The VOID – Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire [Review]

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Location:  New York, NY

Date Played: October 9, 2019

Team size: up to 4; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 15 minutes

Price: from $39.95 per player

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was a technological step up for THE VOID from the Ghostbusters game that we experienced a few years back. The tech felt better and there was more and stronger physical feedback. Plus, it was Star Wars… and Star Wars is the cultural equivalent of comfort food.

The cover art for Star Wars Secrets of the Empire. A team of stormtroopers on a skiff above a molten planet.

The big catch with THE VOID was the price point. At $40 for 15 minutes of gameplay it was a big ask.

I loved a lot of what was going on in Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire; I highly recommend it to Star Wars fans. It drops you in that familiar world and just feels right. At the same time, I left really wishing that I was playing as a Jedi, not a Rebel in stormtrooper armor.

THE VOID did a lot of really smart things when they designed this game and it worked damn well. If you think that you want to play it, and you can afford to do so, I absolutely recommend it.

Who is this for?

  • Star Wars fans
  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • You love Star Wars
  • It’s an engaging high quality VR shooter
  • Fantastic immersive detailing

Story

Spies for the Rebellion had reported that an item vital to the war effort had been uncovered by the Empire on the molten planet Mustafar. Our mission was to recover the item from the Imperial installation in a stolen ship, disguised as stormtroopers.

THE VOID in the middle of the Oculus at the World Trade Center. The architecture is massive and imposing. It looks like you're inside of a whale.
Image via THE VOID

Setting

Upon arrival at our start time, we were ushered into a briefing room, given the story, and then brought into a gear room where we suited up. The kit included a:

  • VR headset with a visor and earphones
  • haptic vest that vibrated when our avatar was shot, shaken, or otherwise impacted by something in the game world
  • a blaster
A group putting on their VOID gear.
Image via THE VOID

Once we put on all of the gear and tightened all of the straps, we were brought into the game.

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was beautifully rendered and felt familiar in all of the right ways. We were free to walk about the world without cables or cords restricting us. If a wall was in the game, it was there in real life. If a chair was in the game, it was present in real life.

The world was further accented by scents, blowing fans, and other real-life stimuli that pulled the game purely out of the digital realm.

Gameplay

The VOID ‘s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was an approachable VR shooter experience.

Core gameplay revolved around taking in the world, shooting bad guys, and one puzzle.

A group suiting up, wearing the full VOID gear set.
Image via THE VOID

Analysis

➕ The gear was comfortable, balanced, and easy to put on and take off. Additionally, this was the first time that I was able to put on a VR headset and not once think about how to position my glasses. It just worked. I actually forgot about this entirely and only remembered when I was taking a look at my old review of THE VOID’s Ghostbusters experience where my glasses were a problem.

➕ It was Star Wars. I knew what I was getting into. There was a look, a feel, and a sound to the world and storytelling that just pushed the right nostalgic buttons. If you are or ever were into Star Wars, then there will be something here for you.

➕ The addition of physical sensations was wonderful. It added a tactile depth that is often missing from VR experiences.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ There was a light puzzle. It was a thing. My teammates Dani and Bill from Escape this Podcast (we loved being on their show!) solved it, but we all agreed that I had more fun shooting stormtroopers while they solved it.

➖ There was a minute or so early in the experience where the world just seemed to freeze. My teammates and I could move, see one another, and speak, but the cut scene we were watching felt paused. I don’t know what happened, but I doubt that it was supposed to go down that way. The saving grace was that it wasn’t during a combat sequence or at a climactic moment.

➖ Maybe it’s just me, but my Star Wars fantasies never involved dressing as a stormtrooper. I know that it solves a lot of avatar problems. I’m also aware that it’s supported canonically by the Death Star scenes in A New Hope. And having players clutch a rifle with two hands is a lot safer than having them flailing about with a lightsaber. I see the pragmatism, thought, and cleverness in all of this.

None of that changes the fact that my inner 9-year-old wants to be a damn Jedi when he’s inside of a Star Wars game… especially at $2.66 per minute.

❓ $40 for 15 minutes of gameplay was expensive. I’m glad that I played, but I can also empathize with anyone who rejects it on price alone; Lisa sat this one out for that very reason.

➕ You can’t really ask for an easier, more picturesque location than the center of the World Trade Center Oculus. It was lovely getting off the train and being at the venue. We tend to find Immersive experiences hidden in strange, difficult to find locations. This was a lovely change of pace.

Tips For Visiting

  • Parking: It’s NYC; take mass transit. THE VOID is sitting dead center in the middle of one of the city’s largest transit hubs.
  • Food: There are food options in the mall, but I recommend taking a short walk to The Wooly Public.
  • Accessibility: Check the “Accessibility” category in THE VOID’s FAQ.
  • Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is currently available in Anaheim, Glendale, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Orlando, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Plano, New York (all US), Edmonton, Mississauga, Toronto (all Canada), and Genting (Malaysia).

Book your session with The VOID ‘s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

PAX West 2019 Roundup

In recent years, the indie video game world has been an incubator for some of the most innovative puzzle games. There’s a VR game that’s Tetris plus archery (Smush.tv). A Plinko game with D&D elements (Roundguard). Even a cooperative platformer about two dogs connected by a gelatinous midsection (PHOGS!). All were on display this year at the PAX West expo.

PAX West logo

Since its inception in 2004, PAX West has been a fan-focused gaming expo catering to gamers of every stripe. Every Labor Day weekend, the show takes over Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center as well as large sections of many nearby hotel ballrooms.

Triple-A companies dominated most of the space with their new installments of Borderlands or Monster Hunter, but PAX always devotes ample sections of floorspace to independent games and this year was no exception.

I met David and Lisa in 2016 when they were at PAX hosting a panel about escape rooms. Respect for puzzle gamers at PAX runs deep. At this year’s expo, I went on a hunt for the best upcoming puzzle and adventure games that will pique the interest of escape room fans.

Satanic Functions

The first standout I found was The Devil’s Calculator by Cinq-Mars Media. This mobile game is likely to divide gamers into two camps at first blush: those who used their high school TI-85 calculator to craft functions that drew beautiful graphs, and those who used it to hide notes on the Pythagorean theorem.

The devil had possessed my calculator, swapping out the plus, minus, multiply, and divide functions with nefarious replacements. Sometimes keys were on fire – too hot to press. The only way to clear each level was to figure out how to make the display read “666”.

Christopher Jarvis, the game’s creator, described it as “a game of interpolation where you’re trying to solve for unknown operators.”

“I never took math past high school and I made all 70 base game levels,” Jarvis said. “95 percent of it is puzzle solving and lateral thinking.” This was good news to me as I definitely fell on the “hiding notes” side of TI-85 users.

The Devil’s Calculator is a non-profit game that is free for the first 20 levels, and totally free for educators and students. It’s out now on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Steam.

Maintaining Momentum

Another indie selection that impressed me was Deleveled from Toaster Fuel. Described to me by programmer Kyle Donnelly as “a physics-based puzzle-platformer with no jump button,” this was a game that was more easily understood when played. In fact, it’s best to watch this video right now:

I simultaneously controlled two squares on either side of a platforming level made of simple lines, attempting to move all the level’s switches to “on.” Sure enough, there was no jump button so I had to fall and cause my counterpart square to bounce, then conserve that momentum to navigate obstacles in search of my goal.

