Stafford, Apr 2019
A hat tip here to the review blog Brit of an Escape Habit, since without their recommendation I probably wouldn’t have decided to make a stop at Stafford on my journey north, and in the event I very much liked both the town and the escape room.
Escape Nation’s first game is set in space, and The Citadel is the name of the space station on which you find yourselves. Naturally, all is not well. Genre traditions demand that if you have a shadowy interstellar organisation / an artificial intelligence / a space station, they will turn out to be, respectively, unscrupulous / malfunctioning / about to explode. In this case, you have an hour before the backup power runs out to work out what’s happened and make your escape.
A space station should be full of interesting panels and blinking lights, and this one fits the bill. More importantly, it manages to be busy and full of things to look at without packing in lots of non-functional lights and buttons that turn into accidental red herrings. The effective decor is then improved further by skilful use of lighting changes and audio, dim without being annoyingly dark and responsive to the players’ progress.
Escape Nation are clearly comfortable with building custom electronics, and have included a variety of interesting custom gadgets. At the same time you’ll see plenty of numerical padlocks, including for some of the more intellectually smart puzzles in the game. While the padlocks perhaps don’t entirely match the sci-fi environment, the game design seems more focused on providing an eclectic mix of interestingly different puzzle types, and manages that to good effect.
It’s simultaneously strong on narrative and also quite a traditional puzzle sequence. Puzzles use the theme and environment as raw materials, while gradually revealing what happened to put the space station in jeopardy. It manages to sketch a picture of the game’s universe and the back story of the game with a light touch, avoiding laborious explanations but still giving a clear picture of what’s going on. While that was one of the game’s strengths, I felt there was a missed opportunity for more immersion – there was no particular sense of peril. The story was clear and woven into the game well, but didn’t feel like it might suddenly burst in on us.
Citadel is a slick and pleasing game throughout, and small details keep it flowing tightly. Examples are the way they not only provide torches to help with darker corners, but make lots of them available; the way they dim the lights during the intro video to avoid distraction; the way they confirm when you have a code correct, and do so in character as the spaceship AI. None of that’s anything extraordinary, but it all shows care taken in keeping players’ experience on track.
The two of us rattled through everything in a bit over half an hour, not because it was short of puzzles but because we never really got stuck. There’s always a risk of over-rating a game that’s gone smoothly, just as I have to be careful not to under-rate games I fail, but my impression was that it went well because of solid puzzle design and good game structure, not because we happened to be having a good day. With some distinctive and interesting puzzles, it was a high quality game that’s worth making an effort to get to.