Room-in-a-box, Jun 2019
In each set of games Unlock! releases, the third game has always been the one rated with the highest difficulty, has been the most innovative and ambitious in design, and – so far – has been my favourite of the box. Expedition: Challenger continues that trend on all three points while still suffering from several weaknesses; the Exotic Adventures box impressed me less than its predecessors, and if Challenger is the best of the three games in it, that’s mainly thanks to the low bar set by the other two.
As the big T-Rex on the box indicates, it’s set in a Lost World where dinosaurs still roam. You’re on the trail of the expedition that discovered this land, with the goal of rescuing the hapless explorers from the assorted predicaments they’ve landed in. That said, you may find you spend a surprising amount of time struggling with the game’s intro sequence before you get any whiff of a dinosaur.
Unlock!’s system often feels like a point-and-click computer game – puzzles often involve finding the right two items and using them together. Challenger takes that one step further by building a novel UI that lets you move around from location to location, with some cards only available when you’re in the appropriate location. That’s a cool innovation, though I found we had to keep careful track of where we’d found those location-specific cards so that we knew where to go when we wanted to do something with them.
You do that all against a time limit, not just the usual 60 minute time limit but a separate ‘in game’ counter based on how much you move from place to place in the app. For the location system to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of cost involved in moving around, and the system here piles on the pressure by showing you dwindling health bars for the explorers you’re trying to rescue. Take too long and you may reach them too late, discovering only a corpse. There’s one specific explorer you’re trying to save, and finding him ends the game – you may find that you failed to save some of the others either because you took too long about getting to them or simply because you solved the end-game puzzle before some of the others. It would be nice to have a little more warning when approaching the final puzzle (which, once activated, won’t let you return to the other parts of the game), and it’s a bit unsatisfying if you find you’ve missed out on sections of the game, but nonetheless I liked the variable score outcome, as well as the way the game can unfold in subtly different ways.
Expedition: Challenger is intended to be a tough game, and so it seems unfair to complain that it is indeed difficult; but of course there’s difficulty that comes from challenging, fair puzzles, and there’s difficulty that comes from wild leaps of logic. It has several puzzles that I’d put in the former category, but also some (two in particular) that I’d put in the latter – I’d expect only a small minority of teams to solve them without hitting the hint button, and anyone who gets the correct answer is more likely to be trying it just in case, not in confidence that it’ll work.
There are some other odd missteps too, such as the puzzle that seems unnecessarily obtuse purely through a poor choice of font. Or the way that there are five expedition members, of which you rescue four, and hear no word at all of what happened to the fifth. (Perhaps he’s being saved for a sequel?) On the other hand, Challenger did at least seem to go easy on the penalty cards, avoiding one of my perennial gripes about Unlock! games.
Moving between locations was interestingly novel but not something I’d be particularly keen to see repeated in future games. What did work very well was the way it has unpredictable events interrupting at key moments; Unlock! did something similar in Tombstone Express, but here it’s tied to ‘in game’ elapsed time not ‘real world’ elapsed time, and that felt more convincing.
All three of the games in the Exotic Adventures instalment are innovative in different ways, Challenger most of all. Not only does it have the entire system for moving between locations, it also uses every trick its technology allows it to introduce different sorts of puzzle ideas. That seemed a bit like novelty for its own sake, but I liked it anyway, and there was enough substantial puzzling alongside. Too often that puzzling was flawed, but once I accepted that I’d have to resort to the hint system to make it past the more obscure steps of the game, there was enough left that I liked to make for a decent game.