søndag den 13. august 2017

Ocean’s 12: Monaco Heist (Door Z, Prague)

“Ocean’s Twelve: Monaco Heist” (the escape room) is loosely based on Steven Soderbergh’s film, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and a number of other famous Hollywood actors. That doesn’t mean that the game is all that glamorous, unfortunately. It may be about a billion-dollar heist, but it feels very mundane. No, actually the link to the film is most obvious in the second part of the gameplay where the room opens up to a small and claustrophobic laser labyrinth that must be scaled in order to win. And it’s tough and near impossible. This is not a spoiler – it’s a disclaimer!

We get back to the lasers later in this review, since they took up at least 20 minutes of our game. Meanwhile, the setup to “Monaco Heist” is pretty straightforward: There’s a rich billionaire living in Monaco. He has a diamond. You need money. You go steal it. You have an hour to do so. Then the billionaire will return. It’s as barebones as it’s immoral, and the room could really do with more of a backstory to be discovered along the way. That would actually have been pretty simple and made your criminal objective more relatable.

Set decoration: 6,0 points
It’s a funny thing that Door Z, the company behind “Monaco Heist”, have pinned this escape room on the Ocean’s franchise. The casino theme is nearly forgotten, the owner of the room – the billionaire – doesn’t come off as a billionaire, and there are no diamonds or other expensive stuff lying around. What we have here is an escape room clearly made by somebody who fell in love with the Belgian surrealist artist, Rene Magritte – he’s the guy with “This is not a pipe” painting, the grey business men falling from the sky, the giant apples, and lots of other famous paintings and sculptures. And first and foremost, this escape room plays homage to Magritte – many of his paintings cover the walls together with photos, masks and paintings by other artists. Which is all pretty neat – who doesn’t love a Magritte painting?

However, since the paintings are of course reproductions, the room doesn’t come off as being particularly opulent or lavish. There’s no champagne, no yachts, no glamour. It’s neither realistic nor immersive for that matter. However, it feels quite small because it is quite small, with no windows opening up to the French vistas apparently lying outside – remember, it’s called “Monaco Heist”. It’s never perfectly clear what room in the house, the game is set in: It doesn’t come off as a library. It doesn’t come off as a lounge. Or an office. Or a living room. It was just pretty white and covered with Magritte paintings. In this way, it just served as an escape-game room. But a quite bland one. Your heist is accompanied by some jazzy lounge-like music, but unfortunately there were technical issues with the loudspeakers which made parts of the music sound tinny and almost like Morse code.

Puzzles: 6,0 points
The first part of “Monaco Heist” feels most like an escape game. The puzzles continue to pay homage to Magritte and the visual arts: You have to use your eyes and discover the true meaning of the photos and the paintings in a variety of ways. It’s quite creative and there’s a good flow in the game in this section. But then again: This doesn’t go very well with the whole heist/casino theme. There’s also a huge puzzle around midway through where you have to build something, which has very little to do with either Rene Magritte or Ocean’s Twelve. In this way, you could say that the puzzles are both fun and playful, but they’re also very inconsistent.

The hands-down most time-consuming puzzle of them all is in fact not really a puzzle, but a physical obstacle race. You open up to a small room crisscrossed with at least 20 laser beams that you need to manoeuver through in order to win. This laser labyrinth becomes almost a game in the game – a physical challenge that will make you feel like a king if you manage to get all the way through it and finish the proper game. And you can do it over and over, again and again, because you can switch off the alarm that sounds every time you touch a laser beam. So, it could actually be quite a fun thing to put inside an escape room, right? Make people let out their inner Tom Cruise. Right?

However, here are the problems: This is a nearly impossible challenge for big people – and that’s “big” in any sense of the word: fat, robust, buff, tall, long-limbed, 12-week pregnant. People with long hair, too. We also include people with baggy and loose clothes – the same kind of clothes you would normally wear in an escape room.

Actually, it’s quite a shame, because taken at its face value the laser labyrinth is fun! It’s challenging and it’s playful. It’s like playing a real-life action game rather than the real-life adventure game we are used to in escape rooms. But not when the laser labyrinth takes at least 20 minutes to accomplish and replaces maybe five creative and fun puzzles. Then the laser game within the escape game becomes a very lazy gameplay solution.

