Retrospective Holiday Special: Portal | Review

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Portal Review | Set in the mysterious Aperture Science Laboratories, the game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment. Players must solve physical puzzles and challenges by opening portals to manoeuvring objects, and themselves, through space.

Developer: Valve
Console Played On: Steam
Number Of Players: 1

Disclaimer! This is a retrospective review. This means it is reviewed based on the gaming expectations of the present day and the relevancy for escape room enthusiasts.

Do you enjoy silent protagonists? Check ✅

Are you enticed by mind-bending physics? Check ✅

Do you prefer your comedy to skirt the line between hilariousness and existential dread? Check ✅

Well if so, this puzzle game might be for you.

Well, You Found Me. Congratulations. Was It Worth It?

If you saw my introductory interview with Mairi, I mentioned Portal 2 as being one of my favourite puzzle games. After playing it, I spoke to friends about how much I enjoyed it. My “PC gaming” friends often responded something along the lines of…

“It’s good…but not as good as the original”.

After many, many of these encounters; I vowed to find a copy of The Orange Box (a Valve compilation of games including Portal), on the PS3 (I didn’t own a decent PC at the time); however it was sold out everywhere. When I eventually found a copy, it was at an extortionate price. That was in 2011.

10 years later I still find myself, never having played the original title. Well dear TER friends, that ends today – it can be bought on steam; on it’s own.

So welcome, to my retrospective holiday special.

A Complimentary Escape Hatch Will Open In 3… 2… 1…

You play as Chell, a silent protagonist who is a test subject for Aperture Laboratories. You wake up from your isolation pod and are instructed by GLaDOS, a dry, shade-throwing AI system, to undergo various physics based puzzles using the portal gun, an experimental tool used to create two portals through which objects can pass. As a concept, the theming is simple but still to this day, highly effective. Furthermore, it can’t be ignored that it has inspired the theming and narrative of many other games; puzzle and non-puzzle alike. We owe a lot to this.

The visuals are simple but polished, and successfully project the image of a cleansed, futuristic dystopian world. There are no other human characters to interact with, just a series of mechanisms and a sassy AI with a frenemy attitude. There were many times where I found myself chuckling away at GLaDOS’s insults via deadpan delivery as I progressed further and further.

Let’s Be Honest. Neither One Of Us Knows What That Thing Does.

Is Portal an immersive experience? I’d be inclined to say yes. Its not hugely story-rich, there isn’t any narrative to initially invest you and the character dialogue is one-sided. But the theming and puzzle-depth allow the player on many occasions to forget themselves and subconciously dive into the minimalistic elements presented.

Do Not Submerge The Device In Liquid, Even Partially

You’ve really got to hand it to Portal for their puzzles and overall innovative contributions via Valve’s physics mechanics; through the use of the famous portal gun. It blew player’s minds back then, and even now it’s still very strong in both areas. The learning curve is brilliant and wholly organic, each puzzle set piece has thematic, visual signposting (see below) to help you progress and the puzzles themselves are still impressively innovative and satisfying to complete. During the back half of the game, there are puzzles that involve the player to be dexterous with their control input. This can be frustrating for some, but because there is no penalty for trying and trying again, once you do accomplish a tricky set piece, you are rewarded not only by the accomplishment, but the visual stimuli of gracefully flying through the air in the first-person.

Quit Now And Cake Will Be Served Immediately

I’ve noticed that if a game from the 2000s is remastered/re-released for present day, it’s highly likely that the controls require some from of standardisation. This can be the ultimate difference between a playable, nostalgic dream vs an unplayable mess and waste of money. Thankfully, Portal utilises a keyboard and mouse set up that is futureproof and still allows great playability in 2021. I am disappointed however, that considering how popular and iconic this game is; gamepad compatibility has not been patched in. Especially, when I can believe that many players including myself, was introduced to the series via the sequel on a console that would use a gamepad, subsequently love the experience, and then be forced to use a different control method when playing the original.

When The Testing Is Over, You Will Be Missed

Originally, Portal was only available as part of Valve’s The Orange Box; available on PC and 7th generation consoles such as Xbox 360. Now it can be bought on steam by itself for £7.19. For that, you will get around 2 to 5 hours of game time plus bonus maps outside of the main campaign. Valve are one of the biggest game development companies out there, therefore I’d argue that this is at just about the right price.

