Full disclosure: A preview copy of The Emerald Flame was provided by PostCurious. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Well, last week was a big week for escape room games, so it stands to reason that this week should be, too. As of writing, I haven’t played EXIT: Theft on the Mississippi, but that should be happening in like an hour or three. Time to test out my ability to play games remotely and seeing just how bad it’s going to be (the game will likely be fun but the Remote Setup will likely not). Either way, long before that (actually, pre-lockdown), I managed to get a few plays of The Emerald Flame in with my puzzle-game-partner-in-crime. So let’s dive into that and see how it goes! As with most escape room-style games, I’m going light on the photography where I can to avoid spoilers, but I did sneak some phone photos while I was playing, so I’ll see where I can fit those in.
The Emerald Flame tasks you, the player(s), with discovering some ancient secrets on behalf of a modern Society. You’ll have to learn all you can about mysterious insects, colorful crystals, and the Emerald Flame itself if you want to crack its mysteries, but what does it truly mean? Only one way to find out!
Setup usually depends on what “month” you’re in. There are a total of three main months, with an epilogue following the final month, so that’s fun. Each month has a packet / envelope for you:
Open the starter packet for your first game, follow the instructions in the letter, and you’re ready to go!
So, like many escape room / puzzle games, this one is challenging you to solve a sequence of puzzles while advancing a narrative. The narrative is … well, it’s mysterious! I’m not going to spoil it for you; that’s why I added the [SPOILER-FREE] title tag. Y’all, I’m not a monster. Either way, your goal is to make progress towards that narrative conclusion by solving series of puzzles. As you do, you’ll enter those puzzles into the chat app that you’ve opened on your phone (it’s their web app; you’re not going to use Hangouts for this one) to confirm the accuracy of your solutions. Solve them all, and you’ll be ready for the next session!
Solve all three sessions and your game is complete! What is the Emerald Flame, and what will your group do as you figure it out?
Player Count Differences
We tried one round with two and two rounds with three. I’d say the more, the merrier for this one. The puzzles are quite challenging, even for grizzled EXIT veterans such as ourselves. I’d say that these are even harder than I’d expect from some of the more challenging escape rooms I’ve done, often requiring nuance and a really clear understanding of the challenges. Thankfully, they’re also pretty easy to split up, so, I would say a Divide and Conquer strategy works super well, here. I particularly think that more players might even improve the replay value, similar to that Flashback Escape Room in a Box I reviewed a while back. If you divide up the puzzles, there will definitely be content that you don’t see. I wouldn’t say there’s a maximum in terms of anything but ease of puzzle-solving, so, there’s definitely a limit to the number of people you can have before you hit Too Many Cooks, but beyond that I think that 1 – 2 people per puzzle is a fine number, even if you occasionally spike above four. I enjoyed it quite a bit at two and three. I do not think I’m Good Enough At Puzzles At This Time to solve this one on my own, though, so I’d personally recommend against solo. If you’re a puzzle whiz, though, then go for it.
- Be methodical. This is definitely not the puzzle game that I’d recommend rushing clues for. Take your time, process the information that you’ve been given, and figure out how to apply it. This is a game that definitely rewards careful puzzle solving over throwing solutions at the wall and seeing what works. I’d be impressed if you managed to brute-force any of these solutions.
- I think that using clues is often very helpful if you’re stuck. Thankfully, the EXIT games have devastated my ego around taking clues, so, I will just look at a clue if I’m stuck for more than five or so minutes and nobody seems to be able to make progress. I get through the game a lot faster. If you want to sit with it, though, make sure you’re still making Useful Progress towards a solution. If you’re spinning (and the difference is notable), it may be better to just burn up a clue instead. Thankfully there’s no penalty for doing so (and the game is remarkably not-judgy about it; it just gives you the clue).
- Take notes of what you’re doing — tracking the incremental steps will make it easier to backtrack if you mess something up. This is a thing I did not do while I was playing, and it made a particularly egregious mistake of mine very hard to fix. I would recommend learning from my mistakes and taking some notes while you play so that you can pull back to an earlier state that isn’t “restart the puzzle Eric; you’ve goofed this one”. That would have helped me a lot at least two or three separate times.
- If you’re stuck but you don’t want clues, find another player to trade puzzles with; sometimes fresh eyes will see what you’ve missed. This, I think, is the best thing you can do unless you’re hoping to do a divide-and-conquer strategy on the puzzle and replay it again later. Sometimes the best thing is if another player is just like “what’s that?” and points at something you haven’t looked at or processed yet. It can really change up your perspective on the puzzle. Another useful one (from the CS world, at least) is rubber-duck debugging. Try explaining your thought process on the puzzle to either the puzzle itself or to another player. If you can get through the entire explanation without catching your mistake, you’ve hopefully not made a massive one? This is how I fix code, at least. It also works fairly often for puzzles, I’ve noticed.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This is one of the more beautiful games I’ve ever played. They knocked it clean out of the park on this one. It’s just a really good-looking game. The maps are ornate, the drawings are intricate, the design of pieces is really striking. I kind-of regret sending it back just because of how nice the components were. It’s really an impressive game, visually.