It was like a combination of Super Meat Boy and a Newton’s cradle.

I was drawn in by Deleveled’s minimalistic design and intrigued by the mind-bending levels. Level Designer Patrick Nance promises smooth ramping to train new players and unexpected twists to hold their interest to the end. As a word nerd, I couldn’t help being delighted by the way their palindromic title echoed the concept of the game.

Deleveled is planned for Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4 by the end of 2019.

Both Deleveled and The Devil’s Calculator were selected for the PAX10, an honor bestowed upon 10 games each year by a PAX-selected committee of 50 industry experts.

Zootopia Noir

The most visually striking game in the indie sections of PAX was Backbone by Egg Nut. I played raccoon private investigator Howard Lotor in a 2-D anthropomorphic-noir world. It was set in dystopian Vancouver, B.C., and the city was Blade Runner-beautiful. In the street scene featured in the demo, neon signs reflected off puddles in the street and steam rising out of the sewer was illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. This was all the more impressive because the game was pixel art in the vein of The Secret of Monkey Island.

Unlike that classic adventure game, the focus of Backbone was less on fetch-quests and more on navigating branching dialogue trees to solve a mystery. The demo started with me trying to bribe, persuade, and threaten my way into a jazz club. There were bears, foxes, and dogs inside that I needed to question. Once there, I made a sickening discovery and by the end of the demo my character was doubled over in an alley losing his lunch. Despite the anthropomorphism, this was decidedly adult subject matter.

While Backbone was chiefly an adventure game, Eggnut co-founder and writer Alex Korabelnikova assured me that team wasn’t neglecting the puzzle elements. The puzzle in the demo occurred in close-up view, where I rearranged pieces of paper with cut-out elements to get a door code.

“There is also going to be a mechanic of Smell-O-Vision, where you can track and trace smells to figure out the clues,” Korabelnikova said. “The dialogue itself is a puzzle, because you need to figure out the approach you need to take with each character, and you need to understand what different species signify inside the world and the stereotypes that surround them.”

This is an ambitious effort but it’s off to an excellent start. Definitely one to watch.

Backbone is slated for release on nearly all platforms in early 2021. The free demo is out now for PC for Steam.

Origami Meet-Cute

I didn’t expect to get “the feels” exploring PAX West’s Indie Megabooth, but there was one game that got me. A Fold Apart from Lightning Rod Games explored a couple in a long distance relationship struggling with the space between them. I played by flipping, folding, unfolding, and rotating the paper that made up their environment. It was a puzzle game with a strong emphasis on narrative.

Steven Smith, co-founder of Lightning Rod games, said, “We deal with communication and miscommunication. So there will be texting back and forth, and someone will say something that brings up a sensitive subject. That will send the other person into an emotional world where they work through their feelings about it and solve puzzles.” Disagreements created emotional barriers that my character had to literally fold their way around to overcome.

As someone who is currently in a long distance relationship, I was definitely moved by the narrative. A nice text message (or the absence of a message) can turn your whole world upside down. The Pixaresque animation and gorgeous score further tweaked my thrumming heartstrings.

I was able to play any combination of two-person relationship between a man, a woman, and a non-binary character.

A Fold Apart will be available on Apple Arcade, Switch, and PC this Fall. Xbox, PS4, Mac, and Android soon after. It was recently featured in an Apple Arcade promo, so it must have Tim Apple’s seal of approval!

Cool REM House

Superliminal by Pillow Castle drew influence from such mind-bending puzzlers as Portal, The Stanley Parable, and The Witness. It was a first-person experience set in a sleep institute. My character had come in for a new dream therapy meant to provide more restful sleep. However, when I woke up, there was no one there. Was I still dreaming?

In this world, perception became reality. When I lined up disjointed pieces of a painted cube, it became three-dimensional. Small objects became large when I dropped them from above me. Items refracted through distorted glass took on new properties. I was able to navigate the facility through the transformation of these items, blowing my own mind a couple times in the process.

Art Director Steve Allen described the look of Superliminal as “interesting mundanity.” Allen said, “At first it’s not too overarchingly surreal, but it just has that sort of glimmer of too much symmetry, too much color, and that clues the player that something interesting is going on in that area.” While the demo only covered the rather tame opening area of the game, the trailer hinted that it takes a dark turn as you uncover more about the seemingly mundane building.

As the most room escape-adjacent game I found at PAX West this year, this will be one that puzzle fans will want to keep an eye out for.

Superliminal will be coming out by the end of 2019. It will be an exclusive on the Epic Games Store for PC, then a year later on Steam.

NEScape! on the Nintendo Entertainment System [Review]

Going Retro

Location:  Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

Date Played: June 9, 2019

Team size: we recommend 1-2

Duration: 60 minute time loops

Price: $10 (ROM), $60 (cartridge & ROM)

Publisher: KHAN Games

REA Reaction

NEScape! is a new escape room video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (or downloadable ROM).

This game captured old-school escape room gameplay on old-school video game hardware… and did a generally good job.

Translucent blue NEScape! cartridge.

There are 4 days left to back this Kickstarter and it is fully funded. The decision to back should be simple:

  • Do you like the idea of old-school, puzzle-forward gameplay?
  • Does playing an escape game on NES hardware sound fun?
  • Do you have access to a NES?

If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, then give them your money.

Lisa's hands on an NES controller.

NEScape! isn’t flawless. There are more than a few things that I think could improve it.

NEScape! isn’t revolutionary. It can’t be. It runs on 8-bit hardware in 2019.

For me, that was fine. Now that I’ve completed playing it, just looking at the cartridge makes me smile.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Retro gamers
  • Point & click fans
  • People who really just want to own the game cartridge
  • Players with at least some puzzle experience

Why play?

  • Classic escape room puzzle play on the NES
  • It’s different

Story

We were in an escape room and needed to puzzle our way out. Like I said, old school.

Setup

We received NEScape! in cartridge form. That meant that the first puzzle was finding a working Nintendo Entertainment System or a high quality NES clone like the RetroUSB AVS. The Retron5 and RetroDuo (which I love) unfortunately didn’t do the job.

So… we went out to a local retro video game arcade called Yestercades to play with their toys.

NEScape! in a NES.

Puzzle two was mounting the cartridge so that it, ya know, worked. It was as tough as I remembered. A friendly reminder: Blowing on Nintendo cartridges doesn’t help and can cause corrosion.

Once we were up and running, NEScape! was a point & click puzzle game on an 8-bit platform. The controls were simple. We had to find objects and use them to solve the puzzles that lined the game world’s 4 walls.

Gameplay

KHAN Game’s NEScape! was a point & click escape game with puzzles of varying levels of difficulty and a non-negotiable 60-minute game clock that terminated the run at 0.

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

In-game animation: a cursor selecting books with zodiac symbols on them.
Via KHAN Games

Analysis

➕ Opening the mail and finding a translucent blue NES cartridge was utterly delightful.

➕ The colors were vibrant and made good use of the limited graphics capacity of the NES.

➕ The controls were easy. Lisa was never a console gamer and had no problems picking them up quickly. There wasn’t any action, so my decades of muscle memory weren’t particularly useful.

