At the end of the flash-game era, a series of engrossing puzzle games known as Cube Escape released its bizarre world of mystery upon our minds. Today we’re diving into Rusty Lake with the Cube Escape Collection, the first nine games, pieces of a fascinating puzzle.
Each point-and-click game drips with uncanny atmosphere. If you turn and don’t see maddening horror, you’ll always at least find something slightly off. Unnerving. Every chapter is loaded with a psychological gut punch, accompanied with somber music and themes.
I’ll be discussing each escape game in the order recommended they be played in.
These escape room games get dark quickly. There are themes of depression, trauma, and death. Depictions of dead bodies are not uncommon, and are sometimes included within the mechanics of the puzzles.
Cube Escape: Seasons
“The past is never dead, it is not even past.”
This introductory chapter time-lapses you through moments of a character’s life, centered around the mysterious death of someone close. Solve puzzles around the small house while the player character’s grasp on reality unhinges. Each of four seasons provides you with more context of the “full picture.”
The atmosphere is a perfect hint at what the rest of the games have to offer. The stillness of the house, the lonely furniture, and the Prozac prescription posted to the board show us the character’s psyche and lifestyle. With only a pet bird and a dark presence for company, I found myself empathizing with the character’s isolation. Even the puzzles contribute to the eerie energy. Get used to arms reaching out from nowhere to hand you keys, and stammering “no no no no!” When you realize certain solutions.
The soundtrack varies from calming to spine-chilling. An aggressive beat in the finale pumps up the player’s determination to persevere.
Mechanically, the puzzles are straightforward. For the most part, items interact with the logic you would expect them to. Players will escape Seasons by using fundamental reasoning. This might be because it’s an earlier game, as the production value and interactivity only go up from here. As you progress through the rooms, however, the weird nature of the game becomes more prominent. Some of the later puzzles are less immediately obvious and will push you to think outside the box more compared to the beginning.
As the first game in the Cube Escape series, Seasons is tasked with establishing gameplay and tone, and it delivers. It leaves you with a mystery dangling before your eyes, pulling you along like a fish on a bloody hook. Speaking of. . .
Cube Escape: The Lake
Welcome to Rusty Lake, Mental Health & Fishing! After that last gruesome mindbender, we join our character in some peaceful angling. What could possibly go wrong at this peaceful cabin upon the lake? Breathe in that freshwater breeze and ignore the dark presence creeping in the back of your head.
This escape room game is the shortest in the collection, but it’s also one of the few with multiple endings. You can explore them by swapping out one key item for another of a different color within the main puzzle.
The Lake is certainly a gameplay sequel. Players who finished Seasons first will feel rewarded with a callback puzzle solution and visual references (the shrimp is a cool lil’ guy, and I like seeing him everywhere).
The tone is calmer than Seasons, with a couple of spikes of terror throughout. We’re here to escape our troubles, so it only makes sense. Not that our character is having a good time with a shadowy passenger stalking along.
The puzzles mostly involve using different items as bait on the fish hook, and then solving whatever the water gives you. Aside from that you’ll have a handful of combinations to solve. If you’re ever unsure of what to do, whack everything with your crowbar that you can!
While I enjoyed The Lake for what it was, its only purpose was to introduce players to Rusty Lake. Simple and to the point.
Cube Escape: Arles
Fans of Van Gogh will instantly recognize his bedroom. This short adventure depicts a snippet of the painter’s life.
This is the least connected to the rest of Cube Escape Collection, but still holds that cold, haunting attitude. Vincent’s artworks and absinthe addiction aid in solving this room, and his journey within himself gets downright disturbing.
The puzzles are simple, and the fun mechanic of mixing concoctions does reappear often in the series. If you’re in a bind, perhaps make yourself a drink. Don’t forget to share the spirits with any company you might have!
Overall, Arles is a fun entry to Cube Escape. Even if we don’t get any new information on the Rusty Lake story, it holds itself as a standalone.
Cube Escape: Harvey’s Box
Yes, you do get to play as the bird. This game has you trying to escape Harvey’s moving box. As for why there are matchsticks cramped in the same space as the pet . . . Rusty Lake’s lore must be beyond my comprehension.
This one is short and surreal. The first half is rather plain. You peck at objects, surrounded by a beige backdrop. Connecting the dots of where and when this puzzle game takes place is satisfying. It also introduces a new character, and thus, more insight to the story.
This is also the point in the series where we truly get more actual puzzles, in addition to the object interaction gameplay from before. Unfortunately, the ones here are more often frustrating than satisfying. Connecting dominoes in order feels more like tedious trial-and-error rather than engaging. On a different puzzle, the solution is a long string of musical notes that I had to screenshot, as I couldn’t look back and forth between the code and the input without resetting it.
It’s clear that Harvey’s Box is the devs’ test of new puzzle types. While the gameplay flops, the toolkit of the series expands greatly thanks to it. In fact, the games up until now have simply been groundwork to start building upon. That brings us to one of the longer and more varied entries in the Cube Escape Collection.
