Bucharest, May 2018
The premise for this game sounded both intriguingly abstract and worryingly simple: after a “session of collective incantation” (Saturday night karaoke, perhaps??) you are suddenly spun away into a different reality and trapped there. My default expectation for a game is to simply walk in through the entrance door, and it’s always a pleasant surprise when a company makes more of an effort; Captive Outside Reality does particularly well here, with a blindfolded entrance and a clever intro sequence that gets the game off to a very good start.
Given the backstory the room could have used almost any kind of visual style, and at the outset I was a little disappointed to find ourselves in a rather bland environment, one that looked far more like a ‘generic escape room’ than any kind of alternative reality. However, partway through the game we discovered the game’s twist, which I shall carefully skirt around to avoid spoilers, but which instantly made the game far more interesting.
Despite the uncluttered and somewhat plain layout, this is a search-intensive room that relies on players being able to find some well-concealed items. The way some of them are hidden is clever, but missing one or two will bring the team to a frustrated halt before they’ve got very far into the game. On the other hand, objects that should be ignored are labelled as such with scrupulous thoroughness (I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen a game include books as decoration and then individually label each one as not needing checking). That mitigates the tough search requirements a little, since players can exhaustively examine every unstickered item until they work out its purpose.
The puzzle style here involves plenty of symbol mapping, and one of the things I admired about the game was that these puzzles don’t feel simply like one-off unconnected puzzles. Rather, there’s some reuse of symbol meanings that gives a sense of slowly increasing your understanding of some set of metaphysical correspondences. Despite a strictly linear sequence of puzzles, this culminates with needing to pull together multiple clues and strands of information to solve the ending, which genuinely felt like unlocking the underlying logic of the environment and using it to release ourselves.
A couple of the steps along the way felt a little tenuous, the sort of puzzle where your mind needs to jump in the right direction and if it doesn’t you’ll be stuck until you take a hint. And we did take a few hints, for one such puzzle in particular plus a couple of inevitable search fails. Hints are delivered by a combination of email messages sent to a tablet plus direct communication over intercom, which was not a strength of the game but worked well enough.
My final impression was that it was a clever game, built around a particular idea and with everything tying into that – each component and puzzle tying into the larger structure. It was impressive without blowing me away; I admired the concept but found the puzzles fairly standard. The searching will be easier with more players, but the linear structure is better suited to fewer, and most teams will need to resort to the hint system at some point. Even so it’s a smart idea well executed and tightly designed around its theme, which also benefits from the effective intro and good use of music to set the atmosphere.