Escape Room Challenge – Special Agent [Review]

One day, we’re going to investigate someone for espionage and they will be innocent.

Location: Evesham Township, New Jersey

Date played: June 23, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

While investigating a Soviet agent’s home, we became locked in and had an hour to dig up his secrets and work our way out.

Special Agent put us into a Cold War-era personal office/ study environment. It looked solid, but lacked drama.

In-game: A typewriter on a desk in the foreground. A large wooden bookcase in the background.

Puzzles

The puzzling in Special Agent simply wasn’t all that… special. We found ourselves relying heavily upon our knowledge of how escape rooms work in order to make the last leaps we needed to earn solves.

Standouts

There were a couple of tangible and satisfying puzzles.

The staff was attentive and clearly watching our play through closely.

Shortcomings

Some of the puzzles were ambiguous and the gamemaster even knew this. In one instance, we derived a handful of numbers with no indication of what to do with them. Another significant interaction had a few layers to it, but little to no direction to go along with it. I hope that Escape Room Challenge considers revising their clue structure for a number of the puzzles in Special Agent.

Some of the more interesting interactions didn’t have the proper effect because we didn’t know that we had triggered something, or if we did realize that we triggered a thing… we didn’t know what we had done.

The audio track that played ambient noise also produced tones that sounded like a hint being delivered. This quickly became annoying and concentration-breaking.

Special Agent lacked excitement.

Should I play Escape Room Challenge’s Special Agent?

Special Agent didn’t have much of a story arc. We entered a room, solved puzzles, and escaped.

The escape room looked like it was built with love, but the puzzles felt incomplete and the interactions felt disconnected. There wasn’t the drama that a Cold War spy thriller is supposed to have.

Special Agent is a playable game, but if you’re visiting Escape Room Challenge, I strongly encourage you to brave their Egyptian Tomb. It’s a better, more beautiful, more exciting experience.

Book your hour with Escape Room Challenge’s Special Agent, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

Escape Room Mystery – The Laboratory [Review]

Experimental storytelling.

Location: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

It was our first day as lab assistants for our new boss, a mysterious Dr. Heisenburg… He had special plans for us. What could possibly go wrong?

Escape Room Mystery’s The Laboratory was as advertised: a sterile lab environment with the assorted props and trappings that one typically expects from such a theme.

In-game: A box displaying a skelaton in the middle of a white lab.

Puzzles

The Laboratory was a puzzle-centric room escape with a broad mixture of puzzles and plenty to accomplish. Only a few of the puzzles were truly memorable, but the memorable ones were pretty entertaining.

Standouts

The Laboratory began as a standard lab escape room and then ratcheted up the intensity of both the game and the puzzling at the halfway mark. The second act of The Laboratory was fantastic.

Escape Room Mystery included a common, and usually flawed, lab escape room interaction, but used components and design that made it work well where most have failed.

Shortcomings

In one strange instance, Escape Room Mystery straight up provided the solution to a significant puzzle in-game. A less heavy-handed approach to clueing would have made this puzzle a lot more satisfying.

One prop was overused. One of the puzzles associated with the prop was not on par with the rest of the puzzles in The Laboratory.

The introduction to The Laboratory seemed like it was setting up the escape room around a cartoonish, evil Nazi doctor. The whole intro was strangely glib, given its subject matter. Then that story, as well as the character, disappeared as soon as the game-clock began counting down. This intro was strange and unnecessary.

Should I play Escape Room Mystery’s The Laboratory?

Escape Room Mystery’s The Laboratory surprised our team in a number of ways. It started off seeming like it might be a pretty mundane game and then escalated out of nowhere into something far more intense and interesting.

My initial reaction was wrong. There’s something compelling going on in The Laboratory.

Less experienced players will find a solid adventure with a challenging puzzle set.

Escape room veterans who play for the puzzles and teamwork should give The Laboratory a shot. It took a few puzzles to find itself, but once it did, it executed a lot of things well that most escape room companies do poorly.

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

Full disclosure: Escape Room Mystery comped our tickets for this game.

Philadelphia Room Escape – Escape From Alcatraz [Review]

At least there weren’t sharks.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 25, 2017

Team size: 6-14

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28-30 per ticket

Story & setting

Following in the footsteps of Robert Stroud, also known as “Birdman of Alcatraz,” we were attempting to escape the famous prison by uncovering his escape plan.

Philadelphia Room Escape’s Escape From Alcatraz was a metaphorical prison escape at best. The room was a strange mix of worn used furniture and unusual wallpaper designs.