Rating

Initially, Valve considered Portal to be merely filler for The Orange Box; unexpectedly gaining wide spread popularity and acclaim when released in 2007. Fast forward to 2021 and its still a highly playable, engrossing puzzle challenge that is poignant and comedic. It’s a shame there isn’t gamepad compatibility, but there is more than enough here for escape room enthusiasts to get stuck into, during this holiday (or any) period.

Portal can be purchased on steam here.

Escape Simulator | Review

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Escape Simulator Review | Escape Simulator is a first-person puzzler you can play solo or in an online co-op. Explore a growing set of highly interactive escape rooms. Move furniture, pick up and examine everything, smash pots and break locks! Supports community-made rooms through the level editor.

Developer: Pine Studio
Console Played On: Steam
Time Taken: 3 Hours
Difficulty: Medium
Number Of Players: 1

Escape Simulator is finally here! And yes, we’re thrilled. After all we’ve been patiently waiting for this game ever since they announced it in September.

*let me innnnn*

We spent a lot of time on The Escape Roomer between us various video game editors deciding if a video game is close enough to an escape room to review it. Is a point-and-click adventure sufficiently puzzle-y? What about unravelling a mystery? Deduction puzzles, are they puzzley enough?

But there’s no mistaking Escape Simulator. The clue is in the name. Escape Simulator is an escape room simulator game. The idea is simple: solve puzzles to escape from the rooms. So lets get into it:

About Escape Simulator

Escape Simulator has three themes of escape room:

  • The Labyrinth of Egypt
  • Adrift in Space
  • Edgewood Manor

Each of these settings has 5 rooms to solve which get steadily more difficult as you progress. There’s a time limit of 15 minutes per room – although these serve as more of a ‘time guidance’ as the only thing that happens if you fail to escape is you miss out on extra achievements.

They’re short fire games at 15 minutes each, and it’s very hard to stop ionce you’ve started! The next level is only 15 minutes… Which is how I found myself still up and playing the game in the dim computer light at 3am one night!

Players can move around the 3D spaces and pick up and examine objects closer in their inventory. There are a number of tokens to find throughout the rooms (again, just for extra achievements though), and many tactile puzzles to uncover and solve throughout the spaces.

Since each escape room has it’s own unique personality and flavour, it’s hard to say which are my favourite – but I probably vibed the best with the Edgewood Manor series. What can I say I love Victoriana! But the early Labyrinth of Egypt games were a lot of fun too, the perfect introduction to the experience.

On the flip side, I would mention that when I played the game there was no hint system. This means it’s very easy to get stuck… And I mean really stuck. But once you get through the first few games you begin to get a feel for it. For example, one tip I realised far too late (after about 11 rooms) is that items related to puzzles are indicated clearly in the inventory, and the rest you can toss away.

Co-Op Escape Room Video Game

One of the coolest things about Escape Simulator is that there’s a co-op mode which I loved! Only a few days before I heard of the game I was lamenting to a friend that most good escape room video games (with one notable exception) are single player.

Escape Simulator makes it really easy to play with a friend. You start a game and share a code and voila – the two of you can move around freely within the escape room together!

There are a few caveats however. Firstly, the rooms you can play in co-op are the same as the single player rooms. If you chose to play the game entirely in single player, you can’t then play co-op as you’ll have solved the rooms already. The same is true in reverse. None of the puzzles (which I encountered) were co-operative puzzles, which means that the co-op mode felt slightly like an add on.

Secondly, there is no in-built voice communication in Escape Simulator, meaning you should fire up a call with the person you’re playing with. The key to solving any good escape room is, afterall, communication.

But still, I’m glad they did include co-op, as it’s more fun to play with your friend than alone!

Create Your Own Escape Room

In truth we received our Escape Simulator code a little early for review purposes which was fantastic. We quickly leapt into the escape room immersivity and worked our way through the exciting scenarios to our heart’s content. But instead of posting this review right away on Day 1, we chose to wait a little longer. Why? The very best thing about Escape Simulator is the build-your-own-room feature, meaning the real gem is the long term longevity of the community creations!

Escape Simulator’s Build-A-Room

Kinda like how Skyrim is a great game and 300 hours later you’re like “huh pretty cool” and then you go and open up the Steam workshop and end up spending 1,000 more hours on the mods to the point you no longer remember what was in the original game and what is the glorious creation of a fan-dev.

