REVIEW: Escape Academy bemuses and bewilders beautifully
No dropouts here — Escape Academy is everything we hoped (and even better with a co-op classmate).
Escape rooms are a thing that I surprisingly haven't gotten into. Despite loving the idea of walking into a physical video game-like experience, I think anxiety gets in the way. The idea of being watched over by some proctor who will poke and prod at you if you're taking too long or clearly bashing your head against some puzzle kills me inside. So I've never been.
Conceptually, escape rooms are just full of logic puzzles and experiences that I can find pieces of in some video games... but it's the way they string together that's so enticing. The way you move through a room and have the "AHA" moment when you remember something three rooms back that you initially thought meant nothing. The theming and presumed narrative as you wander through rooms littered with fun bits of environmental storytelling. There's something about them that video games have rarely been able to capture.
But Escape Academy is absolutely schooling the competition.
Just the Facts
Developer: Coin Crew Games
Publisher: iam8bit, Skybound Games
Platform(s): PC*, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PlayStation 4/5 *platform reviewed on
Release Date: July 14, 2022
Review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Coin Crew Games is a fascinating development studio. They've been making games for years, but unless you frequent arcades, it's unlikely you've ever played one of them. Coin Crew's mantra is "Bringing people together to play." Their focus is making games that people "play together, not just next to each other." They've made several arcade experiences and even worked on building up real-world escape rooms. Then the whole pandemic happened. A virus that could only really be fought back by keeping people apart effectively turned their world upside down.
Coin Crew had to shift focus, and they did so quickly. Everything they learned from creating and innovating in the arcade and physical gaming spaces, they transformed into a brand-new experience that became Escape Academy.
The birth of this game might just end up being one of the brightest spots of this horrible pandemic.
Your journey into the Escape Academy starts with your character visiting a dingy escape room with a mystery waiting inside. What starts as an underwhelming escape room experience turns out to be an entrance exam for an otherwise hidden school for escapists. After displaying a particular prowess for escaping, you're invited to join the private school on the spot, boarding a hidden underground train headed straight for the Escape Academy grounds.
Once there, you'll be introduced properly to the wise and playful Headmaster, a big burly groundskeeper, and a blonde legacy student who's hell-bent on starting up a rivalry. You'll learn how to escape in a variety of classes, you'll be put in dangerous situations that seriously call into question whether these devil-may-care faculty have any business being in education, and you'll inevitably begin to learn a few interesting secrets that only you will be able to uncover the truth about.
So yes, it's definitely reminiscent of a particular Magic School Franchise™, but rest assured this adventure is far removed from the various baggage related to THAT story and its author.
Over the four to six hour journey, you'll make your way through your first year within the hallowed halls of the Escape Academy. Most of the story is delivered through visual-novel style cutscenes with limited voice acting and beautifully hand-drawn character portraits. It's an incredibly charming, if not predictable, story with some genuinely great bits of writing. There are puns aplenty hidden throughout the world and some fun dialogue moments that we recommend seeking out.
The world they pitch here is one of professional escapists, anti-escape contingents, and a school dedicated to teaching all about it with years and years of history backing it up. It's a world we really want more of. While the story wraps up in a satisfying way that doesn't totally hint at anything to come in the future, one of the final things you see is a message that reads, "First Year Complete."
We've gotta get our Escape Diploma, no? We certainly wouldn't be mad about three more years of schooling here at the academy.
I have one rule about puzzle-mystery games, and if a game passes this check, I'm almost guaranteed to be in for a good time. It's simple: If I have to break out a pen and paper to help solve something, it's likely a very good game. Needless to say, Escape Academy passes the test.
The best way I can summarize Escape Academy is that it's a game full of puzzles with intention. No single puzzle feels tossed in or extraneous to the overall experience — no puzzling for puzzling's sake, which can't be said for other games like it. Just like the escape rooms they are attempting to emulate, the way that each puzzle stitches into the next is a feeling without parallel. It's unraveling a ball of yarn... only to find a moment of sudden clarity at its core that reveals the key to that other ball of yarn you threw to the ground earlier.
