Version tested: Xbox 360
There's something intrinsically likeable about Exit - so much so, in fact, that it's hard to approach the game without desperately wanting to like it. Whether it's the wonderfully eccentric art style, the sense of humour that suggests a mind somewhat askew, or simply the fact that it's a puzzle game that isn't another bloody variation on bloody Tetris, we're not sure. Perhaps it's a bit of all three.
Just as well, then, that Exit's beauty is somewhat more than skin deep. What we have here, in fact, is a lovely - but flawed - specimen of Xbox Live Arcade title, an endearing little puzzle game whose slip-ups are largely forgivable on account of its ready charm.
If you've already bought the PSP version, which appeared at the start of summer, then all you'll want to know is this - it's the same game, but in nice-looking high definition, and it might have downloadable content down the line. On the other hand, if Exit is new to you; well, allow me to introduce you to my new friend.
The Other Snake
My new friend is Mr ESC. Clad in a smart black suit, a yellow hat and a flowing red scarf, Mr ESC is, as his name suggests, an expert in escaping. Like an art deco painting of Snake Plissken - if Escape from New York had been directed by Oscar Wilde rather than John Carpenter - Mr ESC's task is simply to get to the exit of each of the game's 2D levels, preferably rescuing as many as possible of the stranded people scattered around the level on the way.
A freelance rescue and escape expert with a hefty caffeine addiction, Mr ESC is a remarkably expressive character, thanks to some lovely animation. He's also fairly versatile - he can climb over obstacles and up low walls, run and jump, swim for a certain amount of time, push blocks about and use a variety of pick-up items. These items include keys for locked doors, pickaxes to break weak walls, torches to illuminate dark areas and planks to create bridges over gaps.
At its most basic level, the game is a race against time to use the items provided to reach the exit of the level. Although you control Mr ESC like a platform game character, the game's focus is heavily on the puzzle aspect. After the initial training levels (there are ten of those, before you start the game proper), you'll need to seriously think out your strategy for each map, or risk suddenly finding yourself stuck on the wrong side of a block that you can't move, or trapped by a fire because you didn't think through where you were going to use your fire extinguishers.
Complicating things further are the survivors littered around the various levels. On some levels, rescuing these companions is compulsory - other levels make it optional, or give a minimum number you must rescue. Once you've reached a companion, he'll follow you around until you tell him to stop - but that's just the beginning of the delicious strife companions will cause for you.
Companions, you see, are also an intrinsic part of the game's puzzles - and of how to solve them. There are four types of companion; young adults are almost as manoeuvrable as Mr ESC himself, aside from being unable to jump or fall quite as far. Adults are big and heavy, can't jump or climb very far, but can push large, heavy blocks around single-handed.
Children are even less sprightly in the jumping and falling stakes, and need to be lifted up and down from high places - but they can scamper over fragile floors and through narrow places. Finally, patients are unable to move for themselves, and need to be carried around or pushed about on stretchers.
The left stick on your Xbox pad moves Mr ESC around. The right stick, however, moves around a cursor, which can be used to select companions and assign actions to them. Click a companion (just click in on the stick to do this), and then click somewhere on the screen, and they'll try to move there. Click a button and they'll press it, a door and they'll open it, a block and they'll shove it - they can even use pick-up items, just like Mr ESC can.
Suddenly, there's a compulsive, Lemmings-like flavour to the levels. Your companions are a team, and you need to co-ordinate them - pushing blocks, standing on floor switches, grabbing pick-ups - to get everyone to the exit door. The options available to you, and the complexity of the puzzles, ratchet up a notch. So does your smug satisfaction when all the pieces of a tricky puzzle that's been bothering you for ages suddenly fall together in your brain; "I love it when a plan comes together", you might sigh to yourself as you watch your new-found pals stream out the exit door, lighting an imaginary cigar.
