Room-in-a-box, Nov 2019
Many play at home escape games use an online component, usually for hints and/or answer verifications. The Cult Experience goes much further, and the larger part of the game consists of video snippets, each usually a few minutes long. You purchase the game in the form of a book, but the first puzzle leads you to the associated website, and thereafter each stage requires clues from both the book and the online video. (In my copy that initial puzzle actually contains an error, which may or may not be fixed in later printings; but the intended answer was sufficiently obvious that I didn’t even notice it the first time through.)
Both the name of the book and its cover suggest that this is not a cheerful, family-friendly adventure, but I need to add a clear content warning. The videos are at times very gory and graphic, with sequences that I’d expect some players to find unacceptably unpleasant. If you’re not confident you’ll be comfortable with gruesome material, this may not be the game for you.
A second important warning is that it’s inflexible on its time limit. From the moment you reach the first video a timer begins counting down, giving you 2.5 hours to complete all five stages. That timer continues counting while not only while the videos are playing, but also if you step away to have a snack or answer a call – there’s no option to pause, and if you run out of time the only option is to re-register and start from the beginning. So don’t start the game until you expect to have a clear block of time to play it.
Leaving aside the bloody nature of the story, the videos look slick and well-made, with acceptably earnest acting. Each step also has its own style of answer – rather than, say, each puzzle resolving to a number or word, it sometimes expects a typed answer, sometimes gives you a set of buttons to press, or sometimes a simulation of a directional padlock or safe combination dial. The variety is very welcome and the execution mostly smooth – with one glaring exception where the way you’re expected to enter your answer in the widget is wildly misleading.
I found most of the puzzles distinctly at the easier end of the scale, particularly those earlier on, and I’d expect most enthusiasts to have little trouble with all but a couple of steps. The exceptions to that are unfortunately difficult due to weak puzzles. In fact, several of the puzzles struck me a bit tenuous in one way or another, but most of those were also easy enough that I could see the intended answer anyhow.
The two exceptions to that became complete dead-ends, after I checked the hints at the back of the book and found them too cryptic to help; I only managed to continue after contacting the game’s authors for a clue. There are now additional clues available on the website (on the FAQ page, which may not be obvious when you’re mid-game), though these don’t give outright solutions either so it would be possible to end up stuck even after looking at these.
I found the final section a little odd, involving a quick-fire series of easier puzzles – but this time with a ten minute time penalty for any wrong answers. I’d consider that a bit unfair, but players are only really likely to make mistakes here if they’re rushing. Depending how you answer, you could certainly find the conclusion anti-climatic.
While The Cult Experience was certainly on the easier side, I didn’t particularly mind that, because the quantity of video and the clear narrative made the game feel more substantial – even if you rattle through all the puzzles without pause, the need to watch all the story limits how quickly you can finish. I’d certainly have enjoyed it more had it been a less distasteful story, though I guess that’s a matter of personal taste. Getting stuck with no recourse while the timer inexorably ticked down was a much bigger problem, and one that could entirely kill the experience. The addition of extra hints on the website helps there, though I suspect not all players will realise they’re there.
Ultimately though whether I’d recommend it depends on how you feel about violence and gore. If the occult slasher theming works for you, then The Cult Experience’s presentation mostly carries this game despite its weaker moments. If the story puts you off, then the underlying puzzles aren’t strong enough to be worth braving the video nasties.
Disclaimer: We played this game on a complementary basis. This does not influence the review or rating.