Quest Factor – The Castle [Review]

[At the time of this review, Quest Factor was called Conundroom.]

Most shall pass.

Location: Seattle, WA

Date played: September 4, 2016

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $90 for a team of 2-3, $120 for a team of 4-5, $160 for a team of 6-7, $180 for a team of 8

Story & setting

The Castle took place in a room that looked and felt like a storybook castle. Conundroom designed and constructed a magnificent and fun environment. It was almost entirely handmade by people who clearly knew what they were doing.

A shield, two swords, and a speak mounted to the wall of a castle.

Our mission took place in that castle, using castle-related props. During the game, we fully experienced the environment. If there was a story, however, it wasn’t present.

Puzzles

Unlike all of the other escape rooms we played in Seattle, The Castle was not a puzzle-heavy game. Not at all.

The game consisted primarily of tasks. We had to discern how to manipulate the props and the castle set.

Neither these tasks, nor the few interspersed puzzles, were particularly challenging.

Standouts

From the moment we entered the room, we were captivated by its castle-ness. The set was the highlight of the game. Conundroom designed and constructed the environment themselves.

A collection of golden cups resting on a wooden table. Each cup is filled with different types of stones.

Hidden technology drove The Castle’s magical moments. These moments enhanced the ambiance of the entire experience.

Our gamemaster was on the ball. He realized when the in-game cluing had lead us astray and brought us back from the unrecoverable.

Shortcomings

The setting was begging for a cohesive story, which wasn’t present.

This was amplified by unclear game setup. At the outset, we weren’t 100% sure what we were trying to accomplish. Because of how Conundroom designed one of the late-game puzzles, they had trouble communicating objectives without spoilers. They need to either rework this puzzle or rethink how they present the game.

A few of the props fell short of the high standards set by the game’s overall construction.

The Castle included one prop that was, itself, a puzzle, and not a fair inclusion in a timed escape game. We own this particular puzzle and it took David many weeks to figure out how it worked. It really didn’t belong in a room escape.

Should I play Conundroom’s The Castle?

The Castle was a lot of fun. We enjoyed exploring the set and its props. It was exciting to make everything fit together.

This wasn’t a challenging game. The majority of Seattle’s escape rooms – at least those we’ve visited – were formidable opponents, even for seasoned players.

The Castle offered a different experience: a task-centric exploration of a different world.

This design made The Castle approachable for newer players, for whom it set a high bar for set design and magical moments. It would be an ideal choice for players looking for adventure over challenge.

If you play escape rooms for a solid hour of puzzling, then The Castle isn’t for you.

The game needed additional refinement, mainly in communication: story, setup, and occasional in-game cluing. That said, the world constructed for this game demonstrated talent and potential. We look forward to seeing more adventures from Conundroom.

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

Full disclosure: Conundroom comped our tickets for this game.

Epic Team Adventures – Vault of the Volcano God, Chapters 1 & 2 [Review]

The island puzzle orgy.

Location: Seattle, WA

Date played: September 2, 2016

Team size: 3-10; we recommend 8-10

Duration: 60 minutes per game

Price: $30 per ticket

We played Vault of the Volcano God’s first two chapters, Break of Day & Burning Noontime, back to back. Unless otherwise noted, everything written in this review applies to both games.

Story & setting

Epic Team Adventures provided one of the most accurate descriptions of their own game that I have yet to see… and it was a good thing because this game was very different.

“The Vault of the Volcano God is an action-packed series of ten standalone adventures. Each adventure offers new areas to explore, thematic puzzles and activities, additional quests and missions, shifting demands from the Volcano God, and more details about the island mythology that can have game-changing impact. This series is not a traditional escape room game; it is similar to a puzzle hunt adventure. Instead of escaping at the first opportunity, your team will complete as many challenges as possible, and to figure out the best final sacrifice that will appease the Volcano God. Don’t think that there will be time to relax by finishing early. Tiki spirits will offer more quests than any team can complete. Only highly functioning teams that work together can succeed in unlocking the mystery of the island and fulfilling the mercurial demands of the volcano god.”