Escape Simulator is a little like that.

For sure, it helps that my day job is a Game Designer – but I found the escape room workshop pretty intuitive and accessible. Having now created and played plenty of community creations, there’s an almost endless amount of possibilities when it comes to what you can create. You’re given all the objects from the previous four environments, but can combine them in some creative ways to make entirely new puzzles the game developers hadn’t even though of, which I like.

At the time of writing Escape Simulator has been out for about one week and there’s a fair amount in the workshop already. I expect that as the game matures, even more brilliant rooms will be available to play, giving the game some real longevity. I look forward to picking up my controller in a year or more’s time and losing a lot of time in the wonderful world of Escape Simulator…

Keep an eye out for a “Best Escape Simulator Workshop Games” post in the near future!

So what’s the verdict? I really enjoyed it! No surprises there. But honestly, it’s a well rounded escape room video game that’s been long missing in the video game world. I’ll be recommending this to anyone who wishes to dip their toes into the wonderful world of escape rooms – and doubly recommending it to anyone who wants to have a go at designing their own!

With it’s smooth gameplay, relaxing music and bright, poppy graphics, it’s just a lovely game. My only criticism is that I wish were was more of it out the box – more levels, more puzzles, and more world’s to explore! I also think this would be a fantastic VR game, but hey, a girl can dream!

Escape Simulator can be downloaded on Steam.

Ratings

Old Man’s Journey | Review

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Old Man’s Journey, a soul-searching puzzle adventure, tells a story of life, loss, and hope. Interacting with the world around you, you’ll shape the landscape to create the old man’s path forward. Experience heartache and hope as you embark on a heartfelt journey through a sunkissed world.

Time Played: 108 minutes
Console: PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox
Recommended For: A relaxing puzzle game with beautiful mechanics

An old man, living alone atop a hill, receives a letter in the post and immediately packs up his bags and ventures out on an epic journey across wild terrain, the sea, by train, and perched on the back of a truck. Through the trials on his old bones we learn about his life, his hopes and his dreams through a series of flashbacks. The puzzle mechanics are a simple yet tool to tell this heartbreaking story without a single word. I’m not crying… YOU’RE CRYING!

In the Steam Summer Sale I picked up 30 new titles I’d never heard of before, and Old Man’s Journey was one of them. I didn’t really know what to expect – it was one of my ‘wildcard’ purchases from the “Puzzle” category, and looking at the multitude of excellent reviews I knew I’d found a hidden gem.

I’d move mountains for this old man

…No seriously, that’s how you play this game. Have you ever been in a long car drive daydreaming out the window as the hills rise and fall over the landscape? It’s easy to imagine a figure running along the top of them, leaping from hill to hill as the perspective shifts. This is how the puzzles work in Old Man’s Journey. He’s a lone figure moving across the beautiful landscape alone, on a journey that you’ll not understand until the game’s climax. The side scroller gameplay makes it easy to pick up and master quickly.

It’s a puzzle mechanic I’ve never seen before, making Old Man’s Journey an instant classic in my eyes. Totally original and executed to perfection! Sure, there are other games where moving parts of the landscape is a central mechanic, but pulling and pushing hills out of the way in this whimsical side scroller felt altogether fresh.

Just as the puzzles start to feel repetitive, the game does mix it up a little. Each new area brings with it new challenges – such as encountering sheep which must be safely moved out of the way to let you pass, or fences which must be knocked down. Some of my favourite parts of Old Man’s Story were the ‘travel sequences’, where our old man character hops on a train or the back of a pickup truck and speeds through the landscape gracefully.

I’m not crying… You’re crying!

What I loved most about Old Man’s Journey, no surprise, was the story. It’s equal parts heart warming and heart breaking. As a player, besides shifting the landscape to make the old man’s journey possible, you’re largely left in the dark about the who, what and why, making it feel like you’re going on the journey of discovery with the characters.

At points, the titular characters takes breaks in his walk and reflects on life through a series of flashbacks, each recalling a moment in his life. We see his life as a young man, meeting his first love, starting a family, building his own home and, at points in our own story, the landscape changes to match the mood. There’s a sense of spring youthfulness at the start, and stormy trouble at the old man reflects on sadder moments in his life.

