A “variance in our well-being” had been detected and the Ministry of Public Harmony in our dystopian world had summoned us for a recalibration. We entered a chamber for testing and reeducation.
Riddle Room staged this sci-fi room escape in a dark, bland, and futuristic cell with only a touchscreen in the middle of the room. Upon entering the room and beginning the first puzzle, I immediately worried that we would be stuck solving only touchscreen puzzles for the entire experience. Once we dug below the surface, however, there was so much more to Utopia. The set was smart, deceptive, and attractive.
Utopia had some seriously challenging puzzles. Part digital, part mechanical, Utopia offered a pair of puzzle tracks. These were both integral to success and deeply tied to the narrative of the experience.
Utopia had a smart story from both a narrative and a gameplay perspective. Riddle Room created an alternative dystopian world that was menacing, but never felt intimidating.
The set was fantastic. It brilliantly hid a great deal of complexity under a simple facade.
Both tracks of puzzling within Utopia were well designed and satisfying.
The separate puzzle tracks didn’t lend themselves to tag team puzzling. Because the two tracks were so vastly different from one another, different players experienced different types of puzzles. It would be easy to find oneself wishing to work on the other set of puzzles, but knowing that switching would be detrimental to overall team success.
The gamemaster delivered hints in person. This was problematic for two reasons:
Hints were delivered with substantial delay.
The hint system broke the otherwise well-constructed narrative.
The most challenging puzzle in the entire experience required detecting a specific detail without much in the way of cluing. The puzzle’s concept was great, but it could benefit from a little more in-game clue structure.
Should I play Riddle Room’s Utopia?
Utopia was a deeply satisfying escape room. The puzzles, narrative, and set worked in sync with one another to make us feel a story.
Riddle Room did an impressive thing in Utopia by taking a concept that seemed boring and then pushing it in all sorts of strange directions before subverting it all. I really enjoyed this escape room and expect that most other experienced escape room players will as well.
Utopia would be a difficult first room escape. In fact, the newbies on our team were a bit bewildered by it. I think this is an escape room to work up towards. You can only play it once, so you should get a few others games under your belt before taking on this clever challenge.
Don’t fritter and waste this hour in an off-hand way.
Location: New York, NY
Date played: July 20, 2017
Team size: up to 8; we recommend 5-7
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $30 per ticket
Story & setting
Clock Tower was a steam-punkish adventure to correct time.
The escape room took place in a laboratory called the Clock Tower, home to an eccentric keeper of time. The space included different mechanisms for altering and experiencing time. These were the crux of both the set and the puzzles.
The puzzles in Clock Tower were born of the incredible environment. The set pieces themselves were the puzzles.
Clock Tower’s puzzles ran the gamut of mechanical, observational, mathematical (nothing brutal), auditory, logical, and at one point, even “magical.” Multiple puzzles involved clocks, but with dramatically varied approaches. These different puzzle types all included tactile components.
Clock Tower transported us not just through time, but into a space so unlike the midtown building that houses Escape the Room NYC. The room was composed of larger set pieces that contributed to a cohesive environment. Each set piece was exciting, beautiful, and intricate, but not distracting (mostly).
More importantly, the puzzling existed through the set. We explored, fiddled, manipulated, and even constructed parts of this set as we solved the puzzles. This made the puzzling that much more dynamic.
Many of the puzzles in Clock Tower were tech-driven, but the tech driving these interactions varied enormously and frequently felt invisible.
Through a combination of set, puzzles, and tech, Clock Tower delivered multiple cinematic moments. Each one delighted us.
Clock Tower included multiple puzzles we’ve never seen before. This wasn’t limited to different takes on familiar concepts. Clock Tower forced us to think of new ideas.
Clock Tower demonstrated that an escape room can be seriously challenging and still fair.
The initial gamespace bottlenecked, both in physical space and gameplay. Clock Tower required a large team, but it initially couldn’t involve the full group.
Two of the early puzzles felt too similar, even though they ended up being quite different. This created confusion about whether they were standalone puzzles or somehow intertwined. It lead us needlessly off track for a bit.
While certainly both challenging and fair, in a few instances, Clock Tower would benefit from a little more clueing within the game. When we received hints from our gamemaster, they were always additional indirect clues; we would have liked to uncover most of those details ourselves within the environment.
Most of the puzzles in Clock Tower furthered our time-centric mission, but one seemed entirely out of place. It was a good puzzle, but we didn’t understand why it belonged.
Should I play Escape the Room NYC’s Clock Tower?
