Room-in-a-box, Aug 2019
I’d barely heard of Doctor Esker’s Notebook, and wasn’t even sure if it was a puzzle game or other sort of card game when the publisher sent me a copy to try. That’s always a risky thing for a publisher to do, since I’m fairly merciless about criticising bad or average games – but Doctor Esker turned out to be as pleasing a puzzle game as I’ve played in some time.
There’s little to classify it as an ‘escape’ game – no narrative to speak of, no time limit unless you wish to impose one on yourself. However, the style felt like a distilled version of some of the home escape games I’ve played, the Exit ones in particular.
It’s a tiny product, around the size of a normal deck of playing cards (though with maybe half again as many cards). It contains nine distinct puzzles, each consisting of a set of cards – as few as three or as many as fourteen. The backs of the cards show different designs to make it clear which cards go together, and in theory you could just solve each of the nine as a stand-alone puzzle in whatever order you wish.
However, the game also provides a set of solution cards for a novel verification system that also reveals the order in which to tackle the puzzle. Each puzzle results in a numeric code, and to check the code you take the solution cards for the numbers of that code. If the code is correct, then when you flip those cards they form a picture or a message that lets you know which set of puzzles cards to take next. It sounds like a mechanism that really shouldn’t work, or which should allow easy back-solving, and yet it worked perfectly without giving any good way to ‘hack’ an answer. A couple of times we transposed two digits of our solution, and the verification system made it clear that we’d done so; purists might dislike that, but personally I thought that gave a better experience than if it had just given an ‘incorrect’ result.
I pretty much always frown upon the use of established, familiar puzzle types in home escape games, and while this one doesn’t stoop to the level of using sudoku or crosswords, it does resort to the occasional rebus, and has distinctly too many anagrams for my liking. One solution also involved a slightly US-centric culture reference. Tastes vary and other players may like some of those elements more than I did. However, those (to me) low points were hugely outweighed by a succession of puzzle ideas that were smart, original and challenging.
Be warned that this isn’t an easy game, and I’d recommend trying some other home games before this one. But if, say, you find the Exit series not tough enough, or if you like puzzle hunts, then the difficulty level here will be right up your alley.
More importantly, the difficulty wasn’t because the puzzles were unfair. I’ve disliked other games where overly ambiguous puzzles have undermined my faith in the gameplay until I start reaching for the hints as soon as I get stuck, because I no longer expect the content to be reasonably solvable. Doctor Esker took the opposite trajectory, where even the puzzles I found baffling turned out to have elegant, pleasing resolutions. As a result I became ever more reluctant to take hints, because it kept demonstrating that persistence would be rewarded; and where I did hold off and kept working on puzzles that seemed completely intractable, they did indeed eventually yield and were all the more satisfying for it.
This is a product for puzzle fans. It’s not about immersion or story, and could be frustrating for those who prefer quick easy victories. It’s extremely portable, and the online hint system is the only outside dependency, so it’s a good option for a train of plane journey. But the main thing it offers is excellent puzzles, each to varying degrees following the perfect trajectory from baffling at the beginning to lucidly clear when solved. I recommend taking your time over it, and resorting to hints only if really necessary. You may have trouble getting hold of it from the U.K., at least without paying extra postage charges; if you’re in the U.S., then grabbing a copy should be a no-brainer.