Last Minute Escape – Jewel Heist [Review]

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Location:  Morristown, NJ

Date Played: October 29, 2018

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 5-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30.50 per player on weekends, $100 for teams of up to 4 (plus $20.50 for each additional person) on weekdays

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

In Last Minute Escape’s Jewel Heist, the heist was far from the focus of the experience. The escape room was staged around travel to and from the heist location.

This staging added a new dynamic to the escape room: a layer of timing and communication challenge that substantially increased the difficulty of this puzzle-focused game. Unfortunately, it also added down time, disbelief, and a nagging feeling of missing out. Although Last Minute Escape introduced a fantastic concept, the execution could use a little more refinement. A tough, creative challenge is good, but not at the expense of fun and flow.

If you’re in northern New Jersey, play escape rooms for the puzzles, and are interested in another layer of challenge, we recommend Jewel Heist.

In-game: The Last Minute Express train.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players seeking challenge from different types of game mechanics
  • Best for players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Inventive game mechanic
  • Interesting puzzles

Story

As jewel thieves blackmailed into one last job, we had traveled to Antwerp, Belgium to steal a world-renowned diamond from its appraiser. We needed to get to the jewelry store, break in, steal the diamond, and make our exit.

In-game: a jewlery case featuring a large diamond labeled, "Family Diamond - Not for sale -'

Setting

We began our heist in a train station. It had a platform, lockers, a ticket machine, and a phone booth. From there, we traveled by train to a simple, small-town jewelry shop with bright lighting, a security system, and jewels in a glass case.

The set design was uneven. Portions of the space – like the train – looked compelling; other sections required more… imagination. 

In-game: a ticket booth with a mannequin wearing a conductor's uniform.

Gameplay

Last Minute Escape’s Jewel Heist was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

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

The high level of difficulty came from navigating the game’s train travel mechanic, which time-gated travel between the two main areas of the game. Moving from one end of the game to the other required waiting for a few minutes. This profoundly changed the gameplay experience. 

In-game: A beautiful old telephone booth.

Analysis

➕ Last Minute Escape introduced a novel timing and communication challenge in Jewel Heist. We commend the concept, which forced split-team gameplay and added new a dynamic to a timed puzzle game. This was a clever concept.

➖ In practice, this game mechanic created a ton of downtime in an hour-long timed-game. We spent far too much time waiting to play.

➕ Jewel Heist started us well before we were in position to steal the gem. This staging added intrigue, adventure, and some brilliant and unexpected moments. We especially enjoyed the train-station-inspired interactions.

➖ Last Minute Escape didn’t build any onramp to Jewel Heist. It presented a challenging puzzle series in the opening moments. It was a good puzzle, but a harsh opener. We expect that this puzzle flow will add frustration for many teams before they even get to the main event.

➕ We enjoyed the heist-inspired moments of breaking in and the interactions necessary to facilitate this.

➖While it had its moments, for the majority of the hour, Jewel Heist didn’t feel like a heist. It felt like an escape room. Last Minute Escape went out of their way to set up a scenario that included getting to the heist, but as the game played out, it became impossible to suspend our disbelief… which isn’t terrible… but this Last Minute Escape was clearly striving for more. 

Jewel Heist was studded with clever puzzles that incorporated interactive props and sucked up our attention, in a good way.

➖ The execution was messy and at times misleading. Imprecise execution created unnecessary frustration for otherwise fun and inventive concepts.

➖ Throughout Jewel Heist, I always felt like I was missing out. I was waiting while my teammates experienced something fun without me. Sometimes this was true, and sometimes it wasn’t, but regardless, the feeling nagged at me for the entire hour.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • We recommend The Morristown Diner for a bite to eat, even late on weeknights.

Book your hour with Last Minute Escape’s Jewel Heist, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Last Minute Escape provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Last Minute Escape – The Submarine [Review]

It might have been a bit of a dive, but much was hidden in its depths.

