OMEscape NYC – The Penitentiary [Review]

The best parts of this game are the parts I can’t write about.

Location: New York, New York

Date played: August 18, 2015

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 9-12

Price: weekday $33 per ticket, weekend $38 per ticket

Theme & story

You’re attempting to escape a prison that is also holding a famed serial killer.

The set design is strong; it feels prisony. It’s also well thought out and firmly constructed.

This is an intense escape game. It’s not a horror game, but I would absolutely classify it as a thriller.

That being said, the theme falls apart if you start to question how/why many of the items ended up on the set. At times I wondered why certain objects and decor existed in prison cells.

The setting is immersive, but the theme and story don’t match that; they are a difficult to believe and follow.

OMEscape NYC – The Penitentiary - Laser Grid
Image via OMEscape

Unintentionally funny intro video

Prior to the game beginning, we were shown a brief video that set up the story of this legendary serial killer.

The video visually implied that this serial killer had super human powers. It also seemed to liberally borrow recognizable video game art. It was all very dire, unbelievable, and funny… But I didn’t get the impression that it was deliberately humorous.

Nevertheless, our team was all giggles during the movie.


After the video, the OMEscape staff led us into the room blindfolded. Everyone put their hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them (and a few of our teammates made the obligatory Human Centipede joke), while we were led into the game. Our game master put us into our cells, locked us in, and the game began.

From a gameplay standpoint the blindfolds were very effective. From a hygiene standpoint, I strongly object to the use of blindfolds, especially when cold and flu season rolls around.

OMEscape NYC – The Penitentiary - Blindfold

Three cell beginning

The game begins with the team broken up into three groups, each locked into their own prison cell and facing their own challenges.

In theory, I like this added challenge. But in reality, an uneven distribution of difficulty resulted in two teams standing around waiting for the last team. This design concept could use some fine tuning.

Some intensely physical puzzles

The best part of this game is that many of the puzzles offer physically interactive, electronic, and mechanical puzzles. There were a lot of things that we hadn’t seen before, and that was great.

Throughout the course of this escape game, I felt like I was engaged in the activity with both my mind, and body… Moreso than any other escape game I have ever encountered, and that’s a significant accomplishment.

The downside of this was that those of us who were more skilled with mechanical, math, and spacial puzzles were disproportionally more engaged than the folks who handle word, pattern, and language-based puzzles… Essentially this room was the exact opposite of Escape Entertainment’s Prohibition Pandemonium. Lisa thrived in Prohibition Pandemonium, and I was nearly useless; in the Penitentiary, it was the reverse.

Baffling final puzzle

There’s no way around this: the last puzzle was obtuse. We “solved” it when I short-circuited the input panel and the door opened. Our team may have solved it correctly, but I can say for certain that I was not going to be the person to solve it. For the first time ever, I needed the solution to this puzzle explained to me more than once (I think it was three times) before I understood what the game designer intended players to do.

I’m certain that there are people out there who can solve this thing the right way, but our very seasoned escape room team was pretty damn confounded by this one.

OMEscape NYC – The Penitentiary Group Photo

70 minute game for approximately 10 people

This is a 70 minute game; it was the first game we’ve played that lasted over an hour. That extra 10 minutes is a significant amount of time that is absolutely necessary. It wasn’t bad, but it also threw off my sense of timing in the room.

OMEscape’s website doesn’t make it overtly clear that their games deviate from the norm. Consequently, we were late for our dinner plans.

The Penitentiary is a large space. We had 10 players and I think that’s about the perfect number. Three people per-cell at the beginning would be optimal.

Hinting, walkie talkies, music, & language

OMEscape struggled most with hinting. This is a fixable problem.

The owners of OMEscape (like many escape room owners) are not native English speakers. They attempted to deliver hints to us via walkie talkies with poor audio quality, over loud background music… This made it very difficult to understand them (and our team was composed of people who work with multi-national companies and are used to accents). This problem was then compounded by very lengthy hints, that were difficult to follow.

Good hinting is clear and concise. Economy of language is important because the more words a gamemaster uses, the more opportunity there is for the player to get it wrong, and the more time the players burn deconstructing the hints.

Should I play OMEscape NYC’s The Penitentiary?

OMEscape just opened in NYC and they are rapidly iterating.

I loved a lot of this game, but I was disappointed by a good chunk of it as well. Throughout the game I felt like things were almost incredible:

I loved the setting… But story was weak, and the props frequently felt out of place.

I loved the puzzles… But they skewed towards a particular skill set.

I loved the blindfolds… But they also grossed me out.

I loved that they split us up into three cells… But one cell was far more challenging than the others.

I loved that it was a 70 minute game… But I wish that we knew that when we booked the room.

OMEscape has work to do, but they have enormous potential. This game got a lot right, but needs some details fine-tuned.

For their first room, it’s a reasonably strong one. It’s also very challenging.

If you’re a seasoned player looking for a physically interactive game that’s going to force you to perform, then I recommend that you play The Penitentiary.

If you’re new to escape games, I’d suggest working up to this one; it’s a serious challenge.

Book your hour in OMEscape NYC’s The Penitentiary, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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