#NoEscape, a #MurderTrending Novel, by Gretchen McNeil [Review]

A group of geniuses attempt an elite escape room competition with unsurprisingly deadly results.

Author:  Gretchen McNeil

Release Date: September 15, 2020

Page Count: 352

Price: $17.99 US/$22.99 CAN

Publisher: Disney/Freeform

REA Reaction

#NoEscape was a young adult horror novel set in an elite escape room competition. Like so many stories with this backdrop, it presented a seemingly harmless escape room that turned out to have life-or-death stakes.

More than most escape-room-based stories, #NoEscape took some liberties. It was entertaining to read about a world-famous escape room company that required several employees to run each elaborate game. #NoEscape also portrayed escape rooms as much more oblique and frustrating than they actually are—and, obviously, more dangerous.

If you’re looking for an intellectual challenge, this is probably not the book for you. Despite the setting, #NoEscape didn’t offer much in the way of solve-along puzzles or Easter eggs for escape room players. It didn’t particularly feel like it was written by or for enthusiasts.

It’s just a straightforward thriller with quirky characters, plot twists and turns, and the occasional gruesome demise. If that sounds like fun to you, #NoEscape is a decent choice for your next casual weekend read.

The front cover of #NoEscape, with graphics depicting a chain with a skull padlock.

Who is this for?

  • Young adult horror buffs
  • Fans of the death game genre
  • People who’ve seen every escape room movie

Why play?

  • Diverse characters
  • Creative yet deadly challenges
  • Experience a world where escape rooms are as popular as video games

Story

As the first-ever player to win an “unbeatable” escape room, Persey is invited to compete with other escape room geniuses for a $10 million prize. When the escape room competition takes a dark turn, the contestants change their focus to getting out alive.

An epigraph reading "Our puzzle will be your undoing." —Derrick and Melinda Browne, Founders of Escape-Capades, LLC
Continue reading “#NoEscape, a #MurderTrending Novel, by Gretchen McNeil [Review]”

Shine On Collective – Welcome Home [Review]

Dinner and a disappearance.

Location:  at home in Los Angeles

Date Played: September 8, 2020

Team size: 2-4

Duration: about 75 minutes to 2 hours

Price: $40 per person (party of 2) or $30 per person (party of 4)

REA Reaction

Welcome Home was an immersive experience that combined audio storytelling, found objects, light puzzling, and a hot meal delivered to our door.

The experience revolved around a story box created by Shine On Collective, an immersive theater company based in Los Angeles. The story unfolded like an interactive audio play, self-guided and supported by written documents and puzzly interactions. 

Due to the heavy storyline, Welcome Home wasn’t exactly “fun.” The tone was melancholy and sometimes sinister. But Shine On Collective weaved a compelling story about suburban secrets and what it really means to be a good neighbor.

The gameplay aspect of Welcome Home didn’t provide a significant challenge. The interactions were more guided, allowing the story to take center stage.

This was a limited run, but Welcome Home will be returning to Los Angeles on October 23 and 24. If you don’t require a serious puzzling challenge and the experimental storytelling sounds intriguing, Welcome Home is an experience worth investigating.

The closed game box, marked "Welcome Home," with a pamphlet reading "Welcome to Town!"

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Immersive theater fans
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Experimental format
  • Haunting story
  • Help solve a mystery

Story

We had just moved into a new house whose previous occupant had gone missing. Our welcome package of a meal and some information about our new neighborhood led us on a journey to discover Eli’s fate.

Continue reading “Shine On Collective – Welcome Home [Review]”

DarkPark Games – Witchery Spell [Review]

Coven fresh.

Location:  at home

Date Played: August 9, 2020

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 2-3

Duration: about 2-3 hours

Price: $58 plus shipping from the Netherlands

REA Reaction

Witchery Spell stood out from the crowd of play-at-home escape games by combining story, puzzles, and design into a polished, cohesive experience. DarkPark Games didn’t just assemble a box full of themed puzzles that could be found in a magazine. They conjured a self-contained experience that felt magical from start to finish.

Through its intricate physical elements, realistic websites, and player-driven gameplay, Witchery Spell made us feel like part of the story. The props and documents included in the box were clearly chosen and created with care. It was easy to ignore the few hiccups we ran into as we pursued the mystery to its conclusion.