Game Master: 4,5 points
Our game master was both kind and forthcoming, but with no talent for the English language. There was a real and somewhat annoying language barrier between him and us, especially because we had to communicate through walkie-talkies in the game. This meant that the few hints we were served during the game had to be repeated several times, and at times we just gave up trying to understand the poor guy. Furthermore, there were no hints in writing to help him and us along the way. We were completely dependent on communication through speech and walkies. And here, in this particular game session, that just didn’t work very well, which is a problem when the game is advertised as being available in English.

The whole walkie-talkie communication could actually have added an extra degree of immersion to the game, had our game master been better at English and pretended to be part of the heist: He could have played the guy in the van, scouring the blue prints of the billionaire’s house for hints for us. That could have been fun, but it was a missed opportunity here.

Conclusion: 5,5 points
Overall, “Ocean’s Twelve: Monaco Heist” is a pretty inconsistent game with a handful of playful puzzles topped off with a frustrating, difficult laser labyrinth. Despite the many Magritte paintings, this escape game doesn’t feel the slightest bit surreal, but rather a little flat and mediocre.

Room: Ocean’s Twelve: Monaco Heist
Company: Door Z, Václavské nám. 837/11, 110 00 Praha 1-Nové Město
Languages available: Czech and English (beware the language barrier)
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: CZK 1590,- for the entire team (2-6 players)

This review:
Game date: 11 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Door Z suggests that you are 2-6 players, but we wouldn’t recommend more than 3 players due to the size of the rooms, and be sure to bring at least a skinny athlete along!)
Hints: 2-3

We survived, 59 minutes played

søndag den 6. august 2017

Faust (Enigma, Prague)

“Faust” is a different take on the escape-room genre than we’ve encountered before. Rather than discovering the story, the puzzles, and the space yourself, you are guided through the whole thing by the titular character of Faust speaking to you from the beyond. Interestingly, in some ways it actually works quite well, but then in others it falls flat to the ground.

The setup to “Faust” is pretty straight forward, although some of the narrative problems start right here: Faust is dead, but his soul is caught in limbo, due to his actions when he was alive. Put simply, he has done something unforgivable, and now God wants to punish him. Your job then is quite an awkward one: You have to save Faust from eternal punishment, while simultaneously uncovering his sins. So, in a way, you help a criminal get away with his crimes, even though they seem to be extremely mundane. The name of Faust might lead you to expect pacts with the Devil, satanic rites and a proper, horror-inspired room. In that case, “Faust” the escape room will never deliver since it focuses on Faust’s simple and somewhat silly love affair with a woman named Margaret.

Set decoration: 6,0 points
The “Faust” escape room is decently decorated. It aims high for the secluded rooms of a priest or a mage – maybe inside an old tower of a castle or a church. There is an array of knickknacks and cobwebs in the corners. The designers have even tried to create a couple of religious stained-glass windows, and they’ve drawn some rune-like letters around the walls of the rooms as well. The lights are dimmed and they will change throughout the game in order to guide your attention and make sure you stay on the strict narrative path you have to follow. All of which is well done.

However, this is also all there is to the room. It never opens itself up to further investigation, beyond the puzzles within these four walls. In fact, you could argue that much of the creators’ attention to detail has gone to the more mechanical and electrical puzzles and obviously the video projections of Faust, who appears inside some kind of mirror in the middle of the room. It’s actually quite spooky when you see him in the very beginning, because he speaks with a deep voice and looks transparent like a ghost. The whole idea that he is following us and guiding us from beyond is actually not bad. But as the game progresses, Faust becomes annoying due to several factors: 1) Faust controls the story, the plot, the puzzle solving. 2) Thereby he ends up controlling your entire experience of the room, making sure that any sense of immersion and accomplishment goes out the window. 3) He’s not good at English: We actually ended up ignoring several of the projections because we couldn’t understand what he said. 4) He is a projection, and the projector is standing inside the room, both clearly visible and very noisy.

