City 13 – Save the City [Review]

Not all superheroes wear (es)capes

Location: Milwaukee, WI

Date Played: March 11, 2022

Team Size: 4-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 4 hours (5 hours with cutscenes, breaks, etc.)

Price: $75 per player for full 4 hours, $45 per player for 1 hour, $60 per player for 2 hours

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Save the City was monumentally greater than the sum of its parts. With up to 4 hours of continuous gameplay in a warehouse-scale facility, we emerged truly feeling like superheroes.

During lockdown, City 13 undertook an ambitious project: designing a mega escape game that would combine their 4 individual hour-long rooms into a single uninterrupted experience, targeted especially at escape room enthusiasts. To accomplish this, they designed the wide hallways between rooms to look like graffiti-covered cyberpunk streets, built out an entire track of bonus puzzles throughout these alleyways, and created an additional fifth room. They also wrote a story that tied all the gameplay together, seamlessly interweaving the individual chapters into the overarching narrative.

Of City 13’s four original rooms, Neon Light Diner was the standout, both in originality of set design and creative puzzle flow. The other three rooms all contained some fun moments though overall felt a bit more dated and showed wear. But the real standout of Save the City was all the new puzzle content added in the streets, and the ways in which it managed to recontextualize and elevate the content of the individual rooms. We especially enjoyed a multi-stage puzzle sequence that progressively granted us superpowers, and audio-based cutscenes that provided a clear narrative trajectory and introduced us to a cast of memorable characters. If this is reflective of City 13’s current design sensibilities, they are truly a company to keep an eye on.

A factory-like building with brick walls, storage crates, and unusual machines.

I first heard about Save the City in November 2020 from fellow REA writer Richard Burns’ interview with City 13’s owner Nick Timber, and I was instantly intrigued. I can now strongly attest that Save the City is an epic adventure worth traveling to.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Best for players with at least some experience
  • Aspiring superheroes

Why play?

  • Seamless transitions between rooms
  • The massive cyberpunk city set
  • Superpowers 💪

Story

Oculus and the other villains of STEAM had threatened to destroy our city. With the help of our sidekick, Keys, we — the top superheroes of this city — were called in to save the day.

Setting

Save the City was a dystopian cyberpunk cityscape that spanned City 13’s full facility, with multiple self-standing buildings and a maze of alleyways in between. By combining essentially 5+ escape rooms into one, City 13 created a staggeringly massive experience, at least by United States escape room standards.

With a weathered, hand-painted aesthetic throughout, the set varied substantially from space to space. The earlier chapters consisted more of found objects and scrappy decor, while the Neon Light Diner and alleyways reflected an upgraded aesthetic with more tech, sturdier custom-built elements, and varied use of color and lighting.

Gameplay

City 13’s Save the City was a marathon-length escape room with a high level of difficulty.

In each of City 13’s individual escape rooms — The Armory, City Reserve, Neon Light Diner, and Cyber Station — core gameplay revolved around puzzling and searching, typical of what you’d find in traditional escape rooms.

For Save the City, the entrance and exit sequences of each of these rooms were modified to flow together without breaks in immersion. These transitions involved additional puzzle content in the streets/ alleyways between buildings, as well as in a bonus room added just for the Save the City game. A small handful of puzzles from the original rooms were removed or reset to a partially solved state to help keep things moving.

Analysis

Overall

Save the City‘s set was beautiful — clearly the work of creative artists. And City 13’s facility was impressively large, from its cavernous lobby to the set of the game itself. This was a uniquely immersive environment in which we loved spending 4+ hours.

➕ Our gamemasters onboarded us as superheroes in a most entertaining manner, employing a “yes, and” approach as we had some fun with our responses to their questions.

➕ A compelling superhero story was communicated through multiple channels, both through audio and set interactions. As we heard the voices of various characters, a colored light on the speaker helped indicate who was speaking and added personality to each character.

➕/➖ The narrative wrapped up strongly and emotionally. However, as this was communicated solely through audio, our energy tapered off slightly at the end as we stared at a speaker, without anything to touch or do. Additionally, there was a key moment when it was unclear whether we could have had an impact on the action.

➕ We acquired multiple superpowers periodically throughout the game and were delighted by the ways in which we got to use them.

➕ Save the City was a long and exhausting game, and City 13 thoughtfully provided times to take breaks (don’t forget to hydrate and use the restroom!). Water bottles were also allowed in the room.

❓ While some of the individual rooms were not up to the level of the overall experience, we still had a blast with them in context. Classic search-oriented gameplay with a few creative twists morphed into more innovative, tech-driven puzzling, and the progression of the game chronicled City 13’s development as designers and that of the escape room industry as a whole. That said, Save the City could become an even stronger game if City 13 circles back and upgrades their earlier games to the level of the newer stuff they’re building.

The Streets & Rick’s Robot Garage

➕ An intro puzzle sequence oriented us in the space through exploration and discovery.

➕ The street puzzles were our favorites of the game. They involved many magical interactions that were environmentally and narratively driven. The streets contained layers of details, many of which weren’t obviously part of a puzzle until they came into play.

➕ Rick’s Robot Garage was a bonus space used exclusively for Save the City (not playable on its own, as the other 4 chapters are). The Garage opened up part way through the game and cleverly helped compartmentalize much of the Save the City-specific content.

A bricked alleyway with a metal contraption mounted to the side of a building.
The Streets

The Armory

➖/➕ The Armory was the earliest of City 13’s rooms, and it showed. Many props were quite worn or falling apart, and the puzzles reflected an older, more search-centric style. The gameplay included some fun twists on this style, and a clear meta collection element helped structure mostly parallelizable puzzles.

➖ One particular puzzle was especially finicky to execute, even after we knew exactly what to do.

Storage shelves with crates on them.
The Armory

City Reserve

➖ The set looked appropriately aged but a bit sparsely decorated overall, even for a bank.

➕ City Reserve had some fascinating input mechanisms, from multi-use to mechanical.

➖ Paper props had seen better days and could have used a facelift.

An old, run down room it looks like it might have been a back, a window is labeled, "Teller" with the "r" falling off.
City Reserve

Neon Light Diner

➕ The futuristic cyberpunk diner-meets-dive-vibe was a compelling set aesthetic. I’d totally be a regular here if this existed in real life.

➕ The diner puzzles were particularly well integrated into the set, sneakily utilizing all sorts of items you’d expect to find in a diner. Neon Light Diner also had by far the smoothest puzzle flow of City 13’s 4 original escape rooms.

A room that appears to be a storefront with a counter containing multiple joystick-like devices.
Neon Light Diner

Cyber Station

➕/➖ Some of the gameplay was totally tubular, while the flow felt more disjointed in other parts. All the elements of a stellar game were there. A bit clearer signposting could have made for a smoother experience.

➕ A hint of what was to come threw us off the track of what was really next.

A ticket counter beside a payphone.
Cyber Station

Tips For Visiting

  • If you’ve played any of City 13’s individual games, it’s absolutely still worth playing Save the City. If you play Save the City first, though, you wouldn’t get any additional value from playing the chapters on their own.
  • As Save the City requires use of the full facility for a 5-hour block, it is only available Tuesdays through Thursdays (though City 13 was flexible to accommodate custom times for an extra fee.)
  • Stay hydrated during the game and take breaks as needed. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  • A short drive away in downtown Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Public Market has an impressive range of food options. We especially enjoyed the sandwiches and nondairy milkshakes from On The Bus.
  • There was a parking lot.

Book your hour with City 13’s Save the City, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: City 13 provided media discounted tickets for this game.

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