➕ The opening sequence was an unusual intro that taught the basics, provided a puzzle and allowed us to bypass it.

➕ There was solid point & click escape game-style play that captured the feeling of escape room puzzles from 4-5 years ago.

➕ There was a structured, self-service online hint system, should you get stuck (or, like us, be playing in a loud space, which inhibited us from solving auditory puzzles).

❓ There were a number of auditory puzzles that we had to bypass with hints. The clanging of pinball, the beeping of arcade cabinets, and the crashing of Skee-Ball at Yestercades meant that we couldn’t hear audio puzzles. It seemed like NEScape! was doing some interesting things with sound, but I genuinely have no idea how anything sounded. When I eventually replay in a quiet location, I’ll update this.

➖ At the start of each chapter, we began with the “lights off” and had to find the switch. This was hard the first time and easy, but annoying, in subsequent chapters.

❓/➕ We aren’t good at slide puzzles. We’d like to get better at them when we have a little time. We ended up sinking a little more than half of our time in our first play loop into a slide puzzle. In our second hour, we just used the hint system to power through the slide pattern. (We so appreciated that the hints included the solution pattern.)

➖ There were times where puzzle solves had no visual indication of completion. There may have been auditory feedback, but we don’t know. It made certain aspects of the game feel clunky. Sure we were playing under sub-optimal circumstances, but visual feedback of success would have been a significant improvement, even if it was just for accessibility purposes.

➖ The ball maze puzzle was visually jittery and difficult to look at.

In-game animation: A ball navigating through a maze.
Via KHAN Games

➕ There were some really great destructible puzzles… the kind that you wouldn’t typically see in a real life escape room.

NEScape! would have benefited from more puzzles that could only work in a digital environment. There were a few too many puzzles that were straight translations from the real world.

❓ We felt pretty conflicted on the rigid timer that terminated the game at 0 forcing us to start over:

  • On one hand, it was annoying. It felt like there was an opportunity to do something more creative at 0 or offer more outcome options.
  • On the other hand, unforgiving fail-states is pretty much tradition on the NES. It wasn’t a big deal because we were able to navigate through the game pretty quickly on our second playthrough to pick up where we’d left off.

➕ It’s a Kickstarter… but the full product exists. For those of us who have been burned before, knowing that a crowdfunding project is more than notional ain’t nothing.

Tips For Playing

  • Time Requirements: I would plan on playing at least 2 or 3 hours (unless you’re good at slide puzzles or plan to bypass it with the hint system).
  • Required Gear: You’ll need a Nintendo Entertainment System or a high-quality clone. We also used pen and paper to track our solutions. This was especially helpful on our second play-though.

Back KHAN Game’s NEScape! on Kickstarter, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

There are only 4 days left to back this.

Disclosure: KHAN Games provided a sample for review. 

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale. We appreciate the support.)

Ubisoft Escape Games – Beyond Medusa’s Gate [VR Review]

A VR Odyssey

Location:  at Up the Game in Amsterdam, The Netherlands & at Trap’t in Stamford, CT

Date Played: May 7, 2019 & May 17, 2019

Team size: 2 or 4; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $40 per player at Trap’t (consumer pricing varies by licensee)

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Beyond Medusa’s Gate was a gigantic, dramatic, and intense journey through the worlds of Greek mythology and the Assassin’s Creed video game series.

Ubisoft Escape Games published a worthy sequel to their first VR escape game by refining and expanding upon the concepts introduced in Escape The Lost Pyramid.

In-game: A gigantic statue of Atlas wrapped in a snake holding up the ceiling of a cave.

Beyond Medusa’s Gate wasn’t the most puzzley game. However, it accomplished what I believe is the key to a great virtual escape game: the gameplay provided experiences that cannot be created in real life escape games.

I wholeheartedly recommend playing Beyond Medusa’s Gate. (We took my parents to play it.) I’d encourage you to play Escape The Lost Pyramid first so that you’re comfortable with the controls and mechanisms that Ubisoft expanded upon in this sequel.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level (with VR, escape rooms, or Assassin’s Creed)

Why play?

  • Fantastic collaborative puzzles
  • Beautiful graphics
  • Massive set pieces
  • Puzzles that aren’t possible in a real-life escape room
  • A cool boss battle

Story

Set in the fantastical ancient Greek world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, we were off in search of a powerful lost artifact.

The Poster for Beyond Medusa's Gate featuring a stone door with a sculpture of Medusa.

Setting

We boarded the Argo, the legendary ship of the Argonauts, and sailed through a magnificently rendered Mediterranean cavern filled with huge structures and mythological beasts.

In-game: a burning cauldron in a temple.

Gameplay

Ubisoft Escape Games’ Beyond Medusa’s Gate was a VR escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around teamwork, puzzling, shooting, climbing, observing, and making connections.

In-game: The Argo in the Mediterranean.

Analysis

➕ Ubisoft included some additional character customization options allowing us to change the color of our avatar’s clothing.

In-game: a team of avatar's getting suited up.

 Assassin’s Creed factors in minimally. On the one hand, if you’re familiar with the series, there are some lovely nods both in the gameplay and in the introduction. On the other hand, you can enjoy the game almost fully without knowing anything about the Animus.

➖ If you’re completely unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed, then the introductory exposition will sound something like, “Blah blah blah Ancient Greece. Blah blah blah powerful artifact. Blah blah blah genetic memory.”

➕ The opening puzzle sequence was really clever, both as a standalone puzzle and as an introduction to manipulating the game world.

➕ Beyond Medusa’s Gate had a greater diversity in puzzles and challenges than did Ubisoft’s first escape game, Escape The Lost Pyramid.

In-game: A statue of Athena in a cavern.

➕ As with Escape The Lost Pyramid, Beyond Medusa’s Gate did a wonderful job of providing experiences that could not be created in a physical escape room.

❓ While the puzzles within Beyond Medusa’s Gate were enjoyable, the emphasis was on adventure. If you’re seeking serious puzzle-play, there might not be enough of it for you.

➕ Ubisoft ramped up the opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. There were lots of moments were we solving as either a duo or quartet.

➕ The world of Beyond Medusa’s Gate was gorgeous. There were points where I stopped playing and found myself getting lost in the beauty of the world and all of its detail.

➕ The use of a boat to facilitate movement through the game world was an improvement over the floating blocks from Escape The Lost Pyramid. Not only did it make more sense within the fiction, it also made the game more friendly and approachable for players with vertigo or a fear of heights.

➕ While Beyond Medusa’s Gate incorporated the climbing as well as the archery introduced in Escape The Lost Pyramid, it limited its reliance on them and put some interesting twists on both as the game progressed.

❓ There’s a learning curve to staying within the play area. If you’re comfortable playing video games and VR, you could acclimate almost immediately. If you aren’t comfortable with the technology, it could be a game-long process .

➖ When one player struggles to execute, the game can grind to a halt and provide little for idle players to do… aside from break pots and look at the beautiful world. (I have a high capacity for breaking pots from years of Zelda.)

➖ If you are the struggling player and you’re holding your team back, you’ll quickly feel a lot of additional pressure.

❓ We played this game twice, once with a wire (at Up The Game), and once wireless (at Trap’t in Stamford, CT). It was a substantially better experience playing wirelessly.

