The Unlock! Series & The House on The Hill
Published by Space Cowboys
Scenario by Fabrice Mazza
Illustrations by Pierre Santamaria
1-6 Players ~ 60 Minutes
Review by Jack Eddy
Sometimes, you just gotta know what you are getting into. So, let’s start with what the heck this thing is.
The Unlock series, like “Escape the Room” and “EXIT” are singular, one and done puzzle game experiences intended to hit some of the same thrills as an escape room. What sets the Unlock games apart is that they are generally the “cleanest” of the three, simply using cards, an app, and the players’ intuition.
While I’ll occasionally slip into a self indulgent critique of the genre, my main focus in this review is specifically on the Unlock! Series as a whole, as well as my thoughts on this one adventure. Also, because the sense of discovery is about 90% of the joy in this game, I will avoid spoiling any clues or solutions, that’ll be up to you to figure out.
... Phew, exposition DONE.
Field Training - Tutorial
Like the escape rooms that serve as inspiration for these games, most new players will have a mix of two pervasive feelings - excitement and dread. Excitement at the thrill of having to use your wits and gumption to discover secrets, solve puzzles, and make it through the mystery before time runs out; and dread because of the fear of not understanding how things work or knowing how to interact with the game as intended.
This is where Unlock’s first masterstroke comes into play. Every pack comes with a brief tutorial mission, that showcases how cards interact in a straightforward and intuitive way. Just read the text of the top card of the deck, flip it over, then the picture of the room you are in reveals numbers that correspond to other cards in the deck that you can investigate, leading to new cards that can be revealed, simple puzzles to follow, then ultimately, the escape from the room.
This tutorial is a fantastic 5-10 minute primer for the real experience, and does a great job in amping up the players about what’s to come, and assuage fears of not knowing what to do when you are in the adventure proper.
So let’s talk about what it is you do.
Addition and Abstraction - How the Game Works
Once you’ve downloaded the free Unlock! App, you just put in the name of your adventure, and hit start as soon as you are told to by the text of the adventure’s top card. From there, like the tutorial, your starting room will highlight several items that you can investigate, which in turn correspond to new cards that you can draw.
The basics are that blue and red cards are halves of interacting objects, gold cards are puzzles requiring a numeric solution (entered into the app) and grey cards are typically clues or hide secrets that can be investigated further. Everything is driven by numbers, so for instance, a blue “dead flashlight” card and a red “battery” card can be combined by adding their unique card numbers; find if that number is in the deck, and it might reveal a new “functioning flashlight” card, which itself might be able to be combined with a dark closet, an armoire, or some other puzzle.
Similarly, while some numbers might be highlighted on cards, some of the cards may have numbers hidden in the art, which also prompt you to uncover corresponding cards in the deck, simulating a “closer investigation”. As any good sleuth worth an episode of Scooby Doo knows, a tapestry embroidered with a number 42 is worth a closer look, and the new card might just be the solution to a seemingly unrelated puzzle. Jinkies.
At any given moment, you’ll likely have 4-10 revealed cards in front of players, and everyone will be guessing about what they could possibly mean or how they relate. Fortunately, if you ever get stuck, the app has a clue system where you can punch in the number of a card and get a little more information about it.
One by one, you’ll reveal new rooms, items, objects, and mysteries. There’s a fantastic feeling to seeing the new information revealed, especially as investigators frantically seek to contextualize any new clues among all of the “yet unsolved” clues left on the table. This may sound untenable in a 60 card deck, but thankfully, when a new card is revealed it will often show an X through numbers at the top, prompting you to remove certain cards that will no longer be relevant to the game. Few games deliver such a potent rush of dopamine as you hungrily chew through the mystery one card at a time.
Except when you don’t.
A Slap on the Wrist
If there’s one thing I don’t like about the Unlock! system, it’s penalty cards resulting from “incorrectly” combining items and objects. You’ll try to combine your # 42 laser pointer and a mysterious statue # 31, seeing that indeed, in the deck there is a card with # 73. GREAT! Then you flip the card only to find that it is a dead end, and you have to apply a 3 minute penalty to your time (helpfully tracked by the app).
