Brussels, Jan 2018
Escape Prod’s second game is, like their first, based on a comic book that may or may not be familiar to English-speaking players. Blacksad is a series of noir detective stories set in 1950s America, with an anthropomorphic cat as the eponymous hero. The books have a gritty, adult tone and the game reflects that with a challenging difficulty level and a design that emphasises investigation and puzzle solving over its sister game’s light-hearted cartoon japes.
Rather than taking the role of the detective himself, the story is that he’s been framed and you’re helping find the evidence to clear his name. That makes it essentially a period office setting, though the room is built to a much higher standard of decoration than that might suggest. Knowing the source books, I also particularly liked that part of the decor took the chance to showcase the lush artwork of the Blacksad stories.
The game boasts a very high quality of automation with many puzzles using invisible mechanisms, all of which worked flawlessly for us. The technology behind the scenes might seem at odds with the noir setting, but it was seamless enough that we just accepted things being triggered by ‘magic’ and it didn’t disturb the immersion.
We took a similar time to finish each of the two Escape Prod games (around 40 minutes), but Blacksad is definitely a tougher game. A higher proportion of the content is placed as abstract puzzles, though still well themed and thoroughly hands-on in style. As with the venue’s first game, it has a clear progression through different stages but with a mainly non-linear structure within each stage, a game structure that I find tends to work particularly well.
Trying not to give too much away, Blacksad also has a clever twist for its final section that gives more leeway to teams who are struggling and simultaneously increases the pressure on teams that have been flying through the game. I spotted it at the time, but it didn’t make it any the less effective.
After the first hundred or so escape rooms, puzzles may be well-designed and well-executed (or not), but it’s rarer for them to be original; any good puzzle idea tends to have been independently invented in multiple locations. Even so, Blacksad really impressed me with the variety and creativity of its content, which had a couple of smart ideas that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere before, including one subtle puzzle idea that made complete sense in retrospect but which I’m sure I’d have been stumped on if a teammate hadn’t had a flash of inspiration. A step near the end may have been slightly too subtle for us, and I think we solved it more by fluke than as intended, but given the high quality throughout I’d give that one the benefit of the doubt too.
The two games at Escape Prod are both excellent and I had a blast playing both. Which you might prefer will be a matter of taste though: I’m sure many teams will prefer the cartoon style of Daltons, and its mostly more physical style of puzzle. Personally I got more out of Blacksad: the darker tone, the clever and sometimes quite subtle puzzles, and the deliberate step-up in tension for the conclusion came together to make a superb game.