Mad Experiments: Escape Room [Review]

First-Person Cluer

Developer & Publisher: PlayTogether Studio

Date Played: Early June 2020

Platform: PC, Mac, Steam

Duration: about an hour

Price: $9.99 on Steam

Group Size: 1-6 players

REA Reaction

Mad Experiments: Escape Room was a beautifully designed room that had excellent multiplayer integration. As someone who has been missing real-life escaping, this first-person video game experience was a convincing stand-in.

The puzzles, however, could have used an injection of creativity. Too many of them relied on tired escape room tropes for finding keypad passcodes.

Because Mad Experiments had such a robust multiplayer offering, I would have liked to see it take more opportunities to use cooperation between teammates.

PlayTogether Studios delivered on presentation and provided solid gameplay, but left me wanting more from the puzzles. Regardless, I’d recommend checking out Mad Experiments because they have just released a second room, making the $10 price point a better value.

Who is this for?

  • Video gamers who want to try escape rooms.
  • Room escape fans who miss the social aspect of doing a physical room with friends.

Why play?

  • Beautiful design
  • Multiplayer integration

Story

Professor Cheshire and his assistant Hildeguard had invited me to their mansion to participate in an experiment of some kind. Or perhaps I was the experiment? The story was conveyed solely through Cheshire’s disembodied voice chiming in each time I finished a puzzle.

Continue reading “Mad Experiments: Escape Room [Review]”

Statik [Review]

Quarantine Your Hands

Developer & Publisher: Tarsier Studios

Dates Played: Nov-Dec 2019

Platform: Playstation VR

Duration: about five hours

Price: $14.99 on Playstation Store

REA Reaction

From the comfort of my living room, my hands have deftly escaped a series of excellently designed escape rooms… or rather, escape boxes that my hands were trapped inside, while a blurry-faced man analyzed my progress…

Through the ingenious use of Playstation’s Dualshock controller, Statik expertly captured the spirit of real-life escape rooms in a seated VR game. 

While I’d seen some of its elements before in real-life escape rooms, the box-on-my-hands mechanic made them feel fresh. Statik mixed in whimsical elements, an immersive environment, and unique puzzles that would only work in the virtual space. 

Everything about the puzzles felt tactile. For a virtual medium set in a realistic environment, this is essential. Proper sound design and accurate movement of the boxes’ mechanics worked together to complete the illusion.

I recommend this to anyone looking to slip into the PSVR puzzle world and escape their quarantine reality.

Who is this for?

Why play?

  • Solid, well-clued puzzles
  • A wholly unique concept
The first room of the game. The player examines the puzzle box around their hands as Dr. Ingen looks through a window.
The first room I woke up in. Dr. Ingen studied me from afar.

Story

In Statik, I played as an unnamed test subject of the Statik Institute of Retention. Every day I woke up with a new puzzle box strapped to my hands. My only guide was Dr. Ingen, who often sat in on my sessions, but he wasn’t there to give me hints. His official role was just to observe, make notes, and whistle tunelessly every so often. As his unofficial job, he saw fit to mock me.

In truth, my goal was not to free my hands. Just as each box had been solved and the feeling of satisfaction had washed over me, I looked down to see my permanent IV line inject me with a sleeping agent and the test was over.

Another puzzle room, darker, with four indistinct monitors in the distance. The IV line is seen on the left arm.
What does all this stuff do? Step one: push every button.

Setup

Statik cycled me through three different types of rooms: the main puzzle rooms where I solved the box locked to my wrists, an underwater room where I progressively assembled a puzzle cube each time I returned, and the psychological testing room where Dr. Ingen recorded my responses to various visual and auditory stimuli. 

This last kind of room simply displayed an image on a screen and asked me to respond “happy” or “sad.” A lie detector of sorts was bolted to my hands for this room and occasionally the needles flew all over the place. I later learned that these answers had no bearing on the game and this room was simply a fun moment of distraction.

The overall vibe of Statik borrowed from games like Portal and Bioshock. Think 1980s technology with the forced-smile aesthetic of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

Yet another puzzle box, this time with a rotary dial on it. A computer monitor is on the table in front of me and Dr. Ingen sits in a chair, his face blurred out in my vision.
Phoning a friend did nothing. Dr. Ingen soon became bored of me.

Gameplay

Core gameplay centered around experimenting, observing, and making connections.