I get it. For this to be a game rather than a puzzle, there has to be some sort of stakes and encouragement to make smart decisions, but in a game all about discovery and trial, looking for often obscure solutions to puzzles seemingly created by a mad genius, combining a laser pointer and bust doesn’t seem too unusual. Not only do you have to suffer the realization that it lead to a dead end, but now you have to endure the frustrating humiliation of a 3 minute penalty, subtracting 5% of your overall time. This kind of thing makes people gun shy when they should be overwhelmed with a joy of discovery.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the hint system were encouraged more, but it’s not even included as part of the tutorial and I have a feeling that most gamers will see the hints as a sort of handicap, reserving it only as a last resort. I wish that the manual or app gave some recommendations or demonstration of the hints so that players had a gauge of when to utilize them, because chances are that if you have gone five minutes without a new discovery, it’s probably time to swallow your pride. At 60 minutes to complete the adventure, you’d hate to know you wasted your time overlooking the obvious.
My recommendation is to trust in your logic and the system itself. If it feels like there are no possible solutions, it means that you have missed something and start using hints; and before you start using your laser pointer on the eyes of various statues willy-nilly, think about what sort of logic could be behind the combination of items, lest you suffer some severe penalties.
The House on the Hill; Probably Not Creepy at All - Scenario Review
House on the Hill is my 2nd game in this series, and one of several “Escape Room in a box” games that my wife and I have played together. The setup, like most, is very thin. Instead the theme comes through the ambience and act of exploration, which is particularly well illustrated and intriguing in this adventure.
As you might expect, you are trapped in a creepy old mansion where your captor has obviously been obsessed with the occult. At first, you’ll interact with relatively benign objects like keys and lock boxes, inputting codes into various dials; soon you’ll be looking over research notes about tarot cards, examining cryptic incantations, and brushing up on your demonology.
I’ll admit, I was surprised when a clue involved a large “666” and references to “the number of the beast”. Not that I’m skittish about such things, but it was much more explicit than I expected. Then again, it’s nothing more salacious than what a high-schooler might draw on their 3 ring binder, so maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised. Still, I’d hate for parents to be caught off guard without a content warning on this ages 10+ box.
The game itself presented several crafty puzzles that, like a good stretch, feels like what you are grasping for what is just barely outside your reach. Only twice did we feel like we had rely on hints to help us re-contextualize clues from the vast array of cards we were tearing through, but there was nothing particularly difficult about the game. The design was tight and it made good use of the Unlock! System, but again, there were a few moments where our experimentation led to a few penalty cards which ultimately proved to be our downfall. By the time we finished, we were still under 60 minutes, but 9 minutes were added to our time through three frustrating penalties, meaning we went over the limit.
Once the time limit expires, the game encourages you to press on, which we did, albeit somewhat diminished. All told, we had fun, but came across a couple relatively opaque puzzles about halfway through that really slowed us down. Once we got ourselves back on track, we were in a slap dash race against time, but we just couldn’t make it under the wire.
As a singular adventure, this was an okay game. Not too difficult in that we were able to finish, but not the tightest applied logic that I’ve seen. There were also a few moments, particularly when looking for hidden numbers that required extra-close examination and card combinations resulting in penalties that felt too obtuse, but overall we were glad we did the adventure.
Some of the puzzles, in particular those at the first and last thirds of the game, were just the right blend of difficulty and enticing details to keep things tense and fun. Wrap that all up in a really thematic horror setting and our overall thoughts were positive. This was a well crafted escape room style game that had us hungry to see more Unlock!.
Bolt, Latch, Lock, and Key - Final Thoughts
By far, the most controversial thing about this new wave of one-and-done games is the resulting waste and lack of replayability. Once you finish the adventure, playing through again would be a breeze. Maybe if you played these regularly you could store them away, only to revisit them years down the road once time reclaims the memories, and your recollection will betray you enough to keep you entertained, but for the most part, once you’ve done one of these, you are done.
So, is it worth it?
Value is a hard thing to define. In a world where entertainment is an entitlement, it’s hard to gauge exactly what an hour of your time is worth. As a form of pure, unadulterated fun, yes, we had a good evening at less than we’d pay to go to the movies. I think there is solid fun in these games worth the entry fee for 2-4 players. Fewer and you might get lost in the weeds, and more players and you might have too many cooks in the kitchen.
As for the waste, one of my favorite things about the Unlock! series is that it remains in-tact, repeatable, and infectious. While this means that all puzzles are conceptual and they lack the sort of dynamic interactivity that other games that have you punch, break, and tear components might have, these are fully replayable, meaning that you can gift it to a friend, hoping they’ll do the same.
So if you like puzzles and mysteries and you are looking for some disposable yet very entertaining fun, perfect for date night or gaming with friends, the Unlock! Series is a great starting point, and I’m personally looking forward to playing again.
Review copy provided by Classic Toys in Anchorage, Alaska.
Got questions about the game, the review, or the creative process? Let us know any we may tackle it when we publish our audio version with additional thoughts and Q&A on TCbH Reviews.
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