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Like salted caramel, cockapoos and photographing food, escape rooms didn’t seem to exist ten years ago. But now they’re everywhere, popping up in empty real estate, offering you the chance to steal Cleopatra’s necklace or defuse a bomb in the dark. But while they’re almost matching Starbucks for high street ubiquity, we absolutely love them. There’s something about being trapped in a room with your mates, with only your combined ingenuity to call on, as you argue over whether to pull up the carpet because – you never know – a clue might just be down there.
Video gaming’s history of escape rooms is complicated. Point-and-click adventures, hidden object titles and games like The Room have all dabbled with similar concepts, so it’s hard to separate them from the new and popular genre of high-street escape rooms. What we can say with some confidence, though, is that few games – certainly on the Xbox – have tried to emulate the feelings of an escape room: you and a mate in a room, looking for the key to a door, all with a timer ticking down. Escape Academy scratches an itch that we were surprised nobody else had bothered to scratch.
Escape Academy doesn’t just act as a simulator, though. It brings a spot of Harry Potter to proceedings. Not only are you doing escape rooms, you are joining an academy dedicated to them, passing exams to gain badges that will give you the qualifications to, well, we don’t really know. Escape Academy doesn’t make it abundantly clear what one does when you graduate Escape Academy. But the structure that surrounds the puzzles will be familiar to fans of the Wizarding World: you are inducted, to your surprise, into a mysterious academy, where you take on the role of prodigy, completing all the lessons and beating the best times of the other pupils. There’s even a Dumbledore-like relationship with the headmistress, and a suspicious member of the faculty who you need to keep your eyes on.
The rooms themselves tick all of the boxes that we’re used to from other escape rooms: a sprinkle of urgency here, a world-ending threat there. You will be completing rooms before they burn down, flood, get destroyed by bombs and fill up with poisonous gas. It’s all in a day’s work for an escapologist.
Everything is viewed in a first-person view, which is perfect for simulating an escape room. There’s plenty in the room to inspect, with a number of red herrings and journals, alongside the odd item to chuck into a small inventory. But much of Escape Academy is about finding locks and then deciphering codes to input into them. A wide array of puzzles and clues mean that you’re going to be learning Russian, memorising atomic numbers and practicing some morse code.
Interacting with the various gubbins in the room is on the clumsy side. Mostly thanks to the controller, highlighting individual components of a puzzle can be a touch fiddly, as you float your cursor over things that might be interactible. The time limit gives the awkwardness an extra layer of pressure.
The puzzles throughout Escape Academy make us do the Professor Layton twirl-and-point. They’re brilliant, and as someone who has played almost all the Artifex Mundi hidden object games, and all the Laytons to boot, developers Coin Crew Games have manufactured plenty that feel fresh yet completely intuitive. I’m still reeling at how cunning a few of them are: there’s a sokoban box-pushing puzzle but with a ladder, which I’d happily play as its own game. Another puzzle makes majestic use of 1990s screensavers.
A hint system can be accessed with a press of the X button. We had a love-hate relationship with it. Ninety percent of the time it’s spot-on, giving you exactly the right measure of hint, as opposed to spoiling the solution. But another ten percent of the time, it shows you something you don’t recognise (we were thoroughly stumped by a big blue box that we couldn’t see anywhere), or something that you do recognise, but you don’t quite know what it wants from you. Worse still, the hint is triggered by a single press of an X button without any confirmation prompt. We accidentally pressed it multiple times when trying to open inventories or pin items, reducing our score in the process. It’s a trifle, but one that gnawed away at us four or five times.
You get ranked for your abilities in the escape room, followed by a summary of all the puzzles you solved, including the time it took to complete them. We didn’t quite understand the need for the latter: it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. But the best feature is the ability to play the rooms cooperatively, whether online or local. This taps into the feelings of a proper escape room, as you’re swapping notes and calling out for items or a second half of a clue. We’re looking forward to future DLC where, we hope, the cooperative element is grown further.
Between the escaping, a story plays out. You can chat to faculty members, and a plot develops which puts the academy in jeopardy. We’re glad that there’s some narrative glue between the escape rooms, but it’s barely adhesive. The academy, for one, feels completely and utterly empty: you meet one pupil, but elsewhere there’s a resounding void. And the characters do their best to keep the momentum going, but they barely interact with each other and are mostly there to toss some skepticism that you might be the Chosen One.
But don’t for one moment think that these flaws sink Escape Academy. As an escape room simulator it does a fine job, delivering varied locations that are a joy to tinker with – with two players, no less. The puzzles can verge on the sublime, and the prospect of a season pass and new escape rooms makes us slobber with anticipation. We could arch an eyebrow at the story and controls, but ultimately it’s hard to escape just how clever Escape Academy is.
You can buy Escape Academy from the Xbox Store