Decode Ann Arbor – The Minerva Project [Review]

SASS

Location:  Ann Arbor, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: 3-15; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Minerva Project was a brilliant game, especially considering that it’s been around for a few years. Decode Ann Arbor packed in a complete narrative (with good structure), strong puzzles, and appropriate technology. They built it all around an engaging and entertaining character in the form of the AI, Minerva.

In-game: A view of a 3D map of Detroit that is spun out of order.

A few elements of this game felt dated and stale. During our play-through there were components that were out of play because they were coming soon (which was disappointing). That said, this was a delightful game.

This game was one of our rare losses. I can confidently say that it was 100% our fault. We foolishly discarded an unused clue in a silly place.

There was a lot to love in The Minerva Project. If you’re in the area, we strongly recommend it. It isn’t as impressive as Decode’s latest game, The Aurora Society, but it’s well worth the time and money. If we had more time we would have eagerly played the second Minerva game as well.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Good storytelling
  • Plenty of well-designed puzzles

Story

We entered a research lab and met an adolescent artificial intelligence named Minerva. This sassy computer wanted to learn from us through a series of puzzley experiments.

In-game: a "MINERVA Project Access Badge" held up to a scanning station.

Setting

Like Decode Ann Arbor’s other facility in Ypsilanti (I love that name), this location was fully themed: in this instance, around the artificial intelligence experiments of the Minerva Project.

The experience began in the lobby as our in-character gamemaster introduced us to the AI that would oversee our experiment and learn from us. This setup was smart because it justified us entering a fairly traditional and aesthetically unremarkable escape room.

In-game: wide shot of the puzzle room with three set pieces in view.

Now just because the game began in a traditional setting does not mean that things remained old school. This is one of those instances where I’d love to say more, but the experience would be harmed if I did so.

Gameplay

Decode Ann Arbor’s The Minerva Project was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: Scanning and input station 1.

Analysis

➕ Minerva was the star of this escape room. Decode Ann Arbor developed a voice for this sassy AI, which remained integral to the experience from the first moments through the conclusion.

➕ The staff at Decode Ann Arbor interacted with Minerva skillfully, developing the narrative.

In-game: Closeup of a "Puzzle Room Door Lock" status indicator.

➕ The story had a beginning, middle, and end (win or lose). We especially enjoyed “the turn” which will likely surprise most teams.

➕ With Minerva, there were additional dynamics to navigate in the game world, beyond solving puzzles. When we had the opportunity to make a choice; it felt meaningful.

➕ The puzzles were varied and usually interactive. They were largely tangible, with buttony buttons and the like.

In-game: closeup of a 10 digit mechanical numberpad with green buttons.

➖ While many of the puzzles were interactive, we also encountered a few too many paper components. Sometimes these involved substantial reading, which we found frustrating… and one of these puzzles recurred in a much more elegant form in Decode Detroit’s more recent game, The Aurora Society.

➕ We enjoyed the local nod to Detroit’s music. Also, the music was great.

➕/➖ We interacted with puzzle stations through keypads. The UI on some stations was intuitive. On others, we wasted a lot of time not understanding how to properly work the mechanism, or how it interacted with a puzzle. We were thrown off by the inconsistency between devices that looked the same, but behaved differently.

➕/➖ Decode Ann Arbor was actively improving upon The Minerva Project. We encountered entire props and puzzles labeled “in development.” These were in the gamespace, but had no bearing on our gameplay. We respect Decode Ann Arbor for iterating; too few companies commit to upgrading in this way. Also, because the game was set in a research lab, they could justify devices that were in development. That said, these props took us out of the game, as we had to stop and comprehend “not in play.” Additionally, this created a weird sense of FOMO; they looked pretty cool. So, later players are just going to have cooler toys to play with.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Decode Ann Arbor’s The Minerva Project, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Decode Ann Arbor comped our tickets for this game.

