Do you remember those click-heavy escape room games that you could play on Flash websites like Newgrounds back in the 2000s? They were very basic in their makeup but so compelling. You were often trapped in a house and had to look for visual clues or click on a swathe of interactive objects – from curtains to cubbyholes – to reveal secret keys and puzzle solutions. Even though the method of interaction was simple, these games had the potential to be extremely complex and versatile. Some had jumpscares, and others told meaningful stories. The genre has since fallen by the wayside, but Escape Academy has managed to bottle its nostalgic lightning and meaningfully modernize the escape room game for a new generation.
We’ll get to the ingenious puzzling, but Escape Academy‘s most interesting achievement is how it manages to string a charming narrative between and within its levels. Over the course of four hours I was introduced to several cool characters, each with a level of development that I wasn’t expecting. After being lured into a show escape room on the surface before plunging to the depths below where the secret academy resides, you’ll meet folks like Jeb, a lovable oaf who accidentally puts you in life-or-death escape room situations. There’s also Quanty, a supercomputer that is always trying to prove you wrong, and a Pokémon-esque rival who taunts your progress as you move through the game. While they do appear as basic 3D inserts at certain levels, they really shine in conversation, where they’re rendered in a 2D cartoon style evocative of Paradise Killer, Neon White and Jen Zee’s work on Hades.
And much like Hades, you’ll enjoy plenty of irreverent dialogue and discover secrets about the characters through playing. One level has you attempting to make the perfect cup of tea in the greenhouse of a former explosives expert turned gardener. To access one solution you’ll have to find a pin that reveals the name of their lover, unlocking a shrine that lets you learn more about their heartwarming relationship. By naming assets carefully and covering the diorama-like levels in visual storytelling assets, you’re easily grounded in Escape Academy’s world, even as you’re rushing around clicking on everything in an attempt to beat the clock.
The metanarrative about this being a literal academy, complete with specialized professors, is extremely successful throughout, and Escape Academy even has time for a few cool twists and turns. But the game’s best moments come when you are made to feel under the cosh. The difficulty scales quite carefully – time limits shrink and complexities grow – which leads to moments of sheer adrenaline, as you’re pounding inputs into a machine to quickly wrap the level up. Regardless of your experience level, Escape Academy will make you feel like a rockstar from the first mission, as each diorama has at least one, if not multiple eureka moments waiting for you to discover. What’s most surprising is how it stretches a fairly simple interaction metric – clicking items and looking at clues – across an entire game, touching hundreds of different methods of interaction. You’ll discern clues by doing things like tuning a radio, translating Russian into English, playing donut sudoku and hacking turrets to shoot robots.
Escape Academy. Credit: Coin Crew Games.Sometimes you’re directly inside the action, like in one level (with multiple ‘Oh Fuck’ moments) where you have to ascend levels of a flooding elevator shaft as the clock ticks down to your doom, or another where you’re literally racing a rival to finish a set of puzzles. But other times you skirt it, acting as an important radio supervisor as your superiors tackle a tricky prison break. The stakes are always high, but the way Escape Academy blends lighthearted premises with death-defying ones, while still maintaining a consistent tone, is truly impressive. Even a mission where you’re making a milkshake can pivot into absurd heights.
One critique of the escape room genre is how much it focuses on vertical thinking, with stoic game logic making it easy to skew towards analytical solutions. But Escape Academy doesn’t just settle for these kinds of resolutions, which are advantageous to those with a more direct brain. Lateral, creative solutions abound in the later levels and even tie in well as the story goes off the rails. Sometimes the direct way doesn’t work as you expected, and you have to force the pieces in a new direction or pivot an old solution into a new one. It’s genius! And it never feels like it’s holding your hand either, even though you’re constantly being taught new mechanics that persist and pay off later.
Escape Academy features solo, local multiplayer and online co-op, but, after trying it on the Steam Deck (no dice yet!) I played it solo with my partner beside me on the couch, and finding out the ways our brains complemented each other when It came to figuring out puzzles was an awesome delight. We were constantly applauding each other’s ingenuity and laughing at the quirky assets and story beats – it quickly became my favorite co-op experience in a long time, and I left thinking it was an easy game of the year contender.
Per the game’s simple but effective cel-shaded visual style, some textures can be muddy, but most of them are lovable in their low poly aesthetic. I definitely preferred the fluidity of motion and interaction to any potential attempts at photorealism here. Stylistically, and performance-wise, Escape Academy is a peach. The sound effects and score are fitting too, with a nice sting popping up when you crack a puzzle. If you’re stuck, you can lean on a helpful hint every now and then, which is especially useful when puzzle context is limited. You can just trial and error your way through some predicaments instead of engaging, and cause problems by being too quick, which is slightly frustrating, but most importantly, Escape Academy isn’t afraid to help you if you need it, which is always the way to go in a modern puzzle game, where accessibility is king.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy ride, and die-hards will delight in how it times and grades players for each mission and throws up a snapshot of how quickly you solved each part of the puzzle once you wrap it up. You can replay each level if you want to from your dorm room when you’re finished, and join the club of people waiting for a sequel, or at least some DLC. I’m begging Coin Crew to turn this into a franchise because I’d happily play a version of Escape Academy every few years until I croak.
Escape Academy launches on July 14 for Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4 and PC. This review was played on PC.
Escape Academy is an awesome experience that turns escape room puzzles into short stories without sacrificing any mechanical depth. It sits in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty, making it rewarding for all ages, and doesn’t have a moment of dead weight in its four-hour runtime. With delightful characters, funny writing and charming art direction, it’s hard not to see this as an easy game of the year contender, and a freshman entry in a game series that should go all the way to grad school.
- Exquisite escape room puzzle design
- Awesome art direction and charming characters
- A cool, twisty story that pays off within the gameplay
- I wish it was longer
- And that it worked on the Steam Deck