I love escape rooms, so the idea of a video game designed by escape room creators is right up my alley. To its credit, Escape Academy does a damn good job of capturing the feeling of completing an escape room, with the added spice of dangerous consequences that a fictional story set in a virtual space allows. Escape Academy is, however, oftentimes too accurate to the experience of an escape room for its own good. Still, there's a delightful puzzle game here that makes for a rewarding afternoon with a friend nonetheless.
Escape Academy sees you step into the shoes of the newest student to attend a school that trains would-be spies, hackers, and thieves. To prove you're the best in your class you must earn 10 badges throughout the year, which are awarded for proving your worth in a series of planned tests, pop quizzes, unforeseen traps, and faculty assignments--all of which are constructed as escape rooms.
These escape rooms are structured much like real-world ones, requiring you to observe the 3D space you're trapped in from a first-person perspective while using point-and-click adventure game mechanics to find patterns, clues, and objects that could aid you in escape. Sometimes that means figuring out how the number of objects in a room can clue you into the necessary digits for opening a combination lock, other times that means noticing that empty cans of glow-in-the-dark paint suggest there may be a painted message somewhere that can only be seen by turning off the lights.
The escape rooms evolve at a challenging pace, incorporating greater complexity to the puzzles throughout the semester, and they are rewarding to solve. Every room utilizes a healthy assortment of puzzles geared toward both logical problem-solving and creative intuition. One of my favorite rooms in the game requires you to parse some clever wordplay throughout but concludes with a doozy of a numerical pattern recognition puzzle that my brain just could not figure out.
The only reason I was able to escape is that I played through most of Escape Academy with a partner--GameSpot video producer Dave Klein. Dave's history with escape rooms complemented my own, as his mathematical intelligence and my ability to think creatively worked in tandem to solve a variety of problems. Escape Academy supports up to two players in co-op. Regardless of whether you're playing couch or online co-op, the game is always displayed as splitscreen, allowing you to easily see whatever you're partner is pointing out or holding.
In co-op, Escape Academy better captures the sensation of what it's like to do an escape room, where the presented multifaceted problems encourage a group of people of different strengths to work together. In doing so, Escape Academy creates one of the more enjoyable cooperative experiences I've played this year.
You can play Escape Academy solo, but it's just far more fun with a partner. When playing with a friend, you can pass items back and forth and solve different parts of the same puzzle independent of one another. Most importantly, you can more easily figure out problems that require you to use the information on one side of the room to solve a puzzle on the other. Granted, such a task is doable on your own if you keep a notebook handy, but working with a partner makes the process far simpler. Plus, it's fun to bounce ideas off a friend, working together to figure out what the next step of a puzzle is when everyone is stumped but you're too stubborn to click the hint button.
I didn't dislike my time playing Escape Academy solo, but it's just so much better with a partner, making that feel like the ideal way to play, especially with how Escape Academy is structured. You often need to look at multiple hints and clues at once, and so the game has a helpful pinning feature that allows you to hold a clue on the screen while interacting with the environment at the same time. However, I regularly found that pinned clues could still get in my way, and it was frustrating to have to unpin the clue, look at the room, and realize I needed to do something different, so I had to stop and look at the clue again. It was far less taxing to just hold out the clue on my half of the splitscreen while Dave interacted with the environment.
In Escape Academy, as in the real world, the structure of escape rooms is entirely geared towards encouraging groups to collaborate on problems. The game even praises you based on your ability to figure stuff out quickly, which is far easier to do when you're working alongside someone else. There is a hint system if you get stuck, but using it lowers the possible score you can earn at the end of a level. It ultimately serves the same purpose as asking for hints in real escape rooms--a tool intended to be a welcome lifeline but which actually feels like patronizing help. Realizing you don't have the answer to something and turning to a friend for help in figuring out a solution is rewarding; receiving a hint from someone outside the room who already knows the answer can oftentimes feel deflating.
As the rooms themselves don't change, Escape Academy doesn't offer much in terms of replayability. Once you know how to get through a room, there's little incentive to do so again. Sure, you can work to solve the room faster and with fewer hints to earn a better grade, but escape rooms don't lend themselves very well to speedrunning. The main draw of the experience is the sense of satisfaction in finally grasping that eureka moment, figuring out each of the necessary steps for escape, and executing them. Doing it again doesn't deliver the same thrill.
As they're tied to your quest to earn 10 badges, the escape rooms are part of the larger narrative of your time at school, but the story isn't all that compelling. Though the cast of characters are wonderfully diverse, ranging from a playful headmaster to an untrusting artificial intelligence who operates as your computer teacher, they all fit tired archetypes found in lots of high school fantasy media. The cast is mostly there to provide narrative reasons for why your character is completing escape rooms, but it's largely unnecessary flavor. I don't need a reason to care about the next escape room--by their very nature, escape rooms are fulfilling to finish, and the rewarding sense of achievement for finishing one of Escape Academy's levels is all the motivation needed to keep going and do another. If anything, after an hour, the narrative elements were just slowing me down from getting back to the best part of Escape Academy: the escape rooms.
All said, there's a lot of fun to be had in Escape Academy, especially if you have a friend willing to tackle its challenges with you. Much like real-world escape rooms, the levels of Escape Academy don't lend themselves very well to solo play or replayability, but, in the same vein, those inspirations have created a challenging puzzle game that's fulfilling to complete. The narrative isn't much to write home about, but the virtual escape rooms more than makeup for that, delivering a game that encapsulates why escape rooms are some of the most fun you can have with friends.