Content of the article: "Review: Taako’s Correspondence School of Wizardry, Cantrips, & other Magicks."
This is going to be kind of a different review, since this isn't video game per se. This is a game from the Mysterious Package Company, which sends out themed boxes that contain a series of puzzles and "artifacts" that tell a story as you go through them. Sort of an escape-room board game meets loot box, or an alternate reality game in a box. This particular box is based around the character Taako from the comedy let's play podcast "The Adventure Zone" made by the McElroy family.. I remember listening to plugs for this and thought about getting it, but never did. It's since gone out-of-print, and I picked up a used copy for cheap (PatientGamers, right?).
The gameplay consists of a series of different kinds of puzzles, each where the solution is going to be a series of glyphs. Solving the puzzle means coming up with the sequence of glyps and inputting it on the website for this game. Answers that correspond to a solution to a puzzle will play you the next part of the story (as an audio message from the characters) and instructions to start the next puzzle.
In the next section, I'm going to be going through and briefly talking about each of them and my impression of them. This wouldn't be considered a spoiler for computer games, but for this kind of thing a lot of people like to go in completely blind and not know anything about what to expect until it happens. So you've been warned. I'll also be including ratings (out of 5) on how fun, thematic, and difficult that puzzle is, as well as a rating of how easy it is to play it without destroying the components. This game is meant to be played one time, but if you are like me and don't like destroying components if you don't have to, maybe you'll want to find a way to complete the puzzles without writing on any of the papers.
The first puzzle of the game (or "Linguistics 101" in the language of the game, since it's themed like a correspondence educational course) has you translating two documents. You're given a poem written in glyphs, and told the title of the poem (which also corresponds to the first line on the paper). From here, you use the characters you've figured out to and the patterns in subsequent words to figure out what those words are and fill out your key connecting the English alphabet and the glyphs. It's essentially a cryptogram. After you finish translating the poem, there is a 2nd (longer) missive in a different set of glyphs. You're given this one word in the 1st and 2nd set of glyphs, which you need to use as the key to go from your solution for the first set to the 2nd set.
Thematically, it definitely feels like you're in DND or a similar fantasy setting. A lot of the language sounds like something you would find written on a note hanging on a wall in Skyrim or something like that. Nothing really puts you in the Adventure Zone universe specifically.
Puzzle 2 was a large sheet of folded paper containing 4 mazes (and one practice maze). The first 3 mazes introduce various gimmicks (like colored spots that you need to walk over in a certain pattern), and the final maze is an enormous one that combines the gimmicks of the previous 3. The goal is not to just complete the maze, but to complete the maze in the shortest possible route. This is because, passing through the mazes, you pass over a series of glyphs and this represents the solution that you'll need to dial in at the end, and taking a longer route could result in you stepping over a rune you weren't supposed to. This sounds difficult, but I actually found it to be pretty straight-forward to get through, even with the gimmicks.
Thematically, this felt like it could have been part of any game. The mazes were more-or-less abstract looking. Normally, the only way to solve this would be by drawing on the map. You can play it non-destructively, but it requires a lot of tracing paper, or taking a picture of the mazes and then solving them in a paint program on your computer.
Puzzle 3 is a large illustration of a scene with lots of objects in it and various things happening. You're shown a set of 5 objects that you need to find the location of, and then call in their locations based on a set of grid coordinates. It's essentially a Where's Waldo/Where's Wally type puzzle. This one wasn't very difficult, but I found it to be a lot of fun to unfold this large illustration and look for the items. Mostly, because a lot of effort went into the art. It was nice to look at, and whoever drew it was familiar with The Adventure Zone, because it was chocked full of lots of characters and things that happen in the series. Finding them as you look for the items made it enjoyable.
This one was super frustrating. It's basically a set of 9 tiles with various configurations of pipes running between 8 spots along the edge, that you need to arrange in a 3×3 grid to in such a way that 12 labelled pipes around the edge have pipes running that connect them. This one was a colossal pain to complete. I don't know if it was just me or what, but I just found it so much more difficult compared to the other puzzles. Probably the fact that it felt like you could never make progress. Aside from 2 tiles that learn early on have only 1 place they can go, the rest of them you never know if you've placed them correctly. You'll put one somewhere and it could not cause any problems (like immediately connecting 2 pipes of different symbols), but there will also be a few other tiles that can fit there and do the same, or you could place those tiles there with a different rotation. Unlike (for example) a jigsaw puzzle where you can get some pieces down and say "Okay, that part is set, I just need to work on solving the rest of it," no part is ever set except for the 2 pieces you start with. There's no way to know for sure that any one tile is in the right place or not until you completely solve the whole thing.