In-game: A wooden jail cell painted black with a wallpaper print of of a jail cell behind it.
Yes, that is giant jail cell-print wallpaper. Put it on your Christmas list now so that you don’t forget it come December.

Puzzles

The puzzling in Escape From Alcatraz was bumpy and built around searching a gamespace that was larger than it should have been. Additionally, Escape From Alcatraz contained trivia with no references in the room escape and decipherments that require guesswork.

Standouts

Our gamemaster was kind and made a very funny joke during his introduction to the game.

Shortcomings

The set was incredibly unappealing, beat to hell, and covered in splinters. When I moved a piece of furniture (which was a necessary action), it turned out that it was propped up on one of its legs and the thing fell on me. I’m fine… but wow.

The puzzling wasn’t fun. It involved too much searching, paper-based puzzles, outside knowledge, and guessing.

Should I play Philadelphia Room Escape’s Escape From Alcatraz?

There are flawed room escapes that need some editing and rethinking, but could work. Escape From Alcatraz was not one of those games.

Skip Escape From Alcatraz.

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

 

Escape West Chester – Detention [Review]

“Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.”—Bender, The Breakfast Club

Location: West Chester, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $26 per ticket

Story & setting

We were held in detention for an hour in Escape West Chester’s Breakfast Club-inspired 1980s classroom.

Detention had the look of a classroom complete with lockers, fliptop desks, and a chalkboard.

In-game: Close up of a school desk with a sticker on it that says, "Don't you forget about me."

Puzzles

Detention’s puzzling was chaotic; it was difficult to find the thread of gameplay. Whenever we thought we had a handle on which components connected or the order in which we should attempt to solve something, we were generally incorrect.

Standouts

There were some fun puzzles for logophiles (word lovers, but you probably already know this if you are one).

Detention was an ode to The Breakfast Club. It was a cute theme that felt right in the space.

The set looked like a classroom.

Shortcomings

A straight classroom without a twist wasn’t an environment that instilled a sense of adventure.

While Detention felt inspired by The Breakfast Club, that source material was nodded to in staging, but didn’t drive the puzzles. This created a lot of red herrings that we continually stumbled upon: details in the props that seemed important, but turned to out to be nothing.

Detention had a lot of gating problems: we regularly had access to portions of many puzzles without any indication of what we ought to work on.

This issue was compounded by seemingly arbitrary connections – ones that existed and ones that didn’t – and occasionally receiving clues to puzzles we’d already solved.

Should I play Escape West Chester’s Detention?

Detention was a lighthearted staging of that room in the school where nobody wants to go. The nods to The Breakfast Club added a bit of intrigue to an otherwise bland environment.

In some ways, this was an escape room for beginners. It lacked the set design or theme and puzzle integration that more experienced players have come to expect.

That said, this escape room would be especially frustrating for beginners because much of the challenge stems from tenuous connections rather than difficult puzzling. I cannot imagine most teams making it through without a lot of hint assistance.

As a result of all of this, I don’t really know who Detention is for. Experienced players could handle the level of challenge, but won’t love this room escape. Inexperienced players are likely to be playing this room escape, but it must be a bumpy experience for them.

I hope that Escape West Chester can continue to improve their games and integrate their inspirations into the puzzles to build a local attraction that is entertaining and sustainably competitive.

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

 

Expedition Escape – Quest For The Throne [Review]

That’s what I do. I puzzle and I know things.

Location: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $112 for up to 4 players, then $28 for each additional ticket

Story & setting

With our claim to the throne usurped by a malevolent younger sibling, we had to sneak back into our family’s castle and find the proof we needed to claim the throne.

Quest For The Throne was set within a bright and cartoonish king’s study.

In-game: A chalice sitting on a purple clothed table, with a suit of armor and confessional booth in the background.

Puzzles

Quest For The Throne was a mixture of logic puzzles and tangible mechanical puzzles. There was something for everyone.

Standouts

Quest For The Throne was at its best when it presented physically tangible puzzles. There were plenty of these moments.

The climax was amusing.

Shortcomings

Quest For The Throne was a little too heavy on logic puzzles and laminated sheets of paper. The puzzles could have been more diverse and the paper-based puzzles could have been better worked into the environment.

There was a story in Quest For The Throne, but it was a little clunky and hard to follow.

Should I play Expedition Escape’s Quest For The Throne?

Quest For The Throne was a bright and friendly castle-themed escape room. It was family-friendly and approachable.

Quest For The Throne was at its best when the puzzles were tangible and required set-based interactions. If you don’t mind the laminated sheets of paper tucked in between these, you’ll have fun with this escape.

