It has been interesting to watch the rise of escape room games, which were born out of virtual escape room experiences invented during the pandemic to keep the corporate team building activity popular. Co-op puzzles are some of my favorite games, and while it’s going to take a lot of effort to dethrone the We Were Here series as my all-time favorite, I still have a lot of admiration for Escape Academy. Its focus on narrative elevates each level and gives the puzzles a purpose rather than a theme, often making them more memorable than the puzzles in other escape games. Often laugh-out-loud funny, Escape Academy sets the bar high for accessible and fun escape room games.
The only thing that really spoils the experience is how hard it stumbles in the final act. Both the base game and the first DLC, Escape From Anti-Escape Island, have the same problem. Right at the end of both stories, the game wants to raise the stakes by putting you in a life-threatening situation and giving you only a few minutes to solve the puzzle.
The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to come up with a compelling or useful puzzle that only takes a minute or two to figure out, so both campaigns end with you trying to quickly solve some esoteric word or math problem. It doesn’t match the style of any of the other puzzles in the game, and although it’s a shame for me, I have to admit that those last few puzzles were the only ones I didn’t manage to solve before running out of time. The ending of the main game and the first DLC left a bad taste in my mouth and I expected the second DLC to do the same.
Fortunately, the Escape From The Past DLC doesn’t have this problem. In fact, this might be the strongest ending I can think of in any escape room game. Escape From The Past is a murder-themed expansion set in Escape Academy’s past (hence the name) in which you must find out who is trying to kill Headmaster Horatio Windsor. The story has a clever framing device for the five puzzles it involves. You and your partner play as professors Sandra Solange and Eel Barnes when they were students at the academy, and while training to become escape masters through the first four levels, they become embroiled in a series of assassination attempts on the headmaster. The fifth and final level brings together all the suspects and tasks you with conducting an investigation to find out who the potential murderer is, turning the game’s traditional puzzles into a courtroom.
There are some great puzzles in this expansion that take you back through familiar locations from the base game to present them in new (or old, since it’s set in the past) ways, but the final mission is Escape From The Past’s real stroke of genius. It starts with all the suspects in the principal’s office and you can choose to accuse any one of them of being a murderer. You will then listen to their story and have to find evidence to question their version of events and question their alibis. There’s definitely some Ace Attorney influence here, right up until the point where the whole thing inevitably moves into a more traditional escape room scenario. At this point, you are free to move around all the puzzle locations from the previous levels and search for the evidence you need to finger the real killer.
Part of what makes this level so brilliant is that there are actually three levels. Depending on which of the suspects you charge, you will have a completely different sequence in the courtroom. Each of them has its own story with its own evidence to sort through, and you will only be able to see these scenes if you replay the level three times. The second half is unfortunately always the same, and it’s always the same killer at the end, but the ability to steer the story through the first part is still a unique way to connect the narrative and the puzzles.
Sure, there’s still a gut-wrenching moment at the very end, but it’s nowhere near as frustrating as other versions of this. You only have a few minutes to disable the killer weapon before it explodes, but each step of disassembling the weapon involves solving logic puzzles, matching patterns and decoding symbols – don’t try to do quick math or word games while the clock is ticking. It’s a natural conclusion to both the story and the level, adding just enough tension without trying to do too much. The final stage is a massive three-act story, each act taking a unique form – but all feeling connected to each other and to the larger game. It’s the best narrative experience I’ve had with an escape room game, and I’m excited to see Coin Crew games up the ante with the expansion. I also managed to defuse the bomb before time ran out, so this is clearly the best Escape Academy yet.
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