I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve heard, “this room isn’t like a ‘normal room escape,’ ours is totally different,” and then played the game and it was just like a normal room escape. Vault of the Volcano God really was unusual.

We were put inside of a tropical ruin-themed setting that looked a bit Legends of the Hidden Temple-y. We were tasked with solving a ton of puzzles. Then we had to solve an overarching puzzle to determine how to best appease the Volcano God.

The staging looked pretty good, but it never tried to be an immersive set. The drop ceiling was still present and the trees and animals were made from flat painted wood.

Painted jungle with a parrot.

The only change I would have made to their description are the words “action-packed.”

Puzzles

There was very little action in the Vault of the Volcano God, but oh my were there puzzles.

The game was literally filled with puzzle dispensers that popped out “coconuts” (or brown tubes) of puzzles.

A tiki puzzle dispenser with green glowing eyes.

Each dispenser contained a different type of puzzle. There was a dispenser for every skill set.

These puzzles were generally generic. They ranged from loosely tied to the game’s theme to not at all related.

Our goal, as mentioned, wasn’t to escape; it was to achieve the best score that we could.

The puzzles in Chapter 2 were largely identical to those in Chapter 1, but they ramped up the difficulty. Interestingly, the Chapter 2 puzzles weren’t always harder because our experience solving the Chapter 1 version improved our skills with the puzzle type.

It’s worth noting that the final puzzles in each version were structurally similar, but different in practice.

Standouts

The puzzle vending machines were awesome. I kind of want to own one.

There were so many puzzles. We never ran out of stuff to do… we came close, but never solved everything.

The overarching final puzzle – in both games – was incredibly clever.

If we encountered a puzzle that we didn’t want to solve, couldn’t solve, or thought would take too much time, we could just cast it aside and solve something else. No penalty, no problem. Note, the exception to this was that big end-game puzzle

This was a functional replayable game.

Playing the second chapter immediately after playing the first allowed us to come together as a team, perfect our approach, and kick ass.

Shortcomings

The puzzles were largely divorced from the theme.

We had a recurring tech failure that cramped the completion of a series of puzzles that we otherwise had under control. We also encountered another technical malfunction that occasionally prevented us from receiving our rewards for solving puzzles; this was a more intermittent problem.

There was a key piece of tech that was needed to solve about a quarter of the puzzles. This became an aggressive bottleneck and resulted in a lot of waiting around.

Each player had to put effort into keeping solved and unsolved puzzles organized. A single player’s failure to keep things organized could cost a lot of time or create confusion, especially late in the game.

The puzzles were largely paper-based.

The tubes that contained the puzzles caused some of them to curve in ways that made them far more challenging to solve than they should have been.

Vault of the Volcano God was not particularly friendly to players under about 5’11. Most of the surfaces for people to puzzle on were elevated too high.

Should I play Epic Team Adventure’s Vault of the Volcano God: The Break of Day & Burning Noontime?

The Vault of the Volcano God is a puzzler’s paradise. I’m anticipating that it will grow into one of the more polarizing games out there because those more focused on adventure, scenery, and story aren’t going get it.

The key with Vault of the Volcano God is getting the right team into the room. If you love puzzles and have a bunch of friends who love puzzles, but have different puzzling skills, you’re going to have a blast in this room. We truly did, and we were playing late at night with some heavy jetlag.

This was a fairly new game and Epic Team Adventures was clearly debugging some of the tech and sorting out some of the intricacies of the game. Based on how they seem to be running their operation, I expect that some of the shortcomings I listed won’t be relevant in a few months.

The multi-chapter reuse of the set and reset with different puzzles worked well under these circumstances. While chapters 1 & 2 were fairly similar, Epic Team Adventures has different plans for the subsequent 8 chapters.

The next time I visit Seattle, I plan to play chapter 3.

Book your hour with Epic Team Adventure’s Vault of the Volcano God: The Break of Day & Burning Noontime, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Epic Team Adventures comped our tickets for this game.

Ninja Escape – Black Lace [Review]

It’s a blur.