Cube Escape: Case 23
At last, the meat of the Cube Escape Collection. Progress the story as Detective Dale Vandermeer in this four-chapter escape game. You get a new perspective on the enigmatic death in Seasons, and things get strange fast.
The slow-burn dread from before ramps up. While you start with a normal investigation, nothing is as it seems. Rooms vanish, and black moths guide you. You may even call on fate. Case 23 is the most immersive so far. Your brain will tingle with anticipation of the next moment, and slowly you realize you’re in a deeper story than you initially thought. The game follows one eerie sequence to another, until a terrifying finale that will leave players trembling in their chair.
The puzzles are the most diverse they’ve ever been. And the quality does not go down with quantity here. Solve a creative nesting doll conundrum. Cross-reference pages on an overhead projector. Use your imagination and be willing to try anything!
I loved Case 23. Filling the shoes of a detective is a fantastic way to give a player that puzzle-solving satisfaction. I felt the same joy that I did when I first played Sherlock Studies, here at The Escape Effect.
Cube Escape: The Mill
The Mill allows players to see the events of Case 23 from a different perspective. The true nature of the mill, as well as the familiar face you’re playing as, come in the form of context clues.
Seeing an inside look at a part of Rusty Lake changes the nature of what was once frightening. The terrifying sights the player dealt with before are now just a part of the task at hand. Still, the sight of an upside-down body and the dark presence filled me with unease. Rewatching some events from the last game unfold was satisfying.
There is a blend of item interaction and logic puzzles. Somehow the most mundane puzzles left me the most bewildered. Milking the cow in the attic and trading it for an oven mitt wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing.
The Mill left me excited to see where the story would go. Rusty Lake’s purpose is an overarching puzzle, and this game is a piece that urges you to seek out the next.
Cube Escape: Birthday
This puzzler continues Detective Vandermeer’s journey into Rusty Lake. After finding a memory cube, the player is transported to a young Dale’s birthday party.
Birthday has the most memorable music since Seasons. It’s witty, and turns on its head when the usual, maddening horror sets in. But before that, the room has a sense of peace and community. You’re surrounded by a warm family, at a distance from the gloomy world beyond. This escape game has NPCs that actually speak a comprehensible language, which aside from Dale, hasn’t happened until now. Vandermeer’s backstory sets up a mystery that isn’t answered in the Cube Escape Collection, and I look forward to solving it in the future!
The gameplay mainly involves helping out your family with tasks they could easily do themselves, and collecting items to fit into the main puzzle. Of course, I won’t complain about giving Grandpa something to drink. I also enjoyed a particular minigame involving towers on a poster.
Birthday is another immersive entry to the series. A twist in tone that adds more depth to Dale’s character, and the world of Rusty Lake. “Boom, haha!“
Cube Escape: Theatre
Like in Birthday, this escape room is another “cube” Dale steps into. He finds himself in a small club with a bar, a bathroom, a piano, and a stage.
Theatre has a cool, smooth aesthetic that is unique to itself. The familiar man sitting at the bar hits you with the classic, “What do you want, Detective?” Between the cracks of noir, the game’s sinister dread still haunts you. The macabre objects and events typical to Rusty Lake are not shied away from. One puzzle even hints at the ideology of whatever group is running the show.
Onto the puzzles, they are mostly clever. The first thing you can do is mix drinks for the man at the bar (even though the bartender is there, telling you to do his job for him!). There are a few recipes you can find, even one hidden back in Birthday! Each stage show also contains a brain-stimulating problem for you to solve. It’s clear that Harvey is having a lot of fun during his act, and that made me happy.
Overall the puzzles are fun, a “Goldilocks” zone of not too complicated or too easy. The pacing flows well, and the bone-chilling moments are well earned. Theatre is a wonderful game to fit in as the penultimate chapter.
Cube Escape: The Cave
The last game in the Cube Escape Collection is through the eyes of Mr.Crow. He steps into a cave near the lake, seemingly on a mission. Players aren’t sure of what that mission exactly is until the end.
The Cave is dreary, and full of the deranged logic I’ve come to expect from this series. Arms coming out of cave walls. A book full of lore oozing blood. A mysterious elixir made from, well, you’ll find out. The ending does give you a big answer to your questions, but it’s clear the story must continue beyond this.
The puzzles in the first half are fun. It’s an ancient cave with rustic items to interact with. One of the first problems was a spiderweb themed puzzle that I enjoyed. Unfortunately, the game slows to a crawl in the latter section. While some suspense and anxiety were built, and you’ll especially feel it if you fear being underwater, the puzzles were mostly tedious. Shifting gears and turning old, mechanical wheels is only fun for so long, and this dragged.
Luckily players are rewarded for their patience with the grand finale to the collection.
To summarize Cube Escape Collection would be an attempt at summarizing a madman’s surreal dream. With its mysterious characters, melancholy world, and macabre puzzles, It deserves its place as a cult classic.
If you like the game Control or if you like the show Twin Peaks, you’ll love Cube Escape Collection. It’s a fantastic start to the horror-themed escape room game series and I’m thrilled to play more soon. Until then, check out our review of The Room Three to get more of that puzzle game fix!