Escaping these rooms is a good time, but I’d recommend a friend
A few weeks ago, indie puzzler Escape Academy went live. It’s a new addition to a growing collection of escape room-styled puzzle games, and it’s a genuinely good time. It is a bit better if you bring a friend along for the ride, though.
I had originally planned to play through Escape Academy with a friend. Last year’s Operation: Tango or even games like A Way Out made co-op mandatory, and I found that doing puzzles together is a fun way to build teamwork. While, y’know, also competing and finding out bizarre things about each other.
So Escape Academy seemed like a perfect new game to co-op together. Life circumstances arose though, and while we managed to play some of the earliest levels together, I wound up having to solo the latter batch of puzzle rooms.
To be clear: Escape Academy is completely playable in solo or co-op. As a new student at the titular Escape Academy, you undertake a curriculum designed to enhance your abilities to escape increasingly dangerous situations. This includes finding the antidote for a poison, climbing a tower that’s filling with water, and yes, a ticking time-bomb.
It’s all played in a wacky school-life setting, and it works well enough. The story is a good enough draw to keep a through-line between each of the escape rooms, and it sometimes allows for clever moments in rooms or fun character asides.
The crux of the Escape Academy is the escaping, though. And the escaping is pretty good.
Developer Coin Crew Games has talent spanning arcade, immersive, and VR games, which makes sense when you play Escape Academy. There’s a good physicality to these rooms, a sense of place and purpose to each item. Puzzles feel segmented but part of a larger whole, like you’re gradually unlocking the Rubik’s cube of the level.
Some quality-of-life decisions the team makes really help, too. Being able to “pin” certain items to the corner of your screen makes it easy to quickly reference information. In some cases, that corner visual might get a little bulkier than you’d like, but it’s nice to not have to hop back and forth with your inventory.
Navigation is also fairly contained and well-segmented. As large as some of these levels get, and they get pretty big as the story goes on, they never feel overwhelming. Each area often has a few focal points you’re turning to, and only once in a while did I overlook something that I felt could have been made clearer. The extremely lenient hint system helps a ton here, too.
One is the loneliest number
The difference between co-op and solo play can be felt, though. It’s not overt, as every room is perfectly clearable by one person.
But say, for example, a puzzle solution requires utilizing info from another part of the room. To use a non-spoiler, made-up scenario similar to an in-game one, imagine you need to unlock a door using a sequence of colors. And elsewhere, those colors correspond to certain jewels on display.
Playing by yourself, you might need to write down those colors and any other identifying factors, and then run back to the door. Playing co-op, however, you can communicate, decipher the connection, and read them out for each other. A team win!
That’s the most crucial difference in playing Escape Academy solo versus co-op, and why I think its best qualities shine when two people are playing. Escape Academy ventures to take escape rooms where they can’t feasibly go in real-life, both in terms of scale and potential lethality. That’s good, but it means some rooms in solo play do feel like playing an escape room by yourself.
Towers and rivals
There are two notable exceptions to this, though. Two specific escape rooms felt enhanced by solo play in my game. The first is the aforementioned water-escape room. The mounting pressure and claustrophobic atmosphere of that level vibed with me in solo play.
The other is a later room where, lightly tip-toeing into spoiler territory, you are competing against someone. While it would be easier with two people, I was really glad I had to take that challenge on by myself. It was honestly my favorite room of the entire batch, and a highlight of virtual room escaping for me.
So yes, this is a recommendation: if you enjoy puzzling your way through virtual rooms, Escape Academy is a no-brainer. It’s also on Game Pass, so it won’t be hard to twist a pal’s arm into joining you for the ride. Just bring a pad and some paper if you’re going about it solo, though.