Location: Seattle, Washington

Date played: April 8, 2016

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

Price: $28 per adult ticket

Theme & story

In Ninja Escape’s second mission, Black Lace, we found ourselves in a battle of wits against a villainess creating a bio-weapon. We had to complete a series of missions within her lab and escape before the facility detonated.

Tiered win conditions

Ninja Escape presented tiered win conditions for Black Lace. These can be thought of as easy, medium, and hard victory.

These were specifically (1) find specific files – 30% success, (2) find the bio-weapon – 20% success, and (3) escape the facility with everything – 10% success.

This nifty feature enabled a non-binary win/lose situation. It allowed Ninja Escape to keep the game challenging without making everyone feel like a loser.

That said, knowing that we found the files and the bio-weapon but still got exploded felt like a hollow victory.

Deceptive design

We’re rarely surprised by the interactions within a room. Black Lace had some moments that truly caught us off guard, in a good way.

The game space wasn’t massive, but Ninja managed to squeeze quite a bit into it.

Ninja Escape logo - A ninja star with a keyhole in the center.
I’m still loving this logo.

Wordy

Ninja Escape clearly worked hard to tell a story and develop the nemesis in the game. This was admirable, but the story was told heavily in prose. When mixed with the many text-based puzzles, we found ourselves reading far more than was enjoyable in a timed escape room environment.

Surprise solutions

In Ninja Escape’s first mission, Hack Attack, we knew when we had solved a puzzle. In Black Lace, we had a hard time determining exactly what the puzzles were, so we just tried a lot of stuff, and were pleasantly surprised when things worked.

This challenge was compounded by the volume of similar locks. It was frustrating to try possible solutions repeatedly in different locks.

Topnotch customer service

The staff at Ninja Escape was among the most engaging, friendly, and confidence-inspiring that we’ve encountered. We raved about them in our review of Hack Attack and everything we said in that review holds equally true for Black Lace.

Should I play Ninja Escape’s Black Lace?

For the first time in a long time, we felt like new players; this wasn’t a good thing. We spent a lot of time guessing at what the puzzles were, and then where to put the solutions. I lost track of the number of times I put a combination into a lock with nearly no confidence that it would work.

When things did go our way, we were usually rewarded with more confounding puzzles. From beginning to end, Black Lace felt like running on a treadmill; we ran hard and stayed put.

When all was said and done, we couldn’t remember what puzzles we had solved 15 minutes after playing the game. The experience was a blur.

Ninja Escape understands the value of different experiences. They built their second game, Black Lace, in a different style from their first game, Hack AttackThis was an admirable endeavor, but Black Lace needed additional refinement.

At this time, we recommend Ninja Escape’s first game Hack Attack (which we played after Black Lace) over the newer Black Lace.

Full disclosure: Ninja Escape comped our tickets for this game… They also gave us a pair of t-shirts with their awesome logo on it.

Ninja Escape – Hack Attack [Review]

You’re actually allowed to hack this escape room.

Location: Seattle, Washington

Date played: April 8, 2016

Team size: 4-12; we recommend 6-8

Price: $28 per adult ticket

Theme & story

“Your team of Ninja puzzlers are dropped into the office of Mr. Hancock – a rogue member of The Kraken – our ancient enemy. He has stolen billions of dollars from our client. Can you solve the mysteries, recover the account, and escape before The Kraken return? Yes you can, if you are Ninja enough. “

Ninja Escape had a charming 1980’s action flick vibe. They play 8bit video game tunes as lobby music. The story was bit campy. They also had an unusual and refreshingly tongue-in-cheek “our players are ninjas” thing going on that mocked the faux reality of escape rooms, while still presenting a serious game.

Ninja Escape logo - A ninja star with a keyhole in the center.
That’s one fine logo. Note how the star is built from keyholes.

Puzzles

Hack Attack’s puzzles contained a mix of lock and key and technologically driven interactions. The challenges themselves offered a mix of your more typical escape room puzzles and cyphers, but presented them in a fun, compelling, and ultimately intense manner.

Hacking

The name of the game was Hack Attack; it lived up to the name.

The “steal the files” techno-thriller story notwithstanding, Ninja Escape embraced puzzle circumvention in a player-friendly manner.

