21 June 2017
We trap ourselves in for an hour (or three) with this app-powered take on the escape-the-room genre
The door slams shut behind you, a heavy bolt sliding across. You’ll need to find the code to get out before you perish. A timer lights up and begins ticking. 59:59, 59:58, 59:57…
Unlock! is in many ways the next evolutionary step of publisher Space Cowboys’ temporal adventure game TIME Stories. Trimming down the included components to three decks of 60 cards – one for each of the separate scenarios in this first box, plus a 10-card tutorial – the game does away with TIME Stories’ dice, console board, wooden counters and tokens to offer a comparatively sparse box.
The play time, too, has been condensed from TIME Stories’ multiple-hour runs – the mandatory companion app that makes up the other half of the game begins a one-hour countdown at the start of each adventure, which is often shortened by accidental missteps or incorrect guesses to make a single playthrough closer to 40 minutes. We would recommend turning off the music – atmospheric as it may be, we found the bland tunes to be distracting, and better replaced by a custom playlist. (Perhaps the heart-racing soundtracks to James Bond, Mission Impossible and 24.)
Driving the players’ exploration of each temporary prison (and potential tomb) is a similar system to TIME Stories’ numbered inventory of cards. Certain item types can be combined (for example, a key and a locked cabinet, or a piece of wire and pegs) – the resulting sum often results in the discovery of a new item or location. It’s an effective system that also works against players who try to reverse-engineer solutions by looking at the numbers of the backs of the cards, as many lead to penalties (these can also be set off by technically correct combos that lead to negative in-game events), encouraging a more tactful approach to puzzles.
The puzzles generally balance frustration and head-scratching well – there's plenty of satisfaction in store when you finally figure out a code or environmental challenge. That said, some of the puzzles can become a little convoluted or obtuse if you fail to immediately grasp the designers’ train of thought – and the app’s clues (one per card) are often of little use.
This is coupled with a habit of hiding additional numbers and items in the artwork of cards; it’s a clever trick, once, but if you’re playing with anything less than perfect lighting and keen-eyed teammates, missing one of the miniscule figures can lead to minute after minute passing by in confusion and increasing irritation.
There are plenty of one-off tricks that are pulled off with panache, though – in one instance a code that plays a garbled recording when typed into the app plays the original audio when typed in backwards, and the third adventure splits the group into teams for a genuinely thrilling finale. (The other two scenarios can be played solo.)
Unlock!’s biggest flaw is one suffered to a lesser degree by TIME Stories: replayability. Combined, the three scenarios and tutorial will take you under three hours, and there’s very little reason for repeat plays – the clues and codes remain the same. Curiously, the app offers up a star rating out of five when you complete an adventure, but there appears to be no way to view past rankings and it’s very easy to achieve a perfect score after a single playthrough.
Unlike TIME Stories, where the base game offsets its higher cost by serving as a console for future expansions, Unlock!’s individual decks can only be used for their original scenario – there’s no Mansions of Madness-style remixing of universal assets here. At just under £9 per scenario for an hour-long experience, it’s not excessively extortionate, but it might still be worth pitching in with some friends and sharing the box around; we found the adventures play best with two players anyway.
If you’re happy to invest in the set, you will be rewarded with three scenarios that kept us engaged and tense to the last tick of the clock. The puzzles (not unlike the grandfathers of the genre in point-and-click computer games) may wander into illogical territory now and then, but for the most part offer dilemmas that feel challenging and fulfilling to solve, powered by an efficient and effective card system. It’s a strong foundation on which to build something special.
It’s not perfect in design on either the physical or digital fronts and the investment may be a little too high for some players, but Unlock! is nevertheless a gripping and challenging puzzler that makes (generally) clever use of its combined app and card mechanics.
Publisher: Space Cowboys
Time: 60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products.