Some people are going to look at NEScape! and write it off without thinking—but I’m here to tell you otherwise. This under-the-radar indie is worth your time, and is perhaps one of the more obvious candidates for the hallowed title of ‘hidden gem.’ NEScape! is a fully-realised escape room—a modern phenomenon—intriguingly brought to life in a 1980s-style 8-bit aesthetic. And it works so well that it’s easy to imagine it as one of the actual classic games of the NES library.
THE DEFINITIVE 8-BIT ESCAPE ROOM EXPERIENCE
At the start of the game you’re placed in a dark room. You find the right pixel to turn on the light switch then have an hour to complete the puzzles and escape through the locked door. To do so you cycle between four screens—the four walls of the room—and interact with the different objects—a piano, a typewriter, a payphone, and a number of locked drawers and cases. You solve riddles and logic puzzles and find clues using different tools—a UV light, a hairdryer, a tape deck, and so on.
I enjoyed the puzzles. Those that I had seen before—like imitating a sequence of flashing lights similar to a module in the also excellent Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, or spotting the difference between a series of pictures—were kept interesting by the pressure from the ever-present timer. Those puzzles that felt fresh and new appeared to be numerous, and relentless—I liked the clever use of colour in one, the use of music in another. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, so I’ll avoid specifics, but solving the whole sequence was both challenging and fun. The tension was palpable throughout. I made two failed attempts and most of a third before I completed everything and opened the door.
The graphics are faithful to the 80s 8-Bit aesthetic, with nicely-coloured backgrounds, and carefully-rendered close-ups of the plants, typewriters, and so on that you interact with. The music features a great chiptune rendition of tension music, with little shifts in intensity as you near the end of your hour. The interface is intuitive, so you’re able to apply all those brain cells directly into solving the puzzles.
‘Anyone know how to do a slide puzzle?’
I played the game on my own, but NEScape! feels as if it could have a place as a party game. At £4.07 it seems like a no-brainer of a purchase—something to pluck out from a well-stocked gaming library when like-minded friends come to visit. This would recreate the one part of the escape-room experience that NEScape! otherwise fails to manifest—hectically trying to work out the puzzles with your mates. The appeal may work better for ‘gamers’, but my non-gaming girlfriend played through engrossed for an hour on her own. I’d already finished the game, and was able to give a few clues here and there, a role just like the games-master in a real-life escape room. All this furthers the sense that NEScape! is an escape room shrunk down and placed inside a Nintendo.
There are a couple of negatives. Disappointingly, one of the puzzles requires listening to a word on a tape deck, and I couldn’t understand the word on its third iteration—the audio, ever-faithfully retro, was too distorted to understand. There’s also a slide puzzle—one of those jumbled images in a grid with one space missing—that may need real-life knowledge of the technique to solve it. For me, these two examples required a little jaunt to the modern-era book of solutions that is Google. In a way, this added a meta-puzzle vibe to my time with the game, but I felt as if I was cheating. Other than that, one important item—a box of matches—appears in an unfair way. The game cuts you away from where you’re already looking, so I had no instinct to go back there directly, yet that’s where it was.
Nobody wants an escape room to be easy. The good news is that NEScape! offers a compelling challenge. The game is divided up into five chapters and features only one room, but I expect most people will take three or more attempts to get to the end, bringing the initial game length to around 4 hours, which is good value for that impulse-buy-tempting price. The development team—a group of four known collectively as KHAN Games—have created something really interesting. NEScape! is perfect if you’re feeling the itch for some inventive and clever puzzling. I give a big thumbs up—along with the Thumb Culture Gold Award.
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.