Back in 2004, the original Crimson Room appeared as a free Flash game online. It was one of the first widespread examples of the “escape” genre that seemingly dominated the Flash landscape for the latter part of the decade. Fast-forward 12 years, and the sequel has arrived. Crimson Room: Decade is a point-and-click adventure puzzler that takes place in a tiny red room on a ship (as the name suggests).
I literally just finished this, and am thus still steeped in the frustration that such a game can cause, and while I would normally not review any other type of game with that mindset, I feel that puzzle games are an exception. How else can I truly relay my experience? Solving the puzzles gives a sense of accomplishment, but what comes before that?
I used to think I’d be a cinch in a real-world escape room, but now I’m not so sure.
I think my impression can best be summed up like this: A friend asked me what I was doing, earlier. I told him I was playing a game for review, and he asked me how it was. I didn’t want to reveal the game I was playing, but I didn’t want to be dismissive. So I said, “Well, it was basically a nightmare followed by a fever dream. It wasn’t actually scary, just kind of frustrating and dense, like running through glue and getting free only to have a cow lick your face and then have your teeth fall out.”
The background story for Crimson Room: Decade is actually displayed in full text as soon as the game begins, but in the interest of keeping a little bit of mystery, I’ll sum it up instead of posting a screenshot. François Gordot was a man traveling on a large ship called The Crimson after spending some time in Paris. He was returning home to his wife and unborn child (a son, it was presumed), and the story found within the game is told using his journal entries while aboard the ship. The Crimson sinks, but is salvaged 90 years later, and François’s grandson, Jean-Jacques, decides to investigate the room in which his grandfather spent his last days, to discover what happened. This is normally where “…and then things went horribly wrong…” would go. I mean, I don’t know how it was for Jean-Jacques, obviously, but he would have at least been able to crawl under the bed and solve half the puzzles immediately, so he would have had that going for him.
You click on things, you explore the (itty bitty) room via WASD, you crouch via “shift” to grab items on the floor, and in between all of this reaching and reading and clicking on all the things, everywhere, you try to figure out what in the hell you’re supposed to do with a china bowl and a pocket knife. And getting that pocket knife? Oh, lord, don’t get me started. I don’t understand how people make the “walkthrough” videos and guides so quickly for these games, but I am eternally grateful for one particular guide, else I wouldn’t be able to piece together a fair review on the game as a whole. So thank you, Denizen of the Internet, for diligently recording every single little thing you did until you found the right combination. I am horribly out of practice parsing the kind of nonsense logic needed to solve these puzzles.
I am not saying this is a bad game. What I am saying is that if you don’t have a lot of patience, you’re gonna have a bad time. And when I say “…like running through glue,” by the way, I mean in terms of how the game controls. You can make the mouse movement smooth, and adjust the mouse sensitivity, but it didn’t seem to matter much. I either missed targets because I overshot them, or I missed them because I was desperately trying to overcome a jerkiness that made me miss the old “click an arrow to see another angle” method the Flash games employ.
The graphics stand out as perfectly fine on their own, but after having played the original game (I was an escape game junkie for a while), I had one of those “oh, how far we’ve come” moments. One thing that particularly impressed me was that, out of all the things the team could have spent a great deal of detail on, they chose the curtain. I feel like perhaps there was a purpose to it, in-game (no spoilers, but trust me when I say you spend a lot of time with it), and it was fun to click on and play with because the movement was so fluid. I’d say that for the exceedingly simple game concept and play style, the graphics of Crimson Room: Decade are nice.
The sound effects were a throwback to the original Flash game – they had to have been. They seemed otherwise out of place against the Unity textures (and don’t forget the curtain!). Whenever an item is picked up that still has a use, the game makes a shrill “discovery” noise that’s jarring, like in a horror movie when the hero(ine) opens a closet to find their best friend’s head. The ending music is a midi adventure, and I don’t know how else to describe it except that it sounds like it belongs in a late 1990s game. It’s almost charming. I kind of lost myself a bit in the same feeling I would get playing these games while procrastinating on college papers. Then that “ZJHINNNG” discovery noise would happen, and I would snap out of my concentration reverie and get annoyed. I just wish it had been toned down a bit.
Crimson Room: Decade is not easy. At least, it wasn’t for me, but again, there are people who will literally have game guides done within hours of the games release, so maybe I’m just an idiot and haven’t realized it until now. I feel the need to defend the fact that I played dozens of escape games ten years ago. There is an insane sort of backwards logic to the game, and once you get into that rhythm, things sort of begin to happen more naturally, and there will be text hints that appear when it’s sensed that you’re either stuck or are just farting around (guys, there are things to play with – I suggest you do so). Cracking the logic code is the hardest part, but that challenge is going to follow you – or at least the time-consuming seriously-just-click-on-all-the-things method of exploration, which is what I had to rely on, for the most part.
When you get to the last stage of the game, that’s where the fever dream starts. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Once you complete the game, please watch the ending cinematic. After an hour (at least) of brain-straining concentration, it’s like a rubber band snapping. I was dumbfounded.
If you get the feeling I don’t have a very definite opinion on Crimson Room: Decade, you’re very perceptive. I didn’t feel strongly one way or another about it (my strongest feeling throughout it was frustration, but that happens in games I adore, too). I can’t pan it, because there are folks who will genuinely enjoy and be absolutely tickled by the game. I can’t recommend it to the gaming community as a whole, however, because it’s so…niche that it honestly takes a certain sort of person to truly appreciate the effort that goes into these games, and while I do appreciate the effort, the execution didn’t hit me in any particular way.
Watch a Let’s Play for a few minutes before deciding to try it on your own. You’re obviously going to want to stop after literally about 2 minutes, but you’ll get an idea of the tone and difficulty, and that will help you decide if you’d like to engage in this undertaking. The price might seem a bit much for the amount of gameplay, but for achievement hunters, there may be some replay value, if you truly want to figure out all of the room’s secrets.
There are, as of this writing, 17 positive reviews on Steam, so clearly there is a delighted audience out there. Like the line between plausible reality in the first levels and the absolute madness in the last level, however, I am ambivalent.
Crimson Room: Decade can be purchased on Steam for $9.99. Check out the official website for more information and screenshots, and seek out the Facebook page to see convention photos and a “then vs. now” comparison.