Online, May 2020
Logic Locks’ Catacombs is – in its original physical form – a masterpiece of a game, a slice of gothic horror that succeeds on multiple levels as immersive theatre, an escape room and a haunt maze. And of course it takes place in a genuine underground crypt, an instantly memorable location very much enhanced by elaborate decorations and subtle effects. Translating such a game into a remote experience was always going to be a huge challenge, and I bought a ticket without hesitation even though I’d already played it, simply to see how on earth they’d adapted it.
Because I’d already played, I didn’t really take part in this play-through, and instead watched it with myself muted. The game used a conference call for players to communicate, and a YouTube livestream to show the actual game. Whether due to that choice of platform or not, this suffered from two very severe technical issues: firstly, there was a noticeable and frustrating lag between players saying something and our avatar reacting to it, and secondly the YouTube livestream (but not the conference call) frequently stuttered and sometimes froze for longer periods.
I don’t know how representative these severe technical problems were – certainly not universal, since it seems others have reported much smoother experiences, and it may have been that we were unusually unlucky. Even with the lag and the freezes I personally enjoyed the experience anyhow – but then I was watching passively and didn’t have to actually try to solve anything or direct our avatar anywhere, plus I enjoyed revisiting a game of which I had great memories.
Still, even had the video and communications been perfectly smooth, this Catacombs is a very different beast to the in-person experience. The set remains beautiful, but loses the nerve-jangling suspense of descending into the unknown, of the dread that leaves you unwilling to reach into certain corners or turn your back on a doorway for too long. The puzzles are excellently suited for a group slowly and nervously exploring a dimly lit space, and much less so for solving via a remote proxy. Finely-timed moments of sudden darkness can’t have the same effect when they leave you staring at a black screen instead of plunging you into blindness. And the most memorably interactive, immersive sequences become something you mostly watch rather than something you actively participate in.
I’ve given it a mid-range rating, but there’s nothing mid-range about it. Catacombs is a world-class game, and in this form enough comes through to get an idea of what makes it world-class – but only an idea, not the real thing, and your imagination will have to do some work to fill in the gaps between this version and the original.
It should go without saying that I strongly recommend you to go play the full experience in Amsterdam rather than play it remotely. If you’re certain that you’ll never travel to Amsterdam, that there’s no chance at all that you’ll someday be able to play Catacombs in person, and you want to get an idea of what the game’s like, then you might want to try this version. It’s a peculiar mixture of the really special (such as the superb set and hosts, the commitment to immersion, the extended game length) with the frustrating sense of not getting the full experience. Like drinking a really fine champagne mixed with water, perhaps it’s better than not tasting it at all, but it’s hard not to be aware that you’re getting a diluted version.