What Lies Beneath
Escape the room games are a difficult genre to review because the mystery and sense of discovery is the very core of their design concept. I’ll limit how much I reveal and try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but if you’re you’d rather keep the mystery alive, I’ll give you my thoughts right up front: it’s a fascinating game that will really burn your brain! For those who are still here, let’s carry on.
I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about both the Catacombs of Horror, and the entire Exit series. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, escape the room games are essentially a series of self-contained puzzles that players need to solve in order to reach the end. Some can be played over and over, while others, like the ones in this series, can only be played once as you’ll be bending, folding, cutting, and destroying pieces in order to find the solutions you seek.
Catacombs of Horror is not the first in this line that we’ve played. We’ve also completed The Secret Lab and The Sunken Treasure. Where Catacombs differentiates itself though is the fact it’s a two-for-one deal; it has a larger box than the other Exit games in the line and essentially plays out in two acts. At some point during your adventure, you’ll find a breakpoint where you can either pause and put the game away to come back to later or just press on. I would highly, highly, recommend you take a short break in between the two parts because your brain will be turned mush at that point you’ll need it to restore your sanity.
In Catacombs of Horror, your friend has disappeared while exploring the underground tombs of Paris and it’s up to you to track him down and find out what happened and what unnatural forces may be after him. If you get any As Above, So Below vibes from that description, you’re not the only one. It’s a neat theme, and many of the puzzles are suited for its darker nature. Though the horror aesthetic is strong, especially when played in conjunction with the free app which adds atmospheric music and sound effects, there’s nothing too gory or horrifying that most won’t be able to handle.
Each escape the room series handles puzzle-solving differently. The way Exit does it is by giving the players a rotating cardboard disc with symbols along the outside. Your basic task when solving any of the puzzles is to locate a three-digit code somewhere in the game box imputing it on the code disk by rotating it so those numbers align, giving you a card number. By drawing that card you’ll either get it wrong and be forced to keep looking or you’ll get it correct and be allowed to move on. This system works well. It’s tough but it’s also nice to not be dealt a penalty for taking a chance and getting it wrong as some other series do.
If you’re concerned about possibly getting stuck in a game like this there is a help system in place that can be used at any time to help put you on the right track. By drawing a help card with the symbol you’re trying to solve you’ll be given a series of progressively more and more helpful hints before the answer is just simply given to you if you’re truly stumped. This system works okay, but at times is a bit frustrating because you incur a larger penalty to your final score at the end of the game depending on how many of these cards you use and often the first hint card for each puzzle is worth very little if your group has done a good job finding everything you need to solve the riddle. I’m still hoping someday KOSMOS can find a way, either through the app, or some other means to make for a more flexible and nuanced help system.
Any escape room game worth its weight has to have a few moments that induce jaw-dropping wonder, and Catacombs has them in spades. There was one moment near the end of the first act that when the answer dawned on me felt truly amazing and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed the solution earlier. Another time something came up that I had made a mental note of earlier in the game that ended up paying off later, giving me a nice sense of validation, and making me feel much cleverer than I really am.
For every two or three great puzzles, there’s one middling or dull one, unfortunately. There’s one fairly early on that we spent far too much time on trying to crack, and when we finally caved we felt a little let down because the solution required us to notice a subtle detail that was very easy to overlook. Another, later on, left all of us absolutely scratching our heads how we were supposed to figure it out since the solution seemed completely out there, with little to no hint as to what we were supposed to do to get the final solution.
These few moments aside, Catacombs of Horror is another very solid entry into the Exit franchise. It leaves you with a good feeling by the end and gives you that sense of wonderment that many Legacy games give you for a much cheaper price tag. If the idea of paying any amount of money for a product that is a one-and-done source of entertainment is a turn off to you then there probably isn’t anything here that will make you change your mind. If you’ve never played an escape room game before I recommend other entries in the line, such as the aforementioned Sunken Treasure, as it’s a far more welcoming experience. Many of the puzzles in this one are deep brain burners, for the uninitiated it could be quite the turn-off. Once you have some experience under your belt there’s a lot to enjoy in Catacombs, all culminating in a final puzzle that is quite the nail biter, and a great ending to a thrilling experience.
Final Score: 8/10
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AKA “The Board Game Mole”
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