Escapology Austin – Assassination Express [Review]

Whistle stop

Location:  Round Rock, Texas

Date Played: February 1, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Assassination Express is unique to Escapology in Austin, TX. It is their version of the popular Escapology game Budapest Express, available at many other franchises.

In-game: A vase with roses, two wine glasses, and a bottle on a table before a window with a snow storm beyond it.

Escapology Austin created a beautiful and detailed dining car to stage this game. It was a ton of fun to explore and puzzle through. Although the aesthetics diminished in the second act, Assassination Express hurtled towards an explosive conclusion.

If you’re in Austin, we recommend Assassination Express for puzzlers and scenery aficionados alike. This would be a great first game for escape room newbies. While it won’t offer experienced players anything extraordinary, it’s still a fun playthrough with some lovely details.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • The introduction
  • The gorgeous train car
  • Solid puzzles

Story

We were transported to a train traversing Minnesota in 1932. Franklin D. Roosevelt was aboard on his presidential campaign… and someone trying to disrupt history had planted a bomb. We had to stop the bomb and ensure the proper flow of the time stream.

In-game: Red and gold curtains covering the wood walls and a window with a snow storm.

Setting

We entered into a beautiful old train car with wood trim, velvet curtains, and a snow squall happening outside. It was a visually striking set, especially at first glance.

In my experience, Escapology games usually have an elegant first room, and then the level of detail, square footage, and visual appeal drop off with subsequent rooms. That was true of Assassination Express. The second act’s set design wasn’t on the same level as the first.

Gameplay

Escapology Austin’s Assassination Express was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ As time travelers, our experience started with getting to Minnesota in 1932. We weren’t prepared for the wild ride that is time travel. It was pretty great.

➕ The train looked beautiful. We loved the decor in the dining car. Escapology’s attention to detail created the world for this train trip.

➖ The second act didn’t feel as rich or detailed as the first. It also felt cramped. We lost some sense of the staging that we’d felt early on.

➕ The puzzles were solid, satisfying solves. They included both locks and more technology-driven triggers. Both worked well in the experience.

➖ Although the puzzles worked well, at times we struggled with game flow. It wasn’t always clear which puzzles were available to solve at any given time.

➖ We encountered a search-focused puzzle that was more frustrating than fun.

Assassination Express had a satisfying culminating solve.

Escapology Austin's steampunk lobby filled with large leather couches and ottomans.

➕ Escapology has some of the nicest lobbies in the business. Escapology Austin was no exception.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Escapology has a comfortable, spacious lobby.

Book your hour with Escapology Austin’s Assassination Express, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escapology Austin comped our tickets for this game.

Project Panic – End of the Line [Review]

Tickets please.

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 2, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

As a New Yorker, Project Panic’s End of the Line is kind of what I think non-New Yorkers think New York is: a subway with criminal gangs ruling everything.

In-game: An authentic turn style before a subway car.

End of the Line captured the subway aesthetic. It was a fun set to explore. While we enjoyed many of the puzzles, we wished Project Panic had instilled them with more narrative and purpose.

End of the Line was a puzzle-forward escape room within an exciting set. If this sounds like your kind of ride, check it out next time you’re in Austin.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Fun set
  • Interesting puzzles

Story

As investigators for the subway agency, we had been dispatched to look into rumors that a notorious gang was using the old station and lines as a hideout.

Setting

End of the Line was Project Panic’s take on a subway escape game. We entered through a turnstile, puzzled on the subway platform, and worked our way through a train car.

The environments were all reasonably convincing and hit enough of the right notes to feel pretty great.

In-game: A subway platform with a train.

Gameplay

Project Panic’s End of the Line was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ End of the Line flowed well. The puzzles progressed, taking us from one gamespace to the next.

➖ At times, the puzzles bottlenecked, with nothing for other players to do but wait for their teammates to complete something… at least there were seats on the subway.

➕ The gamespaces were interesting and generally well designed. We were excited to step into each new gamespace and we enjoyed the various subway props.

➖ A big generator switch that didn’t trigger anything was a missed opportunity.

➕ / ➖ We enjoyed most of the puzzles. They were thematic and made use of the decor and the props. They weren’t connected to each other, however, and didn’t help us feel a narrative.

