Escape Academy is the escape room game you’ll never want to leave

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Escape Academy is the escape room game you'll never want to leave

I was in the mood for a good puzzle game. No, that’s not precise enough. If a good jigsaw puzzle came to my door and proposed, I’d blow up my life and career for it like a journalist did for that pharma bro. (But I’d at least have the common sense to take the inevitable L private.)

I wanted Escape Academy to ruin my life like that, the same way encryption did.

And while the escape room puzzle game/visual novel isn’t the equivalent of Tessa Thompson or Tom Hiddleston — or Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston – appeared at my door with his knees bent; I can tell it’s more like that sleazy type of The bear cooking an intimate dinner for two in his furniture-less apartment—absolutely incredible, but sparse and far too brief.

Escape Academy tells the story of a young escape room fan and his journey through a secret school where the world’s best escape artists hone their skills with a variety of puzzles. Along the way, meet the quirky students and professors who call Escape Academy home as you solve puzzles to unravel the mysteries of the school.

Screenshot of Escape Academy showing an enclosed outdoor area littered with statues that are also puzzle clues.

The riddles of Escape Academy are extremely diverse and satisfy every subset of the problem-solving section of my brain. There are the typical word and math puzzles, some logic puzzles, and my absolutely least favorite puzzle – the spatial reasoning puzzle. Escape Academy attempts to recreate the terrifying fun of a physical escape room in a video game. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was that you have to go analog to solve the digital mysteries. It’s a full-body experience that engages my body in ways video games don’t typically do. There wasn’t a puzzle room where I didn’t use a pen and pad of paper and mutter to myself while I worked through the problems.

Having that kind of physical component in the game was deeply satisfying. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, the MS-DOS game Where on earth is Carmen Sandiego?. To beat the game and catch Carmen, you had to look up the answer to the last question in a real book. The solutions were as simple as finding a word in a specific spot on a page, but when I did it felt like it so good – as if I had crossed some kind of bridge between a real and a virtual world. Frantically scribbling notes and possible solutions, drawing maps and twirling them around because it’s me awful spatial puzzles feels like some kind of body alchemy. I really value that kind of full commitment and focus because that’s just how my ADHD brain is tip. escape academy, simple, feels good to play.

What if you get a riddle right on the first try after you’re certain that the answer you’ve deduced can’t possibly be right? Furious.

If anything, I could have used a little more of it. The puzzles weren’t easy, but they weren’t too challenging either. Each of the puzzles is rated on a scale of one to five keys. Most of the puzzles were in the two to three key range, and only one was a full five. I understand that the developers of this game wanted it to be accessible to as many people as possible, which precludes filling the game with nothing but hard-hitting puzzles, but I would have liked a little more challenge.

You will also be given a time limit for the puzzle. If you don’t complete the room within the allotted time, you’ll get a Game Over screen with an option to increase your time at the cost of a higher score. There were maybe two puzzles where I needed the time extension once, and only the five key puzzle required me to rework it three times.

Screenshot of Escape Academy showing a huge wall of televisions with a face on them, sheltered behind a wall of lasers with five desktop computers in the foreground displaying a puzzle hint as a screen saver.

Spatial brain teasers are bad for the directionally deranged.
Image: Coin Crew Games

I don’t think my ability to complete the puzzles in the time allotted meant they were too easy. On the contrary, I liked that because it meant the developers were careful to structure their puzzles in a meaningful way. I have finished this task and I know how this puzzle was presented to me what to do / where to go next. Many games with puzzle elements become boring because the progress isn’t clear, causing you to angrily click around trying to figure out the next step. Escape Academy avoids some of that frustration by arranging its puzzles in a sensible way.

Aside from the puzzles themselves, some of the other crowning achievements of the game are the multiplayer and the user interface. I’ve played some of them Escape Academy with my partner and loved how seamless it was. You can switch from multiplayer to solo play without having to start a new save file, and you can share items with each other in case your partner is faster at napkin math than you. The game’s interface is pretty neat too, as you can pin the items you pick up on your screen for easy reference. Once you find a code cipher, you can just paste it on the screen instead of writing it down to see when you solve the puzzle. You can’t change where you pin it on the screen, so it can get in the way at times, but it’s a nifty feature.

There’s a story about it Escape Academy, but it’s fairly pedestrianized. It is about a long-lost puzzle professor (who is with the headmaster unbelievable hot in a “we saw you from across the bar and dug your vibe” sort of way) and a school-wide conspiracy that’s growing into one portal-like conclusion which I won’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers. You can talk to your professors, but your interactions are a bit superficial. The character design is colorful and interesting, and the professors themselves are really cool, so I would have liked to have interacted with them more than just talking to them for a dialog box.

Image of two characters from Escape Academy.  On the left is an elderly African American woman with curly purple hair and on the right is an elderly Caucasian man with a full beard and a black eye patch.

Bisexual panic ensues
Image: Coin Crew Games

My biggest criticism of Escape Academy is that it’s just too short. I was able to finish the game in about eight hours, and I felt like I could have done another eight hours. I even sat through the credits hoping I’d unlocked a secret Puzzle Horde mode where I could just go wild for a few more turns. But unfortunately there was nothing left to solve apart from a too simple “thanks for playing” cipher. Luckily, my craving for more is being satiated as the team at developer Coin Crew Games has announced that DLC will be coming this fall.

More than just scratching the endless itch in my brain to “solve for x” in ever more sophisticated ways, Escape Academy makes me feel good about video games in general.

Ahead of the game’s release and during the Summer Game Fest, I had the opportunity to speak to the developers and hear their story. They started out developing arcade games for Dave & Busters and also designed IRL escape room games. When the pandemic thwarted that, they turned to digitally recreating that experience. There’s something deeply emotional about enjoying a game and then listening to the people who made that game talk about all the little joyful things that led to making something you love.

There is a rat, donut and vending machine puzzle that was elegant in construction, challenging to solve and just so damn fun and I have to personally thank the developer who designed it. Watching their faces light up when I noticed one of the little things that made their game so special, reminded me why I love video games so much. It’s like a positive feedback loop of love. They put their love into making the game – I play it, enjoy it and send that love back.

Escape Academy is short, and it’s a touch too easy. But I think its presentation and attempt to tell a story is something special that other similar puzzle games haven’t tapped into. And for a meager $20, it’s definitely a great way to while away a summer afternoon.

Escape Academy is now available on Xbox, GamePass, PlayStation and PC.

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