Excape Games – Abandoned Ship [Review]

Escape the Kraken

Location:  Livonia, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Every once in a while we happen upon a company a few months too early. Seeing what Excape Games has in the works, I am pretty sure that they are in the process of transforming themselves from a solid escape room company into a real force in their region.

Check out Abandoned Ship if you’re in the area because it’s a fun, traditional game with some great elements, but keep an eye out for their new projects. It feels like Excape Games is on the brink of something special.

In-game: An interesting room with octopus tenticles reaching in through porthole windows.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Strong puzzles
  • It builds up well

Story

Our research expedition had successfully rediscovered the lost submarine, the S.S. Odyssey. As we boarded it and attempted to surface the boat, it sustained damage. We had to work under pressure to bring the submarine back to sea level, saving it and ourselves.

In-game: a large steampunk gun mounted to the wall.

Setting

Abandoned Ship opened in a bland silver and gray room. It wasn’t the greatest first impression. Excape Games made it clear to us that they had near-future plans to greatly improve this space and I believe them.

In-game: A plain, silver walled room, with an interesting riveted door and a large white panel labeled "First Aid"

With each subsequent space, the Abandoned Ship became more beautiful and compelling. The overwhelming majority of the experience took place in these exciting locations.

In-game: a weathered space with tubes and controls.

Gameplay

Excape Games’ Abandoned Ship was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: crank siren hint system.
This was a great way to call for a hint.

Analysis

➕ Abandoned Ship had an interesting assembly puzzle. This sequence had subtle cluing that worked impeccably. It was brilliant.

➖ In other places, there was opportunity to mind the details: a mount here, consistency in cluing there.

➕ The puzzles generally flowed well and delivered satisfying solves. 

➖ While most of the game was well clued, we found one needlessly unclued search puzzle to be a frustrating time sink. Additionally, there were too many clues written on laminated paper that could have been more fully integrated into the set and the world.

➕ The set design ramped up over the course of the game. With each new space we entered, the gamespace was more intriguing. We always enjoy a good steampunk aesthetic.

➖ The first room looked sparse. While this didn’t detract from the gameplay, the initial scene was jarringly under designed.

➕ We always appreciate an unusual door. This vessel didn’t disappoint.

➕/➖ Abandoned Ship had a really cool final set, but it lacked an impactful finale.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Excape Games’ Abandoned Ship, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Excape Games comped our tickets for this game.

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms – The Houdini Trap [Review]

A trap Houdini never escaped

Location:  Ferndale, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $20 per player Sunday – Thursday; $24 per player Friday – Saturday

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Houdini Trap told a unique story in an unusual and beautiful space. The puzzles and props were solid and engaging.

In-game: Glowing red lights against an art deco wall about the exit door.

There were a few nooks that felt underdeveloped, and a handful of puzzles that could have benefited from additional refinement.

Nevertheless, this was a truly delightful game. If you’re in the area, check out The Houdini Trap; it was doing some magical things.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • An elegant set
  • Good thematic puzzles
  • Fifth Wall is a fully themed escape room establishment
  • An interesting take on the Houdini escape room genre
  • The story pulls from Houdini and Detroit history

Story

We entered a trap designed specifically for Harry Houdini by a mysterious individual. Sadly, history’s most famous escape artist passed away in Detroit’s Grace Hospital before he’d had a chance to take on the seemingly impossible challenge room.

Almost a century later, The Houdini Trap was rediscovered and we were given the opportunity to explore the room that Harry Houdini had never escaped.

In-game: a poster advertising Houdini's "The Grim Game."

Setting

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms’ facility was fully themed around a secret society. (This made it 1 of 3 fully themed facilities that we found outside of Detroit).

The Houdini Trap was a pretty space. Honestly, I don’t think my photos fully captured it.

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms built the space with an art deco aesthetic that had a slight otherworldly vibe.

Many of the interactions and props were built from metal and were incredibly solid.

In-game: Closeup of a gearbox.

Gameplay

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms’ The Houdini Trap was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: Wide angle shot of the room, a water torture chamber in the middle of it.

