The Escape Room Unlocked is a digital detective game played entirely through a web browser. The Escape Game company designed Unlocked as a way to reimagine cooperative escape-room style games for a social-distancing audience. While stuck at home, Unlocked offers a group of friends the opportunity to find clues and solve puzzles together over Zoom/Discord. Two of the three chapters are currently available in the first Unlocked game titled The Heist. While Unlocked is definitely a highly accessible game that doesn't require anything other than internet access, it struggles as a team activity thanks to a number of grindy trial-and-error puzzles and a total lack of anything that requires teamwork to solve.
The three volumes in The Heist follow a plot to catch an international art thief named Hahn. A series of FMV videos from your handler move the story forward and introduce each new puzzle to solve. The handler is a corny dude that likes to make puns, go off on tangents, and keep things light. His videos are pretty cringe-inducing and may turn some players off right from the jump, especially those who aren't totally sold on the idea of a virtual escape room in the first place. I thought I couldn't despise him any more than I already did, but in Volume 2, I had to watch him eat and talk with food in his mouth.
After each video, the team will be presented with some amount of evidence (sometimes A LOT of evidence, in the case of Volume 1) and set about to answer one question about the thief before moving onto the next. Volume 1 has four puzzles to solve: the thief's name, five works of art he stole, his license plate number, and his address. You'll find the solutions by examining various pieces of evidence like passport stamps, newspaper clippings, photos, and physical evidence.
Sometimes the clues provide logical context to help you find the solution. A picture of the suspect in front of a famous museum can help narrow down where/when he traveled somewhere. Usually, though, the "evidence" is actually just thinly veiled puzzles that need to be solved without any larger context about the case. In one scenario, you'll need to discover what city the suspect was in by examining his 4th-grade science fair project, the answer is a riddle within the science project that reveals the letters that spell out the city. The puzzles are very game-y and immersion-breaking. Don't expect to solve the detective mystery, rather, expect to solve a series of disconnected brain teasers that reveal the answers. At one point there's a plain old sliding puzzle, not exactly cleverly crafted detective work.
The Silk Road
Volume 2 does a much better job of contextualizing the puzzles within the story. There are still bespoke puzzles to solve, but for the most part, they work within the context of the story; i.e. the thief has hidden information for his co-conspirators in complex puzzles that you're group needs to solve to stay one step ahead.
Volume 2 also does a much better job of presenting the evidence available. All of the images and files are dumped on you at the beginning of Volume 1 and your team needs to sift through all of it to find the relevant puzzles. In Volume 2, only the evidence you actually need to look at is available. More evidence is presented as the scenario goes on, so it's much easier to focus on each individual problem. Overall, I enjoyed how streamlined Volume 2 is. I felt like it respected my time a lot more than Volume 1 and I found the puzzles to be a lot more interesting and engaging.
Unfortunately, Volume 2 has more of the trial-and-error puzzles that the first volume did, which I found to be a major problem for a group-centric game. Some players on my team liked these puzzles from an immersion standpoint because detective work is often tedious and requires combing through data for relevant info. When we finally found the connection we were looking for, there was a palpable sense of satisfaction.
For me, the trial-and-error puzzles completely destroyed any semblance of group work. When one person is systematically entering IP addresses from a list and looking for a match or entering dates and times into a database over and over, what is there for everyone else to do? When the whole group had to watch one person do a slide puzzle, I realized something was seriously wrong with this format.
Best For A Group Of One
For these reasons, The Heist isn't a particularly strong escape room experience. All of the puzzles need to be solved in order, so there's no way to break off and solve different parts in smaller groups. There isn't really any cooperation needed to solve the puzzles. You can play this game much easier and faster by yourself than in a group, and I don't think any escape room should work better without a team.
Conceptually, Unlocked is fantastic. An escape room that can be played remotely with a group is something a lot of people would really like right now. The Heist doesn't make the most of that potential. Having said that, when Volume 3 comes out we'll be the first in line to give it a go and see if it can live up to the virtual escape room it aspires to be.
A PC copy of The Escape Room Unlocked was provided to TheGamer for this review. The Escape Room Unlocked is available now for PC.
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