These days, we often celebrate games for raising the bar visually and building their worlds with eye-catching art styles, so much so that it’s easy to forget about the less-talked-about genre of interactive fiction, where text is the primary vehicle for storytelling and gameplay. The mind-bending beauty of Viewfinder and the detailed scowls of your party members in Baldur's Gate 3 are undoubtedly impressive. However, there’s still something to be said about word-heavy experiences that encourage your imagination to fill in the visual gaps. So allow me to introduce you to Escape from Norwood, developed and published by Singular Works. It’s an old-school text adventure with a twist, drawing inspiration from the text-based classics of the ‘80s (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Starcross) while also adding a sprinkle of modern design, including open-world exploration and illustrated 2D backgrounds.
My first impression of Escape from Norwood was that it’s much like reading a new fantasy novel — or playing Final Fantasy XVI for the first time — which is kind of like learning to swim, or else you risk drowning in a sea of lore. You’re hit with new terminology, relationships, and historical events — it can get confusing, to say the least. Escape from Norwood is no different. It drops you right into its world, teeming with magical systems, political intrigue, mysteries, and missing persons, without very much hand-holding narratively. However, although you might not know what a Prime is or what the Empress’ Seekers are at first, the game has just the right balance between the unfamiliar and the familiar. The world is built with so many recognisable ingredients of the fantasy genre, such as talkative innkeepers, a mediaeval backdrop, vigilante groups hiding in the shadows, and potion-makers selling various concoctions, that you’ll feel right at home amidst it all.
The game opens with a hunt but, unfortunately, you’re the prey. Playing as 13-year-old Lecia, you’re woken from your peaceful river-side nap by your panicked father, urging you to run home and hide. It seems a sentry is searching for you after being tipped off about your magical abilities. Though your hiding place is quickly discovered, you’re able to use said magic to save yourself, as you’ve been gifted (or cursed, depending on who you ask) with the power to turn yourself invisible. You can’t permanently go unseen, though, as the invisibility wears off quickly and depletes your energy with each use of the spell. Once the sentry leaves, your father sets you off on a quest to gather supplies for the journey ahead. It’s time to escape from Norwood for good, but getting out will prove to be more complicated than you expected.
You’ll notice your screen is split into four quadrants, with each box holding specific game elements. On the top right, you have an interactive game map, which you can click on to move Lecia around the environment. The 2D illustrations of the map aren’t too detailed, but it’s more than enough to get a feel for your surroundings. The top left is reserved for the text you’d normally read from a game like this, tracking your conversations with NPCs and noting actions characters have taken. The bottom-right box sets the scene of the room, letting you know who or what is in the space. This is where you’ll pocket items, examine characters’ clothes, push furniture, and trigger dialogue; everything that you can click on will be underlined. Lastly, your inventory is sectioned off in the bottom-left quadrant, letting you examine, equip, or use anything you’ve picked up.
The city of Norwood is full of helpful neighbours, watchful guards, hidden organisations, buried treasure, and more. The open-world design lets you explore it all at your own pace, picking up quests and discovering secrets in a nonlinear order. It’s entirely possible to find things too early, which often left me confused as to why I could interact with a suspicious wall or go inside a building, but nothing would happen. But it’s also really satisfying to go back to those areas once you know what to do there. The setting truly comes alive with the day/night cycle as well. Norwood’s inhabitants each have a schedule, meaning you won’t always find them in the same spot throughout the day. Additionally, some quests can only be completed at night, while others take place during the day. I appreciated that the game gives you the option to change how fast time passes; 0x pauses the game, 1x is normal speed, and 100x really speeds things up. Alternatively, you can simply jump time ahead by an hour if you want to be precise.
Speaking of night quests, these are usually missions that put your invisibility magic to the test. For example, early on, I had to observe two characters meeting on the beach and spy on their conversation. However, if they could see me, one character would leave, and I’d miss my chance. It doesn’t hurt to fail, though, since you can note the timing of a character’s arrival and make sure you don’t use your invisibility too early when you try again the next day. The spell is temporary, and while you can keep clicking it to make it last longer, you’ll eventually have to eat or rest to regain your energy. I depleted my magic a lot while I was getting the hang of things, which resulted in getting caught by guards and getting kicked out of closed buildings. Escape from Norwood is very forgiving when this happens. You won’t suffer consequences; instead, you have the freedom to experiment as many times as you need.
While magic is helpful, you can also use your wits to solve puzzles and quests. You’ll find many items as you explore, and you can combine them with other objects to produce interesting results. Perhaps you see a guard with a bottle, and you know he periodically takes a swig from it; could you spike it with something in your inventory? The only way to know is to try. I loved all the “aha!” moments I had while playing this game, but there were also moments where it felt awkward that something didn’t work. For instance, I ran into a situation where an NPC turned on me, trapping me in a backyard, and guards were on their way. I thought, “Hey, this reminds me of the tutorial. I’ll just turn invisible.” I triggered the spell, but the guards still spoke to me as if I weren’t invisible. Similarly, there were other times I thought I found a clever solution to a problem, but it wasn’t a solution the game could recognise, so it became clear that there was a limit to how creative I could get with things. The trial and error never took away from the experience, though, as it kept me engaged while I searched for the right solutions.
However, for a text adventure, Escape from Norwood can suffer from stiff dialogue at times. This was most noticeable with Lecia’s responses, which often make her feel personality-less. At other times, some of the conversation branches would occasionally get bugged, allowing me to ask characters questions about quests that have already been completed, for instance. It didn’t happen often enough to truly impact the playthrough negatively, though. Where the writing in Escape from Norwood shines is its description of facial expressions, clothing, and environments — all of which are detailed and interesting to read.
If you have a penchant for text-based, story-rich adventures, you’ll love Escape from Norwood. It’s a nostalgic romp through a high-fantasy land with plenty of interactions and quests to discover. The open-world design also keeps the experience from feeling dated, and the puzzle-solving is a satisfying challenge. I highly recommend embarking on Lecia’s journey, especially for those who love eavesdropping, as you’ll do much of that under the veil of invisibility.
Escape from Norwood (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Escape from Norwood brings its text adventure to life with engaging storytelling, satisfying puzzles, and open-world exploration. If you miss the text-based classics of the ‘80s, this will definitely hit the spot.