Call of the Sea review: escape (room) to a tropical paradise | Puzzle games

This first-person puzzle adventure is set on a mysterious Polynesian island in 1934. You play as Norah, a woman afflicted by a strange disease that causes black blotches on her hands who believes a cure lies among the island’s secrets. You arrive in search of Norah’s husband, Harry, who came here to hunt for a cure and is yet to return. Exploring the jungle, you rely on hints that Harry has left, and through the notes in his journals and Norah’s remarks we get a sense of their relationship as sweet and tragically romantic.

That’s all set dressing. Call of the Sea is really a complex escape room, where the puzzles take centre stage and the narrative is purely for flavour. It could take place on Mars in 2087 or during the Roman empire as easily as on an island in 1934. As a result, there are a few “scary savage” tropes that aren’t really explored, but this is not a game driven by its story.

The puzzles are carefully crafted, making you feel as if you’re running along a sensible difficulty curve rather than slamming into walls. Each chapter is one distinct puzzle that becomes more layered and complex the more you explore it. The most useful feature is Norah’s notebook: she will only write down actual clues, and will leave space to indicate if you’ve missed one. While some puzzles are hard to untangle, you are never left pulling your hair out trying to decide whether this photograph of a bird is the key to it all. If it’s not in Norah’s notebook, it doesn’t matter.

In true escape room style, you often encounter devices you don’t yet know what to do with, because the clues lie further ahead. This makes the game feel more like a journey than a procession of puzzles. You only have a small area to explore in each chapter, and can always turn a few huts upside down to unearth clues. I found myself dreading the underwater sections, though – the sea definitely wasn’t calling to me. Searching for clues while submerged is a slog, but ironically the story is also at its strongest beneath the waves.

Like any good puzzle game, there is special satisfaction in working out a solution to a conundrum that has stumped you, and that’s the best reward in the game. Call of the Sea ramps up the story towards the end, but I cared far more about the clues than Norah and Harry’s tale. It frustrates as the best puzzles often do, but no solutions feel unearned or gimmicky. This is definitely one for the pencil-chewers to check out.

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