- Developer: Kahn Games
- Publisher: 8 Bit Legit
- Release Date: 13/1/2023
- Price: £4.07 / $4.99
- Review code provided by 8 Bit Legit
Introducing: NEScape Review
I am a big big fan of escape rooms. I have been since the moment I did my first one with a handful of people that I both did and didn’t know in a little run down strip mall outside of town. I’ve tried most of the escape room businesses in my area and at the one that I consider to be one of my favorites, I have completed and beaten four out of their five offerings either with a group of friends or with my family. Even before this boom of real escape rooms, I was a fan of little old flash games on places like Newgrounds that were escape the room type puzzles. So, when the chance to take on a new form of digital escape room dropped into our email here at BDG, I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to give it a try.
So, how does this new escape room in a retro style work out on the Switch?
All Locked Up
There isn’t much story to NEScape. You’ve simply woken up in a dark room with no idea how you got there. I personally would have liked a little more of a story to this, personally. The room is simple to work within the confines of the aesthetic of the game (which we’ll get into more later), so the environmental storytelling is limited. That’s understandable. However, the game sports a digital manual much like the little booklets that you used to get with older games that could flesh out what couldn’t be fit onto the cartridge. This would be a great opportunity to fit in a little more and give players a little more story to jump onto. There isn’t anything there, though.
Even more disappointingly, there is little reward for beating the game. It’s pretty obvious that with an end goal of getting out of the room, that would be the end, but I would hope that there would be a little endscreen as a treat for your hard work. Nothing of the sort. We get a bit of an open end as to what might truly be beyond the door, but little else. Even a silly little digital certificate with your winning time on it that you can screenshot would have been nice to get as some level of small reward.
One Thing Leads to Another
However, this is a game that is more focused on the gameplay than anything else, so that is going to be what we judge it the most on. The gameplay here is simple point and click mechanics to solve the puzzles scattered around the four walls of the room. Each solved puzzle gets you what you need to unlock the next puzzle in the series, all of it eventually culminating in your escape. There is a 60 minute timer going in the corner of the screen, the goal being to get out before that runs out and you’re unceremoniously kicked to the title screen to try again.
The puzzles themselves are simple fare, but there’s fine for what they are. There is at least some decent variety here. There’s some logic puzzling, memory tests, and even a rolling ball maze that was trickier than I anticipated it to be. Once you figured out the solution, it was pretty clear what you need to do, but even doing that could sometimes be tricky as well. My roommate and I worked on beating this game three times together (that third being our winning run) and each and every time we ended up struggling for a little while on the sliding block puzzle.
The downside to this is that the game isn’t very replayable. Each time that you make a run at the room, you’re going to be tackling the same puzzles in the same order, meaning that you’ll simply fly through what you know the solution to before the one that had you stuck before slows you down. The game manual says there are some randomized elements, but if there really are, I couldn’t tell in the slightest. Either they aren’t as impactful as the team thinks they are, or the randomization somehow rolled me the same way every time that I played. I feel like some of the puzzles and items could be reshuffled here so that you at least tackle the different puzzles in a different order, but as it stands, for many people this might end up being a one off experience.
There’s also a simon says sort of puzzle that goes on a little too long. After the first handful of rounds, we thought we had finished it up, but it ended up going for about ten button presses, if I recall correctly, starting from just a single one and only adding one new one to the sequence each time. After a certain point, it felt like it was just trying to eat up precious seconds from our ticking clock.
A Lock without a Key
The real problem here is that the controls are very finicky. There are times where you need to click on rather small things and with the imprecise controls of a controller, getting your cursor onto just the right spot can be something of a trial. This isn’t entirely the fault of the game, as man point and click games suffer this same fate when moving to the switch, but making some of these interactable items a little larger (such as the buttons on the first lockbox of the game) could have alleviated some of our frustration.
The other major issue that we ran into was with the game’s sound. This is one that you cannot play muted due to the fact that there are multiple times that audio cues are needed, be it when you listen to a tape or when you have to listen to some sounds and then play them back on the piano. There are two issues with the sound being needed, though. For one, every time an audio cue stops playing, the background music kicks right back in, so I didn’t have any silence in which to process what I had just heard. When trying to figure out the piano notes, this was one of our major issues as we could only listen to each note one at a time, the music coming back between each one that we triggered. There is no option in the game to mute the music, even temporarily, meaning that this held us up more that it otherwise might have.
The other problem with the sound is that there are a few audio cues in the game that are someone speaking. Due to the way that NEScape is really committing to the old NES aesthetic, that means we get the scratchy and slightly unclear voices too. For two of these audio cues, this wasn’t a problem at all, but for one, it was definitely a problem. The other two were clear, but we spent quite a long time trying to figure out what one of them was. We heard “clear”, “pure”, “cure”, and even “mirror”, but none of those were the right word. The one we ended up having to enter (which I admittedly found in a game guide out of frustration after we had tried everything the word sounded like) was “shiver”. Nothing about the audio cue gave us something that sounded like that first part of the word and I can see this moment as being a big frustration point for a lot of players that causes them to give up entirely. It didn’t help that I had that music kicking in again the second the word ended so whatever I was processing by listening was immediately rattled by chiptunes.
The only time that the music stops entirely is when the game starts playing a loop of morse code that you need to decipher, which while fun, it was disappointing that I had to break out my phone in order to solve it, taking me out of the game experience. Having that morse code key somewhere in the game would have made a more cohesive experience, I feel.
Retro and Proud
I will say that this game really committed to the NES aesthetic, though. It’s got the color palette that is both saturated and limited in color choices, simple shapes, and simple controls that I would expect out of a game trying to emulate that bygone age. There’s even an option to choose the border around the square screen like some NES emulation has done over the years. It’s not an look that I have a super strong personal attachment to, I will admit, but I can completely respect the commitment to recreating the style and feel.
The sound is something of another story. I’ve already pointed out how this commitment leads to some gameplay issues already, but there is one other area where it’s a problem. The music in here is short and it loops the whole time you are playing the game. Eventually it wears thin, but there’s no options to mute or change it and turning off the sound of your Switch isn’t an option either, because there are audio cues that you need to listen for. One hour is a long time to listen to the same or similar music. It was the idea of having to listen to it for another hour that had me separating my attempts onto multiple days, rather than jumping right back into the game again.
Overall, NEScape was an alright experience, but some of the flaws could make it frustrating when I was put under a time crunch with the possibility of removing all the progress that I had made if I took too long at something. It’s one thing to be held up by the difficulty of a puzzle, it’s another to be held up by the inability to understand an audio cue or controls that are making it hard to hit buttons in a correct order. An untimed mode could have been a boon to the game, even if it takes away the idea of multiple runs of trial and error that the developers seem to intend. As it stand the literal only game option is the ability to change those decorative borders.
Ultimately, this is a game that you’re likely only going to end up playing once, since knowing the solutions for all the puzzles means that you’re not going to be coming back, but it’s also a nice budget friendly price as well, so I suppose if this one seems up your alley, there’s not really any harm in giving it a try. Just be aware that there’s no hints available to you while playing, so if you get stuck, you’re going to either need to sit and power through or be willing to look elsewhere for help. However, it’s clear that a lot of care went into the visual, audio, and puzzle design as well. There’s just some elements of that that didn’t mesh perfectly is all.
- Commitment to the look and feel
- Varied puzzles
- Made me feel clever when I figured things out
- Touchy controls
- Audio can get in the way of gameplay
- Not very replayable
- Few options