In-game: a massive ballista mounted to the side of a ship.

➕ The boss battle was a strong conclusion.

➕ Ubisoft added a delightful post-game photo system.

Tips For Visiting

  • I would strongly encourage you to play Ubisoft’s first VR escape game, Escape The Lost Pyramid, prior to playing this sequel.
  • Yes, you can wear glasses with the VR headset.
  • If you have a fear of heights or are prone to vertigo, there will be one section that you might want to skip, but you should be fine playing most of this game.

Book your hour with Ubisoft Escape Games’ Beyond Medusa’s Gate, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

If you’re interested in licensing this game, you can learn more from Ubisoft Escape Games:

Disclosure: Ubisoft Escape Games offered free play-throughs of this game on the show floor at Up the Game.

Disclosure: Trap’t comped our tickets for this game.

Play Classic Carmen Sandiego for Free

Today Netflix released a brand new Carmen Sandiego cartoon.

The iconic and classic Carmen Sandiego logo.

As a kid, I loved Carmen Sandiego in every form of media that I encountered:

  • MS DOS games
  • Game shows
  • Cartoon

The new show has completely reimagined the character. They have transformed her from a cunning villain into what looks like something of an anti-hero.

I have no respect for any “Why did they change it? My childhood is ruined!” nonsense. This is for kids, not people in their 30s. I’m just happy that the character is back and hope that they continue to teach geography and history through amusing crime adventures.

Playing The Old Games

That being said, I was also really excited to find that the Internet Archive has a library of browser-based emulators that allow people to play all sorts of ancient video games for free.

It was a fun stroll down memory lane.

This archive includes a ton of Carmen Sandiego titles.

There is a lot more on the Internet Archive and their library also includes other classics like Snood, Colossal Cave Adventure, and Super Solvers Treasure Mountain… which might be the first puzzle game that I ever played. I have no idea how that one holds up. I might have to give it a whirl one day just to see.

It is really strange playing these old games. It’s amazing how far video games have come in 30 years.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle [Review]

Prepare for Bwaaah-ttle!

Developer & Publisher: Ubisoft Paris & Ubisoft Milan

Director: Davide Soliani

Dates Played: February-May, 2018

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Duration: about 20 hours, 40 hours for completionists

Price: $44.99 on Amazon

REA Reaction

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was turn-based tactical combat brilliantly distilled to its primary elements.

Puzzles show up in interesting places. Despite the kid-friendly Mario palette and quirky cast of characters, the game took itself seriously. It delivered a strategic challenge throughout.

As a puzzle fan new to this genre, I was impressed with the high level of forethought needed to succeed in each world. As a kid-at-heart, I fell for the Pixar-quality writing and animation of its cutscenes.

Who is this for?

  • Tactical combat newbies
  • Applied puzzlers
  • Smart kids
  • Fans of silly humor

Why play?

  • Puzzle play merged with action and combat
  • Creative and engaging strategy
  • Beautiful graphics and excellent music
  • Princess Peach with a shotgun

The starting team of Rabbid Peach, Rabbid Luigi, and Mario.
My starting team of sassy Rabbid Peach, goofy Rabbid Luigi, and the ever-dependable Mario.

Story & Setup

Nintendo teamed up with Ubisoft to bring their popular Rabbid characters out of the party-game realm and into a tactical combat genre alongside Mario mainstays. Rabbids are insane rabbit caricatures with zero impulse control. They’ve been screaming their way from hijink to hijink way before the Minions ever met Gru.

The story began with the Rabbids having travelled through time and space to the bedroom of a Nintendo superfan. There, one of the Rabbids picked up a VR helmet – which got stuck to his face – and they all got sucked through a time-traveling washing machine into the Mushroom Kingdom and… it was pretty ridiculous. Like most mashups, it wasn’t worth overthinking the story’s logic.

After the story intro, a hub world led to four themed sub-worlds where my group of three Mario heroes and their Rabbid counterparts explored the land fully armed and looking for trouble.

A giant balloon in the shape of a Rabbid looms over Princess Peach's castle. The Rabbid takeover is complete...
The Rabbids had taken over the Mushroom Kingdom and things were getting weird…

Gameplay

There were two types of puzzles in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: battles with baddies and environmental challenges.

In battles, the task was usually to defeat all the enemies with various blasters, grenades, and exploding drone vehicles. Other times, I escorted an unarmed ally (usually Toad) through the gauntlet or got my characters to a particular zone of safety.

Each battle asked me to consider my team’s strengths & weaknesses, enemy positions, and terrain conditions. I had to plan my moves in such a way that I could set myself up for success. For example, did I have enough movement points to duck behind cover and flank my enemy, while keeping in mind that another enemy may be able to jump up and reach me from higher ground? I also had to react to unexpected behavior and the slight amount of randomness that occurred when damage was calculated.

In the spooky world, an enemy jumps toward Rabbid Peach, ready to smash her with a coffin for some damage.

At the end of each battle I received a grade based on how many turns it had taken me to complete the battle and how many of my teammates had survived. Higher scores rewarded me with more coins, which I used to buy better weapons, so optimization mattered. 

Environmental puzzles occurred in between battles as I traversed the world. Adventure game players will be familiar with these: move these crates to push the floor switches, bounce lasers around these mirrors to hit the target, or rotate the pieces of this column to create a staircase upward.

Often times, completion of the puzzle led to a hidden chest containing in-game collectibles: a music track, a 3D model of a character, or a piece of concept art. Other times it unlocked a good weapon for use in the next battle.

The weapon selection screen for Princess Peach. This one shows "Battlin' Bill", one of her many boomshots. You can view its stats here.
One of the many boomshots at Peach’s disposal.

Analysis

+ Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was an adventure of cartoony beauty. The design was spot-on — true to the Mario universe while taking it in a completely different direction.

+ Cutscenes were cleverly written, full of personality, and professionally shot.

+ The music was fantastic. I found myself with the songs in my head long after I’d put the Switch away.

+ While the setting was whimsical, the tactical aspect of the battles would make any SEAL team proud… I was able to access the “Tacticam” which allowed me to sweep over the battlefield and analyze the movement, weapon, and special ability range of every character on the map. Enemy AI was generally intelligent despite being a bunch of wacky Rabbids.

The battlefield in "Tacticam Mode". The cursor hovers over the Spooky Smasher enemy, showing its movement range.

+/- When I executed a command to attack, the camera swept into one of several action movie slo-mo modes. This added to the thrill of the moment, but occasionally the terrain blocked the camera. This was jarring in what should have been an awesome moment.

– Some worlds had too much backtracking during the main missions (especially the spooky world). Others had too much ground to cover in between the action. While I explored many nooks and crannies for those hidden chests, since I’m not a big completionist or collector, the searching lost its appeal in later levels.

? It was strange to see Luigi whip out a sniper rifle (dubbed “precision” in the game) or Princess Peach wield a shotgun (boomshot). The cognitive dissonance for a Mario fan like myself was a bit shocking at first, but I got used to it.

Mario defiantly points his new blaster in the enemy's direction.
Mario embraced the blaster for the first time in his long career.

