The Crux Escape Rooms – Saboteur [Review]

I spy.

Location: Niagara Falls, Ontario

Date Played: September 2, 2018

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 4 or 6

Duration: 50 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

The Crux Escape Rooms in Niagara Falls understands puzzle-focused gameplay.

Saboteur nailed split-team escape room design. When the group was split, it asked us to observe, solve, and communicate. Then the group game together to solve new challenges without stepping all over each other and the gamespace. Aesthetically speaking, however, Saboteur left a lot to be desired.

We recommend all the games at The Crux Escape Rooms. While Dead Air is still our favorite, and we also loved The Clinic, if you’re looking for additional fun puzzle games in the Niagara Falls area, definitely check out Saboteur. We’re thrilled that we did.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Team players
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Successful split-team game design
  • Strong and creative puzzles

Story

We had reached our final test as special agents when we learned that our group of budding agents had been infiltrated. We needed to pass the test and stop the saboteur.

Setting

Our group of special agents was split between 2 symmetrical, adjacent rooms. These were unthemed spaces with white walls – one with red trim, the other blue – adorned with puzzle components.

Gameplay

The Crux Escape Rooms’ Saboteur was a split-team escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

The group spent the first act of the escape room in separate rooms before coming together for the second act. We needed to work together from different gamespaces.

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

Analysis

+ Each puzzle gave us a sense of accomplishment upon completion. Saboteur didn’t use gimme puzzles as filler.

+ We especially enjoyed one puzzle that REDACTED.

– We found that one puzzle seemed to rely on some obscure knowledge or finding a needle in a haystack. While it was absolutely solvable without that knowledge, in the moment it felt unfair.

+ The puzzles flowed clearly from one to the next. The locks were well labeled and mapped to their corresponding puzzles. The challenge was always in the puzzles rather than in popping the lock or following the thread of gameplay.

+ The Crux Escape Rooms in Niagara Falls has been one of our go-to examples of how to design an elegant escape game on a tight budget. From a gameplay standpoint, they succeeded again with Saboteur.

– The set, however, didn’t offer much of anything besides a room in which to build the gameplay. It looked and felt bland.

+ The Crux Escape Rooms built solid, tidy clue structure for every puzzle. This didn’t mean the puzzles were easy. They were challenging solves clued in fair and sometimes unusually clever ways.

– We would have liked to see more from the infiltration mechanic. It seemed underused.

– The conclusion was begging for a little more drama.

Saboteur worked well as a split team game. We needed to communicate and work together from the different spaces. Our actions affected one another. When the groups joined, it was clear where and how to focus our energy on new tasks.

Tips for Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • The Crux Escape Rooms is also a board game cafe.
  • If you play with fewer than 6 players, there is one puzzle where someone will have to move quickly.

Book your hour with The Crux Escape Rooms’ Saboteur, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Crux Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

The Crux Escape Rooms – The Clinic [Review]

The puzzle clinic.

Location: Niagara Falls, Ontario

Date Played: September 2, 2018

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 50 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

With The Clinic, The Crux Escape Rooms has delivered another amusing, puzzle-focused escape room. The Clinic put their own spin on “medical lab” and it was a light-hearted take that invigorated the theme.

The Crux Escape Rooms built The Clinic on a low budget, but it didn’t show. They stayed true to their aesthetic vision, hiding the puzzles, refining the flow, and writing in little winks and nods to their other games (and escape rooms in general). Although the conclusion could have been more dramatic, The Clinic was an impressively entertaining puzzle-centric escape room.

If you only have time for one escape room at The Crux Escape Rooms, we have a deep love of Dead Air. That said, if you’re in the area, we highly recommend making time to play their full complement of games, especially the Clinic. It’s fantastic.

The "Herring Clinic" logo, it's a red pill with an "H" on it.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Escape room players*

Why play?

  • Interesting puzzles
  • Amusing tidbits

Story

We had volunteered as test subjects at The Clinic. We needed to solve our way out of this experiment.

In-game: The door for the Herring Clinc's office of Katrina Herring.

Setting

This medical waiting room had a large receptionist’s desk on one side and a semicircle of waiting room chairs on the other. There were plants, wall hangings, and pharmaceutical advertisements.

It was a convincing clinical environment. As the game progressed, we experienced other equally convincing medical environments.

In-game: the clinic's waiting room. It looks like a convincing medical waiting room.

Gameplay

The Crux Escape Rooms’ The Clinic was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

*While the gameplay would be approachable and entertaining for players of any experience level, players with experience in escape rooms will appreciate additional nuance in The Clinic.