This would be a good entry into room escapes for newer players. It has approachable puzzling and solid puzzle flow.

More experienced players will likely play through this quickly, but find a few fun moments along the way.

Note that Quest For The Throne was designed by Andrew Parr of N.E.R.D. (New Escape Room Designs) and modified by Expedition Escape. It’s possible that players may have played other versions of this escape room in other facilities.

Book your hour with Expedition Escape’s Quest For The Throne, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

Bates Motel Escape Rooms – Bates Manor [Review]

Haunted mansion.

Location: West Chester, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.95 per ticket

Story & setting

Our team of accomplished thieves was executing a heist of the wealthy Mr. Bates’ estate. Our goal was to make our way to his office and liberate his cash and gold.

Bates Manor was a staggeringly compelling Victorian home set overflowing with detailed set design. It was dimly lit and highly believable.

In-game: The entry gate, and front of Bates Manor.
I have to admit, this photo doesn’t really do the set justice.

Puzzles

The puzzling in Bates Manor was inconsistent. It had a strong start and a brilliant run of puzzle interactions in the middle of the game, but far too many puzzles required trial and error or significant logic leaps.

Standouts

The detailed set design was exquisite. Bates Motel Escape Rooms constructed interesting and surprising spaces into this heist. They minded so many little details that we actually stopped playing for a moment to admire and discuss how nuanced the set was.

We loved the puzzles that made Bates Manor feel like a heist. These puzzles were issues we’d have to solve if we’d been breaking in. They were born of the environment.

Bates Motel Escape Rooms built one particularly impressive tech-driven piece of set decor. It stole the show and I wish they’d used it a little more.

Shortcomings

Bates Manor was a dark set and Bates Motel Escape Rooms did not include enough light sources for each individual to carry one, nor were we allowed to use our own phones/ flashlights. That meant that at any given moment, a couple of people were unable to fully participate. This was compounded by one of the flashlights that we had being weak and underpowered.

Despite a beautiful set, Bates Manor suffered from poor upkeep. One lock was so worn that we could not see all the letters on it, not even with all the lights in the room pointed in that direction. We solved the puzzle, but David had to use a lock picking technique to input 2 of the digits.

Two late-game input mechanisms were a frustrating struggle: one because it required precision interpretation of the instructions and execution, the other because it was so unclear that we could think of a half dozen ways to interpret it.

A few puzzles relied only on trial and error or reading an enormous amount of written material, in low light, much of which was irrelevant… or maybe it was the narrative, if there was any, beyond a heist mission. We never invested the time to know.

This was all made more frustrating by Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ use of the Escape Room Boss automated hint system, which felt like it was engineered in a lab specifically to instill shame and despair.

Should I play Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ Bates Manor?

While The Tomb is Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ more visually impressive escape room, Bates Manor had stronger gameplay.

Bates Manor had a more down-to-earth set, but it was just as exquisitely detailed and really instilled the adventurous feel of a heist.

There was a fun escape game here for players of all experience levels. It will likely be challenging, but puzzle through it as if it were a heist, not necessarily a beautifully structured escape room, and the solves will likely be invigorating.

Many of the issues that made it most frustrating could be fixed. We hope that Bates Motel Escape Rooms will invest in the iteration and upkeep needed to make this escape room play as impressively as it looks.

While we had to contend with lack of upkeep, some obtuse puzzle designs, and clueing structures, overall, there was a solid heist adventure in Bates Manor.

Book your hour with Bates Motel Escape Rooms’s Bates Manor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Bates Motel Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Xscape The Room – The Classroom [Review]

School askew.

Location: Media, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We entered a bad dream where we had to take a test… but we hadn’t studied for it. Could we reason our way through our classroom dreamscape?

The Classroom was a cartoonish, dream-like school environment. Instead of being locked into a room that looked like school, we were in a charmingly odd school-esque setting where lessons and meaning required crafty interpretation.

In-game: A little hula girl statue sits in the foreground with a twisted and askew classroom in the background.

Puzzles

Everything in The Classroom was a little funky and the puzzles were no exception. In keeping with the classroom-in-a-dream environment, the puzzles generally involved a convergence of seemingly unrelated things.

Standouts

Classroom settings aren’t inherently exciting. I spent a couple of decades in classrooms and they all basically looked the same. I loved Xscape The Room’s dreamy, funky take on a classroom. It made a setting that could have been boring into something fun, weird, and joyous.

The Classroom was built around a series of puzzles and moments that were all simple, yet brilliantly executed.

The Classroom made us laugh.

