Review for Escape Simulator
Adventure games by Pine Studio
The past ten years have arguably been the decade of the escape room. Inspired by the “find a way out” videogame subgenre, this thriving industry took the world by storm and permeated pop culture. The premise is novel: visitors are locked in an elaborate room and must work together in solving puzzles to get out. It’s a hands-on approach to classic adventure game problem-solving, except in a real physical place rather than a virtual one. The claustrophobic sense of immersion and emphasis on teamwork offered participants a unique experience until the pandemic caused a year-long shutdown of most of these in-person operations, with some shuttering their doors forever. It’s fortunate, then, that we still have access to games like Pine Studio’s Escape Simulator, which builds on the familiar single-player experience with an optional focus on cooperative gameplay in a way that mimics the real-life activity.
Like most actual escape rooms, Escape Simulator is all about puzzles. You’ll find no story, characters, or dialogue trees whatsoever. It’s a well-made first-person 3D adventure with all narrative frills removed – albeit with plenty of atmosphere – making it a puzzle fanatic’s dream. The emphasis on hidden switches, object placement and code deciphering reminded me of Safecracker and The Room series, but Escape Simulator’s great co-op gameplay and incredible level editor put it squarely into its own category.
As of the time of this writing, the game packs in 21 official levels across 5 themes: an Egyptian tomb, a space station, a Victorian mansion, a high-tech office, and Santa’s workshop. You can expect roughly 5 to 6 hours of playtime from these, assuming you manage to beat the optional room timers. Several of these levels were added post-launch in free updates (with more expected to come), but what really gives the game longevity is its Steam workshop integration. This already features well over 1,500 community-made escape rooms, with a handful newly published every day.
The official levels are well-designed and look great. The graphics eschew photorealism to opt for a cozy-feeling “grounded cartoon” aesthetic instead. Each environment wraps its objectives around a general puzzle theme. The space station levels focus on using computers and repairing damaged systems, while the tomb levels involve a lot of object placement riddles and some language decoding. Music is pleasant and unique to each locale, never feeling out of place or obtrusive.
There’s loads of interactivity to be found in these small but densely packed spaces. Many objects (including plenty of red herrings) can be dragged, rotated, picked up, and even thrown across the room for dramatic effect. And while you can toss any item to your heart’s content, the game is thankfully forgiving when it comes to chucking key items out of the play area. I accidentally did this several times, and they almost always respawned in the center of the room afterwards. Only once did I have to reset a room due to losing an item, during a rare instance where the game couldn’t retrieve a code book I threw out a third-story window, but really – that’s on me.
Physics play a role in many puzzles, whether that means smashing a vase open to get to a key within, or turning the gravity back on so you can advance through the space station’s corridors. While used sparingly, those antigravity effects are a visually striking touch. The first few times I shattered a coffee cup against the ship’s wall and watched its pieces slowly spin in every direction was pretty spectacular. You can even break the glass panes of most windows and cabinets for no purpose other than to let off steam, and it’s little extra details like these – that have nothing to do with the solutions – that give the rooms a palpable sense of life.
And speaking of solutions, they’re genuinely satisfying to discover. Most puzzles aren’t overly tricky to solve, but I still found myself relying on the built-in hint system a number of times in a few particular rooms. It’s a clever idea, taking the form of a printer on the wall that dispenses polaroid-like images that nudge you in the right direction. It’s nice that it gives subtle clues at first rather than outright telling you what to do, so deciphering what these messages mean can sometimes be a mini-puzzle in itself.
Often the hint system is pretty good at recognizing what you’re stuck on and will provide an appropriate clue to proceed. Perhaps just as often, however, it’ll offer information to something you’ve already worked out, requiring a short but frustrating wait for the hint countdown to pass before you can get another clue. The late-game elevator level (one of the most fiendishly difficult and least fun) is perhaps the worst culprit, where the hint box brought me to my wit’s end with about a half-dozen worthless clues stating the obvious. Still, the fact that even the most stumped player can complete the game without having to alt-tab out to a walkthrough is a design choice worth applauding.
A few puzzles could stand to give players more direct feedback. One section of the space station involves using numbered fuses to correctly power the room’s various equipment. While I had overlooked a note clueing me to the solution, the game lacked any sort of feedback telling me that I had overshot the amount of power necessary. Instead, the computer screen continued saying “power too low” when the problem was the opposite. Thankfully, issues like this are rare (at least in the official levels).
Escape Simulator can be fully completed solo, but its option for online co-op makes it relatively unique in the adventure genre. Just like the real-life escape rooms from which it draws inspiration, you can adventure with friends, either by sharing a five-digit session code or sending direct invites over Steam. Multiplayer is online-only (with no local split-screen) and each player will need to own a copy of the game. Things can quickly get cramped in the game’s small levels, which is why the developers recommend no more than three players per room. However, you can throw caution to the wind and go for it with up to ten.
Each player can customize how their in-game avatar appears to others, with a handful of options for gender, skin tone, hair style and clothing. You won’t ever see yourself, aside from end-of-level victory dance parties, but it’s nice to personalize how others see you. There’s no built-in voice chat, but this is easily addressed by running a voice call app like Discord or Skype while playing, an increasingly common solution for multiplayer games of all kinds.
