🎶 This is the game that never ends… 🎶
Location: at home
Developer & Publisher: Pine Studio
Date Played: October & November 2021 (version 1.0.18718r)
Team size: varies; solo and co-op modes available
Duration: official levels: 4+ hours; user-created rooms and creating your own rooms: basically forever
Platform: PC, Mac & SteamOS + Linux on Steam
Price: $14.99 on Steam
Pine Studio’s Escape Simulator is not just a single escape room but an entire platform based around playing and creating custom escape games. My initial take on Escape Simulator was that it felt eerily similar in some ways to playing an in-person game. After putting many hours into playing this title, that still holds true.
There are three main ways that a player can engage with Escape Simulator. There are official escape rooms, a workshop for building custom rooms, and published user-generated rooms. Because each of these game modes is unique, I will address them separately. Whether you want to explore this game purely as a player, if you just want to build perplexing puzzles, or if you think you can try your hand at both this game has a lot to offer.
12/23/21 Update – This review was originally written in November 2021 and some notes have been added to reflect game updates since then.
Who is this for?
- Puzzle lovers
- Any experience level
- Anyone stuck at home
Escape Simulator doesn’t have one story. Actually, it doesn’t have any explicit stories. The 4 official escape rooms that come with the title are each tied together by a location-based theme only. You get 5 levels (individual rooms to solve) each of “Labyrinth of Egypt,” “Adrift in Space,” “Edgewood Mansion,” and 2 “Omega Corporation” levels (with more to come), and any actual story is up to the player to infer. Of the four, “Space” has the closest to a coherent story with a clear objective. The others give you an idea based on the setting, but no clear purpose.
At its most basic, playing Escape Simulator should feel familiar: players enter an area and begin to search for locks and clues. Items can be picked up and examined closely, then put into an inventory. Those items are used to solve puzzles and advance to the next challenge. It sounds and it is very similar to playing a room in real life.
The official levels are structured so that each fully-released level (Egypt, Space, and Mansion) have 5 rooms each. Each room is its own stage, playable independently and in any order – though the 5th room in each series does have more of a final stage feel.
A notable benefit of playing on a computer vs. playing in real life is that a computer can make just about anything happen, whereas our physical dimension is – sadly – less magical. In real life, it takes a lot of effort and technical wizardry to make something magical happen – or rather, appear to happen. Because this is a computer game, magical things actually happen. Follow the cluing to place the right object on the right spot and it will transform in front of your eyes! Teleport pads actually teleport you to another spot! Fire and sparks can shoot out from anything!
Unfortunately, there are some frustrating bits as well. The official maps can feel cluttered with extraneous interactable objects. Some objects are true red herrings; if you give me a shovel and the floor is dirt, I’m going to spend some time trying to find a spot to dig up. Other objects are just in the way and can prevent the player from seeing something important. At that point the game turns into a pixel hunt as you either a) carefully mouse over the pile of rubble to find something usable, or b) pick up a dozen shards of broken pottery and throw them in the convenient trash can. Thankfully, this particular issue seems to diminish in the later maps.
Just like real life, official maps can be played with friends! The gameplay doesn’t change with other players, but communication is more difficult in Escape Simulator than in a physical space. There is no in-game chat system, so players need to talk via a 3rd party method – a Discord call, for example.
The most difficult part of working with another player is inventory management and viewing objects at the same time. In real life, it’s simple enough to read a note over someone’s shoulder or examine a physical item together. Because each person’s inventory is their own, it can be difficult to remember what has been found and what is in play – the digital equivalent of sticking a key in your pocket and forgetting to tell your team. Clear, effective communication is paramount here.
The workshop is where players can create their own custom rooms. There is no story here, but this is the player’s opportunity to write their own.
The workshop gives players the opportunity to build custom games from the ground up. I have found this mode to be even more fun than actually solving through a room. The possibilities are not exactly endless but the bar of what you can create is constantly being raised. You are able to look under the hood of user-created games that you download and I am nothing short of impressed by the complexities I have seen creators put together.
There is a steep learning curve to the workshop. The in-game tutorials provide the foundations of what can be done, but they need to be supplemented with videos, player-created tutorial rooms/ written guides, and experience. What was surprising and disheartening was the huge difference between something being easy to implement and being stunningly difficult. For example, it’s a matter of only a few minutes’ work to make a door that opens when three buttons are pressed. But if you want the puzzle to only be solved when the buttons are pressed in a specific order (a standard escape room style puzzle), the behind the scenes architecture required to do that still confuses me after hours in the editor. And that is a relatively “simple” complex task. Players can look under the hood of user-created maps to see how they work, and I have been staggered by the ingenuity some creators have put forth into the world.
Not every resource from the officials levels is available to build with, but the vast majority are. Thankfully, with this still being a newly-released game the developers are actively working on improvements.
12/23/21 Update: Recent game patches have added two major features worth discussing. First is a custom sound importer; with this addition, designers can add sound cues to puzzles to indicate some event has occurred. Secondly, an object importer tool has been added. This allows the player to essentially copy items and mechanisms created in one custom room into another custom room. This is a big quality of life improvement, ensuring that designers are not starting from the ground up each time they implement a similar puzzle in a new room.
There is no co-op mode for the workshop.
Because these rooms are created by players, the depth of story they bring to the table is highly variable. The workshop does not allow for introductory cutscenes or even easy creation of text notes; any story comes from the designer’s ability to tell it environmentally and to provide some setup in the text description of the stage on the Steam Workshop page.
As I write this, there are
17 21 official stages live in Escape Simulator. By comparison, there will be nearly 800 1400 user-created stages by the time of this publication. To play them, you browse the list of published games (in-game or out of game on the Steam page directly) and subscribe to the ones you want. When you subscribe, the map installs and any updates that the creator makes are pushed to your machine as well.
Obviously, I have not had a chance to play all custom levels. I’ve tested a sort of random sample; as you might expect there are games that are great, bad, and everywhere in between. Some rooms make amazing use of the tech that is available and have created memorable rooms. There are horror rooms, trippy dreamscape rooms, standard ‘escape the weird room’ games, and games that were definitely not ready to be uploaded.
Co-op mode is also available for any community rooms. It works functionally the same as playing the official maps. However, it is possible to create a room that begins with a split team start. There are a few available maps that take advantage of this.
➕ Allows for extreme creativity.
➕ Active Discord server with presence from the developers and helpful players.
➕ A new game that is actively being updated.
➖ Some common escape room puzzles are unexpectedly and amazingly difficult to build.
➖ The in-game workshop tutorial feels incomplete and doesn’t address every component.
➕ & ➖ User created rooms are hit or miss.
❓/🔦 No implementation of a blacklight tool.
Tips For Players
- Required Gear: System requirements are listed on the Steam store page.
- Start with the official tutorial. It gives players a good introduction to the control scheme and the basic actions you’ll be taking during the game. Follow that up with the Egypt levels. They’re relatively straightforward and the familiar theme should be a comfort to players who have already adventured through countless hieroglyphic filled tombs in real life. Bonus: the sand in this game isn’t coarse, rough, or irritating!
- Explore the community created rooms. Sort the list by Most Popular or Most Subscribed, as these calibrate often based on how the community is rating rooms. Also, Pine Studio had a Build-a-Room contest that finished up in early November. They put together a list of the top 30 rooms from that competition.
- Once you’re familiar with playing the game, try your hand at creating something. Check out the in-game tutorial rooms. There are detailed explanations of many things in the Guides tab on Escape Simulator’s Steam page. Pine Studio’s YouTube channel has some tutorial videos as well.
Buy your copy of Pine Studio’s Escape Simulator, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.