Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Earlier this year, I wrote a column bemoaning the state of the modern escape room, a niche hobby shoved even deeper into its niche by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Anecdotal evidence is, of course, only anecdotal, but I’ve had too many people in my life come down with one of those Hot New Variants in the last two weeks for me to feel comfortable sucking air with a bunch of puzzle nerds, even now.) At the time, I touted the appeal of Escape Simulator, a genuinely fascinating attempt to get the tools to make computer-based escape rooms into the hands of would-be designers. (And if you haven’t been keeping up with ES’ monthly content packs curated from its users, you’re missing out on some great stuff; if you need a jumping-off point, “The Devilish Diorama,” currently featured in the Best Of: 2022 pack in the Steam Workshop, is a hell of a good little puzzle.)
Escape Simulator has much to offer, but what it doesn’t have is polish: The need to build everything from easily distributable parts imparts a certain unavoidable jank on the whole package. Hence my delight at the recent release of Escape Academy, a new title from Coin Crew Games that offers up a whole host of deliberately crafted escape rooms for players to puzzle through, all of them of surprisingly good quality, and all carrying that “Oh, game designers made this with professional tools” feel.
The premise is simple, i.e., “What if Harry Potter was about people obsessed with doing escape rooms instead of magic/transphobia?” But the execution is excellent, with the virtual nature allowing Coin Crew to build rooms with out-there concepts and scales that would be near-impossible to accomplish in the real world. All of these operate smoothly, with an interesting underlying logic, and a distinct theme for each of the 10 or so rooms in the main game (timed to take between 15 and 30 minutes, mostly).
The biggest thrill of Escape Academy, though, has been its local co-op multiplayer; my partner and I have been enjoying the hell out of teaming up on the couch to take down these puzzles, ably recreating the “I’ve got a map over here!” and the “I’ve got seven keys and a USB dongle over here!” vibe of teamwork I’ve missed so much in the, god, two years since I last did a real-life room. Escape Academy handles the split-screen seamlessly, especially since it has plenty of puzzles where multiple perspectives can help players unravel the underlying logic of a room. And the predictable pace makes it easy to knock out one or two puzzles in an evening after work, creating a lovely, brain-bending routine.
Escape Academy is never going to compete with Escape Simulator in terms of depth of content, because “infinite and endless iteration” is very hard to beat. But I find myself very happy that both games exist; on their own, neither can quite capture the joys of collaborative, communal puzzle solving, but together they can approximate the pleasures of it pretty damn well.