In-game: A poster that reads, "4 out of 5 doctors recommend you exercise your brain daily."

Analysis

+ Behind The Clinic’s bland facade, it was incredibly amusing. When we looked closely, we found lots of puns and jokes. The background music also set a playful tone. These details enlivened an otherwise easily stale theme.

+ The Crux Escape Rooms locked a lot of drawers in this escape room with standard combination locks. They did this, however, without defacing their aesthetic with an abundance of locks. It was a small detail that added a lot to the look and feel of the space.

+ The opening act flowed really well. The puzzles worked so well with the gamespace.

– The momentum waned in the second act. With different puzzle paths crossing in a small space, the flow wasn’t as clean.

– The conclusion needed more drama.

+ We had to earn our solves in The Clinic. The puzzles were generally challenging, layered, and interesting.

Tips for Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • The Crux Escape Rooms is also a board game cafe.

Book your hour with The Crux Escape Rooms’ The Clinic, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Crux Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

The Crux Escape – Clara [Review]

I see metaphors, all the time. They’re everywhere.

Location: Niagara Falls, ON

Date played: April 30, 2017

Team size: 3-7; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 50 minutes

Price: $21-26 per ticket

Story & setting

We entered the mind of Clara, a young girl with a dark past. Could we rescue her from her own trauma by uncovering her experiences?

Clara’s mind was a spacious room with basic furniture around the perimeter. Artwork hung on the walls. The decor was sometimes quirky, but not particularly interesting.

In-game: Image of a large back locked box that reads, "CLARA"

Puzzles

Clara challenged players to make connections between the various props and set pieces that together presented the puzzles.

The Crux used standard escape room concepts, executed at varying degrees of difficulty.

Standouts

We particularly enjoyed one set piece. As the experience progressed, we uncovered more of it and the intricate, detailed artwork within.

There were a lot of locks in Clara, but The Crux clearly connected puzzles with the corresponding locks. Thus the escape room rewarded puzzle completion with more game. The volume of locks never hindered the flow of the experience.

Clara was a basic room escape with a twist. At times, the seemingly standard puzzles tripped up our experienced team, not because they were too challenging, but because they deviated from the norm just enough to trip up anyone jumping to conclusions too quickly.

As the room escape progressed, the puzzles revealed more about Clara and her traumatized past. Upon reflection, the underlying puzzle design and story were artfully intertwined. After we’d learned her story and escaped, we appreciated the links between the puzzle structure and narrative.

Shortcomings

While in retrospect the puzzles and story came together, throughout the game itself the puzzling didn’t build a strong narrative. Clara was primarily a puzzling experience, without a memorable climactic moment.

As we progressed through Clara, we rode a roller coaster of puzzle challenge. The difficulty curve seemed off. Especially given an intended audience of less experienced players, more ramp up and down would help with flow.

Clara was a room of locked furniture and basic wall hangings. Certain props had visual appeal, but it was not an intriguing set to explore.

Should I play The Crux Escape’s Clara?

Clara was a puzzle-focused room escape. If you like puzzles, there is a lot to enjoy here. Additionally, players of all experience levels can enjoy Clara; they will likely be tripped up in different places.

If you are more interested in set design, story, or technology, Clara will not be the right escape room for you.

As Clara’s story progressed, it was always in the background, with the puzzles front and center. It wasn’t until reflecting back that we came to appreciate the subtle connections between the mystery and the puzzles. If you’re looking for a heart-racing, puzzling adventure, we recommend The Crux’s Dead Air, where the story and puzzles were more closely intertwined as you experience them.

That said, there was a simple beauty in Clara.

Book your hour with The Crux Escape’s Clara, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: The Crux provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

The Crux Escape – The Night Before Cruxmas [Review]

A heartwarming tale of bureaucracy and Christmas cheer.

Location: Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Date played: January 22, 2017

Team size: up to 7; we recommend 2-5

Duration: 45 minutes

Price: 20 CAD per ticket

Story & setting

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through… Santa’s office we searched for the correct clearance codes for the Big Guy to take off. An elf had given him the wrong code and Santa’s sleigh was on its launchpad waiting for a green light to liftoff. No clearance codes, no presents. Welcome to post-9/11 air traffic regulation.

Santa’s office felt appropriately like a holiday living room combined with a mailroom. Considering that the business concerns of his occupation are primarily correspondence, this felt like an apt representation. It was also the right amount of adorable coziness to put us in the holiday spirit.