We were allowed to use our phones (not that they were a huge help) and when we defeated their puzzles in unexpected ways, they praised it in our postgame (instead of getting indignant as some escape room companies do).

They even told us how some other teams have creatively circumvented the game’s challenges.

Their “it’s 2016, everyone has a phone, of course you can use it” attitude was really levelheaded and pleasant.

Team post game photo
12 seconds remaining. It’s so much better to escape with seconds to spare.

Bugs and Fixes

During our play-through, the computer we were “hacking” experienced some difficulties of the non-responsive variety.

This should have been a big problem, but it wasn’t because Ninja Escape’s gamemasters were incredibly attentive (and engaging). Our gamemaster appeared immediately with backup materials in-hand. We never even had to call for assistance.

It was a disruption to the flow of the game, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Dust

There came a point in Hack Attack when we entered a dusty locale. It seemed deliberate, and part of the ambiance, but for me, Hack Attack swiftly became Allergy Attack.

Should I play Ninja Escape’s Hack Attack?

In Hack Attack, Ninja Escape has created a strong escape game. Early on it came across as simplistic, but as the game progressed, it revealed a deeper complexity than we had anticipated.

The gamemasters at Ninja Escape truly elevated the player experience. They were fun and funny, but also commanded respect. They zeroed in on safety and they didn’t burden us with unnecessary rules and regulations.

Hack Attack wasn’t a mind-blowing game. The technology, puzzles, and story didn’t push boundaries, but everything gelled well.

I can’t help but look back on the game and feel that it was far more than the sum of its parts.

Book your hour with Ninja Escape’s Hack Attack (and save $5 with the promo code “NINJASTAR”),  and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Ninja Escape comped our tickets for this game… They also gave us a pair of t-shirts with their awesome logo on it.

Puzzle Break – Escape the Midnight Carnival [Review]

It was a bit of a circus.

Location: Seattle, Washington

Date played: April 8, 2016

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 8-10

Price: $30 per ticket

Theme & story

You have happened upon the midnight carnival. It appears for only one hour every 20 years. You must unravel the mystery to break this carnival’s curse.

This was the Brigadoon of carnivals.

The game was themed impeccably as a carnival. The early puzzles were on theme. The later puzzles built towards the carnival’s compelling, cursed story.

For those of you with phobias: there were no clowns. None at all. They weren’t even alluded to.

If you watched the promotional video on Puzzle Break’s website, you might think this would be a horror game. Rest assured, the introduction video was the creepiest part. The setting was bright and spacious. The game was not scary.

Painting of a black horse in a carousel. The horse's eye is a big googly eye.
“It’s a tedious job, but it beats the glue factory.”

Gamemasters

The Escape the Midnight Carnival gamemasters entered the space with our team. They were in carnival-appropriate costumes. They gave hints as we needed, but they functioned mainly to protect the set from rogue players.

We needed to be pushed to inspect the set less gently. Puzzle Break may want to revise the rules or the game to account for rule-conscious players who won’t look for clues in areas that are only questionably fair play. Some of the hints were hidden in what felt like a grey area based on our understanding of the rules.

Entrance

We queued up at the entrance to the carnival and were ushered in through normal carnivalesque procedure. This was an interesting and fun game mechanism.

12 people

According to Puzzle Break, this game was calibrated for 12 players. The space was certainly large enough. We played with 8 people. Because of the game design, more players would have made this game both harder and easier.

Easier because there would have been more people to accomplish things.

Harder because late in the game, communication became far more essential and challenging.

Puzzle variety

Escape the Midnight Carnival’s puzzles incorporated a variety of puzzling skills. Each player had their moment solving according their own skills.

Some people had more than one moment… there was a lot to do.

Scavenging & reading

In this game, both scavenging and reading took time. Together, these tactics kept a large team occupied for an hour.

The heavy scavenging mainly related to the more mundane puzzles and was at times tedious.

Late in the game, there was a lot of reading to get bogged down in.

Logical roller coasters

We did not have a writing surface inside the Escape the Midnight Carnival. Puzzle Break deliberately fostered teamwork among members of a big team by not providing one. It became very difficult for one player to work through multi-component puzzles without involving more teammates.