➖ The mission switched in the middle of the experience… but we didn’t notice. We would have moved along solving puzzles if our gamemaster hadn’t interrupted to deliver the story notes. While we appreciate this choice in game design, the mission switch needed to be more readily apparent.

➖/➕ The final puzzle didn’t make sense in the context of the experience. Although it was a good puzzle and made use of a fun prop, it also didn’t feel like a finale.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a tiny parking lot next to Project Panic, but that is for the adjacent business. Project Panic’s parking lot is around the back. It’s probably best to check with Project Panic to make sure you’ve found the correct place to park.
  • Project Panic and Austin Panic Room are two locations for the same company.

Book your hour with Project Panic’s End of the Line, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Project Panic comped our tickets for this game.

Mindspark Escape Games – Terminal [Review]

Derailed

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 2, 2019

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $39.95 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A] Push To Exit

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Mindspark Escape Games can build phenomenal sets and amazing moments.

The first half of The Terminal was exciting and fresh, with an aesthetic that felt as cool to play within as it looked.

In the second half, however, The Terminal chugged along slowly. The set was uninspired, the gameplay dragged, and the conclusion was unsatisfying.

The rails are laid. With a few changes, Mindspark Escape Games could easily turn this train around.

Although the wow factor wasn’t sustained and the gameplay became tedious and cumbersome, we recommend The Terminal for players in Austin who are interested in sets, engineering, and thrills. That first half was quite a ride.

In-game: A weathered and damaged subway car.
Image via Mindspark Escape Games

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • The train car. Wow.
  • Memorable moments.

Story

Our subway car had abruptly derailed and crashed into an abandoned station. As we searched for a way out, we happened upon evidence of a global criminal conspiracy.

Setting

Terminal opened up big, with a detailed rundown subway car that looked and felt fantastic (except for having more luggage than one would expect to find in a subway). This set was gorgeous and memorable.

Unfortunately, the late-game set, which was where we spent a lot of our time, was a significant step down from the initial amazingness that Mindspark Escape Games introduced us to. We entered through greatness, and concluded in a generic, nondescript basement-like space.

In-game: In-game: A weathered and damaged subway car.
Image via Mindspark Escape Games

Gameplay

Mindspark Escape Games’ Terminal was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, puzzling, and parsing clues from red herrings.

Analysis

➕ Our escape room started aboard a moving train. It looked great. We felt like we were on an adventure. It was outstanding.

➕ Mindspark Escape Games knows how to deliver epic moments. The train wasn’t the only memorable reveal in Terminal.

➕ We enjoyed many of the puzzles in the first half of Terminal. These puzzles used the space and props in interesting ways.

➖ The gameplay derailed in the second half of the experience. The puzzles were tedious. One puzzle required extensive calculation with no methods for self-check along the way. We ended up repeatedly calculating each part to find minor errors long after we’d solved the conceptual puzzle. Another puzzle was only partially clued.

➖ The later half of Terminal was riddled with red herrings. As experienced players, we mostly avoided these, but newer players will be lost in a sea of information with no way to determine what’s relevant.

➖ Why did we happen upon evidence of a global criminal conspiracy… in a little back room full of wall scrawling and papers? Why couldn’t we have puzzled through an adventure aboard the train or in the spacious and interesting train station?

➖ Terminal lacked a climactic ending. In fact, it lacked an ending all together. Nothing opened, revealed, or otherwise changed to signal that we’d won this game.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Let your gamemaster know if you struggle with motion or have balance issues.

Book your hour with Mindspark Escape Games’ Terminal, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Mindspark Escape Games comped our tickets for this game.

Boomtown Escape Games – The Saloon [Review]

I was told there’d be smores.

Location:  Georgetown, Texas

Date Played: February 1, 2019

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

Duration: 48 minutes

Price: $25 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Saloon placed traditional lock-and-key escape room puzzles in an unconventional set up.

Come for the puzzles, stay for the gamemastering. If you’re looking for straightforward puzzle-play, know that The Saloon is just as much about interacting with your in-character gamemaster as it is about solving puzzles. Embrace the interaction to get the most out of this escape room.

If you’re in Austin and you like puzzle-focused escape rooms, but want to see a twist on that standard, head over to Georgetown for The Saloon.

In-game: A bar top in a wooden room surrounded locked boxes.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
  • People looking for an experience that’s quirky and cute

Why play?

