Escape Academy delivers the best co-op experience since It Takes Two
Inverse Score: 9/10
Drowning was not on the curriculum my headmaster gave out at orientation.
Yet for twenty adrenaline-pumping minutes, I’m racing against the ever-rising water level to climb multiple floors of a school building. The cacophonous sound of the water hitting the floor pulls my attention away from the safe I’m trying to crack. I take a deep breath.
I hear a click – it opens. It holds a piece to another puzzle. I take it and move on.
The water does not allow me time to celebrate my small victory.
Escape Academy, from developer Coin Crew Games, is a cooperative puzzle game that seeks to recreate the experience of escape rooms. Players are enrolled in a secret school designed to train the best escape artists in the world. Over the course of three terms, you will encounter a dozen tests of your skill, all of which are overseen by a cast of eccentric professors with their own stories to discover.
The game manages to succeed at its lofty goal through its immaculately crafted rooms that never feel dull. Escape Academy inspires a sense of discovery in the player that makes it a can’t miss co-op adventure.
I am a firm believer that a pen and paper can be the best gaming accessories. My partner and I are puzzle junkies. We do escape rooms. We play mystery board games. More than once I have come home to my partner exclaiming she’s cracked it and pointing at a wall covered in post-it notes. So, any game that can scratch that itch is of immediate interest. Return of the Obra Dinn remains a favorite in our house due to how much of that game relies on meticulous notetaking and making Holmesian deductions.
When starting Escape Academy, the first thing you see is a note from the developers — “Keep some paper and a pencil handy.” I grabbed one of the many notebooks lying around the apartment that was half-filled with details on fictional murder cases and opened it to an empty page.
My partner and I proceeded to play the entire game in one sitting.
While five-hour gaming sessions may not be for everyone, playing Escape Academy with a friend should be. The game can be played solo, but the co-op experience (local or online) is truly something special. Each room has its own unique feel, and no room repeats mechanics from another. That means each puzzle feels truly bespoke. This also has the benefit of squashing any sense of monotony or repetition quickly, as you move between rooms.
Escape Academy is as much about communicating as it is puzzle solving. The game allows you to pick up key items and you can give them to your fellow escape artist. Writing down notes, talking through puzzle solutions, and sharing gasps of excitement at discovering a hidden room transform the experience into something truly special.
The Danger Zone
A memorable story can elevate an escape room far beyond a satisfying puzzle. If you visit a real-world escape room, you will be met with a myriad of different thematic options. In my own experiences, I’ve had to escape a rogue Artificial Intelligence on a space station, as well as a serial killer during the renaissance. While Escape Academy’s settings aren’t quite so varied, each room connects to the larger plot in a gratifying way.
One room may have you brew a cup of tea for one of the faculty members, while another asks you to add your own graffiti to a piece of school property. Between missions, you can talk with members of the school in visual novel-esque moments, all of which are surprisingly endearing. These stories not only help define the overall aesthetic and puzzle design of rooms, but also make the game’s world and personalities worth caring about. You could crack a safe, or you could crack a safe that holds the key that will let you escape your impending death at the hands of a maniac. The former is satisfying, but the latter makes you sweat.
And Escape Academy is not afraid to make you sweat. It raises the stakes on escapes in a way you can’t get in the real world. No escape room will try to drown you. Maybe the clock is said to be ticking down until you drown, but there is no palpable sense of danger. Escape Academy will drown you, blow you up, and poison you. The poison was the most shocking. I interacted with an item and immediately my half of the screen was filled with a purple hue and darkness creeping in on the edges of my vision. My partner did not interact and was not poisoned but for the rest of the room, my puzzle-solving was impaired because I leaped before thinking. It required my partner and me to find new ways to communicate and solve puzzles.
Call me a masochist, but I liked being poisoned.
No single stage in Escape Academy felt cheap or overtly easy. The biggest hiccup I faced was a glitch where one key piece of a puzzle would not properly display. In cases like this, the best course of action was to guess and check until eventually solving the puzzle. Rooms cannot be reloaded at a checkpoint, so the other option would be to quit out of the game and start over. This isn’t an ideal solution — then you will have the knowledge of the puzzles you solved, and you'll be quicker through the room than your “real” time would have been.
This all leads to the main drawback of an escape room, it's one of nature. Once you uncover all the secrets and solve all the problems, the experience is done. While the game does have twelve puzzles, it took me about five hours to complete. Yet the game’s relatively low price tag at $19.99, not to mention its inclusion on Game Pass, seems like a steal when you consider how good every puzzle is.
Escape Academy offers a truly unique experience that provides the player with a sense of discovery that’s difficult to compare to any other game. I have a new itch to scratch, and now no other game can satisfy that. I’ll have to go book an escape room.
Escape Academy will release for Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, and PC on July 14, 2022. Inverse reviewed the game on PC.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.