Puzzles run the gamut from decoding ciphers to reading serial codes out loud to fully understand what is hidden underneath. There are a handful of pure logic puzzles that, even when you know what's expected, will still frustrate you to no end (we're looking at you, pipe puzzle). But on the whole, Coin Crew's puzzle brains are incredibly clever and they make you feel clever.
Escape Academy's puzzles are incredibly approachable. Thanks to good design and common sense concepts, we were able to embrace each room's challenges and finish each one without fail. But we can't overlook the thing that helped us do that... the generous hint system.
With a button press, you'll be nudged in the right direction with some helpful hints, without ever being directly told what to do. Each hint comes in levels, the first being incredibly vague. Each successive layer of the hint becomes more direct about what needs to be done. Hint systems keep puzzle games more accessible, and Escape Academy's does it right.
You interact with the world from a first-person perspective and there's something familiar about wandering through each room, reminiscent of the famed puzzle game The Witness. Between stages, you're able to pick and choose available puzzles in whatever order you wish, visit with and talk to characters lingering in one of the Academy's locations, and visit your dorm that evolves as the game goes on.
Escape Academy offers up its escape rooms as both a solo and co-op experience, and if you're able, we definitely recommend the latter. Playing through this game with a pal delivers the truest escape room vibe possible, as you bicker and banter through another head-scratching puzzle and generally share the mental load as you pick your way through. I want to shout out Coin Crew for actually acknowledging the second player in the story and dialogue, as characters regularly point out that the heroes are in fact a duo.
Another key to the escape room experience is the ticking clock. Many escape rooms keep the pressure up by putting you on a timer, making even the simplest puzzles that much more flustering. Each of Escape Academy's 13 rooms employs the same tactic, with timers between 20-45 minutes pushing you forward. As a duo, we were able to dispatch most rooms with time to spare, but you'll be happy to know that running out the timer simply offers you options to add five minutes to the clock or start over from the beginning.
Use of hints and time to completion affect your overall grade for each room, which is the only form of "scoring" the game offers up at the end of each level. Your grade is pretty inconsequential, and since this game is inherently not replayable, there's no accomplishment in chasing A+ grades for every room either. This leads us to some of our (few) complaints.
First, the lack of replay value. Once you know the solutions, there's no real need to revisit a room to finish it quicker or with fewer hints. This wouldn't be an issue in most cases, but since we loved the experience and wished the game was just the tiniest bit longer, it hurts that there's no fun in revisiting the game after just 4 or 5 hours.
We also ran into a glitch that essentially required us to brute-force a puzzle. Despite trying to work it out as much as possible on our own, a key piece of information needed to solve the final puzzle in this particular room was missing. We've passed the information onto the dev team and can only imagine it will be fixed for launch, as it quite literally is progress-breaking if you aren't willing to attempt every combination possible in this specific final puzzle.
The only other progress-stopping things we ran into were those few time-consuming logic puzzles we mentioned above, but we don't need to get into that. (Seriously pipe puzzle, catch us in the parking lot.)
Thankfully, Escape Academy makes up for its few faults with its style. With a vibrant color palette, a clever lock and key theming throughout the academy, and beautiful tunes from Doseone (Enter the Gungeon, Disc Room), Coin Crew has a clear eye for aesthetics. There are some screenshots of this game and pieces of art used to help you along in certain puzzles that we'd buy prints of in a heartbeat.
Coin Crew Games delivered something special with Escape Academy. A true-to-its-roots escape room experience (and in our opinion, one of the most successful attempts to recreate this digitally). A compelling world. Puzzles that are just difficult enough that you are constantly surprising yourself with your own brain's ability. It's all quality.
While their focus has primarily been on the arcade space, we hope this establishes Coin Crew's foothold in the at-home gaming world.
As long as their next few games don't feature pipe puzzles. Please.
video games are good and Escape Academy is . . . GREAT (9/10)
+ approachable but just complex enough puzzlin' gameplay, an incredibly vibrant art style, a fun escape room-themed world
- a few complicated and maddening logic puzzles, one frustrating progress-stopping glitch, leaves a desire for more
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