Location: Montclair, NJ

Date played: February 27, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $100 per team during the week with additional costs for larger teams & $30.50 per person on weekends

Story & setting

It was 194-blah in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our submarine was under attack and all of the personnel who actually knew how to operate the critical systems were incapacitated. It was up to our ragtag group of know-nothings to figure out how to operate the boat, sink a Japanese ship, and save our crewmen. The story didn’t make a lot of sense, but Last Minute Escape didn’t take the story too seriously either.

In-game: A submarine door with a radiation warning. Through the porthole is a depth controller.

The set design had its up and downs. Everything was handmade and a little hacked together. Many individual interactions looked good, but the rooms themselves didn’t always feel cohesive or part of a submarine. A lot of it was clever… even when it wasn’t convincing.

The Submarine had a great logo.

The Submarine logo has the name in a heavy font with the silhouette of a submarine.

Puzzles

Last Minute Escape truly shined in the puzzling . They assembled a challenging collection of team-oriented escape room puzzles.

Some puzzles were analog while others were tech-driven. Nearly every puzzle demanded multiple people to solve. This is a difficult to achieve and too often overlooked facet of escape room design that Last Minute Escape nailed.

Standouts

The Submarine was built for collaborative puzzling and it truly achieved that.

The puzzles were satisfying, challenging, and fun. Everyone on our team had at least one moment of triumph.

While the room escape didn’t always look amazing or make a ton of sense, Last Minute Escape used what they had to create some honestly triumphant moments.

In-game: The depth controller, a door, with a car steering wheel painted silver.

Epiphany in puzzle design is a tough thing to create, especially in the escape room format. However, I found that The Submarine repeatedly achieved it. Early in the room escape we found so many things that simply didn’t make sense that I actually started off a little frustrated. As the game progressed, however, we started to make the connections. It felt so rewarding to solve these little mysteries that had originally made no sense whatsoever and then in a flash became incredibly clear.

Shortcomings

The Submarine’s soundtrack was loud enough that it interfered with the gameplay.

There were tons of details in The Submarine and managing them relied heavily on labeling, which wasn’t always clear; in one instance it simply wasn’t there.

We encountered a little bit of prop failure, which added a fair amount of confusion into the late-game experience.

In once section of the room escape, we needed to derive a series of answers and administer them all at once. Frequently, there was no way to verify them, short of the gamemaster hinting which one was incorrect. This didn’t present an issue for us, but I can easily imagine a number of scenarios where it could seriously hamper gameplay.

The story didn’t make much sense and there was no attempt to ground the game in any historical reality. The room escape was set on a nuclear sub (which didn’t exist in WWII) and the props were a hodgepodge of anachronistic naval/military items.

Should I play Last Minute Escape’s The Submarine?

The Submarine was fun, weird, and challenging. It was an energizing game for our experienced players. It offered a level of puzzling that we don’t often encounter and that puzzling was implemented with nuance and finesse.

For these same reasons, I do not recommend The Submarine for newbies. The emphasis on challenging puzzles that require careful observation and clever connections could lead to an especially frustrating experience for those who aren’t at least a little comfortable in an escape room environment. Additionally, the lack of focus on story and environmental design would make it more difficult for newbies to even see the brilliance of The Submarine, and there was a lot of brilliance.

Escape room enthusiasts: If you’re in it for the puzzling, I highly recommend you pay Last Minute Escape a visit and see how deep you can dive.

Book your hour with Last Minute Escape’s The Submarine, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Last Minute Escape provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Last Minute Escape – The Mayan Tomb [Review]

“We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”
– Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr, PhD

Location: Morristown, NJ

Date played: August 1, 2016

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $100 per team during the week & $30.50 per person on weekends

Story & setting

We were adventure archeologists on the hunt for lost Mayan treasures, chasing the trail of an Indiana Jones parody who left video evidence of his exploits behind. The story was playful, fun, and made a bit more sense than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which is now 8 years old… how did that happen?).

The setting had a cheesy but well-executed Legends of the Hidden Temple vibe that was playful and worked well.

The game never took itself too seriously, nor did it strive for realism. As a result, it came together far better than had Last Minute Escape attempted realistic immersion.

Image of a parody Indiana Jones character in the tomb set.
Not Indiana Jones.

Puzzles

The puzzles presented in The Mayan Tomb were strong and varied. There was plenty to do and everyone had an opportunity to have their moment.

