In my review of Exit: The Pharaoh’s Tomb I speculated about the naming ritual of calling such a puzzle game an “escape room”, it lacking what would seem to be the key criterion of escaping a room. Sure, there’s some semblance of story involved in that game, but it doesn’t for a second distract from the fact that you’re simply trying to solve a sequence of puzzles.
One of the charms of Doctor Esker’s Notebook, the independent release from Dave Dobson, is that is has very little pretense. Sure, it’s formatted like scraps of a mad scientist’s notebook, but there’s no effort to maintain the veneer: you’re getting a collection of nine sequential puzzles.
The presentation is similarly sleek. The entire game comes in a card box and every card is utilized to its maximum potential. Instead of Exit’s admittedly cool wheel-within-wheel cypher Esker’s got a set of 10 cards, numbered 0-9, which let you check your work and see if you’ve arrived at the correct solution. Every puzzle results in a 2-4 digit number, and when the correct numbers are lined up next to each other, the cards that individually look like gibberish will form into a coherent marker pointing out the next puzzle. It’s a wonderfully elegant way to check your answers and it fits in with the theme of a madman’s notebook.
The puzzles themselves are quite good (only 1 felt a bit disappointing) and sometimes brutally difficult. I am embarrassed to say how many times I looked up clues, completely stumped with how to progress. Clues are available via the publisher’s website, and thankfully they’re more graceful than the clues from Exit. There are 9 for each puzzle, and they are gentle enough to give you some inspiration without blowing the entire thing (until you get to the last couple, but by then you know you’re desperate).
More significantly, unlike with the Exit system, here you don’t have to be told via clue if you have the materials available to begin solving the puzzle. Each one is entirely self-contained, which probably reduces the potential for cleverness with the meta-puzzle, but it’s a decision I’m thankful for. Knowing that you have everything you need to reach the solution is so much more engaging than spending time on a puzzle before finding out that it’s unsolvable at the moment.
But man, these puzzles can be difficult. They typically revolve around one to three particular revelations, but with a number of them I was seemingly so close to figuring the next step out while also being completely lost in the woods. A repeated refrain among myself and the people I played with was “I know it’s in here somewhere”. There’s that sense that the puzzle is mocking you to your face–that feeling both frustrating and laced with challenge.
Dobson does something really clever in that he integrates little visual artifacts (like “tape” around images) that will seem important at first, until you realize it’s a red herring. But they’ll keep appearing here and there until all of a sudden they are significant to the puzzle. He also utilizes words very well. In fact, if there’s anything particularly notable about Dr. Esker’s Notebook other than “a collection of very good puzzles”, it’s the use of words and language in a variety of creative and challenging ways. Words can mean something or nothing at all here. They can give you a clue to the actual method of solving the puzzle or be the whole of the puzzle. They’re used as sentences, as arrows, as a collection of letters, and everything in between. There’s something about the familiarity and potential betrayal of words in the puzzle context that I like quite a bit.
Dr. Esker’s Notebook isn’t as innovate in its use of components and imagery as Exit, but I think I actually enjoyed it more. The challenge, ease of play, and efficient use of components was more interesting to me than the more discovery-based process in Exit. To put it another way, Exit feels more like uncovering clues and piecing them together. Esker gives you a starting point (some cards) and an end-point (some numbers) and challenges you to find the path. It’s straightforward and to the point. You can also pass it on to someone else when you’re finished–no component destruction to be found.
Review copy provided by publisher
+Efficient use of cards to check your work
+No component destruction
-Not as much potential for innovative puzzles
-Not a particularly flashy package
Learning Curve: 1/5
Brain Burn: 3/5