– Bonus challenges offered some replay value. I could also attempt the game’s battles again to get a better grade. However, as I progressed through the game, my team got stronger and acquired better weapons. This made repeating a challenge trivially easy compared to when I had first tried it.

+ Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle never forgot that it was a silly premise in a Rabbid-rules world. Throughout the levels, there were regular “points of interest” where I was encouraged to press a button to watch a Rabbid sleeping on a doghouse like Snoopy or stuffing his friend into a pipe with a plunger. These funny moments broke up the travel time a bit, before I went back to the serious stuff like commanding Yoshi to mow down enemies with a machine gun.

Tips for Playing

  • Once you finish a world, dive right back in and do its extra challenges. Replay any battles you want to improve your score on. If you wait until later, you’ll be too overpowered for them to be fun.
  • Let the game autofill the skill-tree as you build in experience. This will save you a lot of time. As your roster builds throughout the game, it’s tedious to manage so many characters’ skill-trees simultaneously. You can always reset it and build from scratch if you need a particular skill for your next battle.

Purchase your copy of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle on Nintendo Switch.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Ubisoft Blue Byte – Escape the Lost Pyramid [VR Review]

Climbing Simulator.

Location: Breda, The Netherlands (on the Up the Game show floor, available for license by escape rooms & VR arcades)

Date Played: May 8, 2018

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ticketing: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

REA Reaction

A major video game publisher created a VR escape room:

Set in the world of Assassin’s Creed OriginsEscape the Lost Pyramid placed us at the base of a beautifully rendered ancient Egyptian pyramid where we puzzled and climbed our way to the top…  along the way convincing me that I could comfortably do pull-ups. 

In-game: An upward looking show of large pillars and chains in the pyramid.
Images via Ubisoft Blue Byte

Ubisoft Blue Byte demonstrated thoughtful escape game design by creating a collection of collaborative puzzles that could not work in the real world. Their stated intention is to continue to create virtual escape games set in their own intellectual property, for license by escape room facilities and VR arcades.

I hope that this concept takes off. I encourage escape room players to play Escape the Lost Pyramid if you are anywhere near a facility that acquires the game.

In-game: a small white rectangle on the floor indicating the VR playspace, beside a sign that says Escape The Lost Pyramid: An Escape Room Set in the world of Assassin's Creed Origins.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level (with VR, escape rooms, or Assassin’s Creed)

Why play?

  • Fantastic collaborative puzzles
  • Beautiful graphics
  • Massive set pieces
  • Puzzles that aren’t possible in a real-life escape room

Story

Set in the ancient Egyptian world of Assassin’s Creed Origins, we began at the base of a pyramid and had to work our way up to the top to earn the artifact that we sought.

In-game: A ray of light shining on a large statue of Anubis.
Images via Ubisoft Blue Byte

Setup

Played on an Oculus Rift and wired into a PC, our gameplay area was 7 square feet with a recommended play area of 10 square feet. The controls were straightforward; we could grab/ hold items as well as teleport using one button on either controller. We wore headphones with microphones so that we could hear both the game world and one another.

Someone playing the Ubisoft VR Escape The Lost Pyramid escape room set in the wold of Assassin's Creed Origins.

Gameplay

Ubisoft Blue Byte’s Escape the Lost Pyramid was a virtual escape room. Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.

In-game: an ornate display of a bow and arrows.
Images via Ubisoft Blue Byte

Escape the Lost Pyramid had us puzzling and climbing our way through a pyramid. Most of the puzzles required collaboration with another player. Video gamers will recognize the concept of navigational puzzles as current mainstays of the adventure puzzle genre. Traditional escape room players might struggle to recognize the pathfinding challenges as puzzles… but I assure you, they are. 

Analysis

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Ubisoft decided to make an escape room and created a puzzle tower-climbing game. Gamers will know that tower climbing has become an Ubisoft cliche over the past decade. Ubisoft gets a lot of grief for this…

and has even made fun of themselves for it…

When I first heard that Ubisoft had made a virtual escape room, I unknowingly and sarcastically suggested to a friend that “it’s probably a tower climbing puzzle.” When I say that this concept really worked, I do so knowingly.

In-game: a corridore featuring an image of Horus on a wall of hieroglyphics.
Images via Ubisoft Blue Byte

Escape the Lost Pyramid worked because Ubisoft Blue Byte presented a series of challenges that a real-life escape room could not create. They used fire, projectiles, and a ton of climbing. There was only one puzzle that could be completely recreated in a real-life escape room.

+ Ubisoft Blue Byte made great use of verticality. The vertical scale of Escape the Lost Pyramid was imposing. It was brilliant, once again, because this sort of grandeur isn’t possible in real-life gaming.

In-game: A statue of Horus with a beam of light shining from him.
Images via Ubisoft Blue Byte

Escape the Lost Pyramid leaned heavily on immersive adventure. The puzzles were in trying to maneuver our avatars through the virtual space. It was less puzzley in a traditional escape room sense. This format, however, played towards the strengths of a virtual space.

+ The challenges required teamwork. We enjoyed figuring out how to work together, from different spaces in the VR, using the tools each had at our disposal. It was exhilarating.

+ When we shot arrows in VR, it felt like we were shooting arrows.

? I didn’t get a lot of Assassins Creed out of Escape the Lost Pyramid. There were whiffs of the mythology in the briefing and conclusion, but it was more environmental. I didn’t see this as an issue. In fact, I felt that it made the game more approachable for those unfamiliar with the series. If you’re looking for a lost chapter of Assassins Creed Origins, however, you won’t really find it here.

– We did a lot of climbing. Climbing was initially deceptive. With each motion, it felt like moving the world rather than moving my own body. This took some getting used to. Climbing was also too easy, as it didn’t have any weight resistance. This was weirdly off-putting. And thus, we might as well have been moving the whole world.

– Escape the Lost Pyramid was missing a culminating puzzle or a finale scene.

+ The vertical movement didn’t cause motion sickness. Even Lisa – who is generally motion sick in all VR – was happily moving up and down.

? While motion sickness wasn’t an issue, vertigo or a fear of heights could be a factor.

– The VR equipment was a small obstacle, especially the wire. We’d constantly step on it, or get tangled in it. To compensate for the small physical space in which we maneuvered, we needed to teleport a lot, even across small distances. This wasn’t initially intuitive and took some getting used to. We did, however, get used to it.

In-game: The avatar customization area. Players are selecting extra props to adorn their characters.
Images via Ubisoft Blue Byte

+ Players could select an avatar and make small aesthetic customizations with hats, masks, and other props. While I couldn’t see my own avatar in-game, I spent a lot of time looking at my teammate’s avatar.

+ Overall, the equipment was easy to use, comfortable to wear, and worked well. The controls made sense.

+ The world of Escape the Lost Pyramid was beautiful and detailed.

Finally, Escape The Lost Pyramid is a licensable game that will only be available through escape room and VR arcades. Ubisoft Blue Byte intends to release new virtual escape games set in other Ubisoft worlds. If this is their starting place, I’m eager to see what they build next.

Tips for Playing

  • If you have a fear of heights or are prone to vertigo, this may not be the game for you.
  • You may have slight motion sickness early on. Lisa almost always gets motion sick in VR, but she was mostly comfortable in Escape the Lost Pyramid.

