Escape Hunt – Houston, We’ve had a Problem [Review]

“Okay, stand by, Thirteen, we’re looking at it.”

Location: Houston, TX

Date played: October 8, 2017

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 5-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $38 per ticket

Story & setting

Inspired by the events of the Apollo 13 malfunction and rescue, Houston, We’ve had a Problem split the team into two groups:

  • Up to three players put on the orange jumpsuits of Apollo astronauts and played in the capsule.
  • The rest of the team worked from Houston’s famed NASA Mission Control. Within the Mission Control group, one player wore the white vest of Gene Kranz and played Flight Director, another player was cast as CAP-COM and held sole responsibility for communication with the astronauts.
In-game: A team of astronauts and Mission Control high fiveing after a successful mission
Image via Escape Hunt, Houston

The Mission Control set looked Mission Control-y. With large banks of computers and stacks of binders, it had that functional-yet-space-age-made-for-TV aesthetic that still defines NASA Mission Control’s look.

In-game: Three astronauts strapped into their seats with an intricate dashboard in front of them.
Image via Escape Hunt, Houston

The Apollo 13 capsule set ranged heavily in quality and realism depending upon which direction you were looking. Parts of it captured the cramped and complex feel of the spacecraft. Others, like the floor and ceiling, felt like office space.

Puzzles

The puzzling varied dramatically based on role.

The players in Mission Control solved more cerebral puzzles that varied in complexity. These were mainly paper-based and only occasionally tangible. We then needed to communicate these puzzle solutions.

The astronauts recreated these solves onboard the ship through set interaction. Their gameplay was more task oriented. It required calmness under pressure, coordination, and communication.

CAP-COM’s puzzle was 100% communication.

Standouts

What could be more “Houston” than Apollo 13? Escape Hunt simulated that historical moment through gameplay. It was an ambitious undertaking that added layers of complication beyond the typical escape room. It was impressive.

We appreciated the split-team design. Since any given teammate played either at Mission Control or aboard the capsule, we relied heavily on impeccable communication through the entirety of the escape room. This was an added challenge around which we had to strategize.

The set looked great. Mission control had stations with button and lights. Parts of the spaceship felt cramped and realistic. This added a little bit of intensity and intimidation that escape rooms frequently don’t offer (and I mean that in a good way).

Houston, We’ve had a Problem instilled emotion. We were frantic and at times frustrated with the limitations of our ability to communicate. This felt like an accurate simulation of a historical event. It made us reflect.

Due to the split design of the game, it was possible to play this escape room twice. Two of our teammates had played before and barely had to hold back in order to participate a second time. I wouldn’t replay it immediately, but if you wait a couple of months and swap roles, it works well.

Shortcomings

The gameplay was uneven. Some players were busy every second. Others felt useless much of the time.

The set was intricate and captivating, but it didn’t factor much into the gameplay. The majority of the puzzle solving took place on laminated sheets of paper rather than through the buttons and dials on the consoles. This was disappointing.

Parts of the capsule’s set looked unfinished. There remains a lot of opportunity for small improvements that would have a big impact.

Furthermore, Houston, We’ve had a Problem followed a run book. This made sense, given the scenario. That said, it too was laminated paper rather than integrated into the set. In the end, at Mission Control, we spent more time poring over laminated sheets than interacting with the space… or the people in space.

Fun level correlated to engagement level, which was dictated by roles. Those of us at Mission Control who solved a few paper puzzles, but largely felt useless, didn’t have that much fun.

In the capsule, the astronauts had been granted access to one set of game components far too early. This caused them to circumvent a puzzle and damage the flow of the game.

One particular puzzle went on forever. We had to communicate and repeat the same series of actions in three places. It was a serious time burner. It seemed unnecessary and diminished the excitement of players in both gamespaces.

Another puzzle did not solve according to the puzzle documentation. In fact, the way it ultimately worked rendered Mission Control, and all the time we had spent determining how we intended to solve and communicate it, utterly worthless.

Communication was an important puzzle, but it was hindered by headset difficulties and background noise. We had to open a channel to communicate, but we could hear each other in the background anyway. There was a lot of shouting in additional to regular communication channels.

Should I play Escape Hunt’s Houston, We’ve had a Problem?

Houston, We’ve had a Problem was a challenging game. We won with a mere 17 seconds on the clock. It was also a test of communication and calmness under pressure.

The overall concept was awesome. The game’s structure made puzzles that would be simple in many escape rooms far more challenging due to the strained flow of communication.

