The Last Defender [Review]

M.A.D.ness!

Location:  Denver, CO

Date Played: September 7, 2019

Team size: 8-16; we recommend 16

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $35 and up per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Last Defender was a 16-player escape game/ puzzle hunt hybrid set against the backdrop of Cold War nuclear annihilation. It had a delightfully odd and ever-present sense of humor. The puzzles ranged in intensity and intrigue. The world of The Last Defender was whimsically serious. The elegance of the on-boarding and gameflow was on a level that we rarely encounter.

The Last Defender was a hell of a production.

Promotional art for The Last Defender.
Image via The Last Defender

As amazing as its on-boarding was, our biggest gripe with the game was that it served up puzzle hunt-style puzzles, but never really taught the players how extractions worked. We stepped in and helped with that, but a lot of our teammates weren’t getting there by themselves.

Additionally, The Last Defender leaves a few key things to chance. The mix of teammates will make or break the experience. There were far more puzzles to solve than any one player will be able to experience. If you find yourself solving a string of puzzles that don’t speak to you, it probably means that you’re missing out on the ones that would have.

Sadly The Last Defender closed in Denver the night after we played it; its original run in Chicago ended long ago. While at the moment it isn’t playable, should The Last Defender return – and, oh boy, do we hope it returns – this is a must-play for both escape room fans and puzzle hunters.

If given the chance, we would replay The Last Defender without hesitation if only to explore the puzzles that we didn’t get to solve.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Team players who are comfortable with randoms
  • Any experience level, but experience really helps
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • It was hilarious
  • The puzzles were challenging and engaged a large group
  • Really cool 8-bit cabinets
  • The black rabbits
  • Great player costuming
  • An incredible overall experience

Story

It was 1983 and the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War. The strategic approach of both sides was nuclear deterrence through a policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

As members of The Defenders, our job was to work alongside an artificial intelligence put in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal. We had to ensure that if the Soviets nuked the United States, it would end the world even if no one was around to order the strike.

What could go wrong?

In-game: 3 orange flightsuited players working on a puzzle.
Image via The Last Defender

Setting

The Last Defender began in a comfortable lobby where we signed in and gathered awaiting the beginning of the game. (Oddly, the lobby had seating for 14, maybe 15 people, but the game played 16.)

At game time, the hosts entered, introduced the rules, and then put on their black rabbit costumes. From that point forward they only communicated in gestures. They ushered us into a locker room.

In the locker room we each received a bright orange flight suit that fit our measurements (which we provided during ticket purchasing). Once we suited up, we entered the game world.

In-game: a character in a black rabbit costume standing before a multi-colored world map.
Image via The Last Defender

The Last Defender’s game world was a hybrid of 1980s arcade and colorful parody of a Cold War nuclear command center. It had a playful vibe which beautifully juxtaposed against the apocalyptic nature of the story.

As great as the set looked, the 80s video game-inspired sound effects were the detail that truly sold the world to me.

Gameplay

The Last Defender was an immersive puzzle hunt. It was difficult compared with most escape rooms and easy when judged as a puzzle hunt.

Core gameplay revolved around teamwork, communicating, puzzling, and some searching.

In-game: 5 players in orange flightsuits working on a puzzle.
Image via The Last Defender

Analysis

➕ The Last Defender was both serious and entertaining. The writers struck a nice balance in tone with the instruction, presentation, and tasks/ puzzles. It was hilarious yet poignant, with mission-focused gameplay.

➕ As players, we were assigned characters and outfitted in jumpsuits with the appropriate insignia. These were cleverly designed with Velcro patches so that costumes could be easily reconfigured for each group. We each had a personalized uniform that fit us well enough. By costuming up, we were stepping into our roles and naturally taking the experience more seriously. Simultaneously, these were ridiculous outfits, which made the experience that much more entertaining.

➕ Our black rabbit gamemasters directed the gameplay brilliantly. They didn’t speak, but their body language was emotive. They gave direction to individuals and to the group, but they never gave us solutions.

➕ The puzzles were seriously challenging. They were largely tangible and relied on different types of thinking and communication. They could also engage multiple people at once. The Last Defender showcased a breadth in puzzle design.

➖ Not all the tasks and puzzles were of equal value. Some were more fun to solve than others.

➖ It would be easy to get stuck grinding on puzzles we didn’t like or weren’t good at. In an escape room this isn’t a big deal. In The Last Defender you could potentially bad luck yourself into a series of bland challenges and miss the great stuff.

➕ There was plenty to do at all times. Every one of the 16 players in our group was engaged almost the entire time. The Last Defender would certainly be replayable, as there were so many things going on at all times.

➖ When our group played well, the end bottlenecked. When there were only a few puzzles left to solve to save the world, not all 16 people could be actively involved in them.

➕ The set, tech, and sound effects were fantastic. There was a whimsy to The Last Defender that cut its seriousness. Also, the arcade cabinets were too cool.

In-game: 3 players in orange flightsuits working at the Operations cabinet.
Image via The Last Defender

The Last Defender had smooth on-boarding that set up the group for success. Our early tasks introduced us to the space and to the necessity of communication. Things that seemed utterly useless at the time proved critical later on.

➕ The pathing worked well. As a group, we progressed from structured to unstructured activity without missing a beat. The gameplay built us into a team remarkably quickly.

➖ While The Last Defender taught much of the gameplay through play, it didn’t teach the puzzle hunt concept of “extraction.” It was crucial that players solve a puzzle all the way through to the extraction, which was a novel and challenging concept for newer puzzlers.

❓ Individual experiences at The Last Defender will vary. Not all puzzles were equally as interesting. Not all teammates were equally as fun or as competent as others. Some of your experience is the luck of the draw – what role you and others are assigned to. Some of your experience is what you make of it, or where you find yourself needed.

Tips For Visiting

  • The Last Defender is no longer running in Denver.

If The Last Defender comes to your city, book your hour and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Last Defender comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

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