If you’ve never done an escape room before, let me fill you in. You’re locked in a room with a few other people, and have a set amount of time to decipher various clues that are hidden in your surroundings. Take in all around you and you’ll eventually find the codeword, key, or combination needed to escape. It’s a pretty simple concept with the potential to be incredibly fun. And so it seems strange that we haven’t really seen it incorporated into video game form. Area 86 changes that, billing itself as a physics-based escape room puzzle game.
It has a few noticeable differences to your typical escape room though. There’s no time limit to contend with, nor is there one set solution for each room. Area 86 is also not big on having any form of story. In fact, the only piece of narrative we get is that the space station AI has gone rogue and we have to stop it. These are marked differences for sure, but ones that I found to be directly beneficial as they serve to make the game much more enjoyable.
Chiefly, that lack of story means that the focus is placed solely on the puzzles. A great thing in this case, because Area 86 has some brilliant ones. They’re fiendishly difficult and will require all the lateral thinking you can muster. Luckily, there’s a freedom afforded to you in that you aren’t bound to a set order of puzzles and each room can be tackled however you like.
Area 86 rewards out-of-the-box thinking in the same way a traditional escape room would. Almost everything is interactable, and you may discover some hidden secrets, or even a different solution by using things in unexpected ways. And because there is no time limit, there really is no downside to trying out new things.
The way Area 86 handles hints deserves special recognition too. They’re often placed subtly around you as random daubings on the walls and floors. What initially looks like complete nonsense can provide important information or even the solution for those who take the time to seek them out. It’s a creative approach, and one that I appreciated. It’s certainly much better than having the game just spell out the solution for you.
It’s disappointing that there are only six levels in the game, especially considering that Area 86 will cost you just over £8. But what is there is great and will keep you entertained for a fair few hours. The puzzles are challenging enough to keep you occupied for a long time by themselves, without factoring in all the other content packed into each level. There’s a literal checklist of extra challenges to tick off as well as collectibles and hidden secrets to find. There’s even a mini basketball court in level four if the puzzle gets too much and you need to shoot some hoops to clear your mind.
Aside from that, perhaps the only real criticism I can level at Area 86 concerns the controls. They aren’t very good, feeling floaty and sluggish at times. It becomes especially apparent whenever jumping or building is involved in a solution, because there is no real consistency with those mechanics. As a result, building towers out of boxes to reach high places and partaking in ‘don’t touch the floor’ challenges are unnecessarily difficult. In any puzzle game, you should be spending more time thinking about what you’re going to do than actually doing it, and that’s often not the case in Area 86.
Luckily, these deficiencies only show up in spots and don’t detract from the experience. Just as well, because, to put it plainly, Area 86 on Xbox One is a brilliant game. The fact that this is SimDevs’ first outing perhaps makes that conclusion even more remarkable. It’s a laid-back experience that gives players the freedom to think outside of the box, and indeed rewards them for it. Meanwhile, the extra challenges, collectibles, and hidden secrets ensure that each level is worth playing through again. At present, there are six levels, which isn’t a great deal for £8, but the developers have indicated that more are coming. For any puzzler fans reading this, take note: Area 86 is well worth your attention.