Online, May 2020
Online escape games vary greatly in style. Some are essentially paper-based puzzles delivered digitally, others are more like puzzle-centric computer games. And some use a ‘realism’ style where the game isn’t presented as a set of puzzles, but as a real situation where you may need to follow a trail of clues across social media sites or investigate files using whatever tools and skills you may be able to bring to the game. Pentargo’s game is this last sort, and it’s by some way the most full-on example of that game style I’ve seen yet.
Be warned that the plot is set during current events, and involves conspiracy and coronavirus, which may be off-putting if you have strong feelings about using a real-world crisis as the basis for a game. And this is a very narrative-driven game. It’s not hosted, and doesn’t use a live gamemaster, but clever use of chatbot technology – plus video, audio, and more – makes it feel as close to a live experience as is possible to get without having a human involved.
After a deceptively gentle start, you get very little hand-holding. Quite the opposite – for some steps it throws a big bundle of information at you and waits for you to figure out how to make head or tail of it. Doing so involves extensive use of external resources – we’re talking the kind of hard work and speculative sleuthing that I expect from a puzzle hunt, not an escape game. There are relatively few steps in the game, but several of the steps are complex, time-consuming puzzles – our average time per answer was over half an hour (!).
There were points of friction along the way, but given the background difficulty level and the degree to which it managed to create a compelling, immersive story, those didn’t bother me. I thought one specific puzzle was much too ambiguous, in that there were a great many answers that seemed plausible and the correct one didn’t particularly stand out from the others; I don’t think I’d ever had got it without hints. But that was an exception in an otherwise logical series of puzzles, which required plenty of work but paid off in the satisfaction of cracking them.
Quarantine definitely won’t be for everyone. It has rough edges and the unbounded ‘open world’ design means it doesn’t have the elegant efficiency of puzzles based on a well-defined problem space where everything is used exactly once. But if you like the sound of an online game that maxes out the realism and makes you work for your victory, or you want a big game that’ll fill a whole evening, then you should absolutely give it a look. And at $2.50 per player for such a large, complex game, it’s ridiculously good value for money.