Puzzles: 8,3 points
If the set design is just okay, the big puzzles are certainly more varied and fun to deal with, mainly due to the aforementioned technical solutions that have been fed into the game. The different puzzles in “Faust” are linearly designed around Faust’s continued plot narration: According to himself, he will take you on a journey through five chapters of his life – in the end it turned out to be actually just one chapter divided into five sections. But these sections are all constructed around a row of puzzles that have to be solved. After the accomplishment of each of these sections you are rewarded with a “magical stone” that has to be inserted into a pentagram, five stones in total.

In this way, the linearity both drives the plot forward and makes “Faust” an escape room for beginners. Also, because there’s a nice progression in the puzzles – they start pretty simple and end up being more complex, if also somewhat incoherent. The best thing about “Faust” is perhaps the variation: They involve religious references, sound and music, water and moving the furniture around. There are of course also a fair number of padlocks and keys to be found, and there are also more school-like chores to be dealt with. Overall, the gameplay feels playful – it’s always fun to feel the insides of a device click into gear and then look up to find out what was activated in the room. 

Still, by having a pre-recorded actor telling you the story, telling you all about the room, guiding you from puzzle to puzzle – that’s actually a very lazy and easy way to construct a game. And the sense of adventure is hard to obtain for the involved players.

Game Master: 3,5 points
The number-one problem in the “Faust” game room was the language barrier we encountered. First of all, the entire game hinges on the actor playing Faust: He tells the story, he creates the plot, and he gives the hints – almost non-stop during the entire 60-minute gameplay. On the one hand, it ends up being very annoying, and on the other hand you are entirely dependent on this technical gimmick. So, it has to work – obviously – and here it simply does not. The actor’s English skills were so poor that we basically gave up following the story as well as the hints. We really longed for some subtitles or at least just the clues in writing, none of which was to be found in “Faust”.

Unfortunately, our game master outside the room didn’t do much better. She was able to see us, and she communicated with us through the pre-recorded lines spoken by Faust, while we were playing. However, as a game master and a hostess, she was extremely shy – to a degree where she was unable to welcome us or say goodbye. She quickly disappeared behind a wall or behind a counter, avoiding eye contact, staring into some papers, and looking like this was her worst day of her life.  

To be fair: These language issues are probably non-existent in the Czech version of the game: If we had been fluent in Czech and had played “Faust” in Czech, as well, it would probably have made a lot more sense.

Conclusion: 5,9 points
So, in the end, “Faust” is an attempt at making a different kind of escape-room game. The problem is that the driving idea about a pre-recorded actor directing everything in the game doesn’t work very well. Yet, the string of puzzles is a nicely mixed bag – containing a handful of fun electrical riddles. The Faustian over- and undertones are, however, sadly missing.

Room: Faust
Company: Enigma, Svornosti 888/18, 150 00 Praha 5 – Smíchov
Languages available: Czech and English (but we can’t recommend playing it in English)
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: CZK 1200,- for the entire team (2-5 players)

This review:
Game date: 11 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Enigma suggests that you are 2-5 players, but we wouldn’t recommend more than 3 players due to the size of the room)
Hints: All the way through due to the technics of the room!

We survived, 52 minutes played

søndag den 18. juni 2017

The Bedroom (Sherlocked, Malmö)

Not only is Anna’s House a remarkably well-restored authentic city house from the 1870s – it’s also a site for three escape games with hints and nods towards the gothic and the macabre. And when it comes to “The Bedroom” in Anna’s House, it doesn’t get any more gothic or macabre than that. Apparently, Anna didn’t socialize much, but died old and miserable, a childless spinster, alone and angst-ridden under very strange circumstances. In fact, her corpse was found weeks later locked up inside her bedroom under her bed. In her diary she had confessed that she believed that something or someone was after her and her family secret.

That pretty much sums up the set up to “The Bedroom”, and as with the other escape games provided by Sherlocked in Malmö, the finer details are lacking here, too. It wasn’t particularly clear what roles we were supposed to play in the room so many years after the fatal incident: Were we modern archaeological investigators, were we paranormal detectives – what was our business there in the room? Other questions were also left unanswered – like: why were we locked up inside the room at all? But the main objective was fortunately pretty clear: We had to search for the family secret inside the room and get out of there before the stroke of midnight because that’s when the ghosts start appearing.

