London, Oct 2018
After playing AIM Escape’s first two games on an earlier occasion, we took advantage of a pre-Halloween offer to try their other two on a Friday lunchtime. First up was Spy Heroes, the sort of super-spy story where the bad guy is called Mr. Supervillain, the family-friendly style making a distinct contrast to the tone of their other three games. Your job is to save a friend, who just happens to be a Bond-style secret agent, and perhaps save the world while you’re about it.
AIM’s games are very tech-driven, as their website is proud to tell you, and that’s emphatically true of Spy Heroes. Its mainly linear sequence of puzzles are punctuated by video segments advancing the plot. Each clip left me impatient for it to finish and let me get on with the next puzzle, but it did give the game a strong narrative thread and a sense of taking part in an action movie.
There are no padlocks; puzzles are presented as ‘spy’ tasks such as decoding messages, hacking into systems, and so on. They’re aiming for a real sense of action movie immersion, and broadly succeed. What enthusiasts may enjoy less is the several puzzles that are essentially simple computer games. These are a clever way to represent ‘computer hacking’ in an accessible form, and work well with the game’s high-tech design. However, they’re sharply limited in how many people can participate in them at one time, made worse by the linear structure that means there’s little else to do until the current task has been completed. Also, if you’re going to include a computer game task in your game, it helps to make sure the game is fun; while the ones here are fine to play through as one of the game’s tasks, few players would choose to spend very long playing in a different context.
As the quantity of technology in an escape room increases, so too does the likelihood of some part of that technology failing. But almost everything functioned as intended for us, with the only exceptions being a damaged socket and a simple final puzzle that the gamemaster bypassed for us when it seemed to reject the correct answer, but which was probably just being a little fussy about the way that answer was entered.
The big highlight of this game is a central section, which I’ll just describe as very physical in nature. If you’ve played plenty of escape games you’ll likely have done something similar before, though this is an unusually large instance of its type, designed as the game’s centrepiece. Even though it didn’t have novelty value for me, I still had a ball playing through it. And more generally, the strong theming backed up by slick technology and a couple of more meaty puzzles give plenty to enjoy.
Where I can imagine Spy Heroes excelling is for families with kids in the 8-14 age range, where the parents handle working out the trickier puzzles but let the younger players take the lead on the various physical and screen-based tasks. The linear structure, the stop-start pacing of the video interludes and the reliance on computer puzzles are less tailored to my tastes, and even so it was a highly enjoyable bit of spy escapism.