Brighton, May 2018
There must be a great deal of pressure in coming up with a sequel to a game as well-known as the first Bewilder Box room, finding ways to live up to expectations and to do something new without losing what made the original work so well. Judgement D.A.V.E. hits it out of the park.
The storyline brings you back to the same fictional institute – although note that the real-world location is a different pub, this time out in Hove some distance from Brighton centre. Having proved yourselves in the first game, your job is now to deal with an AI that has gone rogue, as AIs inevitably seem to do: you must intervene before it successfully uploads itself to freedom, possibly with terrible consequences for humanity. Aiding you is D.A.V.E., the older AI from the previous game, this time provided as a wearable accessory.
The game area is not as large as the original Bewilder Box game, and any more than four players would risk feeling cramped – we played with three, which seemed optimal. However, I found the narrower space translated to a more directed feeling to the game, where tasks were mostly non-linear but within an overall linear structure that gave a clear sense of progress.
The designers set out this time to build a game without padlocks, and have done so. There are mechanisms equivalent to padlocks, which require a word or a sequence of numbers, but which are presented differently and therefore come across as fresh and interesting. After several hundred games I count a puzzle as ‘creative and unusual’ if I’ve seen it fewer than four or five times before; here I found multiple ideas that were entirely new for me, whether in the components used, in the underlying puzzle structure, or simply in the way something was presented.
Throughout the game, both AIs are talkative presences in the room. D.A.V.E. is the same entertaining and helpful guide he was in their other game, perhaps this time even more chatty. And the rogue AI periodically monologues arguments for allowing him to go free, while sometimes dropping comments that suggest that might a bad idea. This is more than background flavour, though. Instead of a straightforward mad AI, this one has sympathetic traits that might make the team hesitate about shutting him down – not least that he’s played by Norman Lovett, the original Holly computer from TV series Red Dwarf, whose laid-back persona is easy to trust. As described in the pre-game briefing, the final step to stop the AI requires all players to insert their key cards into the override panel; I’ll avoid any further details for spoiler reasons, but it is played for high drama, concluding the game with a meaningful choice where players could reasonably jump either of two ways.
I found that ending to be perfectly judged, exactly the right conclusion for a game that is simply superb. Everything fits together to create a game that’s not only full of interesting and creative puzzles, but also manages to make those puzzles feel like natural parts of a unified story. I did wish that proper dialogue was possible with both AIs, instead of one of them being limited to pre-prepared speeches; but I guess that’s the price of having it voiced by someone well-known.
Bewilder Box’s first game has a reputation that deservedly precedes it, but even so I thought Judgement D.A.V.E. was a clear step up in sophistication, narrative and flow. It’s a tour de force, a game that just kept impressing me from one angle and then another, that delivered on all fronts… and it might just be my new favourite UK escape game.