Analysis

➕ The Houdini Trap was designed in an art deco style. We were immediately captivated by the details in the design.

In-game: A beautiful and ornate art deco wall.

➕ The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms introduced The Houdini Trap with an entertaining video with great art. It kept our attention despite being a tad lengthy.

➕ The puzzles were solid, but the set-based interactions were phenomenal. As beautiful as the set was to inhabit, it was that much more exciting to manipulate.

In-game: Closeup of a control panel with a few dials.

➕/ ➖ One interaction in particular worked as an in-game metaphor for the larger theme. It was unique, conceptually and physically. That said, the interaction needed additional refinement, in both cluing and mechanism.

➖ We were bogged down by substantial reading in The Houdini Trap. Much of the story was told rather than felt. Reading included printed materials, laminated paper, and a journal that, while not quite a runbook, sometimes behaved a bit like one. We also encountered a handwritten clue that caused confusion.

In-game: A water torture chamber hanging from the ceiling.

➖ The audio could be hard to understand, which was frustrating, as it was crucial to one segment.

➕ Although The Houdini Trap flowed linearly, The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms gated (and labeled) puzzles such that large teams could get a jump on later puzzles early without wasting time or breaking sequence.

➖ One nook of this otherwise impeccable space was left underdesigned, which was disappointing.

➕ We adored the timekeeping mechanism in The Houdini Trap. As time rolled forward, intensity mounted. We appreciated that the game displayed our progress as well as the time.

In-game: A tube that carries balls representing the timer.
The game timer: Every 10 minutes a ball fell through this contraption.

Tips For Visiting

  • They have a parking lot.

Book your hour with The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms’ The Houdini Trap, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

Clueless Escape Rooms – Save Tony [Review]

An IV drip of puzzles

Location:  Ann Arbor, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Save Tony was a traditional puzzle-driven escape room with a familiar, but unusual premise. It was bright, inviting, and family-friendly. We needed to find a cure… but it wasn’t for the zombie virus!

With interesting and diverse puzzles that involved a group and solved cleanly, Save Tony flowed well.

In-game: a skeleton hanging and looking into the camera.

Save Tony wasn’t flashy, but the puzzle-play was fun. This is the type of game design that made us fall in love with escape rooms.

While it won’t present anything spectacular to experienced players, if you enjoy escape rooms for the puzzles, and you find yourself in Ann Arbor, you’ll enjoy giving poor Tony 60 minutes of your time.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Lots of engaging puzzles
  • A good looking doctor’s office set
  • A unique premise

Story

A patient had been brought in unconscious with an apparent snakebite. We had to determine which type of snake had bitten him and the proper course of treatment before time – and he – expired.

No snakes (real or plastic) appear in this game.

In-game: A wide angle shot of the medical office. It looks like a doctor's office.

Setting

Save Tony took place in a large, while-walled doctor’s office, with white cabinets and various medical props. Tony lay unconscious on the exam table. It wasn’t the most exciting space, but it was true to the theme. It was also an exceptionally bright gamespace in an industry with far too many dim ones.

Additionally, Clueless Escape Rooms had 2 copies of this game, so competitive teams could race against one another.

In-game: closeup of the "Exam Room 2" sign.
Exam Room 1 was next door.

Gameplay

Clueless Escape Rooms’ Save Tony was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ We loved the premise. In our escape room careers, we’ve saved a lot of unfortunate souls from gruesome demises. This was our first snake bite intervention.

➕ Save Tony looked appropriately sterile, with white walls, medical cabinets, and doctor-y implements. That said, neither Tony or the gamespace looked entirely authentic. We could buy into the fiction, all the while understanding it was a playful, family-friendly, snake-bite situation.

➕ Clueless Escape Rooms created a variety of themed puzzles that worked well within the gamespace and made use of physical props. We especially enjoyed their take on sutures and gifts brought by well-wishers.

