Portsmouth, Jun 2017
Guardians is an unusual, single concept game. The backstory has you unlocking the mystical secrets of the 22 brightest stars in the sky to retrieve a magical elixir. This slightly abstract theme translates to a room decorated mainly in black with an array of locked cabinets, each labelled with a star name.
Each uses an identical three digit lock, and I had a nasty premonition of having to try each potential solution in each of two dozen different locks. Fortunately that’s not required. Each star/lock also has a visual hint which makes it clear which puzzle it goes with.
This is a very linear game. Sometimes you get access to items and clues earlier than they’re needed, but one puzzle leads to the next in strict succession. The content is a miscellany of puzzles mostly unrelated to the star theme, with not much that’s groundbreaking but with excellent variety and a gradual difficulty gradient increasing as the game goes on.
One area provides you with a set of cryptic hint cards, with no indication of which puzzles the hints are referring to. We didn’t make much use of these but I thought it was a nice idea that could slightly ease the bottleneck effect of a linear game, in that there’s extra information that someone can usefully trawl through for ideas that might help with whatever the rest of the team is currently stuck on.
The very simple decor and the strict linearity may be off putting for some. Personally I don’t mind a game that’s very focused on pure puzzles like this – as long as I’m playing in a small team the linearity is fine, and even relaxing; and as long as the puzzles are varied and satisfying then that makes for a good game. And the puzzles here were – with one ghastly exception.
I’ll avoid the details, but one puzzle near the end broke escape room convention in a big way. It was equivalent to a puzzle which relies on moveable components being left in their starting positions (that’s not what this was, but it’s a reasonably close analogy).
Now, there was a clear instruction in the game that we neglected to follow, and had we followed it there would have been no problem. Part of the reason we ignored it was due to our expectations about how escape rooms ‘should’ work, expectations that beginners generally won’t share. So many teams will sail through this point without problems. But the puzzle still remains a massive potential gotcha that’s nearly impossible to recover from – without some heavy help from the hint screen, we would have been unable to progress for the last twenty minutes, probably reduced to brute-forcing a three digit lock until we stumbled across the answer or the time ran out.
If you avoid this pitfall, it’s a perfectly successful game – plain decor and very much a linear sequence of puzzles, but well-designed and fun. Players are advised to pay close attention to all instructions. But even so, having a puzzle that can leave a team stranded like that is a terrible flaw in the design, which badly needs to be eliminated.