I’ve never been in this position before, reviewing a game for the second time, but I keep getting these EXIT games from Kosmos so I figured I should offer some more thoughts about puzzles and the way the EXIT games use them. Since the last review I’ve played The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, and Dead Man On The Orient Express. These are some of the older EXIT games, and it shows. There’s very little that’s particularly memorable about Cabin and Lab, and the puzzles are uneven. I imagine if I had started playing these games in the beginning I might have a more positive perspective on them, but so far it appears that the Brands have significantly improved their craft as they’ve continued designing.
The Abandoned Cabin and The Secret Lab were quite easy, and I found that I wasn’t as satisfied solving its puzzles compared to the others I’ve played. The only clues I required were when I didn’t know if I had all of the pieces I needed to solve the puzzle. This remains my primary complaint with the EXIT system as a whole: the way it feeds information is sly, and while that could be used in an imaginative way, I find it annoying as I wonder if I’m spending time on a puzzle I literally can’t solve because I haven’t unlocked all of the parts yet. The only way to find out is to use the first clue. I’d much rather have the game feed me puzzles one at a time–as it stands the small thematic loss that would provide is outweighed by the annoyance of not knowing if I have all the pieces I need to solve a puzzle.
That said, the production by Kosmos is slick. They certainly do their best to make the games feel like their setting with the artwork. Sadly, the thematic connection between the puzzles and the setting is less than stellar. Dead Man has a better go of it, which I’ll talk about later, but the other two are simply a string of puzzles, and the fact that they try to incorporate thematic touches with the art and such generates narrative whiplash. I’ll be trying to understand if there’s a thematic connection between the puzzles and then come across a solution that’s completely arbitrary. At that point I’d rather have just a string of puzzles (like you get with the Dr. Esker series).
Fortunately the Brands boosted the importance of the storyline with ‘Dead Man’, where solving the primary puzzles gradually uncovers clues to a larger murder mystery. My favorite EXIT game will remain ‘Pharaoh’s Tomb’ due to stronger puzzles overall, but I love the larger story arc Dead Man delivers. Honestly, the final mystery was one of the best parts of the game. Even with all of the information provided it was challenging and actually felt like a mystery. We had to evaluate motive, alibis and conflicting stories, and more. I do have to admit that we were incorrect in our final guess, and in hindsight it was due to a genuine error.
That’s the kind of puzzle I want, and I’m finding it difficult to explain what it has that puzzles I don’t enjoy don’t. The easy and trite answer is that good puzzles make you feel clever and bad ones don’t. But that’s not really an answer, only a restatement of the question.
Let’s try to formulate this argument inside out rather than outside in. The puzzles I like the least in the EXIT games feel scattershot; I find a number of potential solutions and try them out until I hit the one that happens to work. The problem is that I often find myself at a loss for why the correct solution is any better than some of the other possibilities I tried.
My favorite puzzles feel inevitable. The conclusion flows from the premise naturally, and in retrospect there could be no other conclusion. Some puzzles are literally this way, as they’re mathematically deductive. Recently I’ve discovered the youtube channel Cracking the Cryptic, which covers unique and interesting sudoku puzzles, and I find them mesmerizing. One might have a reductionist take and point out that those puzzles rely on finding a series of deductive truths, and the puzzle plays itself out the same way each time. But I think that might be the key to it all. You know you have the pieces in front of you, and you know that the solution is unambiguous. Any failure you experience is a failure on your part; success is pure. Puzzle solving enjoyment comes from those singular moments when you triumph while simultaneously appreciating the skill of the puzzle designer.
The EXIT games aren’t perfect, but they provide enough of these moments to keep me coming back. The good puzzles outnumber the bad, and I look forward to exploring some of the newer titles (I’ve got a couple on the shelf next to me) to see what innovations await me.
Abandoned Cabin: 6/10
Secret Lab: 6.5/10
Dead Man: 7/10