  • The gamemastering
  • The vibe

Story

While traveling along the Chisholm Trail, we had stopped in a local saloon for a drink. It turned out that we were visiting a dry county and the owner of the establishment had grown mighty lonely… so she had hired a local blacksmith to create a series of puzzles to ensnare patrons in the saloon and force them to keep her company.

In-game: a wooren room with a small card table.

Setting

The Saloon’s set was mostly wood, which gave it a unique look, even if nothing about the gamespace was particularly fancy. It was simple, effective, and on-theme without any bells or whistles.

In-game: A few crates and a basket.

Gameplay

Boomtown Escape Games’ The Saloon was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and interacting with the in-character gamemaster.

Analysis

➕ Our gamemaster was a character in our experience. She was phenomenal. Her energy made this experience more than just a collection of puzzles.

➕ We loved the unique story and set up for this escape room.

➕ The wooden saloon aesthetic worked well. The lock-focused gameplay made sense in the narrative. (Boomtown Escapes could replace the more modern locks with period-esque locks to sell the story.)

➖ Some of the puzzle components were too small for the scale of the gamespace. Better integration of the puzzle’s components into the props would have been an improvement over the many small sheets of paper that held much of the game’s content.

In-game: An ornate covering over the fluorescent light.

➕ The puzzles offered variety in type and difficulty. They were traditional in style, but still offered challenge.

➖ One challenging puzzle seemed unsolvable without requesting a hint or substantial time for trial and error. We burned a lot of time before realizing that we didn’t have enough information.

➖ The gameplay was level. The Saloon lacked a big reveal or otherwise memorable team moment.

➕ The saloon owner was just a bit sneaky. We liked this about her. She made us think a little differently, in terms of escape room gameplay.

➕ Boomtown Escape Games had some lobby mini escape games that were delightful. We played The Loot and truly enjoyed it.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is street metered parking.
  • Georgetown has an adorable town square with lots of shops and restaurants. Boomtown Escape Games offers recommendations.
  • Boomtown Escape Games offers portable / lobby games. We enjoyed The Loot, a 15-minute add-on experience.
  • Embrace the in-character gamemastering to get the most out of your experience.

Book your hour with Boomtown Escape Games’ The Saloon, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Boomtown Escape Games comped our tickets for this game.

Maze Rooms Austin – The Shed [Review]

Dinner & puzzles

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 2, 2019

Team size: 2-4; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $45 per player for teams of 2 or $30 per player for teams of 3-4

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A] Push To Exit

Physical Restraints: [B] Mechanical Release

REA Reaction

The Shed was an intense escape room for a small, trusting, and communicative team. Chained to the walls (with safety releases) and each able to access only a corner of the small space, we had to work together to escape this serial killer’s lair.

The Shed lacked some essential clue structure. Maze Room knows this, and has worked to mitigate the issue, but they have a ways to go before the gameplay will truly flow.

These frustrations aside, The Shed was unique and exhilarating. If you’re looking for a dramatic and challenging small-team escape room in Austin, we recommend this dinner date.

In-gameA wall with chains a digital display and a handprint in a gritty murder basement.
Image via Maze Rooms Austin

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
  • People who are comfortable with physical restraints and a dark, unnerving environment

Why play?

  • Unique staging
  • Intense environment
  • Forced self-reliance
  • Interesting puzzles

Story

Good News: Our new friend had invited us over for dinner.

Bad News: We were unaware that our new friend was referred to as “Austin’s Cannibal” by local police.

In-game: a brick wall with electrical boxes and pipes.
Image via Maze Rooms Austin

Setting

The Shed fell comfortably into the category of escape rooms that we’ve taken to calling the “murder basement.” While it was physically small, it was convincing without being too gory.

Each of 4 players was shackled by the wrists (with a simple mechanical safety release) to a different corner of a small room with a central pillar. The environment was grim, detailed, and foreboding.

In-game: a menacing hooded man in a workshop.
Image via Maze Rooms Austin

Gameplay

Maze Rooms Austin’s The Shed was an atypical escape room with a high level of difficulty.

It was atypical because each player was handcuffed to a different corner of the room for most of the experience. We had to solve the puzzles without moving around in the space.