In-game: A mantle with stockings, and gifts, a lit Christmas tree with presents beneath in the background.
Image via The Crux

Puzzles

Santa’s elves packed a lot of puzzles into a small space. There was a lot to do.

The puzzles involved organizing and ciphering, among other skills.

Standouts

We loved the premise of this Christmas mission, and the idea of government bureaucracy wrapping Saint Nick in red tape.

Although The Night Before Cruxmas was a temporary installation, it was designed with care and attention to detail. The space had a holiday cheer about it that set the appropriate mood. We also loved the mailroom interpretation of Santa’s Office.

The Night Before Cruxmas was an excellent example of room escape design and construction on a budget. The environment and puzzles came together delightfully without any bells and whistles… except for the bells on the tree.

One particular puzzle unfolded throughout the entire game. It was well designed so as not to be brute-forced too early, and its continual unraveling heightened our anticipation of a solution. Upon reception of the final components, the solution was satisfying and lots of fun.

Shortcomings

While most of the puzzles came together clearly, we found one to be rather ambiguous, and therefore confusing.

Everything in Santa’s office was locked shut with similar locks. Similar digit structure inputs unnecessarily halted the game’s flow.

Should I play The Crux Escape’s The Night Before Cruxmas?

The Night Before Cruxmas was a puzzler’s Christmas adventure. The small space was jam-packed with puzzles that all came together in an adorable conclusion to the room escape’s original and delightful setup.

The temporary installation was perfectly decorated to set the mood and portray a vision of Santa’s office, which must be adjacent to that hectic workspace portrayed in all the movies.

We recommend The Night Before Cruxmas to both newer and more experienced players who are in the mood for the combination of puzzles and holiday cheer. This would be good family fun.

Book your game with The Crux Escape’s The Night Before Cruxmas, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: The Crux Escape comped our tickets for this game.

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.

The Crux Escape – Dead Air [Review]

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Location: Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Date played: January 22, 2017

Team size: up to 7; we recommend 3-6

Duration: 50 minutes

Price: 21-26 CAD per ticket

The 2017 Golden Lock-In award, the REA logo turned into an open padlock with a golden ring around it.
2017 Golden Lock-In Award winner

Story & setting

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.

In-game: Door art of a zombie at a turntable. It reads "DEAD AIR"

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.

In-game: Album art shows 4 zombies and read's "Assist! Please Dearest"
The album cover we had to hold up to call for a hint.

Puzzles

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.

Standouts

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.

In-game: A studio with an "On Air" sign illuminated. Band art hangs on the walls.
Image provided by The Crux

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.

Shortcomings

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?

Absolutely.

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.

Game design professor and escape room community celebrity Scott Nicholson put out a paper titled Ask Why: Creating a Better Player Experience through Environmental Storytelling and Consistency in Escape Room DesignDead Air was the living embodiment of “ask why.” Everything was grounded in the fiction of the game. Mix that with some great puzzles and the result was a phenomenal experience from start to finish.

Book your game with The Crux Escape’s Dead Air, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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.

 

The Crux Escape Rooms – Mutiny at the Hour [Review]

[At the time of this review, The Crux Escape Rooms was called The Hour.]

Yarrr… [insert generic pirate cliché].

Location: St. Catharines, Ontario

Date played: August 30, 2015

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 3-5

Price: 20 CAD

REA Golden Lock-In Badge
2015 Golden Lock-In Winner

Theme & story

Mutiny at the Hour was beautifully constructed to look and feel like the different areas of a pirate ship. It was an exciting and fun to inhabit a pirate ship for an hour.

The story: Your ship has been overtaken by pirates. You and your teammates are locked in the captain’s quarters. You must escape from there, through different areas of the ship… and into the ocean?

The Hour LogoWe want to walk the plank? I guess that is better than being captives of pirates? The story doesn’t hold water.

The puzzles and their props generally stayed to a nautical theme, but they didn’t tell a story. This game packed a lot of story potential that went unrealized.

Custom construction

The folks from The Hour hand built this massive game. The settings, scenery, puzzles, and much of the decor are all clearly handmade with a ton of love.

It’s easy to feel good about a game that was so clearly born of passion and care. Mutiny at the Hour is a unique experience and is as close to a fully custom construction as we ever find.

Automagically

This game has very few locks, and zero combination locks. The few key locks that are in the game are of the old-timey, heavy metal variety that feel at home on the ship.

Most of the puzzles resolved automagically: You do something, and a something else triggers via technology.

Cooperation

Many of the puzzles in this game relied on teamwork. The game was expertly crafted in this regard so that it could not be a one-man show. During our hour, I worked in tandem with each of my teammates to solve different game elements.

