Colchester, Apr 2019
The 60 minute time limit is near universal for escape rooms, with only a handful of longer or shorter games in the U.K. As it happens, every extended length game I’ve played has been at least very good – perhaps because longer games tend to be less profitable for venues, and therefore building one is a sign the owners are more focused on the experience they’re providing over the revenue they’re earning. Either way, Pathogen is a rare 90 minute game, and I’m pleased to say it fits the trend, in that it is indeed excellent.
In Pathogen a virus has devastated civilisation and you’re trying to find and synthesise a cure. From the premise and from the ominous game poster, I wasn’t sure whether this would turn out to involve surprise zombies, or anything of that sort; but no, it plays the story straight.
Laboratory themed escape rooms are often not very visually impressive – it’s easy for designers to slap a periodic chart on the wall, leave a few beakers and test tubes around, and call it a day. Pathogen reaches a far higher level of attention to detail, which is most obvious earlier in the game. The lab theme doesn’t particularly lend itself to a showy set but the game manages an excellent sense of immersion, partly due to an effect that gives the environment a plausibly atmospheric smell.
Where Pathogen truly excels though is in its puzzles. Right from the start it sets the bar with a sequence that’s fun, unusual, requires co-operation, and completely ‘realistic’ – it feels like you’re following it with real-world logic not escape room logic. It doesn’t keep to that high standard all the way through, with the central section in particular more typical of escape rooms – not at all bad, just less memorably different – but everything comes together for a triumphant conclusion that’s one of the absolute best laboratory sequences I’ve seen in a game anywhere. It’s not only a good multi-step puzzle, with several different strands coming together in a way that feels intellectually rewarding, but also highly true to the theme and story, with an array of gadgets that I hadn’t seen used in a game before and which were a joy to play with.
One piece of that equipment was annoyingly delicate, with a propensity to suddenly stop and go through an agonisingly slow reboot process – but I vaguely remember a real world equivalent of the item being just as delicate and fussy, so arguably that should count as additional realism.
Pathogen is a remarkably good debut game, full of memorable and interesting ideas. It’s strongest at the beginning and end, but never falls below the standard of ‘very good’; and instead of the setting providing a thin excuse for a set of puzzles, the puzzles are a natural part of the narrative. It’s an excellent reason to make a trip to Colchester, and I’ll be booking in a return trip just as soon as the company opens their next game.