Connect with Ubisoft Blue Byte to license the Escape the Lost Pyramid, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Ubisoft Blue Byte offered free play-throughs of this game on the show floor at Up the Game.

The Witness [Review]

Puzzling Nirvana

Developer/Publisher: Thekla, Inc.

Director/Producer: Jonathan Blow

Dates Played: January-April, 2018

Platform: Windows, MacOS, Android, PS4, Xbox, iOS

Duration: 18-25 hours, 40-50 hours for completionists

Price: $9.99 on iOS, $13.60 on Android, $39.99 on Steam

REA Reaction

The Witness asked me to observe and to think. It was puzzle bliss.

Designer Jonathan Blow took a simple puzzle concept and built upon it in brilliant and unexpected ways.

The resplendent environment and clever puzzles left me wanting more, even after 25 hours of play, most of it spent thinking.

In-game, and array of basic puzzles that build in complexity.
A series of starter puzzles.

Who is this for?

  • Patient puzzlers
  • Digital aesthetes
  • People with any level of video game experience

Why play?

  • Immersive world
  • Innovative puzzle design
  • Excellent difficulty curve
  • You will be smarter by the end

Story & setup

The Witness began with no backstory. I walked down a long, dark hallway and found a panel. On the panel was a line with one circular end. Touching the circle and dragging along the line opened a door to a gorgeous island. That first panel I had encountered was the simplest version of a seemingly endless series of line mazes found on puzzle panels everywhere.

It’s easiest to describe this game by what it wasn’t. It didn’t have any items, characters, music, dialogue, or written words. There was some light philosophy in the form of audio recorders I found lying around, but other than that, it was pure puzzle zen.

In-game: A lush forrest with a dirt path running through it.

As I wandered around, I was initially reminded of the island in Myst. The structural similarity was obvious, but graphically, it had come a long way since then. The colors in The Witness popped. There was an orchard of bright pink cherry trees and a desert temple that gleamed in the sun. Even the salt mine was beautiful in its own way. When an early boat ride around the island included a trip through a shipwreck, I started to realize how big this island was.

The exploration was rewarding. Even after investing my first ten hours into the game, I found a new area and wondered how I could have missed it. New perspectives on familiar areas also delighted my aesthetic side. Statues I found throughout the island weren’t puzzles at all but rather subtle nudges to look at everything from a different perspective.

Gameplay

Every puzzle panel in The Witness was an iteration on that original line maze I had encountered at the beginning. And there were a ton of panels – more than 500. Prior to jumping into The Witness, I wondered how it could sustain one concept through an entire game, but after just a few hours of play, I understood its genius.

In-game:
Something quite a bit more complicated.

The puzzles in each area of the island introduced me to a new variation. Sometimes I was required to use the environment to guide my solution: shadows or branches that had fallen upon the panel, for example. Other times I had to decipher the symbols on the puzzle (with a certain amount of trial and error) to learn the new rule required to solve it.

It created its own visual language as I built on my successes. I began to see line patterns both in the game world and in real life.

Analysis

+ This game was an epiphany generator and I quickly became addicted.

+ The Witness was an open-world game with essentially one type of puzzle. Despite this, I found myself engaged throughout. New concepts were introduced gradually. The puzzles didn’t overstay their welcome.

+ This game was a work of art. Certainly aesthetically, but also in its masterful creation of fun, fair, creative, and challenging puzzles. It taught concepts without coddling, trusting that I was smart, determined, and patient enough to see it through to the breakthrough moment.

– There was one sound in the game that I found grating. As I sat working with my trusty line (sometimes for hours at a stretch), there was always a low hum coming from the panel. The mute button became my sanity-saver.

-/+ The Witness always rewarded me for solving a puzzle with the same thing: more puzzles. As a lover of games, I’ve been conditioned to expect something to happen when I make progress: more XP, an improved weapon, a fun cutscene. I had to leave those expectations aside and accept that this game was a unique animal. My own intelligence was leveling up and that was better than any bit of digital swag I could have received.

+ Creator Jonathan Blow didn’t want you to feel smart playing The Witness. He wanted you to understand that you are smart.

+ When The Witness was released, Blow begged people not to watch walkthrough videos. After my first major puzzle roadblock and subsequent breakthrough, I understood why: I didn’t want to deny myself that rush as my brain grew a little larger.

+ After occasional periods of frustration, there were times when I thought I would never fire this game up again. Every time I did, however, I would get through my roadblock and wonder why I’d almost given up.

– There’s no hint system and no manual. When I did find an overly obtuse puzzle, I eventually had to give up on it. Thankfully, The Witness doesn’t require you to solve every panel to reach the end.

+ Beyond the beauty and craftsmanship of the island and its puzzles, the most significant strength was its balance. I rarely found the easy puzzles too tedious or the hard ones too taxing.

– When I completed a puzzle, there was barely any sound effect aside from the gentle clunk as power was supplied to the next series of puzzle panels. If you’re still addicted to Candy Crush, this absence of dopamine rewards will bother you.

+ The best teachers make you feel like a genius when you reach the lesson they’ve been gently guiding you toward all along. In its best moments, The Witness felt like a Buddhist monk showing me the way to enlightenment. The road was long, but it was incredibly satisfying.

Tips for Playing

  • Don’t watch walkthrough videos. You’ll miss out on the reason to play.
  • Perfect for a long flight. Los Angeles to Singapore will feel like nothing.
  • Spend some time away from the puzzle panels and just look at the world.

Purchase your copy of The Witness on Xbox One, PS4, iOS, Mac, or Steam.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Gorogoa [Review]

Mind-bending beauty.

Platforms: iOS, Windows, Nintendo Switch

Publisher: Annapurna

Date played: Mid December, 2017

Duration: Approximately 1.5 – 3 hours

Price: $5 on iOS, $15 on Windows & Nintendo Switch

Story & setup

Gorogoa was a video game that followed a boy on his quest to… do something with… an Asian dragon-y divine beast. To achieve these ends I had to help the protagonist attain 5 colored orbs. I’m not exactly sure what I was accomplishing by completing the quest within Gorogoa, but it was nonviolent and I sure had a great time doing it.

In-game: A panel showing a young boy and an old man kneeling and holding a bow with 5 colored orbs eblow a large multicolored dragon.

Gameplay

Gorogoa played through a unique interface that I can best describe as a 4-panel comic book. At any given point during the game, between 1 and 4 of those panels were filled with beautiful hand-drawn art. The gameplay was in creating interactions between the various panels.

In-game: a 4 paneled layout with two active panels. One on a rooftop, the other in a livingroom.

Panels could be split by dragging one layer off of a panel, creating an entirely new panel. Panels could be aligned against one another. Panels could also be overlaid on top of each other. In taking these actions, the world within the game would change, allowing the boy to take action.

Interestingly, in Gorogoa I did not play as the protagonist. I also never took any action within the game’s world. Instead, I changed the world and the boy within it reacted to the changes. Therein lay the puzzle. How could I change the game world so that the boy within it could accomplish his objective?

Standouts

It’s exceptionally rare to encounter a puzzle game that comes up with a completely new type of puzzle. When I started playing this, its innovation caught me off guard. It was different from anything else that I had played before.

Quite a few of the lengthy puzzle sequences were so much fun. I enjoyed figuring them out and seeing them through, as well as witnessing the effects that they had on the world.