There were two puzzles built into larger set pieces that overstayed their welcome; they dragged on for quite some time after we figured out what to do with them. That said, they never crossed into serious tedium territory.

Standouts

Last Minute Escape created a padlock-less game in a small market setting. This is rare and praiseworthy. They used technology to create a magical room and executed it with a wink and a grin.

Their use of video was fun and kept the humor of the situation front and center. Their TV screens didn’t even belong in the setting, but the knowing ridiculousness of the game managed to make it all work.

There was also a brilliant use of a subwoofer.

Shortcomings

Some set pieces looked and felt a bit too homemade and hacked together, even for the comical staging.

One puzzle hinged on a moveable object being kept in the same place.

Eight players is one or two too many for the game space.

Should I play Last Minute Escape’s The Mayan Tomb?

Last Minute Escape, formerly known as Exit Strategy, has been in this business longer than most escape room companies, and they have come a long way since their first game. The Mayan Tomb was, without a doubt, the most fun we’ve had playing an escape room in the State of New Jersey to date.

It’s a fun and playful room, with a solid collection of puzzles and props, and a scale that is far bigger than one typically finds outside of a major city. If you can suspend disbelief in the story and setting, you’ll have a good time.

It could absolutely benefit from a bit more polish and refinement, but this game is a great time and there is nothing on its level in the area.

Book your hour with Last Minute Escape’s The Mayan Tomb, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

 

Last Minute Escape – Hotel Luxeva [Review]

[At the time of this review, Last Minute Escape was called Exit Strategy.]

The Hotel Luxeva only rents rooms by the hour.

Location: Wayne, NJ

Date played: January 18, 2016

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 4-6

Price: $100 per room on weekdays, $30.50 per ticket on weekends

Theme & story

Hotel Luxeva was set in a 1980’s hotel room. We were agents in a techno-thriller at the tail end of the Cold War.

The puzzles stayed true to the hotel setting. The techno-thriller story was conceptually more engaging than the hotel setting, but the game focused its attention on the set rather than the story.

Exit Strategy - Hotel Luxeva Logo
The hammer & sickle in the logo are brilliant

Wordy

Exit Strategy tried to work the story into wordy puzzles instead of making it the focus of the larger immersive experience.

This game included a few puzzles that required substantial focused reading. This type of puzzle diminished the tangible and interactive experience. It also caused bottlenecking.

Puzzles

The majority of the puzzles were designed around hotel-themed props, which was immersive.

However, Hotel Luxeva was designed such that we unlocked just one component of a variety of puzzles immediately and then continued to unlock additional components of the already started puzzles as the game unfolded. In this way, we spent considerable time attempting to solve puzzles before we had all the clues, but we had no way to know that.

It drained some of my fun.

My missed opportunity

I missed how much of this game unfolded because I was glued to half completed puzzles. Because our gamemaster continued to hint at these puzzles, I continued to fixate on them, figuring that they were necessary to push our game forward. However…

Our missed opportunity

We bypassed a few critical game elements because we managed to solve puzzles without deriving the entirety of the clues.

Thus we missed what were absolutely the two best puzzles in the game. When we saw them unfold in the walkthrough, we were disappointed that we missed them. These puzzles were too cool to be missable.

Their missed opportunity

Exit Strategy continued to impress us with video production. Their intro video set up the full story where the set focused on the hotel, and they have the best rules explanation video we’ve ever seen. It’s hilarious.

Video production is Exit Strategy’s greatest strength, and it would be great to see more of it melded into the game.

Hints & explanations

Our gamemaster delivered hints on a computer screen through an image that implied a type of decryption. Considering that some of our unsolved puzzles included large passages of text, we thought this too was a hint. It turned out that this was just a style choice, but it threw us way off.

Exit Strategy Hotel Luxeva

Build quality

Before entering the room we were told something along the lines of, “be careful in the our room, the Hotel Luxeva is a premiere hotel, and should be handled with care.”

The reality was that it wasn’t a particularly upscale or beautiful room, but there was a fair number of flimsy components. One of our teammates pulled a piece of furniture apart by accident.

