply of tokens, but also tend to inflict a penalty on you.
Each large Location card is effectively a 2×3 grid, and you can spend a resource token to investigate a specific one of those six squares. Doing so gives you a paragraph number to look up in the story book, which in turn may tell you to take or discard Game cards, as well as advancing the story. Sometimes it’ll also tell you to gain or lose tokens, or give you the option of moving to a new location. All clear? Probably not, but it’s actually not too confusing when you try it, though we had to be careful about the difference between ‘take card 027’ and ‘read paragraph 027’.
The important things here, though, are: it’s more ‘rules-heavy’ than most home escape games; it’s very narrative driven, with everything you do resulting in another snippet of story text; and you’re constantly draining your limited supply of tokens, constantly making hard choices about whether to look more closely at one corner of a room or another. This might all sound more like a board game or a Choose Your Own Adventure story than a puzzle game, and there’s some truth in that, but the core of the game is driven by solving puzzles, perhaps even moreso than in, say, the Unlock! series. What’s different and disconcerting is that there’s a cost involved in searching for clues, and at each step you’re trying to decide where you should spend your precious tokens to find more pieces of a puzzle.
With a great many cards flying around, it helps a lot that each puzzle card is marked with a symbol that shows which puzzle it’s related to. Often the critical thing is knowing whether any other cards are required, and if you wish you can check that on the webpage for the puzzle, without penalty; and you can also see the length of answer expected. These are very welcome aides that keep the game from being overwhelming.
There were a couple of puzzles I thought were a bit of a stretch, and there might be one or two more maths puzzles than most players would prefer. Even so, puzzle quality compares favourably to other home games; and the quantity is remarkable. Your attention will however be divided between puzzle solving and the challenge of not running out of tokens, and on the unfolding story. In the 70+ home games I’ve played, The Awakening is the most narratively intense, with a story that doesn’t simply frame the puzzles but provides a complex, branching narrative with many different endings and a variety of ways to get to them.
This is not a game for those who hate uncertainty. Throughout the game you have to choose which spaces to explore, and it’s largely pot luck whether you pick the right squares or not. There are few clues given for whether you should rush on to the next location as soon as you get a chance or hang around to solve as much as you can first. And even more crucially, at a number of key points you’re asked to make decisions with incomplete, insufficient information, and only later discover that those decisions have had far-reaching effects on the outcome of your game.
As a result of your choices, you’ll see some parts of the game and not others. The box states that the game can be played more than once; with refreshing honesty, the website FAQs state that they anticipate you’ll be able to play it exactly twice, with the second play-through taking substantially less time than the first. That was exactly our experience. We played it fully through the first time, then had a second game to see the paths we’d missed. (Then I combed through all the cards and story text to find any small pieces we still hadn’t seen, and compare all the endings.) The second game had plenty of repeated content, but was still worthwhile; a third iteration would have had too little new content to justify playing it.
Be warned that The Awakening is not a cheerful game. The premise is that you’re undertaking a sinister ritual in the hope of magically bringing your daughter out of a coma. It’s a dark story with plenty of emotionally disturbing themes. More importantly, there’s an excellent chance that, after investing several hours playing through it, you’ll end up with an unhappy ending through no real fault of your own.
The Awakening sits somewhere between Exit, T.I.M.E. Stories and Choose Your Own Adventure, taking the best elements from each and fusing them into a coherent game. For sheer quantity of content it’s comparable to about three ‘normal’ boxed escape games, while keeping a mostly very good standard of puzzle; and then it uses story to build that into a much more complex, involving experience. Not everyone will enjoy its emotional tone, or the pressure of the limited supply of tokens. But if The Awakening suits your tastes, then it’s among the very best play-at-home escape games on the market.