With this design, a functional and cooperative team can truly succeed together. But it also increases the odds that one problematic person can screw the team over. Or, the player with the solution could become the bossy quarterback.

We played this game in its infancy, pre-win statistics. I imagine that teams will succeed or fail spectacularly depending on how closely they listen to each other and how well they communicate to each other as the game progresses.

Should I play Puzzle Break’s Escape the Midnight Carnival?

The Midnight Carnival was a beautifully themed game that told a fun story.

The staff at Puzzle Break went out of their way to immerse us in the fiction.

For those reasons, this game is absolutely worth experiencing.

That said, this was a large team game that you don’t want to play with just anyone. To fully enjoy the set and the puzzles, you need a team that works efficiently and feeds off each other. Above all, you need teammates that communicate impeccably.

If you play with the wrong people, this game could be tedious and frustrating.

If you play with the right people, this game could be exhilarating.

Choose your team accordingly.

Book your hour with Puzzle Break’s Escape the Midnight Carnival, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Puzzle Break comped our tickets for this game.

Locurio – The Vanishing Act [Review]

Magical & extraordinary.

Location: Seattle, Washington

Date played: April 7, 2016

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 5-6

Price: $34 per ticket

2016 RoomEscapeArtist.com Golden Lock-In Award - golden ring around the REA logo turned into a lock.
2016 Golden Lock-In Winner

Story

After a 13th performance with the world-renowned magician the Great Noximillian, his assistants mysteriously disappear. On the evening of her 13th performance his current assistant Casey hired us to investigate why.

The game was set during Casey’s 70 minute performance with Noximillian. While the man was distracted by his audience, we were to investigate his office and attempt to save the life of his assistant.

Interior of the Vanishing Act. Depicts massive a red and yellow box chained and locked shut with multiple locks. A poster of Noximillian hangs on the wall beside the box.

70 minutes

This game runs 10 minutes longer than your typical escape room and bits and pieces of Noximillian’s performance could be heard over the PA system in the room.

Serious escalation

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love it when an escape room starts its players grounded in reality and escalates into the fantastic.

Locurio did this spectacularly.

The game ultimately became spooky (more than we were expecting), but as with Senator Payne, it never crossed over into serious horror.

Interior of The Vanishing Act. Depicts a dressing room with a suit hanging elegantly.

Engineering quality

Locurio minded the details in The Vanishing Act. They did a wonderful job of structuring the mechanisms of their game such that the components were hidden or obscured.

Sometimes when magical things happen in an escape room, there are exposed magnets and wires that not-so-gently remind the player that they are in a false reality. That wasn’t the case in The Vanishing Act. For the most part, the bits and pieces that made things happen were cleverly tucked out of sight.

Puzzles telling a story

Each puzzle was interesting on its own and for the most part, they furthered the game.

The earlier puzzles felt more like they were on-theme for a “magician’s escape room” and the later puzzles cleverly told the story.

Puzzles that overstay their welcome

Overall, Locurio’s The Vanishing Act was a wonderful game, but it had a few bumps.

There were a few puzzles that involved a lot of busy work after the we figured out how to solve them. In these instances, we knew what we had to do, but then had to spend 5-10 minutes completing repetitious tasks, looping through the same pattern we had already solved.

It was a bit of a time sink.

Hinting system

The hinting system was deeply baked into the narrative of the game. It was done in an unusual and elegant manner that truly tied the story back to the gameplay.

My only knock against it was that there came a point in the game where the hint system no longer made sense with the narrative of the story… but this is some serious story continuity nitpicking.

Should I play Locurio’s The Vanishing Act?

In The Vanishing Act, Locurio created a classic escape adventure; I can’t put too fine a point on this.

The game played wonderfully, was built beautifully, and told a surprisingly compelling story.

So long as you aren’t planning on bringing young children with you, this is an absolute must-play game.

I am truly looking forward to seeing what Locurio develops next.

Book your hour with Locurio’s The Vanishing Act, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Locurio comped our tickets for this game.