➖ One device failed to balance properly. There are more reliable ways to implement this type of tool.

➖ One puzzle showed significant wear, which detracted from solving it.

Save Tony was designed to support a larger group of beginner players. Many of the puzzles could incorporate multiple people piecing things together. That said, for experienced players, nothing required an army.

➖ Because there were a lot of locks in this escape room, we occasionally found ourselves trying a single combination in multiple places. Varying the digit structure more would prevent this from stymieing momentum.

➕/➖ Save Tony culminated in a logic puzzle, which was entirely appropriate for the scenario. While we appreciate that this was set up so as not to sink the muggles and instead to send most teams out of the hospital on a high note, as puzzlers we would have liked a meatier challenge, especially since we’d been building to this from the opening moments of the game. Your mileage may vary.

Save Tony played smoothly from start to finish. It was a traditional puzzle-forward escape room, primarily gated with locks. This was the type of escape room that made us enjoy this genre of entertainment.

➕ The final interaction was cute and clever.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Clueless Escape Rooms has two copies of Save Tony. If you have a lot of people, you could play head to head.

Book your hour with Clueless Escape Rooms’ Save Tony, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Clueless Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

Michigan Escape Room – Infirmary [Review]

Photogenic

Location:  Clinton Township, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Infirmary was a fantastic escape game.

The puzzles were great, with many novel interactions.

The set looked incredible, and our only real knock against it was that we wished we had a little more light in one space.

The narrative had some intense and eerie twists, without turning into a horror experience. The one thing holding this game back was that there was room for a lot more drama in the conclusion.

Michigan Escape Room’s Infirmary was a must-play if you’re anywhere near Detroit.

Post-game: David laying on an operating table, list looking into his eyes with a knife in her hand.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • A wonderfully creepy set filled with details
  • A great mix of puzzles

Story

We were investigative journalists attempting to shut down a cruel and unusual medical facility… but in order to tell our story, we needed to survive the ordeal.

In-game: A wide shot of the Infirmary. It's heavily weathered and worn.

Setting

I’m going to sum up Michigan Escape Room’s Infirmary in 2 words: beautifully dingy.

This rundown medical facility looked incredible. This was one of those games where I stopped playing a few times and just took it all in, touched all of the textures, and enjoyed the space. Michigan Escape Room has been at this for a long time and it was clear that they’d learned a thing or two about building escape room sets.

In-game: A partially illuminated overhead surgical light.

Gameplay

Michigan Escape Room’s Infirmary was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: A worn periodic table of elements hung from the wall.

Analysis

➕ Infirmary looked creepy, in a deliberately designed way. The set was consistently detailed, creating an eerie vibe.

In-game: 2 gross containers each with a human heart within.

➕ The puzzles were creative, diverse, and well integrated into the set and props. We especially enjoyed when the puzzles involved multiple people in a layered group solve. These were especially satisfying. Our favorite example created a high pressure situation.

➕ The interactions of the Infirmary gave feedback. This detail added to the ambiance and helped the gameplay flow smoothly.

In-game: Closeup of the varied wall textures. There is a lot of detail.
A lot of care went into every inch of this set.

➖ In a couple of instances, we were hampered by low lighting. There were opportunities for spotlighting, especially in the late game.

➕ It’s well known that we enjoy doors, but the Infirmary impressed us with a creative twist on door design.

➕/➖ Michigan Escape Room modified a common medical prop, making it perform escape room “magic” in a phenomenal reveal. While this part of the interaction was brilliantly executed, the rest of the puzzle seemed like an afterthought that could have looked more polished.

➕ Escape Room Michigan used technology to enliven Infirmary, pulling us further into the story, and providing necessary clue structure. This was captivating and well integrated.

➖ Infirmary lacked a climax. Once we found the evidence, we wanted a culmination of our story – an unexpected twist or a triumphant escape. The game had many badass moments. In comparison, the end fizzled.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Infirmary is at the Clinton Township location. Michigan Escape Room has another location in Washington Township.

