Escape Academy, out next month from Coin Crew Games, is a video game attempting to capture the best elements of real-world escape rooms. Escape rooms, of course, were invented to try to capture the fun of video games—namely the popular “escape the room” Flash games of the early 2000s—as real-world attraction. The team at Coin Crew got its start building physical attractions before making the leap to games—but studio co-founder Wyatt Bushnell is also the son of Atari’s Nolan Bushnell.
I don’t want to get so caught up in the ouroboros of it all that I lose sight of the one thing you should take away from this article: Escape Academy is great, and you’d be seriously missing out if you didn’t give it a shot at launch.
I played through a single room in a hands-on demo at Summer Game Fest Play Days, and that was enough to convince me I need to play the whole thing on day one. And while it’s possible to go through the game as a single-player experience, its biggest potential, like that of a real-world escape room, lies in playing it collaboratively with a partner (either online or in local splitscreen as I did at the show). I seriously doubt I’ll have more fun with a couch co-op game this year.
Now, maybe you’re just thinking that an escape room video game would just be a point-and-click adventure: find objects, fill up your inventory, look around for clues, solve puzzles. And at a broad, 35,000-foot level, you’re right. But there are actually some subtle differences that make Escape Academy feel like its own thing. For starters, Escape Academy lets you move around freely in a first-person perspective, walking and looking in 3D rather than just changing viewpoints the way you do in most classic adventure games. As such, there’s a sense of presence and exploration that feels more like an escape room.
Accompanying that, you’re never on a pixel hunt, trying to click the right thing from the background to find whatever obscure object you need to solve a puzzle. For one thing, any object you can pick up stands out pretty clearly from the rest of the environment, as long as you take the time to notice it. For another, the connections between tools and their uses are all pretty straightforward: If you have a screwdriver, you’re going to need to unscrew something. If you find a plug, it’s probably going to go into a socket. Keys unlock locks. You get it.
The design also does a wonderful job of encouraging teamwork. Since you have a constant countdown timer—and in the room I played, a steadily rising water level—you’ll do a much better job at solving puzzles swiftly if you divide, conquer, and communicate. Apart from one puzzle that took a bit of thinking to work out, my teammate and I kept up a great forward motion throughout the entire demo, constantly finding new objects and calling them out, and reasoning out puzzles out loud. Sometimes I’d solve half of it and he’d get the other half, and by comparing notes—both mental and on the physical notepads we had on hand—we were able to see the whole picture. It’s the same frantic energy I love when I’m doing a real escape room.
I’m probably slighting Escape Academy a bit by ignoring its more overtly video-gamey elements, which we only got a taste of in the demo. There’s a plot involving being a student at a school for people who I guess just solve escape rooms, and there are characters to meet as you work through the different levels. I can’t say the small sliver I got—a burly janitor type who introed the room—did much for me. But I don’t really care, because I’m already so invested in getting another taste of the gameplay.
The best part, if you’re an Xbox Game Pass subscriber, is that Escape Academy will be joining the service, so you literally have no reason not to try it out. Still, if you don’t have a membership or if you play on a different platform, it’s definitely worth a closer look, especially if you’ve been looking for a brain-scratching co-op game to play with your friends or family.
You won’t have to wait too long, either. Escape Academy arrives July 14th on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC via Steam.