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

In-game: a brick wall with electrical boxes and pipes.
Image via Maze Rooms Austin

Analysis

➕ We played most of The Shed with both wrists chained to the wall. These were the most comfortable handcuffs we’ve ever been strapped into. We were free to maneuver without causing any scraping or bruising to our wrists. Our handcuffs were attached to the walls by a length of chain and safety clips. The setup was great.

➕ The opening sequence of The Shed worked beautifully. It was hard to get started while chained to a wall and search capacity was limited, but The Shed had an onramp that taught us how to play within its confines.

➖ We had a lot of props in play at any given time. It could be overwhelming to ascertain what was immediately relevant and it was challenging to keep everything we might need in reach. It was also difficult to stay organized with all of the props while restrained.

➕ The Shed did a lot with a small gamespace. It looked great in a dark and creepy way. It hid its secrets well.

➖ When we triggered a solve, we rarely knew what we’d opened. Maze Rooms could add stronger lighting and sound clues to draw players’ attention to the reveals. Providing this immediate reward for any solves would have allowed us to focus on the puzzles rather than searching.

➖ The clue structure didn’t quite support the gameplay. Maze Rooms has mitigated this by adding a runbook. While we appreciated that additional cluing, it was annoying to spend most of the game with my head in a notebook. This was especially frustrating given the dim lighting and that both my hands and any flashlights were restricted by a length of chain.

➕ The gameplay emphasized communication. We couldn’t explore, or even see the entire game. We needed to communicate well and trust our teammates.

➕ Our favorite moments involved multiple players coordinating information and actions to solve puzzles.

➖ When we eventually freed ourselves from the restraints, we had access to new spaces… that our teammates knew intimately. We had to pause to share knowledge or waste time re-exploring known spaces.

➕ The penultimate sequence came together well with a surprising reveal and a plot twist.

➕/➖ The Shed required each player to rely on their teammates and hold their own. If one individual couldn’t find/ solve/ interact with an element, there was only so much the other teammates could do to help. We mostly found this exhilarating. Sometimes it made the game stall for a bit too long. Your choice of teammates will significantly impact your experience in The Shed.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Accessibility: Height Requirement of 55 inches (4’5”ft) or taller
  • You can play this game with 2 – 4 people. You cannot add additional people. 4 people is the optimal number.
  • Left-handed players may find this game more challenging than right-handed ones will.

Book your hour with Maze Rooms Austin’s The Shed, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Maze Rooms Austin comped our tickets for this game.

Escape Haus – Forensics Classroom [Review]

Killer class.

Location:  New Braunfels, Texas

Date Played: February 3, 2019

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 5-8

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

In Forensics Classroom we solved more puzzles and opened more locks than in almost any other escape room we’ve played to date. This was a puzzle frenzy.

In-game: A classroom with desks, lockers, bulletin boards, and cubbies.

The varied and approachable puzzles solved cleanly and flowed well from one lock to the next. They were generally thematic, but didn’t convey narrative. Occasionally, they felt a bit too process-y for our liking in a timed game.

If you enjoy puzzles, Forensics Classroom would be an amazing way to spend an hour, especially if you’re on the road from San Antonio to Austin, or spending time in either city. If puzzles aren’t your calling, you’ll probably want to cut this class.

Who is this for?

  • Large groups
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Adorable theming
  • Volume of puzzles

Story

With Miss Enigma’s forensics class all but complete, we had 60 minutes to complete her final examination and prove the ability of our class to collaborate and solve problems under pressure.

In-game: Lockers, bag hangers, and a map of the USA in a classroom.

Setting

Forensics Classroom was a revamp of Escape Haus’ earlier Kid’s Classroom.

Kid’s Classroom was a bright and convincing school setting. Forensics Classroom was essentially the same space with a few of the brighter elements swapped out and a completely new set of puzzles.

In-game: A classroom with bulletin boards, locks, a human skeleton model, and an overhead projector.

Gameplay

Escape Haus’ Forensics Classroom was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

The difficulty was mainly due to the high volume of puzzle content.

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

Analysis

➕ Forensics Classroom was well themed. From the child-sized desks to the cubbies, it was an elementary-esque classroom. The decor and puzzles leaned into forensics. This strange hybrid theme totally worked… even if the desks seemed a bit small for forensics students.

➕ Forensics Classroom was jam-packed with puzzles. Over all, they were approachable and enjoyable.

