Escape rooms seem to be the flavour of the month at the moment. I see them advertised on social media, they crop up around where I live, and charge over £30 per person, so I've never really fancied shelling out for them. That's the cost of a gel manicure down the drain.
They've always intrigued me, though, so Escape Academy was a prospect I was keen on getting my hands on. Should I become a true escapee and learn the ways of getting out of rooms using the clues conveniently placed in the correct order for me to find my way through?
Well, Escape Academy did its best to convince me that there's a lot of potential fun in what essentially boils down to figuring out various combination locks and finding the hidden objects around the map. Surprisingly, I'd say I was convinced.
Crack the Code
The premise of an academy designed to create the best escapists the world has ever seen is a ludicrous one, and the way in which it's introduced is ridiculous too. That's not even a bad thing - quite the opposite, actually. The premise set the perfect tone for suspending disbelief, letting me know we're in for some quirky vibes.
The setting is cool! There's plenty to see and do in the school, and the characters are likeable if fairly simple. There's the cool art teacher who does graffiti on school property, the botany professor who happens to be an explosives expert, and the rival student who pushes you to improve your puzzle-solving skills. They serve a purpose (usually their purpose is giving you puzzles to solve and rooms to escape from), and they do it well.
Dialogue is good, and there are little bits of interaction between life-threatening escapes and putting codes into padlocks. The one character you get to know slightly better is the headmaster, who you talk to a lot more than most others. She takes a liking to you for whatever reason and decides you should enter the academy, and throughout the story acts as a mentor figure for both you and your character, as novice escapists.
Escape With a Mate
What about the actual puzzles, though? There's no point in playing Escape Academy if the best thing about it is the mini visual novels.
Well, I'm an escape room novice, and I really enjoyed the puzzles in Escape Academy. The difficulty starts very low with some basic pattern recognition, but at points, you'll really have to think laterally to ensure you're keeping up with the constantly-ticking clock counting you down to failure.
This is why I found co-op by far the best way to play. Don't get me wrong, escaping alone is pretty fun, but being able to talk through the solutions with a friend was much more engaging. It's the purest co-op experience there is - we're both aiming for the same goal, and what one person misses, the other might crack. The scores on my report cards definitely got boosted once I tagged along with a pal.
The way co-op is done is smart too. Even when you're playing online you have a split-screen view, meaning you can show your teammate exactly what you're seeing rather than having to explain the clues to them.
There are actually a lot of handy UX bits and pieces - you can pin clues to your screen so you can look at them while walking around, a post-escape report card to help you improve for next time, and even a hint system to help you out if things get a bit tricky.
I played most of the game in co-op and talking through my thoughts really helped me to figure things out, meaning I didn't need a lot of help from the hints. The hint system was a nice crutch, though, and I found myself using it for the rare occasions when non-puzzle steps weren't signposted properly. In one mission there was a computer on the table I was supposed to interact with to move things on having solved one part of the puzzle, but it wasn't exactly clear to me.
In general, though, the hint system gives just enough of a clue to not spoil the puzzle and slowly reveals more if you find yourself needing it.
Any Wrong Answers?
The other time I needed a hint was in a puzzle in which it appeared a significant part of it was missing. I had to pull levers in a specific order according to some clues on a screen, but the screen didn't seem to be working and the hints didn't help me out. Hopefully, in the full release, this is sorted, but unfortunately, I had to brute-force this puzzle with trial-and-error.
Thankfully, that was the only occasion that happened, and the rest of the puzzles were fun brainteasers with logical solutions behind them.
I found the controls a tad finicky on PC too - when I turned the mouse too much my character did a full 180-degree turn. A setting to turn this off would've been nice, but it was easy enough to get used to.
Obviously, some puzzles aren't going to be as good as others. A couple of them are computer terminal-based, with somewhat monotonous visuals and simple 'press the right button' solutions, which isn't bad on its own, but the more interesting environments in some puzzles disguise this a lot more effectively.
I'd strongly recommend giving Escape Academy a try. It's a joy on your own, but best experienced with a friend to really get a feeling of accomplishment. I'd love to see more levels released in the future, and would gladly shell out for some DLC. My main criticism is that the nature of the game means I can't realistically replay it - I just want more escape room vibes!
Maybe I'll bite the bullet and shell out for an actual escape room. You've convinced me, Coin Crew Games.
Code was provided by the publisher. Buy Escape Academy now!