Clock Tower is an ideal game for escape room enthusiasts. It had a gorgeous set, integrated and tactile puzzles, and it will still be exciting and challenging even for seasoned players.
Very experienced teams will be happier in slightly smaller groups, if they can finagle such a booking, as there was some bottlenecking that left folks hanging and unable to help puzzle. We recommend that new players play at least a few other escape rooms first before booking Clock Tower.
With Clock Tower, Escape the Room NYC has nailed so much of what makes escape rooms exhilarating, from the interactive puzzling to the cinematic moments.
While they can continue to improve narrative integration so that all the puzzles feel natural in the space and deliver more story arc, they are making strides in that direction.
When the doors out of Clock Tower opened up, we felt that we had truly righted time and earned that victory in a fun little world hidden in Midtown Manhattan. That’s what escape rooms are about.
Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-6 (depending upon team composition; read below)
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $30-40 per ticket
Story & setting
A terrifying and tormented young girl mind-controlled and summoned us to her home to do her bidding. What she needed of us, only she knew.
The set was a dark and haunted house. It was scary and detailed, but the real scares came from the actors.
Zoe was a light puzzle game. The puzzles were essentially gates that separated the various segments of the experience.
If you lose in Zoe, it won’t be because you weren’t smart enough to solve the puzzles; it will be because you were too afraid to get the job done.
Zoe was striving for scary, and dammit, Escapade achieved scary.
The actors were fantastic. They managed to create the right blend of fear and intensity, all without being too threatening.
The set looked great.
The hinting system was magnificently woven into the fabric of the game and naturally pushed us from scene to scene with urgency.
The most significant puzzle in Zoe was overburdened with scavenging and reading. It suffered from a general lack of clarity.
One pivotal prop should be replaced with something a little less capable of inflicting damage on players, actors, and set pieces.
Should I play Escapade Games’ Zoe?
Zoe was an exceptional experience that I highly recommend to mobile players. You will need to move with some urgency.
Zoe is essentially a haunted house, so keep that in mind when building your team. If everyone is brave, then you’re going to want a smaller team of 2 or 3 people. If you have some players who are going to spend most of the time keeping their sphincter puckered… then you might want to consider a team of 4 to 6 people.
If you can muster up the courage, then Zoe is a must-play.
Not for the faint of heart, Girl’s Room was a magnificent horror / thriller escape room. Aesthetically, the set was nearly flawless in a dark, twisted, and dirty sort of way.
You should probably just watch the video:
The puzzles in Girl’s Room were tech-driven and tied to the narrative (sometimes directly, other times in more abstract ways).
There was plenty to puzzle through. It felt like the game delighted in initially making things seem tantalizingly attainable, only to throw a wrench into the gameplay with evil twists in the puzzle mechanics.
Girl’s Room contained some of the most memorable moments that I’ve had in a room escape.
The set. The level of detail in Girl’s Room was insane. There was a gigantic set piece in the middle of this game that really didn’t need to be there at all, but they put it there and integrated it into the experience. It was amazing.
The tech was well embedded and used to powerful effect.
The story, horror, and thriller elements were incredibly well executed. When the game wanted us on edge, we were on edge.
I think that the final puzzle may have been a little buggy. It was still solvable, but it got tedious.
The hinting wasn’t tailored to a team’s specific experience. This was a major issue for Lisa’s team (who played after my team). When they were stuck on an early puzzle that maybe should have had more clear cluing, the hints only delivered information they already knew, apparently unaware of the team’s actual misinterpretation of the puzzle. For Lisa’s team, this soured what was an otherwise brilliant room escape.
Should I play Escape Room Netherlands’ Girl’s Room?
Girl’s Room was exceptional. It was frightening, well built and brilliantly designed. It still managed to include a strong puzzling component.
It’s not an escape room for people who struggle with mobility or are averse to horror.
I also do not recommend that brand new escape room players take on Girl’s Room. It’s a profoundly special game, but it is also intense and difficult. So many of the things that make it incredible will be completely lost on a newbie.
Located about 50km outside of Amsterdam, Escape Room Netherlands is challenging to get to. If you’re seeking a truly special thrill, however, it is absolutely worth the trip.
The Vault was a cinema-style heist adventure that began in a parking garage and led us through a series of different sets staged within the Beurs van Berlage.
There was some set design, but for the most part, Sherlocked made use of the beautiful building that they call home.
More adventure than puzzle game, The Vault was all about the experience. That isn’t to say that it lacked challenge, as only 8% of teams had escaped as of the date that we played.
The sheer size and scale made it hard to find what was relevant within The Vault. Therein lay the difficulty.