❓ While many of the puzzles were aha solves, we stumbled upon a few long process puzzles that ate a lot of time. Feelings on this will vary from player to player.

➕ We especially enjoyed puzzles that turned classroom objects into interesting puzzles.

➖ We didn’t get a sense of adventure from this escape room. It was a one-note, puzzle-solving marathon. We would have liked to unlock a grand reveal or surprising moment.

➕/➖ Escape Haus designed multiple puzzle paths into this escape room. Once we unlocked a path, we followed it sequentially from lock to lock. Given the volume of puzzles and locks in the game, this structure was helpful. We always knew where to input a solution. That said, we found it difficult to open a new puzzle path. We wasted a lot of time early on before we understood that we could simultaneously open multiple puzzle paths.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Bring a large team.
  • Try to open multiple puzzle paths as quickly as possible so that you can parallel puzzle throughout the hour.

Book your hour with Escape Haus’ Forensics Classroom, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escape Haus comped our tickets for this game.

Lockout Austin – CSI: Murder at the Asylum [Review]

Who are you? Who, who, who, who?

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 2, 2019

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27.50 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

In CSI: Murder at the Asylum, Lockout Austin did the crime solver genre of escape room justice.

CSI: Murder at the Asylum was a puzzler’s escape room. It was organized and focused. It combined standard escape room-style puzzles with a larger deduction-based narrative.

Although the setting wasn’t particularly interesting, with their in-character gamemaster, Lockout Austin built just a bit more world around the experience.

Play CSI: Murder at the Asylum for the puzzles and you’ll get just a bit more than that from it. If you’re in Austin, we recommend you stop by to solve this crime.

In-game: A nesting doll sitting on a bookcase.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Armchair detectives
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • To solve the crime!
  • Interesting puzzles

Story

There was a murder at Pinnhurst Asylum and for unexplained reasons, the feds wanted to take over the investigation. We had to solve the mystery before they arrived at the scene.

In-game: A wall with 10 profiles of active suspects.

Setting

CSI: Murder at the Asylum was set in a fairly bland office-like environment for the first act and a more interesting asylum in the second act.

While the second half was a little more visually interesting, the set was merely adequate, serving as a container for the puzzles and gameplay, which were the real reason to play this game.

In-game: A big stuffed teddy bear sitting on a chair.

Gameplay

Lockout Austin’s CSI: Murder at the Asylum was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty and a twist. In the first act, we had to solve a crime by discovering alibis and narrowing our list of suspects.

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

In-game: A steel wall for eliminated suspects.

Analysis

➕ Lockout Austin’s gamemasters are characters in their experiences. In CSI: Murder at the Asylum, we didn’t just start puzzling when the door closed. This added intrigue and fun.

➖ CSI: Murder at the Asylum had a dull, sterile set. While appropriate, the set wasn’t invigorating.

➕ The investigation made sense. We searched for alibis to verify innocence. Any fact we learned could apply to one or more suspects, which felt a bit more realistic than what we’ve experience in many crime-scene deduction games.

➕ The puzzles flowed well and were satisfying solves. They became increasingly more challenging as the game progressed, which worked well.

➕ The gameplay was organized. The locks were labeled. The suspects were neatly presented and when we eliminated them, it was clear where to put their pages. No clutter. We could solve with incredible focus.

➖ It was easy to miss the story while focused on solving puzzles. For those paying attention to the story, the ending didn’t really land.

 CSI: Murder at the Asylum missed an opportunity for an exhilarating and memorable moment. They set it up, but it came too soon and lacked the necessary sound or lighting effects to stop all players in their tracks.

➕Lockout Austin repurposed one escape room cliché for a legit solve. It worked really well.

Tips For Visiting

  • Lockout Austin had many food options nearby.
  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Lockout Austin’s CSI: Murder at the Asylum, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Lockout Austin comped our tickets for this game.

Escape Hour Austin – Call of the Ancient [Review]

[At the time of this review, Escape Hour Austin was called 15 Locks.]

The Call of Cthulhu

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 1, 2019

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $33 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Call of the Ancient, a game rooted in the lore of H.P. Lovecraft and centered around the rise of the elder god Cthulhu, was an especially challenging escape room with an optional roleplay element and a “sanity” game mechanic.