We escaped at the buzzer with just four players. It may be possible to escape with three, but this is a six person game.

Best victory photo ever!
Best victory photo ever!

Puzzles & difficulty

Overall the puzzles were physically and mentally engaging. In at least one instance, a player needed to climb within the set. This was well designed to be safe and fun (this also didn’t require much exertion).

There were a few instances where a player could determine their task relatively quickly but the task itself took some time to complete. Perhaps this would work well for larger groups, but with only four players, we struggled when multiple people were tied up completing concepts they’d already worked out… One or two puzzles overstayed their welcome.

Should I play The Hour’s Mutiny at the Hour?

Mutiny at the Hour brought a cleverness that exceeded that which we frequently see. The set was designed in a unique and engaging way. Puzzles were crafted such that they interacted with the set and players could not circumvent elements. And ultimately, these puzzles were fun. The pirate ship experience was exciting.

In this game, The Hour has upped their game design substantially, adding the automagic puzzles. Their sophomore effort far out-shined Jail Break. They still have a ways to climb to integrate the setting and puzzles into a cohesive story whose ultimate goal makes sense. However, this did not detract from the in-game experience.

Experienced players will enjoy the custom design of this game. New players may find this game a little out of their league, but I think it’s still worth a go. If you only have time for one game at the Hour, play this one.

Book your hour with The Hour’s Mutiny at the Hour, and tell them the Room Escape Artist sent you.

The Crux Escape Rooms – Jail Break [Review]

[At the time of this review, The Crux Escape Rooms was called The Hour.]

No one acknowledges that the punishment for escaping jail is generally worse than being in jail.

Location: St. Catharines, Ontario

Date played: August 30, 2015

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 3-4

Price: 20 CAD

The Hour Logo

Theme & story

You are wrongfully accused of a crime and are locked in a jail cell. While the warden is quelling a jail riot, you have one hour to escape from your cell and through the warden’s office to freedom.

This was a two room escape: Both the jail cell and the warden’s office were thematically appropriate. The rooms existed in stark contrast to one another. It worked well.

While the decor was thematically appropriate, not all the puzzles fit into the theme of the rooms, nor did they elevate the story.

Setting

The game began with players handcuffed (hands in front) in a dark jail cell. It was not a horror room, but these elements might scare some players.

The Hour’s website doesn’t overtly state this in the game description or at the time of booking… And it probably should. We know some of folks who love escape games, but aren’t comfortable with handcuffs or dark rooms.

Hide & seek

Lighting factored substantially in this game. In fact, in Jail Break, more than in any other game we’ve played (except one that took place in complete darkness) we contended with darkness as an obstacle.

Jail Break also relied heavily on scavenging for clues.

Much of the difficulty was derived from the scavenging combined with the lighting.

Intrigue

The game started strong; the early puzzles were very intense.

As the game progressed, the intensity of the setting dropped, and the intrigue of the puzzles tapered off. The final puzzle was the least interesting component of the game.

escape-room-niagara-jailbreak

Faulty equipment

Our experience in Jail Break suffered from repeated instances of faulty equipment.

This was the first escape game we played where the gamemaster stated ahead of time that equipment might fail, and should we derive the right puzzle solution but experience hardware malfunction, she would send in the needed workaround… Or send someone in with bolt cutters for broken locks.

We appreciated the lengths to which The Hour goes to make sure players succeed if they correctly solve clues. However, equipment workarounds during play are a solution that shouldn’t be necessary.

Players only get one chance to enjoy these games… They need to work correctly. There’s no excuse for faulty set up, and there’s no excuse for faulty equipment. It should probably be more diligently checked.

When we exited the game, we brought the gamemaster two irreparably broken items, and another item that had malfunctioned but could be fixed after the game.

Should I play The Hour’s Jail Break?

This was the second prison break-themed escape game we’ve played. Like Trapology’s Drunk Tank, this game started strong, but petered off before the end. This might be the nature of the jail break genre: It is inherently more exciting to escape from a prison cell than it is to escape from the warden’s office. Games designed on this theme should be aware of this pitfall.

That said, Jail Break offered some really fun moments. It had a thrilling beginning of the type that will either be your cup of tea, or won’t be. If you like this type of thrill, I recommend giving it a go.

Jail Break was one of The Hour’s first creations, and it’s a strong one as far as early attempts go. They know this, and they are already evolving with the industry to elevate their future games.

Book your hour with The Hour’s Jail Break, and tell them the Room Escape Artist sent you.