The game doesn’t alter its puzzles between single-player and co-op modes, but there’s a distinctly different feel to the experience with a partner. Having another brain to bounce ideas with helped me solve a few puzzles that would have stumped me for much longer. Another benefit (or potential drawback) is that each player has their own inventory. In rooms where the number of collectible items is daunting – and it’ll happen, take it from me – players can divvy up who takes which clues, keys and tools to keep things manageable. On the flip side, a team with poor communication could get stuck if one of the players picks up an important item and fails to let the group know what they have.
My experience playing the studio-designed levels was close to glitch-free, if not perfect. I ran into one issue in the attic level; for some reason I couldn’t adjust the dials on a locked box, but my co-op partner was able to. Sometimes network issues would cause player drop-outs that required a reset of the session to fix, but such moments weren’t common (and very well may have been a problem with my teammate’s internet, and not the game).
Escape Simulator really gets to flex its muscles once you dive into the community-made rooms, another feature that makes the game a rarity among adventures. You have two ways to browse rooms: Pine Studio regularly curates their favorite community levels under the “Daily Picks” tab (a bit of a misnomer, as it doesn’t update every day), and many, many, many more rooms are available through the Steam Workshop interface. Community ratings and overall popularity filters can guide you toward levels worth playing, but the system’s a bit messy to navigate and high scores aren’t a guarantee of quality. Not surprisingly, these levels are usually buggier, with a too-common issue of dropped items falling through the floor and requiring a restart. But oh, what a wealth of content!
Community-made rooms run the gamut from simplistically sparse to impressively complex, breezily easy to infuriatingly difficult, and incredibly well-made to outright broken. Unlike the standard rooms, these community levels can be sprawling epics, linking multiple large rooms, hallways, and outdoor areas together in ways the main game never does. I was particularly impressed by the level “Little Emily,” which concocts a jumpscare-laden horror experience unlike anything from the cheery vibes of the official levels, set in a moody, imposing mansion.
On the other end of the spectrum, the do-your-chores-themed “Great Escape from Mom” has a puzzle solution to preparing dinner that involves putting a couple unopened cans of beans into a stove, which transforms them into perfectly plated pasta entrees. In another challenge, after struggling to find a hidden button to open a drawer, I had mixed feelings upon realizing I could exploit a geometry glitch to simply reach through the closed drawer and get the key object inside. But despite such quirks (or perhaps, because of them?), levels like this still have plenty of charm.
“Mysteries of Versailles” is an excellent room with puzzles that revolve around finding clues in Renaissance paintings. It nails the tricky balance of being quite challenging without forcing players like me to run for a YouTube walkthrough. One of my favorite quick levels, “The Mirror Room,” achieves a great effect of reflecting the whole area in a pseudo mirror wall with a handful of subtle changes – and then asks players to spot the differences and make both sides match. Perhaps most creatively of all, players have even adapted Sudoku with a first-person twist on the classic puzzle type, where locked doors divide the 9x9 grid into separate rooms, preventing you from initially seeing the whole layout. It’s fantastic fun, and I couldn’t get enough of fan-made creations. The effort put into some of them is inspiring, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more prolific creators end up becoming adventure game developers or escape room managers down the road.
When it comes to making your own rooms, Escape Simulator turns into a whole new beast. The level editor can feel intimidating at first glance, as the amount of control you have seems nearly endless. Most assets from the main game are available, plus a whole lot more in additional themes like “Medieval” or “Toybox,” and you can even import your own textures and sound files. A hidden layer of “logic pieces” exposes the core workings of the escape rooms, allowing for easily programmable cause-and-effect triggers. You can even make multiplayer rooms where players start off in isolated spawn points.
Overall, Escape Simulator is a blast and has a solid foundation, but a few tweaks would make it even better. There’s no midgame save system, which means levels must be completed in one sitting. That’s not an issue for the short-and-sweet official rooms, which are each designed to be finished in under 15 minutes, but it can pose a hassle for the massive community creations that occasionally take over an hour. Nor does the game record which community rooms you’ve beaten, which makes keeping track of things difficult if you’ve downloaded a bunch. A better system for organizing would help, but you can delete levels to return things to a manageable size.
Lack of VR support is another missed opportunity. While this is a nitpick that won’t affect most players, the option to play in immersive virtual reality would go a long way toward making the game feel more like the real-life, hands-on escape rooms it’s otherwise so good at aping (and perhaps make some of the object interactions a little more natural). The developers have mentioned on the Steam forums that VR prototypes exist, and they recently added a level that has some pointed references to Facebook’s “metaverse” and prominently features a Quest-like headset, so here’s hoping this wink-and-nod means that the feature will be coming to the public soon.
After finishing the main game and spending days playing several dozen community levels, I’m confident in saying Escape Simulator will be worth booting up again and again for years to come, as long as quality updates and player-made rooms keep flowing in. The puzzles are varied, the atmosphere’s a delight, and for anyone wanting to dip into creating their own adventure game, this might be the most user-friendly place to start. It all adds up to quite the package, whether alone or with friends, and earns my hearty recommendation.