Museums tend to be rather quiet, studious locales apart from the occasional grade schooler visits (and, not counting the events of Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller). But, not today. All h-e-double hockey sticks has broken loose at the National Museum of History following a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that rocked the city. In fact, it’s a frantic room-by-room search and rescue in Escape the Museum.

What started as a warm, beautiful day for Susan Anderson and her daughter Caitlin ends in disastrous suspense when the museum where Susan works is shaken to its core. While able to secure Caitlin safely within the museum, Susan herself is knocked unconscious by falling debris and wakes to a catastrophic shambles. Afterwards it’s a frenzied hunt to recover important artifacts while escaping from a maze of debris-barred routes on her way to reunite with Caitlin and flee the devastation together.

In a blend of adventure-style conundrums and hidden-object gameplay, a la Azada and the Dream Chronicles puzzlers, your task in Escape the Museum is to help Susan navigate the crumbling structure by solving a series of 25 object-based puzzles and locating a collection of varied artifacts strewn across some 60 seek-and-find levels. However, it’s more than just a string of posers. The game’s puzzles and object hunts are knit together via an engaging story, presented in cartoon-style graphics with audio voice-overs, that follows Susan, location-by-location, through the museum. Conversations are handled using a walkie-talkie, cell phone and by e-mail through Susan’s handy PDA, which also provides a map of the building.

Object-based puzzles are predominantly of the find-and-combine-items-to-escape-the-room variety. For instance, at one location you need to search a darkened area. This requires a flashlight, which, of course, needs batteries. Other objects nearby include a knife and walkie-talkie. The solution? Open the walkie-talkie with the knife and put its batteries into the light.

As for object hunts, they’re the typical find-the-items-on-the-list assignments. Enter a location and you’re presented with a list of important objects to extract from the rubble (as an aside, this is one of the few hidden-object games with a logical explanation for the menagerie of things strewn about). In most cases, listed items are unrelated and include objects that range from the unusual to the mundane. Binoculars, skulls, suitcases, toys, weapons, tools and more are peppered throughout. Nevertheless, some seek-and-find treasure hunts are limited to items of a single kind. These “Find 10” searches task you with recovering sets of bones, crowbars, bells, coins, et al.

Additional puzzles include “jigsaw” paintings in which you return missing pieces to their places and weight-based posers where, Indiana Jones-style, you offset the heft of an artifact on a pedestal with an equal amount of weight. Moreover, completing one puzzle and moving on to the next doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done at that previous location. Solving some conundrums results in new one appearing at locations you’ve already completed.

But, the challenge in Escape the Museum is more than just about solving its puzzles. You’re scored on performance, too. While escape puzzles are only timed, object-hunts are scored on time taken, total object value, number of hints used and accuracy of selection. Regarding the latter, it pays to take your time and not guess, as random or incorrect selections count against accuracy. When hovering over a listed object, the pointer will pulsate.

Generally, Escape the Museum is an “object” lesson in how to create a quality object-hunting diversion. Graphics are attractive, especially the cut scene art, with spot animations that add life to an otherwise static world. Music and sound effects do a great job of adding tension and urgency to the atmosphere, as does the occasional shaking and crumbling of the museum interior. Adventure game elements incorporated with the escape puzzles add significantly to gameplay, as does the return to previous scenes for additional puzzle solving. Plus, this addictive seek-and-find puzzler combines a solid dose of enjoyment with an extensive experience double the length of most contemporaries.

That doesn’t mean, like the crumbling walls of the museum itself, that it’s devoid of undesirable elements. Not all voice acting is equally competent, item descriptions could be a bit more precise (is a “sub” a submarine or a sub sandwich?), some items are not as visually distinctive as they need to be, and a few seek-and-find searches do too good a job of hiding objects – to the point of being nearly undetectable.

In the end, however, Escape the Museum succeeds admirably and is a credit to its genre. Hidden among its cacophony of special artifacts and mundane objects is a museum-quality experience.