Bucharest, May 2018
When people say escape games these days are increasingly experience-led, Chernobyl is a great example of what they’re talking about. While it’s as filled with puzzles as any other escape game (and more so than most, since this is a 75 minute game), the subjective experience while playing is less one of puzzle-solving, and more a cinematic feeling of dealing with the story, in this case ‘trying to deal with an out of control power station’. These days there are a good many other games which also manage that, but Chernobyl does it with outstanding success, building its puzzles into an dramatic sequence that feels like being at the centre of a disaster movie.
I do hesitate a little over the idea of building for entertainment purposes a game based around a relatively recent tragedy in which people died, and which may have affected many others; you’ll have to decide for yourself whether that’s something you’re comfortable with. Any qualms about that will be complicated by the fact that this is a really good game.
It opens with you sent to perform a set of routine tests on the power station; it’s hardly a spoiler to say that those tests won’t go smoothly. Right away though the tasks you perform as players are presented as a job you’re performing as technicians, and while naturally there’s some suspension of disbelief going on, the nature of the tasks and the beautiful, movie-grade set makes it very easy to suspend that disbelief. While I will of course avoid details, you can expect to be fiddling with electrical systems, making sense of technical monitor read-outs, and clambering around an excellent simulation of power station control rooms. There’s a lot that’s quite physical, and a great deal that feels like dealing with a complicated industrial system as it runs out of control.
The illusion slips a little on touching the decor, much of which turns out to be made with a moulded foam material that looks much more convincing than it feels. But that’s easy to ignore. We found the game flowed relentlessly, with the only lag being a point where we failed to communicate well enough and flailed around for a while until our pride eventually let us take a clue. The hint system here is via a themed device with a button to press if you want help, and fortunately my teammates were more conscientious than I at remembering not to leave it behind in a dark corner; the host did proactively intervene on rare occasions to avoid confusion though, such as to reassure us that yes, the thing we’d spent several minutes carefully investigating was in fact just a piece of wall.
Chernobyl kept its pace up through to the end, and while it had good puzzle content, that subsumed into the experience as a whole. This is the big screen movie version of an escape room, and Vin Diesel would feel at home.