If a player lost all of their sanity points, then there were unknown consequences. And we lost sanity… frequently. This completely shifted how we played the game. This was approximately our 690th escape game… so it’s saying a lot that Call of the Ancient made us immediately shift our approach to gameplay.

In-game: a cryptex an unrolled scroll, a locked box and an idol.
Image via 15 Locks

Looking back, I found myself wishing that one or two puzzles were a little clearer, and that the sanity system was more refined. I wanted to feel more consequence.

In true Lovecraft fashion, Call of the Ancient was difficult, with some deliberately frustrating puzzles. This was brilliantly in-narrative and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

This was a really interesting game for Lovecraft fans and puzzle nerds. It was challenging and steeped in its source material. If that sounds like you, then this is a must-play. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, this game might drive you to madness. 15 Locks really went crazy on this one.

Who is this for?

  • The Lovecraft-familiar
  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
  • People looking for something challenging and different

Why play?

  • Unusual gameplay that forced us to change the entire way we approach playing escape rooms
  • Optional roleplaying opportunity
  • Challenging puzzles
  • Connection to the source material

Story

A secret society had summoned a great evil. They had arrogantly believed that they could control it and harness its power for their own gain… but they were wrong.

We had to investigate the ritual that they had conducted and determine how to contain the menace that they had released.

In-game: A bookcase filled with old books and trinkets.
Image via 15 Locks

Setting

Call of the Ancient was set in a study-like room with a decidedly creepy Lovecraftian feel.

15 Locks included a beautiful animated painting and an animated portrait. The former served as an elaborate game clock, the latter as the hint system. These embellishments added a ton of atmosphere.

In-game: A faux rotary phone on a desk in an old study.
Image via 15 Locks

Gameplay

15 Locks’ Call of the Ancient was an unusual escape room with a high level of difficulty.

Call of The Ancient introduced character cards, special abilities unique to each character, and “sanity points.” If a player lost all of their sanity, then they triggered a new, adverse effect within the game. The fear of losing sanity was real. It quickly shifted how we approached playing.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, unraveling complex problems, and making connections.

In-game: an old study with a bookcase, phonograph, and a mesmerizing clock.
Image via 15 Locks

Analysis

➕ The animated clock and hint system were fantastic.

➕/➖ The puzzles in Call of the Ancient were intense and in a few instances, a bit maddening. They felt at home in a Lovecraft game, which was amazing. For those who didn’t like or appreciate this stylistic choice, however, it was a bit maddening.

➕ There were some really unusual interactions that completely belonged within this strange, chaotic world.

➖ We were pretty sure that one puzzle had an incorrect solution.

➕ The sanity system was really cool. All sorts of normal escape room actions could result in a loss of sanity. This quickly changed the way that we approached puzzling, which was so damn amazing.

➖ The sanity system functioned on the honor system. If a player didn’t want to go insane, they could simply pretend that they hadn’t triggered a sanity loss. On the one hand, this meant that an individual player could have whatever experience they desired. On the other hand, it meant that a big portion of the game could be essentially ignored, and one player’s decision did impact everyone else’s experience. It was also possible for players to honorably follow their own interpretation of portions of the sanity game. The mechanics weren’t entirely clear.

➖ Partway through the game, I decided to try to go insane while following the rules. There were too many powers at play, however, that allowed my teammates to “save” me. I wish that I could have fairly triggered insanity; it would have been a jolly good time… for me.

➕/➖ The character cards were an interesting addition. The characters’ powers injected another dynamic to the game. Unfortunately, nearly all of the powers were focused on preserving sanity points. This turned the entire power section of the game into a sanity preservation side-game.

➖ There was variation in LED color in the final puzzle, which lead to a fair amount of unnecessary confusion.

➖ We didn’t have enough light. This was maddening… and maybe rightly so… but we much preferred that feeling to come for the game itself.

➕ 15 Locks used space in crazy ways.

➖ The initial spatial reveal was clunky. We loved the concept, but the execution needed more work.

➕ The environment looked and felt designed. 15 Locks chose appropriate locks, which added a lot to the aesthetic.

Call of the Ancient rewarded familiarity with Cthulhu and Lovecraft in a profound way. If those names mean nothing to you before you enter this game, you’re missing out on a significant chunk of the experience.