The art was gorgeous. Every aspect of Gorogoa was hand drawn and colored in Photoshop. There weren’t many repeating patterns.

Gorogoa didn’t instill a sense of narrative or even adventure. Instead it left me feeling awed.

I don’t recall having to read a single word in Gorogoa. The game was entirely visual.

There were no hints or tutorials. Touchable portions of the game world would pulse if I let the game sit for too long. These pulses gently guided or highlighted actions I could take… not necessarily what I ought to do. This kept Gorogoa from becoming too cumbersome while also not dragging me through it.

At its best, the puzzles felt deeply intuitive. I eventually internalized the strange rules of Gorogoa and that knowledge became an extension of myself. I could look at a set of panels and feel my way through the puzzles.

Shortcomings

At times I had no idea what was going on and found myself pawing at the screen hoping that something productive might happen. These were the low moments.

Due to the 4-panel layout, animation and story advancement could occur in multiple places at once. The parallel animation had a really cool effect, but made it impossible to tell where I should be looking. When these gang animation moments happened, I felt like I missed out, which was damaging in a game this intimate.

Gorogoa was short. I think my playtime was around one hour and forty minutes. (I suspect that I played it faster than the average player.) I would have loved to spend more time in this strange world.

Should I play Gorogoa?

Gorogoa offered no instructions, no tutorial, and no explanation. It presented an odd interface with gorgeous art. It never held my hand or dragged me along. I had to solve each and every puzzle for myself.

In-game: a beautiful multicolored series of circular repeating patterns surrounding an eye.

There were moments when I got stuck. After I’d looked at everything I had access to, I’d close the app. However, I’d mentally keep running through it. Solutions would pop into my mind and I’d rush to open the game again. Those were beautiful moments.

Gorogoa wasn’t serene like Monument Valley, which has always put me into a sort of zen state of calm puzzling. Learning to play Gorogoa felt like I had encountered aliens and was deciphering their language. This constant decoding mixed with the art and combined with watching the world unfold instead of acting within it left me perpetually in a state of awe.

By the final act of the game, I felt like I had learned the language of Gorogoa. And I wanted so much more. I understand the short length, given that this hand-drawn indie game involved creating and developing an entirely new style of play over the course of years, but that knowledge hasn’t kept me from wishing that Gorogoa was a little bit longer.

Gorogoa costs $5 on iOS and $15 on Windows and Nintendo Switch. I played it on iOS using my iPhone 5SE because of the lower price. I think that it would have been more enjoyable on the larger screen of my Switch, but I don’t think it would have been triple-the-price better, even for a game as innovative and beautiful as Gorogoa.

Download Gorogoa today.

iOS / Steam / Nintendo Switch

 

Room Escape Lover’s 2017 Holiday Buyer’s Guide

Looking for more ideas? Try the 2018 Holiday Buyer’s Guide.

Now US-, Canada- & UK-friendly!

REA logo wearing a Santa hat.

‘Tis the season for gift giving… and stressing over finding great gifts. We’re here to help you find the perfect gift for your escape-rooming, puzzle-loving friends and family.

We’re not repeating anything from last year, so check out our first 2016 Holiday Buyer’s Guide for additional inspiration. 

Tabletop escape games

Let’s start with the obvious…

Escape-Room-Photo

Escape Room in a Box

(Amazon US)

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment was the first tabletop escape room we played… and gun to our heads, probably still our favorite. It was just as much fun when we revisited it this year when the Kickstarter shipped. A new version is now available for purchase just in time for the holidays!

Unlock Box Art

Unlock!

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Unlock! Escape Adventure is a card-based at-home escape game series with 3 games currently available. In terms of dollars for gameplay, these are a great deal… Plus, you won’t destroy them at all while playing the game! Read our full review.

In-game: A mess of cards, the decoder wheel, images of the cabin's rooms, and a book that reads,

Exit: The Game

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Exit: The Game is series of tabletop escape games with 3 games currently available in English (more in German). Again, in terms entertainment value for your money, these are a great deal… But go in knowing that you’re going to destroy this game while playing it. Read our full review.

Journal29 1

Journal 29

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Journal 29 is an intriguing puzzle book with a narrative experienced entirely through puzzles and illustration. It is deeper, more challenging, and more entertaining than your average puzzle book… but it ain’t a cakewalk. This thing will fight you. It’s a wonderful companion for a flight delay. Trust me, I know. Read our full review.

Many of the game's props and components staged. There are ciphers, grids, flags, maps, and photos.

Subscription – Escape The Crate

Among the current selection of at-home subscription games, we recommend Escape the Crate. In each episode, we chase the villain through time to stop him from altering history. Escape the Crate games are not polished (they look like prototypes); however they make up for it with innovative mechanics and consistent quality of gameplay.Read our reviews of Chapter 1 and then Chapters 2 and 3.

Home

A strange clock made of many gears and bicycle chains.

Needlessly Complex Clocks

Lisa and I don’t own one of these, but oh my, do we want the Dual Chain Planetary. If you’d like to spend lavishly on us this holiday season, this is at the top of our “we absolutely don’t need it, but we want it” list.

A while ceramic cup with black 1s and 0s imprinted all over.

inaeent ceramics

This Etsy shop has dozens of beautiful, strange, and unique bowls, plates, and cups. I love the Binary Wine or Tea Cup.

A chain standing upright, magically floating a bottle of wine.

Magic chain wine bottle holder

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This simple illusion proudly floats a wine bottle in our dining room. It’s amusing. Note that it doesn’t like wide-mouthed bottles. 

Tabletop games

These are a few collaborative games that escape room players will love:

Pandemic Legacy Seasons 1 / Season 2

(Season 1 – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

(Season 2 – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Pandemic is one of the great collaborative tabletop games. Pandemic Legacy turns it into an ongoing, episodic experience that permanently evolves, damages, and changes the board with each successive episode. It’s gaming with consequences.

Mysterium box art.

Mysterium

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This social game of deduction has one player facilitating as a ghost giving signs and the rest of the group playing as psychic detectives. It’s like Clue and Dixit had a much prettier and considerably more fun baby.

Arkham Horror the Card Game box art.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This Lovecraftian horror game is intense. It plays out over multiple campaigns and it’s shockingly challenging. If your character dies, they are gone for good. I grew so attached to my character that when he nearly perished at the end of an episode, I couldn’t sit still.

This game also has a boatload of expansions with more on the way. I’ve played them all and I love them.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB box art.
This box is far smaller than it appears.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This last one isn’t collaborative, but it’s a fantastic, inexpensive, compact, and quick 2-player head-to-head game that has both players vying for political dominance in a surprisingly well-researched and thought-out card game.

I love small games that don’t require long rule readings. This is a great casual game that anyone can learn.

Puzzles

A silver metal loop made of two interlocking pieces.

Cast Loop

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

This puzzle isn’t a killer, but the trick is clever. No matter how many times I solve it, I love the feel of it. Note that this puzzle is best presented in two pieces. It’s trivial to solve if someone hands it to you completed. 

A cast metal diamond of silver and black materials. They snugly fit together.