- I’m a particularly big fan of the box’s art and color scheme. That’s one of my favorite box colors I’ve seen in a while. The way the teal darkens and lightens against the green and the yellow / gold as an accent is just … it’s really good, y’all. If you’re trying to give a game props just based on presentation, this certainly deserves some consideration.
- The chat app as a puzzle-solving interface is pretty good. It actually does a pretty good job of feeling conversational, which I appreciate. I just will occasionally forget that it’s on my phone, but, you know, that happens.
- The game did a good job immersing me, the player, in the game’s theme and making me invested in the outcome. There were parts that we were discussing, narratively, even after the current session ended, which I think is a good indicator that we were interested and invested. I felt like the gameplay was nice and immersive, and I’d be interested in the universe that this game embeds itself in. Probably more puzzles, too.
- I really liked some of the puzzles. I’m always pleased when there’s a puzzle I really like, and I believe there was at least one per session, based on my notes, so that’s a pretty good number to hit. You kind of need at least one good hook every game to keep players engaged. There were, to be fair, some puzzles I didn’t work on, so those puzzles might also be very good, but at minimum I encountered an exceptionally fun puzzle every session.
- Some of the puzzles play with components in ways that are unexpected and satisfying. I really like a lot of the puzzles for that. They do similar things to some of the best EXIT puzzles, at times, but other times they go in a completely different direction that’s delightful and surprising. That’s pretty much the ideal of what you’re looking for when you’re playing
- This clue system absolutely rocks. So many clues! So much granularity! Love that in a hint system for a game. It goes right up to solving the puzzle, if you want. It means you can make the (fairly hard, imo) game as simple or as hard as you want by leveraging the in-place infrastructure to help yourself out. It’s similar to what Celeste, a video game that I love, does, and I think that’s a fairly good way to do things. Make the game hard, but give players scaffolding to help themselves if they choose to do so. It places the onus back onto the player to choose their preferred level of difficulty, and I think that’s good.
- There are a few puzzles that require a bit more dextrous hands than mine. If y’all have been reading these puzzle game reviews for a while you know that while I like dexterity games a lot, I don’t really like dexterity-based puzzles all that much. Unclear on why. But I think it’s that it can be hard to know if you’ve done the thing you’re supposed to do correctly.
- The increased difficulty may be a lot for some players, but thankfully the robust clue system (mentioned above) mitigates that for players that are okay accepting help. It’s a tough game; no way around it. But there are plenty of hints. There’s like 10+ for each puzzle? It’s very good. It even manages to out-hint the Esker games.
- The large scale and scope of the puzzles can sometimes hurt their overall efficacy, since if you miss a step or do one thing wrong the error compounds and backtracking can be an expensive task. Yeah this was always going to be a gripe of mine, ever since I had to start all the way back at the beginning of a puzzle that I had already invested 20+ minutes into. Is it user error? Yes. Could the game have more checkpointing so that I don’t fall flat into a mire of my own failure? Probably also. It’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things but, man it took a long time to regenerate the puzzle I goofed. It can also be a bit hard to know what information you need to carry forward to the next phase of a puzzle, so make sure you’re writing things down. You don’t want to have to go solve anything again. It can take a bit.
Overall: 9 / 10
Overall, I thought The Emerald Flame was an awesome experience! I asked my co-player for a quick stack-rank of this against some other escape room games we’ve played and she placed it firmly where I was expecting, so we’re aligned on our thoughts, which is good. That’s the dream. But I digress. I think, if you’re like me and coming to this mostly from the EXIT games, you’re going to notice one thing: The Emerald Flame is hard. Not unsolvable, but definitely more challenging than you might be used to. Note that I’m not trying to imply that the EXIT games are easy; they’re just smaller-scale, in terms of puzzles, than The Emerald Flame is. A session of the EXIT games may have 10 – 15 puzzles in 90 minutes. The Emerald Flame may have 3 – 5 and take you three hours. These puzzles are simply operating with a larger scope, and they use that to its full effect. I’m very pleased with it, from an art standpoint, a narrative standpoint, a challenge standpoint, a player-help-and-scaffolding standpoint, and even from an experience standpoint. And it was just a preview! Imagine what the full game will be like. I always tell people that the best previews are the ones where you’re reluctant to give the game back and I felt that way even though I couldn’t play it again! There’s no refill pack in the preview (though there will be refills available for the full game). I think I just liked it as an art piece and a statement piece. But who knows. Anyways, I’m getting off-track, as I tend to do in these final paragraphs, so let me be concise, or at least attempt to be. I think The Emerald Flame was a lot of fun wrapped in a beautiful package, so if you’re looking for a challenging puzzle experience that will last you a good few sessions, I’d definitely recommend checking it out!