Should I play Exit Strategy’s Hotel Luxeva?

Escape rooms are ultimately about fun. Hotel Luxeva wasn’t a bad game, but it had more faults than we were expecting, and they diminished our fun.

Far too many set pieces were weakly constructed.

Far too few puzzles advanced the techno-thriller story.

Far too many puzzles required too much reading.

And we skipped the room’s greatest moments entirely by accident.

Much of what went wrong for us could be fixed, and not every player will be as bothered by these faults. However, when we consider our Exit Strategy experiences together, we recommend The Speakeasy over Hotel Luxeva.

Last Minute Escape – The Speakeasy [Review]

[At the time of this review, Last Minute Escape was called Exit Strategy.]

With a new location, Exit Strategy’s sophomore effort is a massive improvement that isn’t without its faults.

Location: Wayne, New Jersey

Date played: August 22, 2015

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 6-8

Price: different weekday and weekend pricing structures

Theme & story

Within this speakeasy you must find evidence against an infamous crime boss. You have one hour to escape with the evidence to incriminate him.

This game is properly staged in a speakeasy, complete with all manner of typical drinking and gambling paraphernalia and decor. (It’s not all of the Prohibition era, but you’ll get the point).

The puzzles generally make use of these themed elements, some more cleverly than others. However, the puzzles themselves don’t elevate the players’ experience of the story, nor do they move a narrative forward.

Exit Strategy - The Speakeasy

Use of space

Exit Strategy has a lot of space to work with in their new location in Wayne, NJ and they use it well.

The game opened in what is designed to be the speakeasy entry way. After we unlocked the first door, we found ourselves in a multiple room saloon environment. Early in the game, we unlocked these other rooms, which gave us more puzzles and more clues. The game cleverly forces players to to move fluidly between the various rooms throughout the game.

It’s always fun to play a game that makes proper use of space.

Puzzle variety

All roads lead to a lock, but many of those roads have some interesting, more physically involved puzzles along the way.

One puzzle in particular takes a half-baked concept from Exit’s Strategy’s first room, The Senator’s Manor, and greatly improves upon it.

Hinting

Our gamemaster began feeding us hints on a screen almost as soon as we entered the main room of the speakeasy. In the first instance, we received a hint on a puzzle that had stumped a few people, but others hadn’t even looked at yet.

At no time in this game did our team slow down, spend a substantial amount of time without making any progress in the game, or actually request a hint. Yet we continued to receive hints. Our gamemaster may only have had video of us, but if there had been audio, it would have been very clear we wanted the hints to cease. David actually yelled “stop giving us hints” more than once.

We escaped with 15 minutes to spare, which was almost record time.

Exit Strategy - The Speakeasy Exit Photo

The accidental brute-force

David not-so-secretly loves to circumvent puzzles, but this game was the first time that he did it by accident.

One puzzle has a solution that is easy to derive in the wrong way. Unfortunately, the path designed to derive this solution is arguably the most interesting part of the game. It’s a fixable flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.

Final puzzle

We found the door key about 20 minutes into the game. The lock to the final puzzle was left open.

It took us a little while to realize it was the door key because we weren’t expecting to have found it while we still had a significant portion of the room left to solve. After confirming for ourselves (by unlocking that door) that it was, in fact, the key to our escape, and that we were already holding the “evidence” we needed to escape with, we proceeded to finish the game the right way, because we paid to be there and wanted the full experience.

Should I play Exit Strategy’s The Speakeasy?

This is Exit Strategy’s second game and it’s much stronger than their first.

In this game, they’ve elevated the design, set pieces, and overall theming.

They smartly brought back the best elements of their first game: physically fun puzzles and high video production quality.

This room far outshines their first game; they’ve made incredible strides in quality across the board. Don’t play The Senator’s Manor; do play The Speakeasy.

This is a good room for beginners; the staff will hold your hand. And it’s still a fun game for experienced players.

All of that being said, there is no excuse for a bad setup. Players get one shot at these games, and they deserve to have it set up correctly. Quality control is a must.

Nevertheless, we’re looking forward to Exit Strategy’s next move.