The execution was good. It’s tough to create a fully split escape game and keep it entertaining and balanced. Escape Hunt didn’t quite achieve that. The escape game just wasn’t that fun from Mission Control because most of the action was happening next door.

Note that success hinges on role assignments. The people you put in the capsule should be calm, able to communicate well, and willing to take direction. They must be prepared to crawl and get a little physically involved with the set.

Additionally, the entire game hinged on the player in the role of CAP-COM. This individual spent the entire game as the only conduit for communication for all of the players in the game. Make sure your CAP-COM player can communicate effectively, even when frustrated or stressed. If you cannot tell the difference between giving orders and effective communication… this job isn’t for you.

I don’t think that Houston, We’ve had a Problem is for everyone. The divide has less to do with escape room experience than it does temperament. If pressure really gets to you, or you struggle to communicate, this escape game will quickly spiral out of control. It’s amazing how impactful a minor miscommunication could be. You have to be cool.

Houston, We’ve had a Problem was different from other escape rooms we’ve played in that it created new challenges and different types of pressure. While it didn’t nail every aspect of the gameplay, it certainly delivered a memorable experience unlike any other.

Book your hour with Escape Hunt’s Houston, We’ve had a Problem, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Hunt provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Escape Again – The Seance [Review]

Houston, we’ve had a haunting.

Location: Sugar Land, TX

Date played: October 7, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 2-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Story & setting

JJ Buster, star of the psychic debunking TV show Bustered, had gone missing after attempting to prove that Madam Trousseau’s abilities were fake. His producer had hired us to track down her lost star.

In-game: A dim, fenced-in yard with a candle-lit shrine for offerings.

The Seance was less of a seance and more of a witch’s home. We started outside of the dark abode and had to find our way in. The set was dimly lit, with a large contrast in the design of the exterior and interior environments.

While the set was dim, everyone entered with their own flashlight.

Puzzles

The Seance offered a solid array of typical escape room puzzles and mechanisms. The puzzles required searching, observation, pattern recognition, deduction, logic, and communication. The puzzles varied in interaction type. They generally became more involved over the course of the escape room.

Standouts

Escape Again created high quality, ominous introductory videos of The Seance. These were intriguing and sold the story.

There were a few dramatic, magical, and exciting set pieces, and of them, one truly stood out.

We particularly enjoyed a few of the props in the initial set. They belonged in this eerie exterior space, but they were also quite funny.

The Seance included fun and satisfying puzzles, one of which required a lot of teamwork.

Shortcomings

While we enjoyed the puzzles, we would have preferred more interwoven elements and layered connections. This would have helped involve more people in any given puzzle. We felt that all too often puzzles were seen, solved, and never enjoyed by others.

A few early puzzles seemed just a bit too random. Perhaps these work well as an introduction for new players trying to feel around for associations, but we would have liked something a bit more substantive.

While the introductory video set the scene, and a mid-game moment provided a bit more story, the narrative never built to a conclusion. The escape room felt more “voodoo” than “seance.” We were left unsure exactly what had taken place in this space, other than puzzle solving.

The quality of set pieces and props varied dramatically. In one instance, we recommend additional attention to player physical comfort given the relatively lengthy action required. In general, there was room for additional polish.

Should I play Escape Again’s The Seance?

The Seance was a solid, beginner-friendly room. The team of newbies who flooded out before our game were clearly exhilarated.

Escape Again built The Seance with a lot of love. They succeeded in creating a cohesive, approachable escape room. While some aspects of The Seance could benefit from a little more polish and cohesion, other segments were great. The intro video in particular was exceptional.

All in all, The Seance is a solid starting place for those beginning to explore escape rooms. It offers a good mix of escape room puzzles, technology and thrills without becoming impossibly difficult or terrifying.

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

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

 

Strange Bird Immersive – The Man from Beyond [Review]

“I am a great admirer of mystery and magic. Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” – Harry Houdini

Location: Houston, TX

Date played: October 7, 2017

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

Duration: 90-120 minutes

Price: $40 per ticket, $34 per ticket on Thursdays

Story & setting

Medium Madame Daphne had invited us to a séance for the magician Harry Houdini. All previous attempts to summon the spirit of the legendary performer had failed. On this night, however, something unexpected happened. It fell to us to unravel the mysteries of life and death.

Madame Daphne, dramatically lit, sitting in a large chair at her seance table. Her arms out stretched and eyes closed.
Image via Strange Bird Immersive

The Man from Beyond was a hybrid of escape room and immersive theater. It began and concluded with untimed immersive theater and seamlessly sandwiched a full escape room in the middle.

