Review: The Cube Escape Series
Play for free at http://www.cubeescape.com/
If you’ve seen the Rusty Lake games Hotel or Roots, here or over on Steam, you might not be aware (as I was not) that they’re tied to the Cube Escape series floating out on the internets. After completing Rusty Lake Roots I was eager to see what else the saga of this strange land had to offer, and the Cube Escape games absolutely do not disappoint in that department. Though they vary in scope and quality, that pervasive weirdness that makes the Rusty Lake games so captivating is present in spades. In truth, some of the scenes here top those found in their paid counterparts on Steam, so if you’re new to the series or never experienced them for yourself, this is the perfect place to start.
There are currently nine titles in the Cube Escape series, dating from long before the first retail outing (Rusty Lake Hotel) all the way up to the present. We’ll go into more detail about each entry but the Rusty Lake series as a whole focuses on a pleasant, pastoral tract of land marked by a lake that tends to take a reddish appearance in the evenings. This is hardly the most sinister aspect of the area, though, as the games delve deep into the confounding mythos of the lake and its ephemeral denizens. Instead of ghosts or monsters, Rusty Lake takes a subdued, surrealist approach to horror that unnerves with trees sprouting from dead fish and animal-headded persons committing perfunctory murders.
Each game in the series has a different focus in the over-arching plot, but maintains a similar look and feel. The original Cube Escape, Seasons, sets the tone by dropping you into the same room across four time periods. There’s a clear progression of inexplicable phenomena and madness that culminates in an intensely creepy finale and opens the door to the bizarre metaphysics of the setting. This one was followed by three much smaller vignettes, The Lake, Arles, and Harvey’s Box. Each one forges its own path with more experimental gameplay, like the fishing element in The Lake and paint-based puzzles in Arles. This is also where you can see the weirdness of the puzzles ramp up, but without much connection to the main plot of the series.
Case 23 and The Mill are where the series really takes off, introducing a major character that will be followed through subsequent games and establishing more of the rules and reasons of the lake. Case 23 is a pretty sprawling adventure that follows a detective puzzling through the strange events of Seasons. His investigation exposes him to the strange beings and rituals of Rusty Lake, eventually revealing the true nature of the lake itself. The Mill builds on this in a big way, starting you off in a creepily isolated location but tying back into the main plot of Case 23 as you approach the conclusion. These games in particular help contextualize Rusty Lake Hotel, to the point that I think you’d enjoy the latter a lot more if you play these two first.
The aforementioned Rusty Lake Hotel released in this period, to be follow by the Birthday and Theatre segments. While not lengthy these keep expanding on the themes of Hotel, and in fact continue directly from the conclusion of that game. The bits of lore revealed are definitely the highlights because at this point the puzzles started getting overly strange (at least in Birthday) and include some of the grosser elements of Hotel like an odd fixation on poop. The most recent title, The Cave, includes plot threads from Roots and possibly Paradise, but feels like a definite maturation of the series.
At their core the Cube Escape games are very simple point-and-click adventures, limited to just a handful of scenes and no more complex interactions than clicking on items. Only in the most recent releases can you click and drag to work some puzzles, even. Their appeal isn’t in their mechanics though, but in the atmosphere. I brought it up in my other Rusty Lake reviews but this series plays heavily on the macabre, unsettling through sinister non-sequiturs and the implications of a world defined by alien logic. There are precious few jumpscares to be found across the games and every one of them is earned, as you’ll be primed for them by the dreamlike happenings and ominous forces at work. It almost has an element of cosmic horror stemming from the numerous unknowns, yet maintains a brighter feel.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Cube Escape series is its high quality. The puzzles may vary across the entries but the atmosphere is always spot-on, and even the most non-sensical challenges hold no candle to the point-and-click frustrations of yesteryear. Now that I’ve played them all (except Paradise) I’d honestly say that Hotel is the weakest entry, with all of the Cube Escape games topping it in quality and intrigue. They do all form a massive story, one that’s still unfolding, so you’ll want to get to all of them eventually. Fans of psychological horror and Lynchian ambiance should ignore this series no longer, for it delivers hours of dark fascinations.