The puzzles were mostly linear with easy to moderate difficulty. Non-gamers can approach Statik without apprehension; there was only one room where I had to input commands quickly in order to be successful.

Analysis

➕ Given the limitations of PSVR, where movement was mostly limited to turning and leaning. Statik did an excellent job making the world feel large and giving me a lot to do.

➕ The VR interactions felt tactile. Boxes contained audio cassettes, robot arms, and laser beams. Switches and knobs were the most common components. Every element worked just as I expected it would have in real life.

➕ The character of Dr. Ingen was well written and professionally voiced. Like Portal’s GlaDOS before him, he was a master of subtle, funny digs at my intelligence, and they came infrequently enough that they didn’t get annoying.

➖There’s no hint system. It seemed like a missed opportunity to use Dr. Ingen as a hint device, marveling at my lack of aptitude and giving me some attitude along with three levels of hints.

➕ There was a non-standard use of blacklight! I had to leave myself a reminder note to mention it here.

➖ In between the box-on-hands levels, there were some underwater rooms (my “stasis chamber”?) where I was asked to manipulate holograms of shapes to make a cube. It was progressive — with each visit, I completed more of the cube. It simply wasn’t very fun compared to the clever boxes. While I came to learn there was a narrative reason for this series of puzzles, the break in the flow was unwelcome and felt like filler to me.

➕ There’s no way I could fail, and no way I could die. As strange as it sounds for someone who was imprisoned and tested upon by an unknown entity, it was actually pretty relaxing just to work through the puzzle knowing I wasn’t about to be killed by a deathtrap if I didn’t do it in time.

➖ Occasionally the PSVR system got confused about the position of my hands and placed them in a wrist-breaking upside-down orientation or extended my arms way out to the edge of the room. Tarsier Studios was apparently aware of this bug, because they suggested in-game that I shake the controller at the Playstation Eye camera if this happens.

My arms stretch impossibly out in front of me, demonstrating the bug mentioned just above.
Whoa! Stretchy arms! What did they give me…?

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: Best played seated, because your character is. You should be able to turn a bit and look around.
  • Required Gear: PSVR unit, PS4
  • Don’t forget that you can press in on the DualShock thumbsticks.
  • Feel free to look behind you, but there’s no reason to turn your body physically all the way around. The hand-orientation bug seems to happen when your body blocks the PSVR controller.
  • There’s no hint system but there are walkthroughs on YouTube if you’re seriously stuck. My favorite was by “Polish Paul VR”, who is hilariously self-deprecating.
  • There is a difficult meta puzzle throughout that leads to a secret ending.
    Spoiler: Meta Puzzle Hint

    Keep your eye out for clues that seem to belong to levels you’ve already completed.

    [collapse]

Buy your copy of Tarsier Studio’s Statik, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Buy Statik

Escape the Room 2 Alexa Skill [Review]

Escaping the Echo

Location: At home, on your Alexa-enabled device

Date Played: January-February 2020

Team size: as many people as you can fit around your Alexa speaker, but 1-4 is best

Duration: 30-60 minutes

Price: $5, $4 for Amazon Prime Members

REA Reaction

Escape the Room 2 is an Alexa-based audio escape room skill (what Amazon calls Apps) we played on our Echo device. The skill contains three escape rooms: The Hospital (free), The Zoo (free), and The Spaceship ($5). This review is specifically for The Spaceship.

We attempted to escape our disabled spaceship by using the simple verbal commands “look”, “inspect”, and “use” combined with an object in our inventory or environment. 

As an at-home alternative to physical escape rooms, The Spaceship succeeded in recreating the experience of exploring, discovering clues, entering codes, and progressing through an escape room scenario. However, it committed some cardinal escape room sins by requiring outside knowledge and taking leaps in logic.

In addition, the audio medium provided a layer of frustration. We had to word things in a particular way, and reassure Alexa that we were still thinking in between commands.

While this was ostensibly a sequel to Escape the Room, not much has improved. We came out of the experience simply wishing we’d had more fun.

Second generation Amazon Echo device.
Amazon Echo

Who is this for?

  • “Zork” and adventure game fans
  • New Alexa device owners looking to try all its abilities

Why play?