➕ The conclusion was brilliant and perfectly fit the narrative.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • This is a challenging game. Bring a team that is ready for it.
  • At least one person will have to crawl.

Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Call of the Ancient, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 15 Locks comped our tickets for this game.

Escape Haus – Backstage at the Magic Show [Review]

For my next trick…

Location: New Braunfels, TX

Date played: January 8, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket, $20 per ticket if booking for 5 or more players

Story & setting

After landing our dream job as magician’s assistants, we had unfortunately locked ourselves in the prop room. We had to escape with enough time to prepare for the show.

Backstage at the Magic Show’s set was a hodgepodge of performance magic-related items. The centerpiece was the “saw the lady in half” prop, an object that I had never actually touched before. This one was more be-glittered than I was expecting.

In game - the "saw the lady in half" prop sits front and center. Many other magic show props are displayed in the background.

The set made a good first impression, but as the game wore on, it felt a little shallow.

Puzzles

The puzzling in Backstage at the Magic Show was a bit choppy. While some elements of the game had excellent nuance and attention to detail, other elements felt bewilderingly forgotten.

Standouts

Escape Haus created simple yet effective blacklight interaction.

Everything in the game pulled on the theme and related props.

Shortcomings

The puzzles felt disconnected from the story and weren’t memorable.

The set made a great first impression, but it didn’t go anywhere.

There were far too many locked boxes with similar digit structures. It became tedious constantly trying the same combinations over and over until we found the correct lock.

Should I play Escape Haus’ Backstage at the Magic Show?

From the set to the puzzles, I wanted more magic.

Backstage at the Magic Show was a functional game. It didn’t have much that was absolutely wrong with it, but it also didn’t have anything that was especially right either. We struggled to find a favorite moment because so much of the game felt so similar.

If you’ve played all that Escape Haus has to offer and need a puzzle fix, you could do worse, but if there’s anything else to play at Escape Haus, I’d book it instead.

Book your hour with Escape Haus’ Backstage at the Magic Show, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Haus comped our tickets for this game.

Escape Hour Austin – Escape the Manor [Review]

[At the time of this review, Escape Hour Austin was called 15 Locks.]

Haunting darkness.

Location: Austin, TX

Date played: January 8, 2017

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Story & setting

Elrich, a polite and friendly ghost, had been cursed and trapped in his manor. We had to work our way through the darkness, armed with just a few flashlights, to free him from his imprisonment.

Set in a Victorian-esque office, Escape the Manor’s defining characteristic was darkness. It was mildly creepy, but not frightening or threatening. With 6 players, we found fewer light sources than we had teammates.

In-game: A dimly lit room with a large victorian desk.
Objects in image are better lit than in-game.

Puzzles

The greatest challenge we faced was lighting, particularly scavenging without it. The puzzling felt more like a secondary obstacle. That said, most of the puzzles were fun to work through… once we found them.

A fair amount of Escape the Manor was technology-driven, which is 15 Locks’ focus. Those interactions were the most satisfying parts of the game.

Standouts

The opening moments of the game were innovative.

The atmosphere worked well and accomplished its mission.

The tech was satisfying.

An in-character hinting system added ambiance and fun to the Escape the Manor.

Shortcomings

Lighting was a problem. Having to find our light sources, and then not having enough throughout the game, brought down the energy of the entire team. Players with lights felt like they were robbing others of a good time. Players without lights struggled to feel useful. In the end, it led to a lot of light exchanging which prevented anyone from achieving a solid flow state.

One particularly misleading puzzle looked like a logic puzzle, but was not. It seemed like a great opportunity to offer two different paths to a solution.

Should I play 15 Locks’ Escape the Manor?

Escape the Manor nailed so much. The setup and opening of the game, in particular, were exceptional.

The trouble with Escape the Manor was that it became pretty player-unfriendly at times, especially with 6 people in the room. I cannot even imagine how frustrated we would have been at the game’s ticket capacity of 8.

Escape the Manor was at its best when it leaned on technology-driven puzzling and the atmosphere created by the set. I think it would have been incredible if the lighting challenges were greatly reduced and another serious puzzle or two were introduced.

In its current state, I recommend it to beginners and experienced players alike… so long as the team is small. There’s a smart game in Escape the Manor, but it cannot adequately support a large group.

Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Escape the Manor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: 15 Locks comped our tickets for this game.