Cast Diamond

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

The Cast Diamond is another puzzle that won’t break your brain. It’s just a joy to solve and feels so satisfying. Note that this puzzle is best presented in two pieces. It’s trivial to solve if someone hands it to you completed. 

A bronze cast metal layer cake puzzle.

Cast Cake

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

You want something hard? Try separating this layer cake into 4 pieces. I’ll wait.

This thing took me forever to figure out and I’m not ashamed to say so. It’s tough.

Rubik's Triamid assembled but color jumbled.

Rubik’s Triamid

(Amazon US, Amazon UK)

I wrote a full review of this long forgotten puzzle that captured my imagination as a child.

A multi colored ball made of up of tiny gears.

Gear Ball

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

I am terrible at Rubik’s Cube-type puzzles and have zero chance of solving this thing. Ever. However, this crazy ball of gears is so psychologically satisfying to manipulate that it doesn’t matter.

It’s absolutely purchasable as the thinking person’s fidget spinner.

The art for the Harry Potter Flying keys 1000 piece puzzle.

New York Puzzle Company – Harry Potter Flying Keys

(Amazon US, Amazon UK)

At 1,000 pieces, Harry Potter Flying Keys (and yes, it’s licensed) is the perfect jigsaw puzzle for escape room lovers. It’s beautiful. The New York Puzzle Company produces high quality puzzles (we reviewed a different one earlier this year).

They have many more puzzles to choose from if you’re looking for something different.

I am Lion, Wolf, Panda, & Horse

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

These animal head jigsaw puzzles are beasts to solve. They have irregular edges, large swaths of repeating patterns, consistent coloration, and unusual piece shapes. They range from 550-700 pieces.

“I am” is a pun because if you want to have a prayer of solving these, begin with the animal’s eyes.

If you love difficult jigsaw puzzles, this is a must-buy… but know that you’re playing on hard mode.

Tools

Sugru

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

It molds like silly putty and hardens into rubber. It’s insulated against electricity and it’s heat- and cold- resistant. This was one of the first things that we published about on Room Escape Artist over 3 years ago… so like 5 people have seen that post. I use it all of the time to repair and customize things around our home.

Fun fact: I once brought Sugru to a humanitarian crisis and fixed a whole bunch of things around a UN field office with it.

3M SandBlaster ultra flexible sanding sheets logo.

Sandblaster Ultra Flexible Sanding Sheets

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Hey escape room owners! I sure hate picking up splinters while playing escape rooms. This especially flexible sandpaper is fantastic for smoothing over all sorts of nooks and crannies. I am a big fan… and no, I’m not kidding… I think sandpaper is fantastic.

Video Games

Nintendo Switch+ The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

(Nintendo Switch – Amazon US, Amazon UK)

(Zelda– Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Breath of the Wild is a modern masterpiece and a brilliant display of adventure puzzle game design. Hopefully Nintendo makes enough Switches available this holiday season. If you can get your hands on one, you will not regret the time you spend exploring Hyrule.

A hand holding the tiny Super Nintendo Classic in the palm of a hand.

Super Nintendo Classic

My brother procured an SNES Classic for me and ever since our Escape Room Tour of NYC ended, I’ve been enjoying some of my all-time favorite video games once again. Mega Man X, Super Mario World, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are three of the finest examples of game design out there.

There is so much to learn from and enjoy about these games.

The catch: These things are maddeningly hard to acquire at the moment, but if you get one, you win Christmas. I’m pretty sure that’s how this works. 

Books

The three installments of the End Game series. The gold covered first volume is on top of the pile.

Endgame Series

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Endgame is The Hunger Games for puzzle lovers. For anyone who enjoys dystopian teenager fiction and puzzles, this trilogy offers both. The first person to solve the puzzle in the first book Endgame: The Calling won $500k in gold. It’s a crazy hard puzzle.

Break Out book cover features an Apple II with Oregon Trail's load screen.

Break Out – How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

If you’re interested in the history of game design, the early PC gaming era is a treasure trove of stories and learning. Break Out chronicles the creation of many classic Apple II games. I loved the Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego chapters.

The cover art for the first volume of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Winston Breen is a puzzle-loving teenager. In this story, Lisa puzzled along with Winston as he got swept up in a treasure hunt. The book presents puzzles within an entertaining narrative. (Full review forthcoming.)

Movie

Movie cover for Raiders! depicts the 3 main characters dressed in their costumes.

Raiders! : The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Amazon US)

This documentary tells the insane story of a group of teens in the 1980s who decided to recreate Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark shot-for-shot. It took them years and thus their ages change from shot to shot. They almost killed themselves creating this. It’s a hell of a story.

The intensity and ingenuity demonstrated in this film reminds me of some of the most interesting escape room companies that I’ve encountered. It’s also streaming on Netflix at the moment.

Stocking stuffers

3 in 1 flip book cover

Flip book!

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Ok, I was skeptical too, but this thing is mesmerizing, beautiful, and so damn cool.

Packaging for 4 different gear ties. Art illustrates the flexibility and versatility of the product.

Nite Ize Reusable Rubber Twist Tie

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

We’re always on the move, electronics in tow. These reusable rubber twist ties are perfect for securing the cords for our phones and earbuds.

A quirky PowerCurl neatly wrapping a MacBook power cable.

Quirky PowerCurl

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

For our laptops, we swear by the Quirky PowerCurl for taming our Macbook power cables. Be sure to get the right size for your power cable. 

Escape room

Escape Again logo stylized.

This one might seem obvious… but you can give the gift of an escape room.

I recommend, however, that you plan out the entire excursion instead of buying a gift certificate. It’s better to provide the full experience rather than a gift card that’s likely to get lost.

Kids

Cover art. Young Pedro standing in front of a castle made of puzzles.

Pedro and the Puzzle Palace

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

I found Pedro and the Puzzle Palace in a local bookstore earlier this year, on a shelf promoting local authors. In this adorable picture book Pedro learns core values through puzzles. This is for real, little ones.

Spy Code Games

(Break FreeAmazon USAmazon CA)

(Operation Escape RoomAmazon US, Amazon CA)

(Safe BreakerAmazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Spy Code offers 3 games for children: Break Free, Operation Escape Room, and Safe Breaker (reviewed individually). Each game teaches different puzzling skills through brightly colored plastic props, with some remarkably satisfying and fun interactions.

Box art and traffic jam puzzling components of Rush Hour Jr.

Rush Hour Jr.

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

Rush Hour Jr. is a fun spatial puzzle for kids as young as 6. If this one seems a little too basic, try the version for adults instead.

Book cover for Top Secret, looks like a brown folder being held by a pair of black gloved hands.

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This fantastic book is perfect for helping kids learn the basics of cryptography… as well as the roots of so many escape room puzzles. It’s also a great read if you design escape rooms (full review).

Charity

Child's Play logo

Child’s Play

Ok, I lied. I’m repeating one thing from last year: supporting Child’s Play.

I’ve written about this a few times because I love this organization. They allow you to buy and send toys directly to children’s hospitals. There are plenty of good causes to give to, but since we’re focused on fun and games, I can’t think of a better way to give back than to provide some fun for kids who desperately need an escape.

Thank you!

If you purchase via our Amazon, Etsy, or Puzzle Master links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.

Please share this buyer’s guide far and wide.

We truly appreciate your support.