The story was perilous and suspenseful, but more mystical than scary. Along with the moderate difficulty level, this makes Witchery Spell approachable to anyone who’s comfortable with the occult theme and slightly dark storyline. 

A pentagram surrounded with decorative symbols, with a lit candle in the center.

Witchery Spell was comparatively expensive for a play-at-home game, especially with international shipping. If cost is a factor, it’s much more affordable to grab a refill kit or two and find someone to split the bill with. 

Witchery Spell was a solid example of the potential of interactive storytelling to transport players to another world. The price may seem high, but it reflects the quality and value of this unique game. Not having had the opportunity to play any of DarkPark’s real life games myself, I can safely say Witchery Spell lived up to their reputation.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Sorcery enthusiasts
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Intricate, tactile components
  • Puzzle–story integration
  • Magical ambiance

Story

Years ago, five young girls found an old book and followed a ritual within, binding them into a coven. When one of the five disappeared after her 23rd birthday, the remaining four sent us a package of mysterious items to investigate. Our goal was to save them from the same fate.

Papers including a typewritten letter and a newspaper clipping reporting "Burned Body of Woman Found Near Riverbank in Cleveland."
Continue reading “DarkPark Games – Witchery Spell [Review]”

Vampire.Pizza – Chapter 1 [Review]

Hold the garlic.

Location:  at home

Date Played: May 1, 2020

Team size: unlimited; we recommend 2-4

Duration: variable; about an hour for the puzzles

Price: $32.99 per person (party of 2) or $27.99 per person (party of 4)

REA Reaction

Vampire.Pizza is an immersive game where pizza and puzzles are delivered directly to your door. Through online videos and paper game materials, Chapter 1 spun a story of vampire revolution that felt bigger than the average play-at-home escape game.

The puzzles weren’t diabolical, which made Vampire.Pizza family-friendly, aside from some allusions to the bloody business of vampirism. The gameplay supplemented a larger evening of dinner, light crafting, and creating our vampire personas. Hardcore puzzlers might crave more of a challenge, but there’s plenty for casual players to sink their teeth into.

A dossier reading "Vampires Only" with some game pieces shaped like pizza slices.

Vampire.Pizza’s creative mashup of story, puzzles, and takeout food was innovative. Acquiring puzzles via takeout/delivery added a personal touch, especially during a time when many of us are staying inside. 

Vampire.Pizza started in Los Angeles and expanded to Las Vegas and Philadelphia, with the possibility of other cities on the horizon. After playing Chapter 1, we’re eager to see how the story will unfold in future installments.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Pizza lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Themed puzzles
  • Feel like part of a movement
  • Pizza is included, for once
An envelope reading "Start Here" accompanied by a Fang Force Special Agent Profile sheet.

Story

By ordering a meal from Belle’s Family Kitchen in Los Angeles, we were part of a vampire revolution—spread via pizza delivery. Solving Belle’s puzzles could earn us a spot in the Fang Force.

Setup

Vampire.Pizza was a puzzle game delivered (or picked up) along with pizza, salad, and dessert. The game materials were well designed and evoked a somewhat gothic vibe.

Gameplay

Vampire.Pizza included a play-at-home puzzle game with a low-to-medium level of difficulty. Core gameplay revolved around pattern recognition, logic, and word puzzles (with optional role-playing and crafting).

The story unfurled via online videos, bookending the puzzles with narrative bites. The pizza, though related to the story, was separate from the gameplay. 

The puzzles were paper based, but more complex, colorful, and tactile than typical newspaper puzzles. We did encounter some tricky moments, but Vampire.Pizza included a handy hint/answer sheet in case we got stuck. There was no time limit; the puzzles seemed meant to be solved casually as part of the evening’s entertainment.

Some paper game materials, including a Hints & Answers booklet.

Analysis

➕ The IRL delivery method made Vampire.Pizza feel more immersive than the typical play-at-home game. The videos helped the story feel bigger. We appreciated those references to the outside world, especially during the current lockdown.

➕/➖ We enjoyed reimagining ourselves as members of the Fang Force by filling out the included profile sheets. However, we wished the sheets had been provided before the game arrived, to set the stage and help us get in character.

➕ At a couple points, we encountered a bunch of game elements at once. The nonlinear structure allowed multiple people to puzzle concurrently if desired. We considered sorting out these elements to be part of the challenge.

