Escape from the iPhone’s most dazzling virtual prisons, using the power of puzzle solving
Sometimes it’s hard to pin down where a genre starts and ends. Room escape games have a lot in common with point-and-click (or, on iPhone, point-and-tap) adventures. However, the emphasis is on puzzles rather than storylines, and – as ‘room escape’ suggests – there’s an ultimate goal of freeing yourself from your confines, over and above exploring the narrative.
This kind of game is popular online, but richer experiences exist on your iPhone. The best titles combine devious puzzles, atmospheric settings, and tactile interfaces that immerse you in strange virtual worlds. And the only way you’re going to escape any of them is with some serious brainpower.
The Room begins almost as an escape game in reverse. You receive a mysterious note, and stand before a box on a table. As you spin and explore the ornate, intricate contraption, you find various latches and switches, which when activated reveal more layers, like an impossible wooden onion.
An eyepiece hurls you further into the weirdness, providing insight into a strange hidden world of symbols and ghostly writing. The sense of mystery is magnified by creepy whispering voices. As more notes appear, chronicling the author’s slow descent into madness, you might feel a touch of mania yourself on clashing with a particularly uncooperative puzzle (in the sense of you being able to solve it).
Several boxes later and you get an ending of sorts, although one that doesn’t really explain anything. At that point, it’s time to delve into The Room Two, which is a mite more expansive. Instead of working your way into boxes, you’re tasked with escaping from rooms, through figuring out how to unlock the various objects located within them.
Again, this is a game that effortlessly marries clever puzzling, a tactile interface, and wonderful atmospherics, whether you’re on a creaking ship, or exploring a chilling seance room where things have gone very wrong, replete with spirits chattering, and a typewriter that abruptly springs to life.
By The Room Three, the novelty is perhaps wearing thin, but the ambition ramps up yet again. Initially, you find yourself in the Craftsman’s mysterious dungeon, tasked with being ‘deemed worthy’ by figuring out how to free yourself from the absurdly complicated contraptions he’s placed throughout the building.
Play the games through in order, for best effect, and avoid the hints system entirely. The Room is best slowly discovered and savored, and preferably played alone in the dark, with rain pouring down outside. (Or with a light on, if it all gets a bit too much.)
Originally released on the Mac, way back in 1993, Myst was a truly revolutionary adventure game. Cast in the role of the Stranger, you suddenly find yourself on the seemingly deserted (and frequently bizarre) island of Myst after having been daft enough to read a book that turned out to be laced with magic.
You awake on a dock, next to a ship that’s clearly going nowhere, with no idea what to do next. And there’s no hand-holding whatsoever: Myst merrily dumps you in at the deep end, expecting you to explore the island, spot clues, solve puzzles, and gradually work your way through its strange quest.
On iPhone, there are two ways to play. Myst is a straightforward port of the original Mac game, but with taps on the screen replacing mouse clicks. From a visual standpoint, it’s akin to a slideshow of pre-rendered imagery. realMyst, though, is a more modern take, with free-form movement that enables you to explore your environment in a rather less restricted fashion.
Whichever version you buy (we marginally recommend realMyst over the original), this is the kind of game where you need to be armed with pen, paper, and patience. Even in an era of tough videogame puzzlers, Myst quickly gained a reputation for being cryptic and perplexing; but compared to today’s rather friendlier mobile fare, Myst may leave you sobbing in a corner when you’re yet again baffled and lost.
Still, at least these days there’s YouTube if you get stuck, and you’ll feel like a champion when you do blaze through a few puzzles on your own – until Myst dumps you in a new location, none the wiser as to what to do next.
Dodgy voiceover aside, there’s a palpable sense of atmosphere as you blearily awake in Forever Lost, trapped in a room. Escape isn’t overly tough, although the writing scrawled on the walls is creepy and rather worrying: you’re clearly not the first person to be trapped here.
One swift breakout later, and you find you’re still stuck – only in the bigger prison of an abandoned asylum. Straying a little from the ‘find thing/use thing’ mechanics found in a great deal of escape games, Forever Lost often has you progress through clues lurking in words and patterns.