Aside from that, it just didn't feel very thematic. You're just connecting pipes. It would fit equally well in a game based on Shadowrun as it would in The Adventure Zone. It would fit better in a game based on Bioshock. On the plus side, it's really easy to play through this without destroying any of the pieces.
For puzzle 5, you're completing spell circles to help Taako cast spells. Each circle has a bunch of rings broken up into sections, and need to put down a series of 4 (or 6 for the harder ones) elemental symbols so that each ring and each section has exactly one of each symbol in it. Essentially, it's Sudoku with different symbols and formed into a circle. But I like Sudoku, so I found this fun. This was also the only puzzle where you're supposed to call in multiple times. After calling in the first spell, you get a little audio clip of its effects playing out and Taako asking you for the next spell he needs and so on, so you got a bit more story than you did in the other ones.
Thematically, it definitely felt like you were doing stuff related to magic or the occult. The puzzles come in a little mini textbook though, which is fun. Nothing that specifically placed it in The Adventure Zone (aside from the audio of course). Like the maze, this is one where you would basically need to take pictures and write the answers out in a paint program to complete it without writing on any of the paper in the game.
The Website Portion
The entirety of the website is a stone with ruins on it that you can punch in and hit dial on to get the different audio recordings. It's basically a 100% audio website, which I guess makes sense since the Adventure Zone is a podcast, which is a pure audio medium.
As far as the audio recordings go, they play like you are talking on the Stone of Farspeech (ie, fantasy cellphone) to Taako, as he's going on an adventure with Merle and Magnus, all voiced by the guys who play them in the show. Griffin McElroy (who plays the DM) also makes an appearance to introduce the stone of farspeech when you first load up the website, but generally they wanted to make this like you were talking to the characters living in the world, rather than people playing DND. Griffin also voices all of the NPCs in the game, but none of them appear in the main storyline. The majority of the lines are Justin McElroy as Taako. And, all told, there's probably around 20 minutes of audio between the introduction, the calls between each puzzle, and little post-game calls you can make. The dialog (or, more often, monologue) feels a little clunky. I don't know if that's just because they're reading off of a script instead of playing/improving like they normally do, but it just felt a bit off. The adventure they're going on also feels a bit more generic DND than the ones they do in the show (though it does reference a place and characters from the show as a reason they're going on it).
Overall, I was a little disappointed by this game. I mean, this is the first physical game of this kind that I've played, so I can't compare this to other similar mailbox games (from this company, or other companies like "Hunt a Killer" etc.). If bought new, this game would carry a fairly high price tag ($65, I believe), and I imagine it's the kind of thing that would be targeted towards people who are big fans of the Adventure Zone and willing to pay a premium for a big at-home experience where you get extra TAZ content and can feel like you are part of the story. Unfortunately, a lot of the actual puzzles you're taking part in don't feel really connected to TAZ. 2 of the 5 felt like they could have been from any IP/setting, and only one of them explicitly had any Adventure Zone references in the puzzle itself, instead relying on the audio recordings from the website to connect it to the show.
I realize that some of that price tag goes towards the "reward" items that come with the package as well, and not just the game. As a reward for completing the game, you get a cheap-o beginners wand, which Taako assures you is something really powerful and not just some junk he grabbed from the gift shop. It comes in a nice wooden box, and has an instruction manual that looks like something that would come with an MP3 player, which I thought was kind of funny. Not super nice, but definitely thematic. I believe it was also supposed to include an enamel pin but I didn't get one, probably because I got it used. Altogether, if there was a gift shop that sold Adventure Zone stuff, I would guess the prizes would go for maybe $25 on the high end. I realize that that's with mass production and since these were mail-order and only so many were made they will be more expensive. But still.
Between the enjoyment from the puzzles and the rewards, I don't think this set is worth $65. Maybe more in the $40 territory for a new copy if you were exactly the kind of person this was made for (likes puzzles, fan of the adventure zone), but I wouldn't recommend it for much more than that. Of course, new copies don't exist anymore, but you can get used copies on eBay and elsewhere; just make sure you get one that isn't all written on. And I wouldn't advise paying more than like $20 for this used. I just think it would have been a lot better if they put more effort into making the puzzles thematically linked to the show, and making a corresponding story that felt richer and more like a chapter of the Adventure Zone, and less like generic DND adventure with the 3 main Adventure Zone characters in it.
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