It was a brilliant setup to begin the The Vault off-site, creating the illusion of breaking in.
A coherent (and a little over-the-top) narrative permeated the entire 90-minute experience.
The gamemastering fit the story. Calling for hints never disrupted the narrative.
The building was incredible and well-used.
Limited use of an in-game actor heightened the thrill of the adventure.
There were two or three moments in this room escape that were difficult to start in on because of the size of the space and limited cluing. I would have preferred if these were clued better and there were a couple of extra puzzles to fill the time.
The Vault contained a safe that was nearly a century old. The door was heavy and it seemed to vacuum shut. We had to throw a ton of physical effort into opening that door. I have to imagine that there are non-destructive ways in which Sherlocked could equalize the pressure (maybe even hiding a bottle of seltzer behind a false back for time-released CO2?).
Should I play Sherlocked’s The Vault?
If you are in Amsterdam, have legs, and they work reasonably well… then yes, you should play Sherlocked’s The Vault.
I’m being slightly hyperbolic. The Vault was an incredibly fun game, but there are a few things about it that might be off-putting to some players:
It’s not puzzley; The Vault is about the experience and adventure.
It has an actor. The role is limited, but important. If you hate actors in your escape rooms, this might be a deal breaker. I can promise, however, that the role doesn’t feature prominently throughout most of the escape room.
You need to have a base level of movement and fitness to play The Vault. It’s not a physically taxing game, but there are stairs, and at least one player on the team will have to crawl.
At least one player on the team will need a cell phone that can receive text messages in The Netherlands.
Of the many heists I’ve played, none of them has captured that Hollywood-heist feel like Sherlocked’s The Vault did. If that appeals to you even a little bit, then this is a must-play game.
Demons, intrigue, and answers hide in the shadows.
Location: New York, NY
Date played: January 30, 2017
Team size: 2-5; we recommend 3-4
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: from $28 per ticket
Story & setting
The samurai warriors once tested themselves against the demons of the Maze of Hakaina. Centuries later, a boy found the maze and became trapped within it. When we entered its dark corridors to save him, we found ourselves in a battle of wits with its ancient terrors.
The video-gamey labyrinth was dark with high ceilings, creating a foreboding atmosphere.
While the set was absolutely a maze, getting lost in the Maze ofHakaina wasn’t a risk. Progress within the game allowed for access to new segments and challenges. It felt a little like an early Metroid game, but with a feudal Japanese vibe; that is a compliment, to say the least.
Exploration was the biggest challenge in The Maze ofHakaina. There was a lot to find and it wasn’t all strongly clued. This escape room rewarded keen observation.
Like many room escapes from Komnata Quest, this experience was task-centric, but certainly offered its share of puzzles.
The Maze of Hakaina was actually a maze. Doors opened up new passageways. Komnata Quest manipulated the gamespace to create an expansive adventure with exciting reveals.
Komnata Quest minded the details. Our gamemaster’s introduction set the tone and the set took over from there.
There were a few brilliant uses of space, light, and trigger design.
The presence of multiple win conditions made the game’s closing act far more dynamic. While we couldn’t win without escaping, along the way we could accomplish additional goals. Depending upon how we had played the game, these additional tasks may or may not have been achievable in the end. It was truly fulfilling to have accomplished them all.
There was an utterly unforgettable and theatrical moment.
At times the cluing was tenuous. We needed a few hints to help us find and connect in game elements. After a few months, Komnata Quest still hadn’t had a team escape without any hints. These moments felt like great opportunities to transform obscure search tasks into clued puzzles.
Maze of Hakaina hadn’t been open that long, but already, many of the props and set pieces showed signs of wear in the form of chipped and faded paint. Without continual upkeep, this escape room will become increasingly easy and decreasingly immersive as the wear gives away the game’s secrets.
The lighting was incredibly dim and there was no shortage of reading material. We strained our eyes to read information and input lock combinations. Komnata Quest should add light strategically so that these tasks don’t become insurmountable challenges to some teams.
Should I play Komnata Quest’s Maze of Hakaina?
Maze of Hakaina was an exciting and memorable adventure.
While it was more puzzley than many of Komnata Quest’s room escapes, this was a task-centric experience. The challenge was in observing and making connections.
Experienced players can enjoy the additional challenge of layered win conditions. Veteran players will truly appreciate unconventional use of space and the drama that it creates.
Newer players will still thoroughly enjoy this experience, but will likely need a bit more guidance from their gamemaster.