  • An escape room you can do in your bathtub
  • No time pressure
  • Good value

Story

Our spacecraft’s captain had been attempting to weave through a debris field, but he had made a terrible miscalculation. After an explosion, we had woken up injured and alone on the ship. Our only hope of making it back to HQ alive was to get the ship’s power back on and install new engine parts.

Escape the Room 2 logo.

Setting

The Spaceship was small, consisting of two distinct spaces to explore. We kept imagining the bone-shaped Satellite of Love from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Gameplay

This was an audio experience played through Alexa. The game required us to imagine our space and figure out what items would help move us forward.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ The story elements of The Spaceship that used voice actors and sound effects were well produced.

➕/➖ The puzzling felt like it was from an early escape room. We collected lots of items and tried them everywhere until they worked. We recorded all the letters and numbers we heard, then mixed, matched, and did a little math with them until they were accepted by the room’s locks.

➖ Several solutions required outside knowledge. We had to keep a second Googling machine close by.

➖ In order to give ourselves time to work the clues, we had to tell Alexa “give me more time.” Every 60 seconds she asked again if we needed more time to think. This quickly became annoying and made us feel dumb. Unfortunately, this is just part of the deal when doing an Alexa escape room.

➕ The Spaceship remembered where we were in the game if we quit and came back to it. This was a good way to avoid the 60 second check-ins to see if we were still thinking. We quit the game, worked out some possible solutions, booted it up again and tried them.

➕ Trying multiple codes on the same lock was streamlined so that it went quickly. Upon getting an “incorrect” message, I simply had to say, for example, “enter 4321” rather than “use keypad” again.

➖ The hint system gave the same vague hint over and over. At any given point in the game, we couldn’t get any more direction than that one hint provided. It would have been helpful if the hint system had started by giving a vague hint, then if asked a more specific one, and finally something close to the answer.

➖ While the two free episodes were shorter, they weren’t easier. This is mainly due to the fact that they were buggier and required larger leaps of logic than The Spaceship.

➖ We couldn’t restart the game. After stepping away from it for a few days, it would be helpful to be able to start the game again from the beginning to take a fresh run at the mission.

➖ The game unexpectedly quit several times, ripping us out of the experience.

Tips For Playing

  • Take copious notes on a piece of scratch paper, especially of codes you’ve tried.
  • Remember that if you reinspect something, you can always interrupt the game by saying “Alexa” and your next command. This will save you from listening to the descriptions multiple times.

Enable the Escape the Room 2 skill and tell them that Room Escape Artist sent you.

BUY The Spaceship

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The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Scott Weiss’s Virtual Escape Rooms – Communing With Nature [Review]

Imagine Bearded Dragons

Location: At home

Date Played: September 17, 2019

Team size: best with 2 (including an adult), but up to 2 additional kids may be added

Duration: 45-90 minutes

Price: $15 per group with option to donate the fee to suggested charities

Ticketing: By appointment

REA Reaction

Communing With Nature was an enjoyable hour full of audio gameplay that included entertaining mental images and solid puzzles.

Inspired by Escape This Podcast, Scott Weiss has created two virtual escape rooms that are played over Skype or Google Hangouts and geared toward families.

While Communing with Nature required a lot of initial note-taking, as we learned about the setting, it soon got rolling with well-crafted puzzles and fun moments.

Check it out if you’re looking for a convenient at-home puzzle fix that’s great for the whole family. Added bonus: no risk of random people joining. Scott is a seasoned puzzle creator with a patient disposition. You’ll be in good hands.

Who is this for?

Why play?

  • An escape room from the comfort of your home
  • No ticking clock
  • Good value

Story

It was our first day volunteering at the Waterstone Park Nature Center. Our stern supervisor was Ms. Turner. Our task was to feed Matilda, the albino tree python.

Setting

Scott painted a vivid picture of the nature center though his description of the many animals found there. The design of the center was clearly well thought out and clued in such a way that we could see in our minds how pieces of the overall puzzle went together.

A screenshot of a Google Doc puzzle: "Count the Animals!". It involves illustrations of animals. The image of a single bear has been selected.
One of the visual aids for a puzzle.

Gameplay

Communing With Nature was a virtual escape room geared towards families, with a moderate level of difficulty. The puzzles will likely require one adult to assist.

This was a primarily audio experience. After we said hello to Scott and heard the rules of the road, Scott turned off the video feed on his end.