That, frankly, is Mr ESC's long-term appeal - the fact that it's got wonderfully designed, fiendishly brain-twisting and honest-to-god satisfying puzzles by the bucketload. There's a nice difficulty curve through the first 100 levels (ten of which are technically tutorial levels), with new concepts (dangers like fire or electricity, tools like the pickaxe and the torch) being introduced every few levels. After that, there are another 100-odd levels to play, with the difficulty level ratcheted up significantly - a significant challenge for any puzzle fanatic.
The presentation, however, starts well but proceeds to trip over its own shoelaces and land face-first in a fresh, unscooped mess of dog faeces. The art deco style of the two-tone characters and the lovely 2D backdrops make a great first impression, and really hook you into the game from the outset. However, the whole thing is let down by singularly awful music and sound effects.
The music is forgivable, of course. It may be crap, but plugging your iPod into the Xbox 360 and replacing it with your own (presumably amazing) taste in tunes isn't rocket science. The sound effects, however, go some way to making the game outright irritating. Each companion seemingly has two voice samples, and by god they're determined to etch them into your brain like a searing hot brand. Until you find them, they shout inane "is anyone there?" phrases every few seconds; once you do find them, they tell you several times a minute that they're hungry, tired, or unable to speak because you've just torn their maddening tongues from their mouths and thrown them across the level.
Mr ESC himself isn't much better. He's got a selection of humorous things to say, you see, but unfortunately he's only got about five of them - ranging from side-splitters like "I'm getting too old for this!" through to comedy gold about being worn out from climbing all these stairs (which he normally seems to complain about when you're nowhere near a staircase). His limited repertoire is one thing, but his insistence on looping through it about once a minute is enough to make you want to strangle kittens.
Several other flaws mar the basic puzzling joy of the game. The AI of your companions, for instance, leaves much to be desired. They seem desperately confused by stairs and ladders, and to move them up or down a floor you'll often need to laboriously shepherd them to the top of the stairs, then to the bottom of the stairs, and then to where you want them to go - three steps where a few lines of path-finding code would have allowed just one.
Their path-finding is also perfectly happy to walk them straight into fires or electrified floors, which is somewhat ridiculous. Clicking on a location that's one flight of stairs away, only to discover that the AI has for no reason decided to walk to the other side of the level and right into a blazing fire, is outright upsetting. You'll be restarting levels a lot, as it's the kind of puzzle game where you often only realise you're doing the wrong thing when your mistakes are irreversible. We don't mind restarting the level to correct our own stupidity - but doing so to correct the stupidity of some idiot companion who has decided to go for an extreme fake tan treatment is annoying.
While we're criticising the game's flaws - bearing in mind, through all this, that these are mere furrows on the brow of contentment as we lean back and contemplate how many of our plans have come together - it would be lax not to mention its dalliances with platform game mechanics.
Obviously, Exit is controlled like a platform game - you walk around, jump, climb, and so on. However, that's no reason for a puzzle game to suddenly start demanding accurate jumps and careful timing from you - especially given that Mr ESC's movement controls would charitably be describe as clunky, and uncharitably described as similar to attempting to steer a drunken, one-legged tramp through the Krypton Factor assault course.
Riddle Me This
The game is at its best when it sticks to puzzles - and on that front, it's incredibly hard to fault. Occasional frustration is inevitable in this sort of game, as your logic will often fall at the final hurdle after getting everything right for a few minutes of play, necessitating a restart. However, this is one game where trial and error is an incredibly enjoyable approach, and gradually learning the tricks of a complex level, pushing the puzzle closer to a solution with each attempt, is an immensely satisfying experience.
It's certainly let down by some presentation flaws, and a bit of very weak AI path-finding - although, in the game's defence, you pretty much learn to compensate for that after a couple of dozen levels. Exit still emerges as a solid and enjoyable puzzle game - one that we would have been happy to pay 30 quid for on the PSP a few months ago, now available on your Xbox 360 for under a tenner. We wish it spent a little more time on puzzles, and little less on weak platforming - but we can't help but love it when a plan comes together.
7 / 10