❓ With all the instructions at various steps, we sometimes wanted less hand-holding. However, players looking for less of a challenge may appreciate the guidance.

➕ The game flowed smoothly. We never got stalled while solving. All the puzzles felt fair and stuck to the theme.

❓At one point, we got tricked. Different players may have different feelings about this, but it made us chuckle.

➕ Puzzles aside, we enjoyed our meal. Pickup was fast and contactless. We appreciated that there were multiple menu options, including vegan pizza.

➕We never would have imagined a vampire-and-pizza-themed immersive puzzle game, but the unlikely combination worked. Everything pulled together into a unique, fun package that didn’t take itself too seriously.

A tag reading "Vampire Pizza" tied to a black box with red twine.

Tips For Players

Dim the lights and throw on a Castlevania soundtrack to get into the vampire vibe.

The party size you choose determines the amount of food and certain game materials included in the box. The key puzzle components are playable by groups of any size.

A portion of the Los Angeles proceeds go to the League of Experiential and Immersive Artists emergency fund, which provides relief to artists in the immersive community.

To be notified if Vampire.Pizza starts delivering to your area, you can fill out a form on their website.

Breaking Point Escape Rooms – Patient 17 [Review]

The doctor is running out of patients.

Location:  Rancho Cucamonga, CA

Date Played: January 4, 2020

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $32-35 per player for public booking; private booking $35-$60 each depending on team size

Ticketing: Public or private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Patient 17 felt like an old-school escape room at heart, but the production design and attention to narrative elevated it above the average escape room. 

The relatively complex story (especially for a crime-themed escape room) subtly followed us through the experience to its conclusion. Breaking Point also developed a strong sense of place through the story, set, and puzzles. Patient 17 felt ominous and confining, but never claustrophobic or scary.

The puzzles were mostly standard escape room puzzles, with nothing particularly flashy to offer experienced players. However, the game felt intuitive and flowed naturally. Some ambiguity slowed us down at first, but once we got going, we were in the zone until the end.

The Secret at Whitmore Estate is Breaking Point’s newer and stronger game, but Patient 17 is also worth playing while you’re there.

A dimly lit hospital exam chair surrounded by medical implements.
Image via Breaking Point Escape Rooms

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Thriller fans
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Creepy, isolating atmosphere
  • Thematic puzzling
  • The feeling of being part of a larger story

Story

An undercover agent investigating a doctor with connections to several missing women appeared to have blown her cover. We had been sent in to attempt a rescue.

A bulletin board with documents including a newspaper clipping with a headline reading "Doctor Arrested For Unorthodox Practice."
Image via Breaking Point Escape Rooms

Setting

Patient 17 took place in a dingy-looking hospital with an appropriately creepy vibe. Foreboding props and dark corners lent the game an ominous feeling, without ever veering towards scary.

A grimy hallway with solid doors, an electrical panel, and a single bare bulb.
Image via Breaking Point Escape Rooms

Gameplay

Breaking Point Escape Rooms’ Patient 17 was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, puzzling, and making connections.

Analysis

➕ Breaking Point’s intro videos were among the best we’ve seen. The introduction for Patient 17 provided backstory that gave our mission urgency and emotional heft.

➕ The detailed production design made the escape room feel like a creepy hospital. The gamespace felt confining, but alluded to a larger outside world. This level of detail drew us into the story and heightened our sense of urgency.

A dirty sink splattered with blood.
Image via Breaking Point Escape Rooms

➖ Patient 17 could have used stronger gating early in the game. With so many puzzle elements available at the start, we struggled for a while before making real progress.

➕ The puzzling mostly involved standard escape room puzzles that coordinated well with the setting and the story. Solving them felt like making progress towards our goal.

➕ We were especially delighted when we discovered how to make use of one everyday item that initially felt too unbounded to contain a puzzle.

➖ We kept returning to a certain interesting-looking object that ended up having no bearing on the game. Replacing that object with a puzzle element or a less compelling prop would make it less of a red herring.

➖ The ending felt somewhat abrupt. We found ourselves wishing for a more exciting final scene.

➕ We appreciated the attention to narrative that threaded throughout Patient 17. After the intro, we encountered more information through the set and puzzles that enhanced our understanding of the story world without requiring excessive reading. The story felt original enough to stick in our minds while solving.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is ample parking at the venue.

Book your hour with Breaking Point Escape Rooms’ Patient 17, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.