He started with a setup of the story, including dialogue from the nature center supervisor. We also received a simple diagram of the room via Google Docs. With the basic layout in front of us, we navigated the room and interacted with objects by verbally stating our intent. Scott responded with the result of our actions, D&D style. When we encountered puzzles through our exploration, we received them via Google Docs. Scott monitored the progress of our puzzle-solving conversation and interjected as needed.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ There were word, math, logic, and lateral-thinking puzzles. The variety ticked every part of our brains.

➕ Scott offered hints at appropriate moments and walked us through puzzle sticking points with the patience of my favorite elementary school teacher.

➖ Most of the puzzles had an associated Google Doc that contained the information we needed. Their appearance was basic. With a little dressing up, they would help with the immersion of the virtual world.

➖ We spent a lot of the early-game walking from cage to cage in the room and hearing about the contents of each (as well as the books on the bookcase.) There were a lot of details we needed to keep track of and we spent substantial time writing. We would have welcomed a written description of each cage for reference after we’d heard about it.

➕ Scott rolled with the punches. Like any good 1980’s computer adventure, when we tried to do something unexpected, he improvised a funny response to get us back on track: “As you attempt to open Ms. Turner’s desk drawers, she crosses her arms and fixes you with an icy stare. You decide to stop doing that.”

➖ Because a virtual escape room doesn’t require an actual set, we’d love to see an even more ambitious story and surprises.

➕ The nature center was an ideal setting for kids, most of whom love animals to begin with.

Tips For Visiting

  • Have multiple sheets of scratch paper on hand.
  • Scott’s website lists times and dates that he’s available. Choose one and fill out the form at the bottom of the page to book your appointment.

Book your hour with Scott Weiss’s Communing With Nature, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

PAX West 2019 Roundup

In recent years, the indie video game world has been an incubator for some of the most innovative puzzle games. There’s a VR game that’s Tetris plus archery (Smush.tv). A Plinko game with D&D elements (Roundguard). Even a cooperative platformer about two dogs connected by a gelatinous midsection (PHOGS!). All were on display this year at the PAX West expo.

PAX West logo

Since its inception in 2004, PAX West has been a fan-focused gaming expo catering to gamers of every stripe. Every Labor Day weekend, the show takes over Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center as well as large sections of many nearby hotel ballrooms.

Triple-A companies dominated most of the space with their new installments of Borderlands or Monster Hunter, but PAX always devotes ample sections of floorspace to independent games and this year was no exception.

I met David and Lisa in 2016 when they were at PAX hosting a panel about escape rooms. Respect for puzzle gamers at PAX runs deep. At this year’s expo, I went on a hunt for the best upcoming puzzle and adventure games that will pique the interest of escape room fans.

Satanic Functions

The first standout I found was The Devil’s Calculator by Cinq-Mars Media. This mobile game is likely to divide gamers into two camps at first blush: those who used their high school TI-85 calculator to craft functions that drew beautiful graphs, and those who used it to hide notes on the Pythagorean theorem.

The devil had possessed my calculator, swapping out the plus, minus, multiply, and divide functions with nefarious replacements. Sometimes keys were on fire – too hot to press. The only way to clear each level was to figure out how to make the display read “666”.

Christopher Jarvis, the game’s creator, described it as “a game of interpolation where you’re trying to solve for unknown operators.”

“I never took math past high school and I made all 70 base game levels,” Jarvis said. “95 percent of it is puzzle solving and lateral thinking.” This was good news to me as I definitely fell on the “hiding notes” side of TI-85 users.

The Devil’s Calculator is a non-profit game that is free for the first 20 levels, and totally free for educators and students. It’s out now on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Steam.

Maintaining Momentum

Another indie selection that impressed me was Deleveled from Toaster Fuel. Described to me by programmer Kyle Donnelly as “a physics-based puzzle-platformer with no jump button,” this was a game that was more easily understood when played. In fact, it’s best to watch this video right now:

I simultaneously controlled two squares on either side of a platforming level made of simple lines, attempting to move all the level’s switches to “on.” Sure enough, there was no jump button so I had to fall and cause my counterpart square to bounce, then conserve that momentum to navigate obstacles in search of my goal.

It was like a combination of Super Meat Boy and a Newton’s cradle.

I was drawn in by Deleveled’s minimalistic design and intrigued by the mind-bending levels. Level Designer Patrick Nance promises smooth ramping to train new players and unexpected twists to hold their interest to the end. As a word nerd, I couldn’t help being delighted by the way their palindromic title echoed the concept of the game.