There’s also a pervading strangeness about what’s occurring, hinted at early on when you play a videogame on an abandoned iPad (how meta!), and an object you find ends up in your real-world inventory. Impossible. Spooky. Weird.
Although it’s visually a bit drab, and frequently bleak, Forever Lost’s more curious moments and engaging puzzles ensure it grabs hold. Oh, and its in-game camera (which you can use to snap anything you find, for later reference) is a brilliant feature all games of this type should immediately steal.
Of the games in this round-up, Machinarium veers closest to point-and-click adventure territory. The wordless tale features a little robot who literally has to put himself back together after being dumped on a scrapheap, before venturing into the world to save his kidnapped girlfriend and thwart the evil plans of the Black Cap Brotherhood.
The most immediately striking thing about Machinarium is its gorgeous visuals, with a wonderful hand-drawn art style that’s packed full of character. The world you explore feels coherent, even if it’s very odd in nature (an early puzzle requiring you to pose as a police robot by way of paint and a pimped-out traffic cone).
Machinarium also justifies inclusion in this round-up because it echoes escape games in terms of structure: each puzzle is confined to a few screens (often just one) and centers on logic. The game’s also big on detail: many of its challenges may seem wilfully obscure, but often you’re just not looking hard enough – or not thinking laterally.
In all, it’s a must-play slice of steampunk brilliance, which should appeal to point-and-click fans and room-escape advocates alike.
Download Machinarium ($5/£5)
Agent A is a traditional escape game in the guise of a breezy spy romp. It begins with you tracking Ruby La Rouge, who blows up a boat along with your boss. Vowing she will pay for her crimes, you break into her house, and she locks you in. For some reason, you can’t just smash your way through the ample glazing (La Rouge has a very nice house), and must instead untangle a labyrinthine path to an exit.
Visually, Agent A feels fresh and sharp, and there’s a wit about the narrative, too, with helpful responses to anything you happen to prod. The puzzles are sometimes lacking in imagination, but are nonetheless satisfying when you recall a detail you spotted that could be the solution to a puzzle.
The game could perhaps do with Forever Lost’s camera (a built-in notepad is OK, if gimmicky, on iPad, but less suited to iPhone), and a tad less backtracking; but it otherwise takes a formulaic foundation and adds lashings of class and polish, bringing it bang up to date.
Download Agent A ($5/£5)
All That Remains
From the minds behind Forever Lost, All That Remains finds you awakening in your father’s old bunker. On a two-way radio, you have a fraught conversation with your terrified sister, who reveals you’ve both been locked up “for your safety”, and that all hell’s broken lose. You must escape the bunker (which, naturally, doesn’t just have a single door handle with which to do so), and reach your sister before it’s too late.
Download All That Remains ($1/£1)
Although a long way from a traditional escape game in terms of its interface, Device 6 is ultimately a series of rooms with puzzles you must defeat before moving to the next location. The difference here is the landscape is the story, words forming the very corridors you walk along. It’s a superb, ballsy, original title that only really works on the touchscreen.
Download Device 6 ($4/£4)
Coming across like a minimal modernist take on Myst, Faraway finds you exploring the ruins of ancient temples. Each of the 18 levels blocks your way through logic puzzles that require you to poke about the scenery, unearth clues, and use this newfound knowledge elsewhere. Each temple is self-contained, and although the game drags a little towards its conclusion, it’s a fun, contemporary, mobile-oriented take on the genre.
Download Faraway (free + IAP)
Love You To Bits
Like Machinarium, Love You To Bits borders on old-school point-and-click territory. Still, there’s plenty of overlap with escape games, in that the bulk of single-screen scenes pit you against a bunch of puzzles where you must correctly find and use objects, in order to escape. That it’s visually stunning and packed with pop-culture references doesn’t hurt either.
Download Love You To Bits ($4/£4)
The Lost City
Harking back to the likes of Myst, The Lost City finds you coaxing a mystical island to give up its secrets. It’s visually lush, with an aesthetic reminiscent of old-school CD-ROMs with a kind of ‘cut and paste’ image style. And despite its maze-like navigation, it’s an enjoyable quest, not least when you discover how to change the seasons, and notice how that can be used to complete certain puzzles, like getting across an impassible river.
Download The Lost City ($2/£2)