The horror game I enjoyed the most on PC was Amnesia: The Dark Descent way back in 2010. It’s no Eternal Darkness, but it’s sure something. I remember that game like it was just yesterday, and we’re living with its legacy. Indie horror since then has been largely inspired by the precedent set by Amnesia’s writing, unique mechanics, and Lovecraftian aesthetic. Indeed, scary video games have a lot to thank that eight-year-old classic for; indie horror now makes up most of the best titles. 2013’s Outlast, Five Nights at Freddy’s the following year, and 2017’s unfortunately overlooked Little Nightmares and Detention are just the tip of the iceberg. From this modern zenith of indie horror comes Without Escape, a point-and-click Adventure game in the vein of Myst and Grim Fandango. It’s drenched in the mannerisms and mid-90s visual styles of said comparisons, but does it have more to offer besides its flattery?
Without Escape has you playing as an un-named schmo who’s rudely awoken at 2:45 in the morning by…something. You don’t know what it is, but you’re getting to the bottom of it! The plot doesn’t get much more complicated than that in the game’s first half, but the later half is when the game picks up – more on that later. When I reviewed Supposedly Wonderful Future, I ‘sort of but not really’ described the game’s writing as well-meaning but ill-prioritised. That was a visual novel; writing in that sort of game isn’t as simple as people believe it is. Adventure games are also multi-branched efforts in terms of writing, but there’s little to no use of emotional context. Regardless, both the visual novel and point-and-click genres are carried by their writing. I bring this up because without it we can’t understand how to describe the contrasts between the former and the latter – and place this game’s strengths in a reliable context. Where Supposedly Wonderful Future had great academic-style writing in its worldbuilding but detrimentally carried that style over to its dialogue, Without Escape rests easily on its simple inner dialogue. There were little instances of text becoming overly cumbersome; boxes were never filled with more than a sentence or two. Diction is never its strong suit, but Without Escape does just fine.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is from a Windows 98 game. Fortunately, it’s intentional
“We were evicted from our hole in the ground.”
Where Without Escape differs from (most) other games in the point-and-click genre gameplay-wise is its contextual inventory; instead of having you figure out where to use items you collect, it’ll be automatically used when the context calls for it. If you collected a pair of pliers, for example, they’re destined for one purpose. In this hypothetical case, it’s repairing a water valve or heater. Once you approach said water valve or heater, the pliers will be removed from your inventory to fulfil their purpose without your own input. Immersion is clearly the game’s main goal and removing as much of the UI as possible from non-paused gameplay certainly helps maintain it. The subjective issues with a system like this is twofold. Firstly, it keeps the door firmly closed on any potential “I can do that!?” shenanigans. No matter how good Manic Mansion is, every discussion of it includes the part where you microwave a hamster. Secondly, it removes logical challenges that make point-and-click such a beloved genre. There’s simply no satisfaction in having things figured out without your input! Getting straight to the end goal of each object interaction right away does makes the game play much faster, but it removes half the reason to play games like this in the first place.
Without Escape’s puzzles are real boffin-beaters
I mentioned in the introduction to this review that Without Escape harkens back to the good ol’ days of Windows 95 games. Mechanically not so, but artistically very mid-90s. Pre-rendered backgrounds transit seamlessly into pre-rendered cutscenes that exist purely to look cool. The background music sits in the background like a prowling cat, waiting to strike you with a harsh note. One puzzle employed such vivid imagery that I’m still thinking about it – days after I got my third ending. Yes, multiple endings! This doesn’t make up for the game’s disappointingly short length, but it’s not a token effort either. It’s a shame that it’ll take newer players to point-and-click a disproportionate amount of time to finish the game, much less get all six endings, because the identity of this game makes me feel warm and cosy – despite the latter half’s more Hellish nature.
Sick subwoofer, bro
You save your game by interacting with a framed picture of this exact symbol
I’ve heard people say that puzzles aren’t necessary for Adventure games, and they’re all cowards. Why are you playing Adventure games – much less point-and-click ones – if you’re scared of getting your mind tested in a true battle of wits? It’s you against a trained team of designers! Winner take all! Take your imaginary pickaxe (and link arms with your waifu tulpa) to climb that difficulty curve all the way to the top! Luckily, Without Escape’s puzzles are real boffin-beaters. One puzzle had me doing high school mathematics to open a lock, while another was more like an elaborate riddle than a jigsaw. None of these puzzles felt frustrating or ineptly conveyed, which is a relief for an independent production. Navigating between these sections, on the other hand, was a chore. I’ve always been a bit slow, but there’s something to fault the game for: it’s not very good at telling you where to go or where to look. Whether this is intended to act as a ‘pleb filter’ is unknown to me, but if it is it does its job. I found my way around just fine, but newer players will get frustrated very quickly. Multiple endings are thrown into the pot as well, making Without Escape a game that the old guard will enjoy – at the expense of less experienced young ‘uns. I can respect studios taking creative risks, though, especially with their first product! Bumpy Trail Games are definitely on my to-watch list after this amount of raw dynamism.
Indie horror games aren’t hitting the ceiling any time soon. The troubled Allison Road, noir-deco Close to the Sun, and HR Geiger fanfiction Scorn are all anticipated upcoming titles, each promising either new ideas or solid reinterpretations of old ones. If Without Escape is relegated to the lamentable position of ‘one of the unremembered ones’ in a boom, it’ll be at the very top of them. A strong sense of identity, solid scripts, and a willingness to take risks may just make this game a cult classic amongst enthusiasts. I know I won’t forget it for a while.
Reviewed on Windows | Review code supplied by publisher