Book your hour with Exit Strategy’s The Speakeasy, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Last Minute Escape – The Senator’s Manor

[At the time of this review, Last Minute Escape was called Exit Strategy.]

An entry level game that starts stronger than it finishes.

Location: Montclair, New Jersey

Date played: June 2, 2015

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 6-8

Price: different weekday and weekend pricing structures

Plot

“United States Senator Franklin Wilson Neuhaus, II has been missing for several months. His son, Franklin, III has discovered through tax records that a secret manor belonging to Senator Neuhaus has not been investigated by the police. Not sure who he can trust, Franklin III has turned to you, a team of expert private investigators, to find any clues inside that may lead to the discovery of his father’s whereabouts. Did he run away on his own or is something more sinister to blame? You have one hour to find Senator Neuhaus before the investigation is taken over by the police. Test your analytical and problem-solving skills in Exit Strategy: The Senator’s Manor.”

Compelling pre-game

Upon arriving, you walk down a stairwell (past one of the strangest bathrooms I’ve ever seen) and feel like you just dove through the looking glass. The ceiling is staggeringly low, the ground is covered in artificial turf, and to your left, the wall looks like a damn house: windows, siding, mailbox, flowers, and a door with quite the knocker. Your game-master leads you to a television and plays a movie that sets the stage for a team of private investigators to search for a missing senator. It also details the game’s rules. Everything oozes quality.

High quality video production

It’s clear throughout the game that its designer has a passion and talent for video production. I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to how well he weaves video into this game.

Missed opportunities

The game is lovingly built, but it falls short of the expectations created by its exceptional exterior. The company puts significant effort into establishing their story. In fact, their website includes bios for the key characters in the narrative. The characters, narrative, and brilliantly produced videos are all woven into the game, but aren’t of much consequence. With the exception of an American flag sitting next to a desk, the fact that you’re looking for a missing senator is almost completely irrelevant to this game. This theme offers many opportunities to explore the private quarters of a powerful man. You could find anything in this man’s home: evidence of an affair, corruption, or some other scandal. Instead, you find out that he has some pretty mundane hobbies. This is a by the numbers escape game.

All roads lead to a lock

Everything in this game ultimately leads to a lock. There are lots of locks. This creates an uncomfortable situation whereby all players are constantly shouting numbers at one another. It’s a reasonably well-executed lock-driven game, but it’s still a lock-driven game.

Frustrations

Later in the game we hit some hefty frustrations. The first was that the Senator’s Manor has a lot of doors and things that are off-limits. Most of these out-of bounds things aren’t really obvious in the moment. We felt like our game-master was constantly chastising us for exploring the space. Without exception, chastisement diminishes fun. The second and more problematic frustration was a safe that locks players out for 15 minutes if they punch in three incorrect codes in a row. 15 minutes is a damn long time in a 60 minute game. It’s even longer when that safe emerges late in the game and becomes an impassable blocker. Furthermore, players must contest with clue placement that creatives ambiguity as to which numbers will actually open the safe. We narrowed the code down to one of three answers, however an incorrect inputting used up a guess, and as luck would have it, the right answer was the last one we were going to guess. With nothing left to do, we tried brute forcing some of the remaining locks, assuming that our game was over. When the contents of that safe were slid under the door, we made short work of the remaining puzzles, but that win literally has an asterisk in our records; no one felt good about it.

Exit Strategy - The Senator's Manor Escaped
They suggested we all look puzzled. It felt appropriate.

Should I play Exit Strategy’s The Senator’s Manor?

This is a solid game produced by a rookie designer. There’s clearly a lot of love poured into it, and I’m betting a ton of lessons learned. I wish that the puzzles had more depth. I wish that the game was crafted so that players could more freely explore the space. And I really wish that it didn’t have that infuriating safe. But mostly I wish that the game lived up to its entryway. If you’re new to escape games, this is a solid example of an entry level room. If you’re a veteran and you’ve played more interactive rooms, then this one isn’t going to wow you, but I am betting that if the folks from Exit Strategy keep at it, they’re going to get there. The basic building blocks are all there. Book your hour with Exit Strategy’s The Senator’s Manor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.