Room-in-a-box, Sep 2017
With episode 3, I had worried that the slight decrease in quality from the first couple of episodes would be permanent; Trials of Houdini reassures that that’s not the case.
This episode is set in early 20th century Coney Island, where you must navigate a series of challenges by Houdini himself. The story is a little contrived, but works perfectly well as a framing device, and once again the text benefits from a careful attention to historical detail that most players will only fully appreciate from the post-game notes.
I’d remembered the game as containing few physical objects. Checking back, that’s completely wrong: there are many, even though several of them are the same type of object. Not only that, but this episode has some very welcome variation on its containers. Where previous games mainly use envelopes to contain the next set of clues, Houdini mixes that up a bit in a way that shows definite care and creativity going into the design of the box contents.
The game opens with a puzzle that experienced escape room players may recognise straight off, and which everyone else may find a bit of a gotcha. There are also a couple of ‘puzzles’ that are closer to magic tricks, where the requirement for the player is really just to follow instructions, and the appeal is the way the answer makes it seem that the game has read your mind – a simple conjuring trick, in fact. These aren’t the only sections that play with the concept of conjuring and Houdini’s history, either. Completing a different section teaches you a simple magic trick as a side effect of solving the puzzle, and there’s an optional mid-game challenge for one player that gets properly into the spirit of the setting.
It’s entirely possible to ignore both of those. If you play it purely as a set of puzzles, you may well be disappointed, with much of the content requiring less actual ‘solving’ than normal. It uses a set of clues that gives the game a more linear structure, which also pushes it more towards a type of puzzle based around written clues and takes away some of the sense of exploration. On the other hand, there’s enough material in this game that without that structure it could be pretty tough to find the right path to make progress.
Still, I really enjoyed the way the game went beyond skin-deep theming to really build the game design around the idea of conjuring magic and an old-fashioned amusement park. Just as a conjuror’s act may be spoiled if you look too hard at what’s going on behind the handkerchiefs, this game is arguably more style than (puzzle) substance; but the style is fantastic, and a selection of nice props and clever ideas make it one of my favourites of the series so far.