Game Review: EMPTY FACES

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Episode One: So I love escape rooms. I love puzzles. And I love horror stories. So when you offer me something that claims to be a monthly set of puzzles and clues to a longer horror narrative story, you should have me right where you want me.

That’s why I’d been dying to try out the Empty Faces box subscription series, because they claimed it was “paranormal investigation delivered to your doorstep each month”. Fortunately, I finally got the chance to check Empty Faces out as their creators Ryan Hogan and Derrick Smith sent them to the Nightmarish Conjurings’ ‘Hole of Horror’ (what the rest of you call a mailbox) and I was given the chance to be the new guinea pig with this series.

I cannot express how excited my escape room squad (who I had brought over to experience this with me) and I were when we opened the box. Inside, we found letters. We found ciphers. We found a notebook. We found a pendant. It was like a Christmas present of weirdness and puzzle solving and we were ready to tackle it at speed.

We found that a girl named Isabella went missing for a bit and then returned in a catatonic state. Her grandmother had met us “in a dream” and knew that we were the ones she sought, the ones who would solve this mystery.

She even gave us some sage to burn around the space and protect ourselves. It literally was sage, too. I immediately sent my witch roommate to the task she was suited for as the rest of us continued solving the rest of the clues held within. There was literally a rubbing of a code from semaphore language (that was a fast translation). There was even a copy of a doctor’s note that at first looked like it was simply really, really badly copied (until one of us noticed something deeper at work).

It’s dangerous in a review like this to offer too many specifics of what we found within this episode. After all, you should get the chance to figure it out for yourself. But suffice it to say that almost everything you receive has some deeper meaning to it or some clue that can lead you further into the story.

And the story is creepy. A girl, Isabella, who is isolated and not using technology because of her grandmother, Grace. A friendship that appears to be her only real connection to the rest of the world. The ongoing belief that lightning can bring evil (I mean…what?) By the time we had ‘solved’ this first episode, we had a good idea of where we were going and a ton of questions about every character within the story.

And that makes the first episode of The Woods a good beginning place. It opens a ton of doors, does some intriguing puzzles and creates a good desire for someone to look deeper—which translates into getting the next episode, of course. And the link to an actual website gave me some immediate ideas of exactly how many clues we might still have to go.

But the real question for me was—did I truly enjoy what we were doing? Was it frightening? Was it scary? For me, the first episode didn’t actually make me afraid or really have much of an emotional response at all. It made me deeply curious to see what the next chapter would entail. But it didn’t quite hook me emotionally.

So we quickly moved on to Episode 2, as we were all very clear we wanted to see what would come next.

Episode Two: The items held within Episode 2 were much more confusing for me when we first unboxed them. A prism? A feather? “Enchanted Paper”? What in the world were we going to be doing with these items?

The answer came from another note from the grandmother—there was a ritual to perform that would give us clues to continue our attempt to help Isabella, still lost in her catatonic state. The prism, for instance, could show us the ‘true face’ of someone, as evidenced by a photo that altered my opinion about Isabella’s doctor immediately. This was the moment my squad-mate, Josh, leaped for joy as he had already told us that he had a specific opinion about that doctor from the first note we received in Episode One and he was now convinced he had been vindicated.

Meanwhile, some of the other items were used in a very unique way that actually worked really well to create a specific clue. Seriously, from a purely technical standpoint this was a very cool clue that can only be done once ever. That’s both awesome and a great way to persuade people to buy their own boxes.

So away we went, solving puzzles and performing rituals. And we realized, quickly, that this episode wasn’t going to move the story forward very much. That makes sense from a narrative standpoint—the story still has three more episodes to go and that makes this episode a backstory and world-building one almost by definition.

But it doesn’t make it that much fun narratively, because we’re not going to have any major revelations or plot-twists. That means that the puzzles and ciphers need to be much stronger.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what happens here. The puzzles (including the ritual) are denser and more interesting. Solving them took a lot longer and we were more excited when we were done. But I also wondered to myself whether these boxes would be more interesting if I was doing them alone. Escape rooms are only fun in my opinion when I’m doing them with friends, and these seemed similar in style and tone to an escape room, so that’s what I had chosen to do here. But would this box have been more interesting, take longer and be more compelling if I’d done it solo?

I wasn’t sure, but I did know that I was more intellectually engaged by this second box and very, very much wanted to see what was coming next. In fact, we all immediately wondered whether we could find a way to start an actual subscription with Episode 3 or if there was some option to buy the entire rest of the series at once. (Sadly, neither seems to be an option at the moment. I can only hope the Hole of Horror spits out the rest of the series so that I finally learn the rest of the story.)

Empty Faces promises to be a paranormal investigation sent to you monthly. And that’s exactly what it is, for the most part. But it’s important for someone who wants to experience this series to understand that each Episode only moves you a little further in the story. I had envisioned in my head that each of these Episodes would be a full chapter of a story, with a full beginning, middle and end. Instead, what you have is a true multi-episode narrative. The beginning launches you and the second episode moves you further down the path, but the questions my team and I had at the beginning remain almost entirely unanswered by the end of Episode 2. And at one Episode a month, I think this subscription box succeeds at being an evening’s diversion mentally—but not as compelling either story or narrative-wise as I has personally hoped for when I had seen advertisements. Of course, because I have only seen the first two episodes, I cannot claim it won’t get stronger—it certainly might.

I will say this: Empty Faces has definitely succeeded in making me want to see what comes next. That’s a pretty strong argument for its value.

Erik Blair

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