Book your hour with Michigan Escape Room’s Infirmary, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Michigan Escape Room comped our tickets for this game.

Decode Ypsilanti – The Aurora Society [Review]

Not weather dependent

Location:  Ypsilanti, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: 3-15; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Aurora Society was a standout escape game in a market that far exceeded expectations.

The suburbs of Detroit were a delightful place to play escape rooms… and please don’t crack a joke about “Detroit being an escape room.” I’ve heard enough of those over the past few weeks to last me a lifetime.

Decode Ypsilanti struck a balance between adventure, story, puzzle, and technology that all came together into a cohesive world.

In-game: wide shot of the room, a strange game sits on a table in the middle of the room.

If there’s a Holy Grail of words used to describe escape games, “cohesive” might be it; Decode Ypsilanti clearly knows this.

We loved spending a day playing around Detroit and we truly encountered zero duds on the journey. (I’m sure they exist; we just chose wisely). That said, if you only have time to play one game, make it The Aurora Society.

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

  • Good storytelling in a fully themed facility
  • Entertaining puzzles
  • A beautiful set
  • Strong effects that served the story

Story

We arrived as potential new recruits for the magical and mysterious Aurora Society. We had to harness the power of the aurora borealis to earn our place among their membership.

A painting of an aurora.

Setting

As we entered the lobby of Decode Ypsilanti, we stepped into the world of The Aurora Society. We were greeted by in-character staff and addressed in the context of the world.

The hallways, games, and bathrooms were all in-world as well.

When we entered the game, the set was gorgeous. The woodwork, drapes, placards… everything felt like it was part of a cohesive magical world that existed long before we arrived and would continue long after we left.

In-game: A beautiful hourglass, a mape of council positions beyond it.

Gameplay

Decode Ypsilanti’s The Aurora Society was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: a beautiful set of balances containing dangling precious stones.

Analysis

➕ Decode’s Ypsilanti location was fully themed around The Aurora Society. The lobby, the game, and the new game that’s in the works were all set in the same world.

➕  The Aurora Society was warm and elegant. The set had its own aesthetic and felt like it had been there for a long time. All of the set pieces, props, and puzzles looked authentic, like they belonged within this world.

In-game: A collection of candle sticks on a table.

➕ The Aurora Society used a lot of technology, but the technology didn’t steal the show. Decode Ypsilanti integrated it nearly seamlessly into the experience so that it simply felt magical.

➖ In what we believe was an effort to hide anything out of place in the world, Decode Ypsilanti used a mundane construction material and it felt far too subtle for a world of magic.

➕ The gameplay flowed well. We were never wanting for items or things to do. When we solved something, we opened something else. We received in-game feedback to understand our forward progress. This built momentum.

➕ The puzzles fit the world.

➕/➖ We also encountered our favorite escape room Sudoku implementation to date. It was aesthetically beautiful and we had to stop and think to realize this architecture was built upon Sudoku. The downside was that this puzzle was way too similar to a lesser implementation at Decode Ypsilanti’s other location, Decode Ann Arbor.

➖ The Aurora Society lacked an onramp. It started with a challenging puzzle where more minds added complexity, yet there wasn’t anything else to work on.

➕ The hinting came from a beautifully presented character who added depth to the world.

➖ The final scene was dimly lit. While there was some payoff for the low lighting, we struggled to fully appreciate the gameplay in this segment.

➕ The folks from Decode Ypsilanti understand the importance of narrative structure. In The Aurora Society, this took place in its own scene. While the narrative arc may not have been surprising, this playful interlude was unexpected.

➕ Decode Ypsilanti was committed to the world of their game. Upon completion of our mission, they closed an open plot thread. This was an unnecessary detail that most escape room companies would ignore.

Tips For Visiting

  • We found metered parking on the street and in a nearby lot. You’ll need coins to feed the meter.

Book your hour with Decode Ypsilanti’s The Aurora Society, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Decode Ypsilanti comped our tickets for this game.