The developers have also added a language-less touch to the whole experience too, making the game powerful for every audience, regardless of language. What I mean by this is there are no words. No written dialogue, no conversation, heck even the buttons aren’t labelled – it’s all intuitive.

It’s excellent environmental storytelling: expressions, weather, colours, and painterly landscapes of the past. Just like this old man is, all are solitary, sad and quiet.

Who should play this?

You should play this if you, like me, keep forgetting to ring your grandparents, or elderly parents. It’s a really straightforward puzzle game and easy to get the hang of – so a great one for puzzle enthusiasts and beginners alike. Old Man’s Journey has also now been released for mobile too, so there’s no excuse not to check it out.

Personally, I played this on PC. I felt a little bit under the weather and wanted to sit back, enjoy some Art (with a capital A!) and solve some simple puzzles. At around 60 minutes long, it’s on the shorter side. You could complete this game in the same length of time it takes to complete an escape room, or more likely wait in line at the doctors.

This makes it a great game to check out if you’ve only an hour or two to spare, want simple mechanics and beautiful graphics. Play Old Man’s Story for a sense of peace and a meaningful message. This game is undemanding, moving and utterly brilliant.

Purchase Old Man’s Journey on the website.

Serial Cleaner

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Slip on your flares, grab your shades and hop in your station wagon, it’s time to work… as a mob professional cleaner. A good cleaner never gets caught, so you have to make sure you get in, clean up and get out without leaving a trace of evidence in this stylish award winning 2D action-stealth game.

Time Played: 7 hours
Console: Nintendo Switch
Recommended For: Adults, Fans of Stealth Games

Content Warning: Death / Murder / Violence / Blood

Guilty pleasure admission, I LOVE this game. It’s got gorgeous artwork, slick game mechanics, increasingly complex puzzles to solve, and a fun plot packed with twists!

A mysterious phone call to your house and off you hop in your 70s card to a horrific crime scene. Enter, you. You play the role of “The Cleaner” and for once, rather than play a gun-toting maniac (like 99% of other games out there), you take on the joyous role of tidying up after said maniacs. Picture Grand Theft Auto but once you’ve driven away leaving bodies in the wake, the cleaner comes in with his mop and vacuum to save the day.

The inner Marie Kondo in me makes this an absolute joy to play. You must quietly slip into a building undetected, clean up as fast and quietly as you can, and disappear into the night. Never mind the hilarity that comes once a police officer’s back is turned you jump out from behind a plant pot and scrub the crime scene until it’s sparkling – only to have them turn back around, say “huh?” and continue on with their walking pattern.

So apparently I love cleaning? Tell that to the pile of dishes in my sink and laundry I forgot to put out this morning. But a game like Serial Cleaner is so much more than a cleaning simulation. It’s a stealth game at it’s heart and, in the most classic sense of the word, an escape room game. Yes, you literally have to escape into and out of rooms, armed with switches, hidden passages, oh and cleaning equipment?

Each ‘Contract’ comes by phone. You never know who you’re talking to and each murder scene gets grizzlier and more complex with each contract. But you’ve got bills to pay and therefore blood to clean.

My number one favourite thing about this game however is the artwork. It is…GORGEOUS. With it’s film-inspired costumes, clunky cars, brilliant shadows and lighting and funky soundtrack to boot. Makes you want to unbutton your shirt a few and don some aviator glasses.

Yes, the game is frustrating. Very much so! My regular escape room Player 2 didn’t get much further than Contract 3 before putting the game down. I, after a 4 day binge, eventually completed the game with a resounding breath of relief. You can spend 15 minutes painstakingly working your way around a level, picking up bodies, hiding and timing, flicking switches… Only to have a police office immediately shoot you dead because they turned quicker than you were expecting. Then it’s back to the start of the level. Every time.

But, when you DO complete a level, the feeling is euphoric. Why yes, I am the greatest cleaner of all time! Take that, cops!

Fans of the game will be pleasantly pleased to hear a sequel is in the works! The Cleaner (and a whole new team) are brought up to date (sorta) to a new setting – the 90s! The map is now 3D, the cops harder, the puzzles more complex, and the crime scenes grimmer. In short, I cannot wait.

Serial Cleaner can be played on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC & Mac. Check out and support the developers, Draw Distance on their website here.