Deleveled is planned for Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4 by the end of 2019.

Both Deleveled and The Devil’s Calculator were selected for the PAX10, an honor bestowed upon 10 games each year by a PAX-selected committee of 50 industry experts.

Zootopia Noir

The most visually striking game in the indie sections of PAX was Backbone by Egg Nut. I played raccoon private investigator Howard Lotor in a 2-D anthropomorphic-noir world. It was set in dystopian Vancouver, B.C., and the city was Blade Runner-beautiful. In the street scene featured in the demo, neon signs reflected off puddles in the street and steam rising out of the sewer was illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. This was all the more impressive because the game was pixel art in the vein of The Secret of Monkey Island.

Unlike that classic adventure game, the focus of Backbone was less on fetch-quests and more on navigating branching dialogue trees to solve a mystery. The demo started with me trying to bribe, persuade, and threaten my way into a jazz club. There were bears, foxes, and dogs inside that I needed to question. Once there, I made a sickening discovery and by the end of the demo my character was doubled over in an alley losing his lunch. Despite the anthropomorphism, this was decidedly adult subject matter.

While Backbone was chiefly an adventure game, Eggnut co-founder and writer Alex Korabelnikova assured me that team wasn’t neglecting the puzzle elements. The puzzle in the demo occurred in close-up view, where I rearranged pieces of paper with cut-out elements to get a door code.

“There is also going to be a mechanic of Smell-O-Vision, where you can track and trace smells to figure out the clues,” Korabelnikova said. “The dialogue itself is a puzzle, because you need to figure out the approach you need to take with each character, and you need to understand what different species signify inside the world and the stereotypes that surround them.”

This is an ambitious effort but it’s off to an excellent start. Definitely one to watch.

Backbone is slated for release on nearly all platforms in early 2021. The free demo is out now for PC for Steam.

Origami Meet-Cute

I didn’t expect to get “the feels” exploring PAX West’s Indie Megabooth, but there was one game that got me. A Fold Apart from Lightning Rod Games explored a couple in a long distance relationship struggling with the space between them. I played by flipping, folding, unfolding, and rotating the paper that made up their environment. It was a puzzle game with a strong emphasis on narrative.

Steven Smith, co-founder of Lightning Rod games, said, “We deal with communication and miscommunication. So there will be texting back and forth, and someone will say something that brings up a sensitive subject. That will send the other person into an emotional world where they work through their feelings about it and solve puzzles.” Disagreements created emotional barriers that my character had to literally fold their way around to overcome.

As someone who is currently in a long distance relationship, I was definitely moved by the narrative. A nice text message (or the absence of a message) can turn your whole world upside down. The Pixaresque animation and gorgeous score further tweaked my thrumming heartstrings.

I was able to play any combination of two-person relationship between a man, a woman, and a non-binary character.

A Fold Apart will be available on Apple Arcade, Switch, and PC this Fall. Xbox, PS4, Mac, and Android soon after. It was recently featured in an Apple Arcade promo, so it must have Tim Apple’s seal of approval!

Cool REM House

Superliminal by Pillow Castle drew influence from such mind-bending puzzlers as Portal, The Stanley Parable, and The Witness. It was a first-person experience set in a sleep institute. My character had come in for a new dream therapy meant to provide more restful sleep. However, when I woke up, there was no one there. Was I still dreaming?

In this world, perception became reality. When I lined up disjointed pieces of a painted cube, it became three-dimensional. Small objects became large when I dropped them from above me. Items refracted through distorted glass took on new properties. I was able to navigate the facility through the transformation of these items, blowing my own mind a couple times in the process.

Art Director Steve Allen described the look of Superliminal as “interesting mundanity.” Allen said, “At first it’s not too overarchingly surreal, but it just has that sort of glimmer of too much symmetry, too much color, and that clues the player that something interesting is going on in that area.” While the demo only covered the rather tame opening area of the game, the trailer hinted that it takes a dark turn as you uncover more about the seemingly mundane building.

As the most room escape-adjacent game I found at PAX West this year, this will be one that puzzle fans will want to keep an eye out for.

Superliminal will be coming out by the end of 2019. It will be an exclusive on the Epic Games Store for PC, then a year later on Steam.