Scarlet Envelope (Chapters 1 and 2)

7 Overall
Component Quality
Immersion
Puzzle Design
Game Experience
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Scarlet Envelope (Chapters 1 and 2)

  • Played October 2020

  • 1-6 players
  • $20 (monthly subscription)

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For the past 7+ years, the ERA team has been honoured to provide consultation and reviews for thousands of escape games (both in-home escape games, and live, physical, escape rooms… remember those?). And although there are some drawbacks in being an escape reviewer, overall it’s pretty fun travelling North America with fellow ERA members, while helping others along the way. It’s also cool to be an industry herald in letting others know about the latest team-building and interactive experiences offered. But the best part of all has to be the amazing people we get to meet along the way. Whether it’s a reunion with fellow escape industry veterans, or a new relationship with up and coming designers, reviewers, and enthusiasts…there’s just a lot of great people in this industry!

Speaking of new connections, we finally managed to sit down and review a new in-home escape game we’ve been champing at the bit to play since we met the designers several months ago. When we first met the Scarlet Envelope team, they were uncertain if they wanted to take the plunge into the sometimes harsh and critical world of in-home escape games. What if people didn’t like their first game? What if people thought they were too young and inexperienced to put out a quality product? What if they invested time and money but nobody was interested? There were a lot of unknowns and fears, and we could see some encouragement was needed. So we let them know although there will tough times ahead (overly competitive designers, enthusiasts who try to rally others against a game because they didn’t like it themselves, online trolls, those darn people from the ERA team……?!!..…uhhmmm…errr…ahem – you get the idea), not to worry because there’s always more supporters in the background! The covid pandemic has also been a huge boost for all in-home escape games, so we told them it’s the perfect time to take a leap of faith… and thankfully they did! A couple months later chapters 1 and 2 from their Scarlet Envelope series was released!

The Scarlet Envelope team asked if we would combine their first two chapters into one review, which seemed like a reasonable request (and a bit less work for our team), so off we go starting with… component quality! As the name indicates, you’ll know when these games arrive because of their distinctively bright red envelopes. Inside each envelope you’ll find most of the game components you need printed on various forms of paper. We know, we know, “Another in-home escape game that just sends you a bunch of paper puzzles” you say? Not exactly, there are some online components within these games, and the paper pieces do come in a variety of forms and sizes, but yes there is a lot of paper so be on guard for paper’s natural enemies (wind and water). The ERA team tends to be of the mindset that consumers want (and deserve) a bit more than just paper puzzles and an online interface in today’s competitive marketplace, so how the heck did these Scarlet Envelope games get into the good-average range for component quality scores you ask? Music! Yup, we’ve been saying it for years now and finally some designers have listened… the Scarlet Envelope games include a Spotify playlist for each game to help set the right mood and atmosphere! This little addition turned us from the opinion of ‘’It’s unfortunately just another bunch of paper puzzles.’’ to ‘’Yes it’s a bunch of paper, but the song tracks for this game are perfect!’’ In the end, the overall component quality won’t necessarily ‘wow’ anyone, but with the addition of custom picked songs, there’s a decent level of component quality to be happy with. Kudos to the Scarlet Envelope team for taking that first step forward and setting a good example for other designers!

Having talked about the excellent addition of music, it’s easy to see the impact this had on the immersive level of these games. In short, it made the games ‘come to life’ and helped set the mood, time period, and further helped us visualize the scenes. All we needed now was a decently developed story…

What makes Scarlet Envelope unlike most in-home escape games is the ongoing ‘meta-story arc’ taking place from chapter to chapter (game-to-game). This is in addition to each individual game chapter story (note: a perfect example of this is Portal Games’ Detective: A Modern Crime Story). It’s important for people to know how incredibly hard this is to design well. It takes an advanced level story developer and writer to pull it off. Did the Scarlet Envelope team accomplish this in each of their first two chapters? In some ways yes, and in others ways it needed a bit of help. Within each chapter, the Scarlet Envelope impressed us with their stories. Admittedly the first chapter was a bit weaker in story development (it’s more of an introductory game to the series). But we definitely saw some excellent story development in the second chapter. In fact, we’d even be willing to say it has one of the best developed stories we’ve ever seen! The puzzles and bits of information were given in perfect balance with not spoiling the story ahead of time. This allowed us to use observation and deduction to figure out the full story instead of it being told outright… that’s a sign of great story development! When grouped together with some interesting and ‘authentic’ game pieces (e.g, ticket stubs, cabaret programs, online ads… etc) the experience became wonderfully immersive! How about the meta-story arc though? Did the first two chapters of Scarlet Envelope draw us into a bigger mystery? Not yet. It felt a little tagged-on as an afterthought in the design process. We’re not given much of an explanation why we’re going from mystery to mystery (chapter-to-chapter) trying to figure out who the ‘Game Master’ is, or why it’s important to us. The short videos at the end of each chapter are intended to connect the current game chapter to the meta-story arc, but they felt a bit disconnected. This seems to be in part because of a language and communication barrier. We suspect English is a second language for the Scarlet Envelope team which means certain words, inferences, phrases, and meanings got lost in translation. The dramatic impact of the videos which were intended to sound mysterious and ominous, ended up awkward with the Game Master speaking slowly, with precise, enunciated words, and everything is explained in a overly simple manner. Was this change in tone enough to detract us from looking forward to the ongoing story? No, we wouldn’t go that far. But we are hoping that as they continue to develop each chapter, the story development strengths we saw within each chapter become more present in the meta-story videos also.

