Room-in-a-box, Jun 2019
Last year I reviewed a taster mini-game produced by Argyx and was impressed enough to sign up as a backer in the crowdfunding campaign for their full game, Apocalypse. That taster stood out for the quality and realism of its components, for making plentiful use of online resources to go with the ones in the packet of clues, and for the challenging difficulty level. Having now played the much larger follow-up, my impression is that it shares all of those strengths but sadly falls some way short on the gameplay, for an experience that doesn’t manage to live up to its considerable promise.
It’s impressive from the get-go, coming in a box noticeably bigger than the other various ‘puzzle experience by post’ games sitting on my shelf, inside which is a collection of objects much more interesting than a set of envelopes or papers. (There are also plenty of written items – all provided in a dual-language format, so that you can play in either English or French.) It even includes a couple of budget padlocks, which act as gatekeepers for the different sections of the game. There’s no official time limit on gameplay, and it’s much too substantial to complete in an hour – somewhere between 1.5 and 4 hours is a more realistic guideline.
Your time will, however, be recorded. When you’re ready to start playing you are prompted to log into the company’s website with a unique code printed inside the game box; doing so starts a timer that only stops when you reach the game’s end. That time, adjusted based on the number of hints you took, is then used to place you on their leaderboard. That seems a reasonable way to cater for those who like to play competitively, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making the game hints unavailable after you’ve completed the game. For that reason, despite the website having good instructions for resetting the game, it would be difficult to pass it to someone else to try – at least, unless you’re willing to act as gamemaster and provide hints. [Edit: This is incorrect, as discussed in the comments below – you can re-use the game code as long as you enter a different team name, and can then replay the game normally.]
And I’m confident that all but a very small percentage of players will need hints to complete this game, and perhaps a lot of them. Their Prelude game was surprisingly difficult, and Apocalypse is at a similar level. However, the greater quantity of items in the box means a considerably greater number of ways to waste time pursuing dead end ideas. Items are often not usable until a later stage of the game; some items are used more than once in different ways; and there’s a great deal of extraneous text included for realism, or for atmosphere, or to obfuscate the answers, all of which you’ll study closely in case there’s something useful hidden within. Plus of course not everything you need is in the box – an important part of the game requires you to look elsewhere.
Sometimes it’s good to be thrown into a set of puzzles without anything spoonfeeding you instructions, to have to extract the hidden secrets from initially baffling items with nothing to tell you where to start – it makes the eventual victory that much more satisfying. But even for players who prefer that style of game, Apocalypse is a bit too unstructured; you’re going to have to sort through a lot of chaff to find the wheat.
Much worse is that the logic of several key puzzles felt tenuous. One step caused particular frustration because part of its description misled us into trying the right approach in the wrong way for far too long – which was a shame, because it was a cool idea that fit beautifully with the game narrative and which should have been a highlight. Too many other sections seemed to be equally open to misinterpretation.
That’s doubly a shame because it’s not just the game components that are impressive – some of the ideas used for puzzles are superb. Real care has clearly gone into the research and design, and at times it attains a level of pseudo-realism that few puzzle games can come close to. While playing through I was repeatedly impressed by one clever idea or another – and then more often than not frustrated by the way it had been used. A more patient player might enjoy Apocalypse more, and if you experience its many points of confusion as an interesting challenge not as a succession of uncomfortable speedbumps to get past, then you may find it to be outstanding and unique; but I was put off enough that despite all its strengths I hesitate to recommend it.