Shortcomings

Color was used in a lot of different ways, some of which were red herrings and may even have been unintentional distractions.

Some recurring props seemed like they should have had meaning, but didn’t. There was a lot of unnecessary stuff and a little too much searching. I would have preferred an extra puzzle or two and fewer distractions.

The Classroom lacked a climax. When we emerged through the exit door, we weren’t quite ready for the escape room’s conclusion.

Should I play Xscape The Room’s The Classroom?

The Classroom was playful, charming, and funky. It exemplified a standard escape room executed well.

I highly recommend The Classroom for newbies; it will be a tough but satisfying game.

Experienced players will also enjoy The Classroom. The puzzling works well and it offers something refreshingly different. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

The Classroom was the seventh and final game of an escape room marathon day and we emerged feeling energized and delighted… That’s high praise.

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

Full disclosure: Xscape The Room provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Escape Room South Jersey – The American Embassy [Review]

Nixon needs our help!

Location: Collingswood, New Jersey

Date played: June 23, 2017

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 – 28 per ticket

Story & setting

An American bureaucrat sold out to the Soviets and planted a nuke on American soil. President Nixon personally assigned our team the duty of saving the United States and the world.

Staged in an embassy office, we searched through the belongings of an eccentric government official in hopes of tracking down the nuke that he had stolen and learning how to disarm it.

In-game: The Assistant secretary's desk in a wood paneled 1970s bureaucrat's office. A photo of Richard Nixon sits on his desk.

Puzzles

The puzzling in The American Embassy felt a little like escape room default mode, but with a clean and fun execution. There were some subtly clever moments hidden within the escape room. In the couple that come to mind, we nearly called for a clue, and were extremely satisfied when we pushed through to earn the solves ourselves.

Standouts

The American Embassy was hilarious from start to finish. So many of the interactions were built around jokes and they landed.

Escape Room South Jersey’s imitation of Futurama’s Richard Nixon imitation was perfect and fit the tone of the room escape.

I don’t love red herrings, but The American Embassy had one of the funniest ones that I’ve encountered.

While an office environment wasn’t the most exciting place to escape, Escape Room South Jersey committed to the 1970s vibe, which worked well.

The American Embassy wasn’t all laughs. It had a strong series of layered puzzles with seriously satisfying solves.

Shortcomings

The first puzzle was a rough and ambiguous start. While it might have been a good puzzle later in the experience, as the jumping off point, it was difficult to even identify where to begin.

There were too many combination locks available at the start of the game. It ultimately became fairly intuitive to identify which puzzles paired with which locks, but early on, this made the puzzle flow bumpier than it should have been.

The set was inconsistent. While parts of it looked great, other sections came directly from Ikea.

Should I play Escape Room South Jersey’s The American Embassy?

Not enough escape rooms are funny; that’s what made The American Embassy shine. By injecting humor and building the escape game around satisfying puzzles, Escape Room South Jersey made what would have been a fairly standard office-based Cold War escape room into something memorable.

The American Embassy is suitable for players of all skill levels because it’s approachable and thoughtfully designed.

There are prettier games out there, but The American Embassy had solid flow, and it made us laugh… I’d take that over many escape rooms.

Book your hour with Escape Room South Jersey’s The American Embassy, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Room South Jersey provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Bates Motel Escape Rooms – The Tomb [Review]

Beauty and the beast.

Location: West Chester, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.95 per ticket

Story & setting

Having just found the belongings of the long missing archeologist, E.A. Budge, we sought to use his research and our wits to uncover the hidden tomb of Ani, high scribe of Ramses II.

Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ The Tomb presented a sandy and beautiful glimpse of Egyptian antiquity. The set was a work of art.

In-game: An Egyptian sarcophagus in the middle of a sandstone tomb.

Puzzles

The Tomb felt like a set-driven room escape. By that, I mean it seemed like Bates Motel Escape Rooms designed the set and large interactions, and then backfilled puzzles into it. This meant that there were some beautiful interactions, but it wasn’t always smooth to achieve them.

Standouts

This was by far the most beautiful Egyptian Tomb set that I’ve seen. I imagine that I will one day see other sets on its level, but I cannot imagine finding anything that looks substantially better.

The hidden and triggered interactions looked fantastic.

Shortcomings

One of those triggered interactions would cycle every few minutes, triggering a closure and then an opening all on its own. This was confusing because we kept thinking we’d triggered something else. It was also distracting.

While one interaction was constantly and loudly triggering itself, other triggered events did so with little indication. This meant that we sometimes missed having completed things or didn’t realize that we had gained access to something new.

