R.L. Stine showed the world that stories of horror can be distilled and refined into a form suitable for the minds of kids (and adults) who could not stomach imagery that is abjectly hideous. This is no small feat, and thus R.L.'s Goosebumps line of books had its own popular following.
With such a popular following, there would be attempts to exploit the attractiveness of the franchise for some more revenue by parties who see the opportunity in doing so. DreamWorks Interactive is one such party, and Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland is its attempt.
This game is postured as a sequel of sorts to Goosebumps: One Day at Horrorland, which was a tale about kids (and some of their adult acquaintances) being lure into the purported "scariest place on Earth" (to quote the blurbs for the books) by not-human beings for nefarious reasons.
The premise of this game has just about the same plot occurring again: another bunch of kids and their adult companions had been lured into Horrorland with false promises of the 'greatest' time of their lives. Then, they have to strive to escape from this place alive.
The core design of the game puts it more in the genre of adventure games, though during its time, there was a separate sub-category of sorts known as "interactive movie".
Indeed, there are many cutscenes in the game where the player is prompted to make a quick decision (which more than resembles the Quick-Time Event gameplay design of today). These are however not the zenith of this game; there will be more elaboration on this later.
The main protagonists are a pair of kids, guided by the player through screens in an almost Myst-like design, except that the camera will always look at only one direction, and what is shown is usually enough to solve the puzzle at hand. There is an inventory system, but thankfully the game usually has whatever item that is important to the puzzle in concern quite close by.
However, a lot of the items are of bizarre and often creepy nature, and which do not appear to be logically relevant to the puzzle at hand. The writing merely uses 'reasons' concerning loopy magic as excuses for the designs of many puzzle solutions, which is a bit disappointing to this reviewer. Fortunately, the clues and hints for the solutions are usually presented in a way that would be quite in line with R.L. Stine's brand of literature (though that does not mean the rest of the game does).
Being a kid-friendly game, a game-over is impossible to achieve in Escape From Horrorland, due to the inclusion of game designs involving Horrorland tokens. While there are plenty of dangerous puzzles in the game with supposedly deadly consequences in the event of failure to complete them, the game simply deducts one token from the pool of tokens that the player has – and then nonchalantly resets the puzzle, which will then replay the protagonists' voice-overs and animations that the puzzle has. Considering the otherworldly nature of puzzles and their solutions, this can lead to failure just about every first time the player encounters a new puzzle.
Moreover, the counter of tokens will never reach below one; the last token will never be lost. Therefore, solving puzzles is a task of trial-and-error most of the time. That is not to say that this can be a chore, as the act of trial-and-error can be fun because even failure results in animations or short cutscenes that can be amusing (the first few times around). Yet, having the only major consequence being a downward bump in the token counter makes failure underwhelming.
It is also worth noting here that the tokens appear to have no place in the story. Their presence does not seem to be acknowledged by the protagonists, and their collection from stashes hidden at the ends of paths off the main course is entirely optional to pursue. Other than being used as "extra lives" (as inconsequential as losing the tokens are), their only other use is to feed a hint-giving and leering giant face of stone, which will spout, at the price of one token each, a hint that may be relevant to the current puzzle.
Yet, this stone face is situated at one location in Horrorland, and the player has to backtrack all the way to visit it in order to feed it tokens. Furthermore, the stone may just give a generic ominous statement from a short list of stock, doom-laden replies.
Completion of the game also does not award the player any recognition of the number of tokens that had been collected and spent; there is no scoreboard of any sort whatsoever, despite the apparent opportunity to have one in the game.
Perhaps the most irritating parts of the game are those that placed it under the category of "interactive movie". There are many cutscenes in the game showing the protagonists going through a thrill-laden section of the story, such as a dangerous roller coaster ride. In these sequences, the player is to perform Quick-Time Events (as mentioned earlier). However, the window of timing can be stubbornly narrow and randomly indeterminate, despite the presence of visual indicators. The staccato frame rate of these cutscenes also causes problems during these sequences.
Fortunately, other cutscenes that do not involve such interactive sequences are less frustrating to experience, though they are still not stellar even when compared to the former.
Most of these cutscenes are created through a blend of live-action sequences and puppet-play superimposed on CG graphics. The blend is decent enough to prevent any immediate sense of disbelief on the part of the player, but the live-action is not as satisfactory.
The adult protagonists are mere secondary characters, though DreamWorks has managed to cast Jeff Goldblum (of Jurassic Park film fame) as a cameo. His cameo is however very, very short, and he is not showing the same enthusiasm that he does for actual feature-length films. This appears to suggest that he considers this stint of his career as inconsequential - which is what this game really is.
The rest of the cast, especially the children, try their best to look like the scared and terrified people that they would be if Horrorland is real, but most of the cutscenes have them looking bewildered. The same quality that is present in their facial expressions and bodily movements is also extended to their voice-acting. This is hardly a good homage to R.L. Stine's works.
The game also happens to be quite short. The first playthrough may last the average player only a few hours, while the next one, which will feel no different as the execution of the game remains the same, can be completed in just under an hour – even with the cutscenes watched fully.
In conclusion, despite being a decent game, Escape From Horrorland can be best considered as yet another cash-in attempt that does little justice to its source material.