A large seance table with a tambourine, and handcuffed. A locked chest in the background.

The set was that of a séance parlor. Having seen a few in the past, it looked exactly like the staging of an early 20th century séance. Like the Houdini Séance Chamber in Los Angeles’ Magic Castle, this room was also filled with Houdini’s belongings and mysterious creations.

Puzzles

At times there were puzzles and at times there was theater. Either way, there was magic.

A straight jacket is affixed around a bow tied mannequin.

As we investigated the Houdini paraphernalia, we found the puzzles therein. These were primarily mechanical and observational, which supported the context. The puzzles were fantastic as standalone challenges and came together cohesively as well.

Standouts

Strange Bird Immersive masterfully combined theater with escape room gameplay. The Man from Beyond was an escape room wrapped in context, narrative, and performance. It was engaging, moving, humorous, and thought-provoking. It was so much more than a puzzle game and so much more than most theater.

The actors were incredible. They followed a script that branched according to our responses. They also improvised their own reactions based on our responses. Their characters were convincing and intriguing.

A large old safe that reads, "The Houdinis. Triumph Safe Co. New York."

Strange Bird Immersive incorporated minute details into this set. While unremarkable in their own right, together these brought authenticity to the set and props. This made the narrative that much more believable. Having previously attended a Houdini Séance at the Magic Castle, amongst true Houdini memorabilia, I appreciated the attention to detail that Strange Bird Immersive built into their own creation.

The puzzles in The Man from Beyond leveraged the set pieces and props, all of which belonged to a previous era. We particularly enjoyed the mechanical puzzles crafted into these items. These mechanical puzzles were actually mechanical and were brilliantly reminiscent of The Room video game series.

We’ve encountered few hint systems that were as completely a part of the experience as this one. It greatly enhanced the piece by making hints feel like they were part of the ride.

Minor Spoiler: Game Structure Discussion

The Man from Beyond gave one player an individual scene, apart from the rest of the group. Unlike so many similar moments in other games, the rest of the team remained actively puzzling and entertained. We each enjoyed this time, despite the differences we experienced.

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There were some great sounds cues.

Strange Bird Immersive created an air of mystery around the entire experience. The room reacted. The actors reacted. And we reacted. Sometimes in unpredictable ways.

It has proven challenging for many escape rooms to deliver story and gameplay in a single hour with a ticking clock. In The Man from Beyond, Strange Bird Immersive avoided these pitfalls by removing the countdown timer entirely during storytelling segments and allowing the team to puzzle with little interruption during the gameplay segment. This elongated the length of the experience and worked magically.

At the onset of the experience Strange Bird Immersive served us small Prohibition-era cocktails; they were fantastic. They will also serve beverages without alcohol or sugar if requested.

Shortcomings

The Man from Beyond started with an onramp interaction, to help newer players learn how to interact with an escape room space. While this introduction tactic was clever, it never resolved; it simply got us exploring a little. Throughout the experience, we continually wondered whether this opening scene would factor into something or whether it would unravel into a plot twist. This part lacked closure.

One visually loud prop looked like something that it was not. This created some confusion and burned a fair amount of time. The prop seemed like a really bad puzzle, but it wasn’t. It just looked like a familiar bit of bad design. Ultimately this was a distraction and The Man from Beyond would have been better with something else in its place.

Hiding a few cables and tubes would improve the overall game and reduce the risk of players screwing up their own experience.

While the important narrative elements came from the experience itself, there were additional details to be gleaned from written texts. These were too small and wordy for everyone to enjoy.

Should I play Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man from Beyond?

Without a doubt, if you’re anywhere near Houston, Texas, you should visit The Man from Beyond, and bring everyone you know.

The Man from Beyond was fun, beautiful, moving, puzzley, and somehow managed to be both intense and approachable at the same time.

A navy blue room with the walls covered in stars. Strange tagged cages hang above a pair of antique chaise lounges.

Strange Bird Immersive’s first experience was masterful. It stands out among escape rooms. It stands out among immersive theater.

At $40 per ticket, for up to 2 hours of immersive theater and escape room gaming in a beautiful environment, with great puzzles and actors, Strange Bird Immersive is one of the highest value experiences that we’ve encountered to date.

I left The Man from Beyond feeling incredibly emotional because it was a beautiful story…. and because Strange Bird Immersive created an experience that realized what I’ve hoped to see from the escape room medium.

Book your hour with Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man from Beyond, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Strange Bird Immersive comped our tickets for this game.