The puzzle design relied heavily on written materials that served as a bottleneck and were, at times, incredibly confusing.

Sporadically throughout the set, pieces had fallen off. Aesthetics aside, these particular missing pieces related to an earlier puzzle, which left us wondering if the missing pieces were relevant; they weren’t.

The tomb was too dimly lit for some of our teammates to see and phones/ flashlights were not permitted. (This was made aggressively clear prior to the escape room beginning.) When we asked our gamemaster to clarify something during a post-game walkthrough… he pulled out his phone and turned on his flashlight to show us, because he seemingly couldn’t see it either. Empathy, people!

All of these complications were exacerbated by Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ use of the Escape Room Boss automated hint system, which felt like it was the unholy offspring produced by a threesome between a business efficiency consultant, the findings of the Milgram Experiment, and an app developer. In order to “automate” the hinting, we had to lug around an iPad and scan QR codes to get canned hints. This was crazy for a few reasons:

  • We weren’t allowed to have our phones, but we were carrying around a tablet.
  • Bates Motel Escape Rooms elected to ugly up their beautiful creation with hideous QR codes.
  • The hints were canned and taking one docked 2 minutes off of our time. This was particularly painful when it gave us a hint that told us something we already knew. Our only recourse at that point was to use the app to take an additional 5 minute penalty to receive the puzzle’s answer.

Should I play Bates Motel Escape Rooms’s The Tomb?

The Tomb desperately needs a puzzle designer. Bates Motel Escape Rooms produced a phenomenal environment, but the gameplay, rules, and hint system were all deeply flawed.

I truly hope that the folks from Bates commit to improving their player experience because their set is simply too good for the escape room that they have within it.

If you want to explore one of the finest Egyptian tomb escape room sets out there, then you should check out The Tomb. Otherwise, there are better escape rooms to play.

Book your hour with Bates Motel Escape Rooms’s The Tomb, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Bates Motel Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Escape Entertainment – Time Trap [Review]

Time looped.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 25, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per ticket

Pre-review note

In a first for us, the creators of this escape room reached out shortly after we played to acknowledge that we surfaced a number of issues while playing the game. They have assured us that they have remedied them. While we’re publishing the review of the escape room as we played it in June of 2017, it seems like future players should have a better experience.

Story & setting

Our team of time cops had to chase a Carmen Sandiego-style nemesis into Philadelphia’s past. Could we identify where he was going and catch him?

Time Trap had two profoundly different acts and sets to go with them. The escape room began in a time ship and continued in a historic setting. The ship had a sterile look about it, like Apple was suddenly selling time machines. The mystery historical setting had a warm and homey feel.

In game: A stark white, lit blue time ship with astrological symbols on the walls.

Puzzles

Time Trap’s puzzling was in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from Escape Entertainment: a focus on reasoning and challenging puzzles, with a few of them built around large, tangible set pieces.

Standouts

There were some strong physically interactive puzzles that encouraged teamwork.

The time travel component worked well and the different sets elegantly juxtaposed against one another.

We spent some time working through a pair of great big set pieces. These were satisfying to solve.

Shortcomings

Escape Entertainment lost power just before we began our game, and things were… off (including our start time). At the beginning of the game, nothing worked, so we exited, and restarted. Once things got rolling, we still had a tech failure mid-game.

Not all of the big set pieces had sufficient camera coverage, so our gamemasters were blindly dropping useless hints to us. Then, because they didn’t have microphone coverage, they didn’t even know that they were feeding us useless information or that we were becoming frustrated by them.

There were parts of the set that were falling apart and the Time Trap had only been operating for a month.

One early puzzle left us completely baffled. We ended up deducing our way through it using an alternative method of solving it. Even after getting the description of the proper way to solve the puzzle during the post-game walkthrough, we were happier with our workaround.

One of the big set pieces could have used a better set of controls to make manipulating it easier.

Should I play Escape Entertainment’s Time Trap?

There were some great ideas at play in Time Trap, beautiful set pieces, and strong puzzles. Unfortunately, during our playthrough, these were outweighed by flaws in execution.

With a stronger, more resilient set, and better in-game surveillance, Time Trap could be a strong room escape. In its state when we played, it was a mixed bag.

There were puzzles worth solving and plenty worth experiencing in Time Trap. I think these elements would be an approachable and challenging for all skill levels. When we played, however, it felt like Time Trap was in public beta testing, and that’s was not acceptable. I’m glad that they’ve fixed the technical and construction issues.

Book your hour with Escape Entertainment’s Time Trap, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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