STAFF REVIEW of NEScape! (Xbox One)

Wednesday, February 1, 2023.
by Peggy Doyle

NEScape! Box art I love logic puzzles, and it’s probably the reason I also love escape rooms. Trying to figure out what you need to do by investigating your surroundings and solving puzzles with clues you find. It’s even better when you’re doing it with a group who also love puzzle solving. Unfortunately, one of the problems for most people with real escape rooms is time commitment and/or financial constraints, as you can easily spend $100 for a 1 hour session. I’m happy to say that there is a way to have a logic puzzle experience at home for a fraction of the cost, even if it means running solo, in the form of NEScape!

Back in 2019, NEScape! was launched on Kickstarter. KHAN Games wanted to create an escape room envisioned as an NES game. After surpassing their goals and raising over $38k, they were able to make their dream a reality and bring the game to consoles, which is why we are here talking about an NES game on Xbox. Developed by KHAN Games and published by 8 bit Legit, NEScape! has a low investment price of only $5.99 CDN. Don’t let the low-price fool you though, this may be a relatively short game but it is a tough experience. There is no hand holding and no real clues or hints to help you through the puzzles. There is no story in sight, no explanation of why you start the game in a pitch black room, and are left to your own devices.

Once you figure out how to turn the light on, you are free to explore any of the 4 rooms available to you at any time. You must decipher numerous puzzles while trying to escape, each puzzle solution holding a piece to another puzzle as you work though the game. Interestingly enough, if you are an achievement hunter anyway, there is no achievement aligned with escaping the room. In fact, I managed to get all the achievements about 2/3 of the way through my escape plan. After completing the game, I looked for online walkthroughs for achievement hunters and you can get all 1000 gamerscore in about 8-9 min if using the guide. Inexpensive investment if you just want to add to your Gamerscore and achievement total.

As mentioned, you don’t really get any clues as to what to do, and because of that, along with the pixelated retro style of the game, it makes NEScape! a bit tough to explore. Using a controller cursor doesn’t always line up or click perfectly meaning there were some moments of frustration where I had to restart a puzzle after an accidental click, but as none of the puzzles are time sensitive, there isn’t much in the way of punishment if you have to slow down and take your time. After feeling lost many times through the game, there are also plenty of ‘A-ha!’ moments as well once you figure out how to crack a code, use a ‘blacklight’ to see a secret message or playing a song on a piano. Waves of frustration and satisfaction were equally present during my time in NEScape!

While I found myself frustrated (but I persevered through sheer stubbornness), I can completely understand that this game will simply be ‘too much’ for some people. The lack of guidance or clues can stump you and make you feel dumb. And I wouldn’t blame people if they used a walkthrough at all. As previously mentioned, this is a quick completion using that method, but you wouldn’t have the satisfaction of actually solving the puzzles (if that is important to you).

The action takes place over 4 rooms, with most of the puzzles revolving around noticing changes within those rooms. For example, opening a lockbox in one of the rooms may make a painting appear in another room where it wasn’t before. This means that your next step likely has something to do with that painting, etc. Each puzzle was slightly different and some even had some nostalgic throwbacks to one of the most hated puzzle types of my childhood, the sliding puzzle. You know the one, where pieces could only slide around the grid and you had to see the whole big picture? Yes, that one. Still not a fun puzzle type for me as was obvious after playing NEScape! Finding a key means hunting for the proper lock out of the many in the rooms, trying to listen to music on a cassette and replicate musical notes on a piano isn’t easy if you have no idea what you’re doing, even harder is trying to decipher morse code from the beeps. Every time you solved a puzzle and had a new item or piece of info to work with, you needed to figure out what to do with it.

Along with the throwback puzzle types, there were lots of retro nods to items I had growing up, small toys and even a Caboodle. If you know what I mean you are also a retro aged gamer. If not, it’s a plastic box filled with compartments similar to a fisherman’s tackle box, but primarily marketed to girls to carry ‘stuff’ or makeup around. A quick search online tells me that they are making them again. What goes around comes around, I guess. In similar fashion, NEScape! has a delightful retro, 8-bit aesthetic and appropriate soundtrack that immediately takes you back to the early 80's or 90's, and the developers definitely hit it out of the park in this way.

They wanted an escape room envisioned as a NES game, and that’s exactly what they gave us. That being said, the soundtrack was repetitive and I eventually turned off the game audio, with the ticking clock reminding me of the hour I had to escape. Playing it in peace was a more enjoyable experience until I realized the game was filled with audio clues, including having to listen to cassette tapes for words that were the next steps to puzzles; Audio back on. On a point of accessibility, I saw no way to cue subtitles or anything, so if you are a gamer who is hard of hearing or deaf, you likely won’t be able to complete this game without some sort of walkthrough help. I really think the game should have some sort of disclaimer on the store page detailing that you must be able to listen to audio clues. Although the game is inexpensive, it’s wasted money if you can’t play it for that reason.

Based on the images and design, I expected NEScape! to be a nightmare to control. I figured we’d have a clunky PC port to console-like experience and, even though I had some moments where things didn’t click in the preferred locations, the majority of the time it controlled really well. Mechanically, this was a simple game to play, but the lack of direction or even a basic hint system is what will hold the game back. Also, because of the style of game, it really doesn’t have any replayability. Once you know what you need to do there is no variation if you wanted to try it again, other than to beat your previous time, I guess?

I really wanted to love NEScape! but I was very concerned when the developers sent a complete walkthrough of step-by-step instructions to complete every puzzle in the game. I didn’t use it on my first playthrough, and I’m not against using them to beat games, but for a game with such simplicity on paper, it set off some alarm bells. This was confirmed as accurate pretty quickly, as you can see from my discussion of how difficult the puzzles were with no hints. The game is fine and it had a lovely retro aesthetic, but its lack of direction or any sort of hint system is a big let down for me. If you want a cheap game and want to use a walkthrough to get a quick 1000 Gamerscore in less than 10 minutes though, it’s perfect for that.

**NEScape! was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 6.7 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.5 / 10
Sound: 6.5 / 10


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