The Past Within Review
Developer Rusty Lake has carved out a niche over the last few years with its escape room games, many of which are free on mobile. As the Rusty Lake series developed it became expansive, offering up snippets of lore that tied into a central theme, with recurring motifs, characters and puzzles which were all contained within a mildly disturbing setting. Alongside these sit the Cube Escape series, a more straightforward set of point-and-clicks, but which were equally unsettling. Now the developer has released its first game which requires co-op: The Past Within.
It’s a ballsy move. Not only because this was the first Rusty Lake title I’ve played, but because the entire game hives off half of the content from each player. My girlfriend has played them all and is a big fan. I love escape rooms and point-and-clicks in general, but my digital experience has been limited to the excellent Firebrand series The Room. As such, there were references to the series that went over my head (such as the relevance of the Vanderboom family name) and other nods that she appreciated but which bore no relevance to me. Since completing the game I’ve dived into some of the other entries, but many of the comparative notes came from my partner to help fill in the gaps. As in art, so in life.
To kick things off, one player chooses the Past and one the Future; from there you’re transported to two very different locations. The Past is in line with the 2D feel of Rusty Lake’s aesthetic — thickly outlined and simple objects housed in different rooms that you can hop between. The Future is more compact, providing you with a puzzle box to rotate and examine. The Past Within is split into two chapters, and in the second chapter your roles are reversed so each player gets to experience both types of gameplay. It’s very cleverly done.
The story is reasonably cohesive: Albert Vanderboom is dead, but has come up with a way of linking the past and future to try and resurrect himself through you: his daughter Rose. To do this, he needs you to collect blood, flesh and bone in the past from his body (no, really) and transport it to the future so that he can be reborn through… umm, science, I guess. I won’t go too much further into the plot but like many escape room games, it’s not super compelling — at least not for someone who is unfamiliar with the lore.
I mentioned that co-op gameplay is mandatory — in this case, it means that you need to communicate vocally with each other to explain what you’re seeing. There is absolutely no way of completing this game silently, which means that one of you needs to be on a Discord channel or similar, in earshot in the same house or room, or on an actual phone call which I think is what people used to do before WhatsApp made talking in real life obsolete. If you don’t have a friend, pop onto the official Discord channel and — like your right to an attorney — one will be provided for you. And much like an attorney, whether they’re of any use or not will vary. Instead, I’d suggest you find a friend who is into this kind of challenge and get them to buy a copy (or be nice and buy one for them).
Regardless of how you end up chatting, the puzzles you’ll solve together are excellent. You see, they very much rely on you passing information back and forth to each other. For instance, a series of symbols in the Past might be set in a specific position such as a stained glass window. However, in the Future, these symbols may appear on the cube and can be manipulated. When the person in the Past tells the person in the Future what order to enter the symbols, the Future player will receive feedback that might then help the Past player unlock something else in their environment. Ultimately, this is what forms the bulk of the game: variations on relaying symbol positions, letters, numbers, and so on.
It sounds dull. It isn’t. Rusty Lake has designed an ingenious asynchronous system of puzzles which don’t require an internet connection, just two people who can see two halves of the same game. The connection is offline (well, game-wise at least) and the linearity of progression is similar to that of a less complicated real-life escape room, where you often can’t open one thing until you have unlocked another. But the beauty is in the design and the elegance of the puzzles. They may not be super taxing, and expert escapers will probably blast through the two chapters in an hour and a half, but there’s something simply lovely about getting two people to talk each other through what they can see, to paint a mind’s eye picture, and to use that to solve problems within their own environment.
The game drags occasionally, when one player — whoever is in The Future, usually — has to wait for the other to catch up or locate specific clues. But even this can prompt more inventive questioning about what each person has in front of them, eliciting more and more explicit detail to try and get back on the right path. I moved to The Future in chapter two and found the leap from 2D to 3D to be delightful; uncovering secret compartments in a box is always incredibly satisfying.
In keeping with the series (I’m told), there are some creepy bits that recur from other entries: masks, blood, mirrors, and so on. There are a few jump scares, but I wouldn’t call this a horror game by any stretch — and anyway, you’re constantly talking to someone which will alleviate some of the “GAH!” factor when you stumble into something unnerving. Conversely, players coming from the Rusty Lake stable may find the lack of solitary eeriness a bit disappointing, as you obviously lose some of the atmosphere when you’re nattering away.
With that in mind though, this is a really fun way to spend an evening. Rusty Lake has really thought through the design of the game for maximum replay value. Not only can each player switch from The Past to The Future on their second playthrough, but another option picked at the start (either Butterfly or Bee) means that the solutions to the puzzles will all be different on your subsequent game. Excellent work, especially if you have an uncanny knack of remembering code solutions weeks, or even months later.
The Past Within might not have the pizazz of co-op games like It Takes Two or Sackboy’s Big Adventure, but it offers enjoyment in a cosier and less frenetic way. Grab a friend, partner, family member or random on the internet and dive in.
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