Sun. Aug 14th, 2022

I’m in the mood for a good puzzle game. No, that’s not accurate enough. If a good puzzle game came to my door and proposed marriage, I’d blow up my life and career for it the same way a journalist did for that pharmaceutical bro. (But I’d at least have the good sense to take the inevitable L privately.)

I wanted Escape Academy to ruin my life like this, the same way encryption did.

And while the escape room puzzle game/visual novel isn’t the equivalent of Tessa Thompson or Tom Hiddleston – or Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston – who appears at my door on bent knee; I can say it looks more like that fat guy from The bear cooking an intimate dinner for two in his furniture-less apartment – absolutely incredible, but scarce and far too short.

Escape Academy tells the story of a young escape room enthusiast and their journey through a clandestine school where the world’s best escape artists hone their skills with a variety of puzzles. Along the way you will meet the quirky students and professors who call Escape Academy at home as you solve puzzles to unravel the mysteries of the school.

Screenshot of Escape Academy showing an enclosed outdoor area dotted with statues that are also puzzle clues.

‘s puzzles Escape Academy are extremely varied and satisfy every subset of the problem-solving part of my brain. There are the typical word and math puzzles, some logic puzzles and my absolute least favorite – the spatial reasoning puzzle. Escape Academy tries to recreate the terrifying fun of a physical escape room in a video game. But one of the things I liked the most was that you have to be analog to solve the digital puzzles. It’s a full-body experience that engages my body in a way that video games normally don’t. There wasn’t a puzzle room where I didn’t use a pen and notepad, muttering aloud to myself as I worked through the problems.

It was very satisfying to have this kind of physical component in the game. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, the MS-DOS game Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?† To beat the game and capture Carmen, you had to look up the answer to the last question in a real book. The solutions were as simple as finding a word in a specific place on a page, but when I did it felt awesome – as if I had transcended some kind of bridge between a real and a virtual world. Frantically scribbling notes and possible solutions, drawing cards and spinning around because I horrible with spatial puzzles it feels like a kind of body alchemy. I value that kind of full engagement and focus because my ADHD brain just can notEscape Academy, just, feels good to play.

And if you get a puzzle right on the first try after making sure the answer you deduced couldn’t possibly be correct? Wow

If anything, I could have used a little more of that. The puzzles weren’t easy, but they weren’t too challenging either. Each of the puzzles is graded on a scale of one to five keys. Most puzzles hovered in the range of two to three keys, and only one was a full five. I understand that the developers of this game wanted it to be accessible to as many people as possible, which makes it impossible to stuff the game with just tricky puzzles, but I would have liked a little more of a challenge.

You will also be given a time limit for the puzzle. If you don’t complete the room in the allotted time, you’ll be presented with a Game Over screen with an option to extend your time at the cost of a higher score. There were maybe two puzzles where I needed the time extension once, and only the five-key puzzle required me to redo three times.

Screenshot of Escape Academy showing a giant wall of TVs with faces on them protected behind a wall of lasers with five desktop computers in the foreground with a puzzle clue as the screensaver.
Spatial reasoning puzzles are bad for the directionally challenged.
Image: Coin Crew Games

I don’t think my ability to get through the puzzles in the allotted time meant they were too easy. Rather, I liked that because it meant the developers made sure to structure their puzzles in a logical way. I have completed this task and I know from the way this puzzle was presented to me what to do/where to go. Many games with puzzle elements become tedious because the progress is not clear, leaving you clicking around furiously to think of the next step. Escape Academy avoids some of that frustration by arranging the puzzles in a sensible way.

Besides the puzzles themselves, some of the game’s other crowning achievements are its multiplayer and user interface. I’ve played a few Escape Academy with my partner and was happy with how seamless it was. You can jump from multiplayer to solo play without starting a new save file, and you can share items with each other in case your partner is faster in napkin counting than you. The game’s UI is also pretty neat as you can pin the items you pick up to your screen for easy reference. If there’s a code digit you’ve found, instead of writing it down to watch when you solve the puzzle, you can just paste it on the screen. You can’t change where you pin it on the screen, so it can get in the way at times, but it’s a handy feature.

There’s a story to Escape Academy, but it is fairly pedestrianized. It involves a long-lost puzzle professor (who, along with the school principal, incredible hot in a way of “we saw you on the other side of the bar and dig your vibe”) and a schoolwide conspiracy that turns into a Portal-ish kind of conclusion that I won’t elaborate for fear of spoilers. You can talk to your professors, but your interactions are a bit superficial. The character design is colorful and interesting, and the professors themselves are really cool, so I would have liked to interact with them more than just talking to them in front of a box of dialogues.

Image of two characters from Escape Academy.  To the left is an elderly African American woman with curly purple hair and to the right is an elderly white man with a full beard and black eye patch.
Bisexual panic arises
Image: Coin Crew Games

My biggest criticism of Escape Academy is that it’s just too short. I was able to finish the game in about eight hours, and I felt like I could have gone on for another eight hours. I even sat through the credits hoping I’d unlocked a secret puzzle horde mode where I could go wild for a few more rounds. But alas, apart from an too easy ‘thanks for playing’ figure, there was nothing left to solve. Thankfully, my cravings for more will be satisfied as developer Coin Crew Games’ team has announced that DLC will be out this fall.

More than just scratching the endless itch in my brain to “solve for x” in ever more elaborate ways, Escape Academy makes me feel good about video games in general.

Before the game’s release and during Summer Game Fest, I had the chance to talk to the developers and hear their story. They started out making arcade games for Dave & Busters and also designed IRL escape room games. When the pandemic put the kibosh on that, they turned to recreate that experience digitally. There’s something deeply emotional about enjoying a game, and then listening to the people who made that game, talking about all the little joyful things it took to make something you love.

There’s a rat, donut, and vending machine puzzle that was elegant in construction, challenging in its solution, and just so damn fun, and I have to personally thank the developer who designed it. Seeing their faces light up as I acknowledged one of the little things that made their game special reminded me why I love video games so much. It’s like a positive feedback loop of love. They put their love into making the game – I play it, enjoy it, and send that love back.

Escape Academy is short, and it’s a tap too easy. But I think the presentation and attempt to tell a story is something special that other similar puzzle games haven’t yet tapped into. And for a paltry $20, it’s definitely a great way to spend a summer afternoon.

Escape Academy is now available on Xbox, GamePass, PlayStation, and PC.

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