Although there were some mixed opinions and observations, it seems the puzzles from these two games made the strongest impression of all. And we can see why, there’s some really well designed puzzles with fun ‘Aha!’ moments in these games. We understand some people may not enjoy mostly paper based puzzles, but a few of us in the group didn’t even notice the amount of paper because of the many different forms it was presented (is a crumpled post-it note the same as a ticket stub? Or a food menu? …etc… depends who you ask). We should point out not all the puzzles are paper based; some were online. One thing that really stood out to us was the level of complexity with a few of the puzzles. Some of us prefer the more straightforward puzzles, but we all agreed there was some top level creativity in the design of those complex puzzles. Speaking of complexity, one thing that made our team laugh was the amount of difficulty we had in solving the puzzles that unlock the hint sections for both games. In the first game, we finished the game and then opened up the hints afterwards when the designers gave us a hint through Facebook. In the second game it was the second-last puzzle we solved (and once again we needed a hint through Facebook to unlock the hints). We’re hoping moving forward it’s a bit easier to unlock hints at the beginning of the game (we’re either really good puzzle solvers for not needing the hint section, or really horrible for not figuring out how to unlock the hints). There’s also a noticeable increase in difficulty between the first and second chapters. In both cases however there was a nice mix of puzzle skills needed (visual, observational, lateral, logical, deductive… etc). We really enjoyed how the puzzle paths in both chapters were quite different from one another. Chapter one’s puzzles were created in a meta-puzzle (open path) style where we needed to solve seven non-linear puzzles before the final puzzle of the game. This definitely allowed everyone to be involved in their own ‘puzzle silo’ which some of our members liked, and others didn’t. One advantage of the open-path style is that we could’ve theoretically included up to seven players with everyone having an equal amount of participation (until the end of the game). The downside of course is the more people you have solving their own puzzle, the less any one person will know about the game as a whole. The second chapter was designed with the more familiar linear puzzle path and although most of the puzzles were inclusive, we’d suggest playing it with no more than 2-3 people or else one person is most likely going to be left out. In both chapters the puzzles tied into the story and theme really well. In some ways, the first chapter is more ‘beginner friendly’ and the second chapter is more ‘enthusiast friendly’ but we’d say in both cases beginners and enthusiasts should find enough within the puzzles to keep them both happy and busy.

As much as we appreciated the puzzles in both games, there were a couple areas that could’ve used a bit more work… The communication barrier was once again evident in the puzzles and hints, starting with a confusing interchange between the words ‘chapter’ and ‘game’ (which took us a while to understand they mean the same thing). Just in case we haven’t made it more clear through our review however, Scarlet Envelope is the name of the game series. The words ‘chapter’ and ‘game’ usually refer to the specific envelope (aka in-home game), but from time to time the word ‘game’ might also reference the whole ‘game series’ or meta-story arc. If you can keep these things in mind you’re already doing better than we did. The other area our team would’ve liked to have seen a bit of improvement is with the number (and wording) of the hints. Even though it wasn’t until the end of each chapter that we unlocked the hints, we still decided to go through them and see what they looked like. In both cases, we felt the hints were awkwardly worded and sometimes made the solution sound even more complex than the puzzle required. One of our team members also pointed out it’s a case of too many thoughts being communicated in a single hint. Multiple graduated hints is usually a better way to get players from step to step. This would also go a long way in helping eliminate the communication barriers. The visual appeal of the hint sections could also use a bit more work, as it looked like large, oddly spaced, drop-down blocks of text on a page. We’ve added these observations so that if you should find yourself confused with some of the wording like we did, it’s best to just go back, re-read the area of difficulty a few times, and use your best judgement as to what is meant. In most cases this should help. Having said all this, it’s important to once again note that our team really enjoyed the puzzles in these games and we are excited to see what future puzzles are coming up in chapter three!

And that leads us to our final thoughts… Is Scarlet Envelope a fun series on the whole? Yes. Is chapter one fun? Yes, especially for those who enjoy lighter, open-path style puzzles. Is the second chapter fun? Yes, but moreso for serious immersion and/or puzzle enthusiasts. Is the meta-story arc for the whole series capturing our interest? Not really, but it’s more than covered by some excellent puzzle design and good in-game story development. Again it’s important to know these games aren’t ideally designed for families as much as they are towards puzzle and immersive entertainment enthusiasts. So if you’re experiencing escape room withdrawal, and your regular escape room team knows of a good outdoor venue for you to play safely (with masks on) together, then we’d say it’s time to get yourself a copy (or two) of the Scarlet Envelope series! We’re excited what these young designers from the Scarlet Envelope team have started, and we’re quite impressed with their first two chapters… we’re glad they decided to take the plunge!

We want to hear your thoughts on this game! Be sure to comment in the section below or send us a message via ERA’s email, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter… As always, happy escaping!

Final Verdict:

7/10

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