Set design: 7,8 points
What’s truly brilliant about “The Bedroom” is the set design and the atmosphere generated first and foremost by the room itself. Actually, the game starts in the most spooky way in the children’s room outside the bedroom, and by doing the very first puzzle you end up locking yourself up inside the bedroom. Which is, by the way, pitch black. All the lights are out and you have to find your way through the darkness with the help from two small flashlights.

This way of entering and discovering the room, was both adventurous and scary. It was like rummaging through an abandoned room in a real haunted mansion. You slowly uncover old objects and various knickknacks inside the room, among those an array of eerie antique pictures of children on the wall, and a dark wooden wardrobe with a mirror. Discovering your own reflection in there is how close to a proper haunted house film this gets.

However, there wasn’t really a bed, which is kind of weird considering the name of the escape room. And furthermore, we were treated with famous film music streaming from the loudspeakers (from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas among others); this unfortunately didn’t really enhance the ghostly and dreadful experience, especially since the music changed to a thumping action film score only halfway through the game.

Anyway, we spent 20 minutes in complete darkness fiddling with a bunch of stuff and discovering the room – and it was great! Then the game master nudged us towards the turn-on-the-lights puzzle. Which apparently had been the one puzzle we should have started with all along…

Puzzles: 8,0 points
“The Bedroom” is not ground-breaking in any way when it comes to the puzzles. Here are lots of padlocks to open – involving both numbers and letters. It’s pretty straightforward, maybe also because once the lights are on you realize that the room is fairly small, sparsely decorated and therefore easy to survey. This obviously also means that there are less red herrings in this room compared to the others we’ve tried with Sherlocked – and the signposting of this room also works better. Overall, it creates a better game flow which we prefer any day.

There are a couple of troublesome puzzles, one of which involves some bottles you come across during the gameplay, but which doesn’t really make a lot of sense in this somewhat realistic context. The second one was just downright difficult because you have to bring your a-game math skills – and there is no notepaper, no pen, no nothing to help you.  However, most of the puzzles were playful and varied and used the room and the decorations in a creative way – as well as darkness and sound.
Game Master: 9,3 points
Let’s just make one thing clear regarding Anna’s House and Sherlocked: “The Bedroom” is just an escape game. It’s not “real life gaming” or “live theatre” or whatever Sherlocked try to brand their rooms as. First of all, you could argue that this kind of advertising is misleading to the customers – at least it might lead to some confusion. Especially because, secondly, the rooms can certainly stand their own ground: They are beautiful and gorgeous, suspenseful and playful. The house itself is a character that comes alive during the gameplay, and the introduction, the stories about the Frick family – it all works very, very well. Sherlocked don’t need to hype it.

This, also, because the game masters we’ve met have all been very kind and forthcoming. They’ve been more than willing to chat and show the details of the rooms up close – and even commented on some of the more problematic features. We’re not big fans of the hint system with hints delivered in that rumbling, distorted voice over the loudspeaker. We really missed a bell sound or something similar to make us pay attention as well as a screen with the hint spelled out in writing. Slightly more frustrating was the fact that we received the same hint several times – maybe 4 or 5 times – in connection with the bottle puzzle mentioned before. That’s not all that inventive or helpful for that matter...

Also frustrating was the fact that we never really knew how much time we had left. The old-fashioned clock itself is set inside a cabinet that you need to unlock, which of course is quite a playful and fun thing to do. But it also meant that we didn’t really know when the timer had started, and in the end we felt we were snubbed of maybe 5 minutes. Still, it didn’t really mean anything, because we unlocked the door, got out in time, survived – and got our picture taken as a souvenir.

Conclusion: 8,4 points
In many ways “The Bedroom” is the better escape room in Anna’s House. It’s more sparsely decorated, but the haunted-house atmosphere is near perfect. The puzzles are creative and playful, even though it’s all about opening another padlock. The game flow is very good, and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend escape game enthusiasts (beginners and advanced, alike) to go and seek out Sherlocked in Malmö.

Room: The Bedroom, Anna’s House
Company: Sherlocked, Östergatan 5, Malmö, Sweden
Languages available: Swedish and English
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: SEK 295,- per person (minimum 3 players – SEK 885,-)

This review:
Game date: 28 May 2017
Number of players: 2 (Sherlocked recommends that you are 3-5 players, but that would be too crowded in the small room)
Hints: 7 hints

We survived, 52 minutes played