Note that the lighting will be incredibly challenging for some players and that there are truly tight spaces that can’t be avoided. If you are comfortable with that, then this is a must play.
Play hard and play to win. You do not want to miss the ending.
Book your hour with Komnata Quest’s Maze of Hakaina, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you using the coupon code escapeartist to receive 10% off.
Full disclosure: Komnata Quest comped our tickets for this game.
[At the time of this review, Escape Hour Austin was called 15 Locks.]
“Gee Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”
Location: Austin, TX
Date played: January 8, 2017
Team size: 8-18; we recommend 7-11
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $25 per ticket
Story & setting
We were the subjects of a psychological study; solving puzzles would lead to our escape. While the final challenge alluded to rats trapped in a maze, there wasn’t any pretense of story. The excitement was in solving unusual challenges to earn our freedom.
Composed of three rooms, each in a different primary color, Lab Rats used big color blocks and toy-like interactions to create a children’s tube and ball pit aesthetic (without the tubes or the ball pit). These rooms were laid out such that players in any given room could interact with players in any other room. Most of the puzzles were constructed around the perimeter of a room, or at a station in the center, leaving plenty of space for maneuvering.
Lab Rats unfolded in three rounds of puzzling. While we remained divided throughout the hour, we weren’t necessarily trapped with the same few individuals or puzzles. 15 Locks included a mechanism for the transfer of players between rooms upon the completion of each stage (should they choose to transfer).
The puzzles in Lab Rats were largely themeless. They were simply fun challenges to conquer. This was a puzzler’s escape room.
Much of the puzzling was hands-on, constructed into the rooms. In this way, many of the challenges involved spatial reasoning. However, that was by no means the only type of puzzling available.
Lab Rats forced collaboration and teamwork both within and between the rooms. In fact, some of the puzzles were rendered difficult mostly by the need to properly communicate.
Many of the puzzles, as well as the game mechanics, were tech-driven. There was no shortage of ways to interact with this room escape.
We loved the concept for Lab Rats: a puzzle-focused, collaborative experience for a large group in an abstract environment.
15 Locks steered into their color-block aesthetic. While Lab Rats didn’t look like something specific, or transport us to a fictional world, it did immerse us in a world unlike our own.
The combination of the almost child-like set design, continual puzzling, and collaboration across environmental barriers created this frenetic energy that lasted throughout the experience. We were excited and amped up.
Lab Rats relied on technology-driven puzzles and game mechanics. We were “locked” in our rooms by an invisible barrier that sounded an alarm should anything pass through it incorrectly. Players could check in and out of the various rooms at specific times using an RFID bracelet. The game knew how many players were in each gamespace.
With players separated and so much action taking place all at once, our gamemaster had plenty to do. 15 Locks designed both audio and visual feeds, such that we could communicate with her from any of the three rooms and understand when she was preoccupied with our teammates. Gamemastering Lab Rats was a tall order, but the communication and hint system worked well.
Given the three-room structure, if a player chose to spend their entire game in only one room, they could pretty much replay Lab Rats 3 times and only have to hold back on a few puzzles.
We didn’t fully understand the game mechanics at the onset of the game. This was particularly true of the room transfer check in/out mechanic.
The game was structured in 3 phases, but we didn’t realize this at first. Each room had to complete phase 1 before the game would move to phase 2. However, we couldn’t always understand when we had completed everything available to us at a given time, and kept checking back in with the gamemaster for clarification. There was a light system meant to alleviate this confusion, but since colored lights could mean multiple things, we weren’t all able to follow these indicators.
The three-phase structure provided order to what might otherwise have been chaotic puzzling and player transfer. However, when one room struggled and fell behind during a phase, the rest of us could only look on from behind a barrier as our teammates flailed. This occasionally became frustrating.
Similarly, the final challenge was exciting for those involved, but wasn’t inclusive enough for a game of this size that had generally succeeded at keeping everyone thoroughly involved throughout.
The technology seemed occasionally buggy. In one instance a broken light made a puzzle vastly more difficult than it ever should have been.
Regular alarm buzzing became irritating.
Additional thoughts about perception of color
In designing these large, color-blocked rooms, 15 Locks used shades of color – light blue, medium blue, and dark blue, for example – to keep it from feeling flat. While this worked well aesthetically, in a few instances, this actually confused our team.
A few of our teammates couldn’t understand what pink meant. We owe our confusion about pink to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ perception of the world. Because we say “pink” rather than “light red” we perceive pink and red to have a different relationship than that of light blue and dark blue, even though both pink and light blue are composed of a primary color plus white. Our knowledge of the word “pink” caused us to continually ask “what does pink mean?!” 15 Locks isn’t to blame for the English language, but they might want to head off this confusion in their introduction to the use of color.
