Before I begin this review, I have a confession to make: I’ve never been to an escape room in real life. I’m a big fan of puzzles and riddles. It should be right up my alley. And I have always meant to go. I even tried to organise a group escape for my birthday one year, but my friends booed the idea off the stage, and I don’t possess the level of self-confidence required to go alone. So of course, Escape Academy, a game focused entirely on escape rooms and designed by real life escape room experts, appeals to my fantasy.
But there’s more on offer than just a string of escape room puzzles. There’s an unexpectedly eventful storyline – who doesn’t love a good plot twist? – full of eccentric characters, all wrapped up in a charming academic setting.
You start your adventure in a rather dingy escape room in the real world before your potential is spotted by The Headmaster – whose name I will not disclose as its discovery is at the core of one of the escape rooms – and you are whisked away to the prestigious Escape Academy; think Hogwarts if it was founded by Houdini.
As you explore Escape Academy, you attend lessons – escape rooms – in various unlockable locations. Between escapes, you get to know the eclectic cast of faculty, and if you’re feeling particularly talkative, you can revisit locations to seek out extra snippets of story and conversation.
The characters are archetypal but manage to avoid feeling stereotypical. Rather, the feeling of distant familiarity lends itself to the academic theme. The explosives expert turned botany teacher is a little quirky; it’s to be expected.
The story elements, driven by character dialogue, bring a sense of purpose to your journey as a student and entice you to progress through the school year. Who will be running the next trial? Will you beat your rival student Gillian to the title of Escape Room Master? Why is that new teacher acting so fishy? There are subtle hints that not everything is as it first appears, and these suspicions are confirmed by the plot twists later on.
The tasks required to escape the rooms are themed around their location, such as the greenhouse or the cafeteria. This is a pleasant diversion – if you’re into academia vibes, you’ll certainly find them here – and it serves its purpose in directing the puzzle solving.
The familiar settings make for logical solutions. It’s common sense to assume that you need to find the shovel to dig up that hidden object in the flower bed or the hot pan to melt that key frozen in an ice cube. A comfortable yet satisfying level of difficulty is established by these common-sense challenges mixed with more detailed, multistage puzzles.
You can see the difficulty level – represented by a number of keys out of five – and the time limit before you commence an escape, so you know exactly what you’re committing to. The difficulty gradually builds up from one key in the dingy escape room to five by the finale, and that felt like a smooth learning curve for me.
I never encountered a puzzle that was so difficult that I wanted to give up. If anything, there were occasions where I thought a solution was too obvious and so didn’t try it straight away, but then it did turn out to be the correct answer. It pays not to second guess your instincts.
There are lots of small ‘aha’ moments peppered around the greater challenges, which keep you feeling rewarded by the progress you’re making. This maintains the forward momentum (if the countdown timer at the top of the screen wasn’t enough to do that already), spurring you on to victory.
The time limit is an integral part of what makes Escape Academy so stimulating. It forces you to think quickly and clearly: there’s no time for dilly-dallying when, at times, you could pay with your life if you don’t escape the room. There was an instance where I escaped with only fifteen seconds left on the clock and I could actually feel my heart racing in my chest: the thrill of the chase.
Some escapes have a short time limit at the start which will be raised incrementally as you hit checkpoints. This offers a welcome shakeup to the puzzling formula, forcing you to narrow your focus down to one objective at a time; just the next few minutes of your in-game life. I found myself getting completely sucked into the experience because of this, unable to think of anything else until I saw the ‘you’ve escaped’ screen.
The phrase ‘fear will slow your mind’ appears in one of these gauntlet-style escape rooms and it’s painfully accurate. If you start to panic, eyes involuntarily drawn to your remaining time limit over and over again, your ability to solve puzzles will falter. You need to keep a level head. I felt myself getting better at this as I earned more badges and by the endgame, my approach was much calmer and calculated despite the hectic challenges being thrown at me.
Hints are easily accessed if you need them but they do affect your final score. The scoring comes in the form of an assignment grading paper – this is an educational institution after all – where you receive a letter grade based on your time and how many hints you used. There’s also a breakdown that shows each step of the solution and how long it took you to work it out, which is satisfying to flick through as you bask in your victory.
The only real glitch I observed was that some puzzles that required directional inputs, such as a D-pad or a rotating combination lock, didn’t always register that the answer was correct. I inputted the same up, down, left, right sequence a dozen times in one room before restarting the level, only for it to be accepted on the first go once everything was reset.
Escape Academy is more than just an escape room simulator. It’s a narrative-based puzzle adventure bursting with personality. There’s a fine balance of characterisation, story exposition and puzzle solving that creates a uniquely enthralling experience. It’s a delightful way to pass a few hours that left me hungry for more.
Four stars: ★★★★
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, PC
Developer: Coin Crew Games
Publisher: iam8bit, Inc. Skybound Games
Release Date: 14 July 2022
The PC version of Escape Academy was played through Xbox Game Pass for the purposes of this review.