Additionally, the choice of lighting made orange particularly hard to differentiate from certain shades or red, yellow, and pink.
While the primary colors signaled the rooms, the use of purple, orange, and green signaled interaction between the rooms. This was clever, but sometimes confusing. It wasn’t necessarily clear whether a secondary color meant that we would be receiving or giving information. This became part of the puzzling.
In some tech-driven puzzles, a green light could indicate “correct” but players wondered whether that indicated a forthcoming inter-room interaction instead.
Lab Rats relied on our perceptions of colors for everything from aesthetic, to puzzle design, to game mechanics. In some ways, perception of color was an additional layer to puzzle through. It certainly made us think, long after we’d escaped the room.
Should I play 15 Locks’ Lab Rats?
You need at least 7 puzzle-lovers to play Lab Rats. Because of the game’s reliance on communication and collaboration across barriers, ideally, in order to succeed, you should collect a team of puzzle-lovers that are collaborative and cooperative.
That said, we haven’t seen many games that can entertain and excite a large team as well as Lab Rats did.Whether or not you escape, you will enjoy the fun set, tech-driven game design, and intense puzzling.
This would be an incredibly challenging game for newer players. We recommend that at least the majority of the team be versed in escape room puzzling so that they can help with the communication that is vital to a team’s success.
Note that given Lab Rats’ reliance on color for communication and collaboration, this game would be particularly challenging for colorblind individuals.
I’ve expounded upon many concepts in the shortcomings above, much of that is because Lab Rats explored so much exciting and new territory. While it wasn’t perfect and at times felt a little like a highly functional prototype, it managed to deliver an incredibly fun experience for all 10 of our teammates, new and more experienced alike. It was truly a joy to escape this room.
Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Lab Rats, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Full disclosure: 15 Locks provided media discounted tickets for this game.
The rock n’ roll zombie apocalypse had arrived. Most of humanity had been transformed into herds of mindless brain eaters. A local radio station had become the last stronghold of humanity. To earn our safety, we needed to prove that the zombie virus hadn’t impaired our cognitive abilities by solving puzzles.
Our gamemaster accurately described the game as more Scooby Doo than Walking Dead. The playful take on zombies was devoid of frights and filled with playfulness and impeccable worldbuilding. We were playing a rock n’ roll room escape with the idea of zombies functioning as the game timer.
The radio station set looked awesome. Loaded with posters for bands, concerts, and promotions, every little component of the escape room had been custom made for the game world. The album art and band names were particularly memorable. The room escape’s rock n’ roll soundtrack made sure that we never forgot where we were.
There was a little something for everyone in Dead Air. There were plenty of puzzles available in largely open spaces with minimal searching required.
While each puzzle offered its own challenge, Dead Air went out of its way to make sure that we could easily identify puzzles and related puzzle components. This allowed us to keep our focus on the overall experience without having to constantly search for obscure connections.
Everything made sense. And I mean everything. The story built a world. The set was the embodiment of that world. The hints were delivered by the radio announcer over the radio station. When the hints weren’t coming in, the station was playing music or plugging upcoming events. Above all, it actually made sense to be trapped in a radio station solving puzzles in the midst of Armageddon.
The set was fun and compelling.
The game was legitimately funny.
The puzzling was satisfying.
The custom album art was fantastic. The custom art and bands kept our focus on the game world. Had there been album art from real bands, the game would still have been wonderful, but this added detail kept our minds from drifting back to the real world.
The name Dead Air, while brilliant, implied that the game was frightening. The Crux’s description of the game on their website doesn’t do much to dissuade anyone of that judgment:
“The dead have risen up and are roaming the streets. You and your small band of survivors discover that the local radio station is still broadcasting, so you brave your way down to the studios to investigate. Will you find shelter or will the zombies overtake you? Test your wits in a rock’n’roll apocalypse!”
I am willing to bet that they are losing customers who think that this game will be scary.
Dead Air was missing a satisfying climax. It had so many great little moments, but I wish that it had that climactic moment that no player would ever forget.
Should I play The Crux Escape’s Dead Air?
If you’re a newbie, Dead Air would make a fine first game. If you’ve played a few hundred escape rooms, Dead Air feels fresh, fun, and grounded.
The next Room Escape Conference is taking place in Niagara Falls, NY from May 1-3, 2017. The conference organizers sponsored our trip to Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play this game and others in the region. We strive to help conference attendees visit the room escapes that are best for them.