søndag den 27. august 2017

The Alchemist's Chamber (Mindmaze, Prague)

Rudolf II was a real-life monarch, who reigned over a handful of Central-European countries back in the 16th century. He died in Prague, 59 years old, largely unsuccessful politically, but very colourful in his private life. He loved the arts and occult sciences like astrology and alchemy, and spent most of his life searching for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone – a substance which among other things could turn metals into gold and bestow immortality to man. 

Actually, Rudolf II invited a bunch of alchemists to court to conduct private experiments in the royal laboratory just to find the Philosopher’s Stone. And so, this is where you find yourself at the start of “The Alchemist’s Chamber” escape room. You, yourself, are an alchemist and have to help Rudolf and hopefully find the occult material. But don’t worry: It’s not really as dangerous or horrifying as it sounds. “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a very family-friendly escape game, with atmosphere and puzzles for even the youngest Harry Potter fans. And as such, it works just fine.

Set decoration: 6,0 points
Entering “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a little like stepping onto the stage of “Harry Potter the sitcom”. The lights are maxed out, no shadows, but there’s lots of space because there are no tables or chairs to speak of. Plenty of space to move around for the actors, but also a little too unreal to be more than just a stage set. The brick walls are constructed from wallpaper designed to look like a brick wall. The floorboards are too perfect and shiny. There are no cobwebs or candlelight here. You never feel that you are back in the 16th century, let alone an alchemist helping Rudolf II. You can pretend, but that’s about it.

Still, it’s not that the room is hopelessly decorated at all. There are knickknacks placed on shelves around the walls, there are even stuffed animals and some old pieces of furniture. Some of the items that have to be used in the puzzles are also lined up nicely – an old cauldron, a collection of test tubes to mention just the two obvious ones. From the loudspeakers you can even hear a dramatic film score. And during the game the room changes and opens itself up to your investigations in new ways. Yet, it doesn’t feel authentic or immersive in that 16th-century dungeons-and-dragons style you might expect. It’s a little too “perfect” or staged – and very family-friendly, first and foremost. 

And then we haven’t even mentioned the power cords that are clearly visible around some of the puzzles. Preferably they should have been hidden inside the decorations. They are not as family-friendly.

Puzzles: Could it be magic?
If the set design is a little bland, the puzzles are definitely more fun and varied. Overall, there’s a nice flow in the gameplay. It’s not 100% linear because you find objects along the way that you have to use later in the game. Still, the game feels linear because it’s divided into four sections, each based on you uncovering a stone that have to be put into a diagram. Solve the puzzles – get the stone. Get the four stones – complete the game. In this way, “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a game designed for escape-room beginners, because it’s always pretty clear where you are and how far you are in the game.

And that’s not a bad thing, when the puzzles themselves are as diverse as they are here. Even though there are a number of padlocks – and also padlocks within padlocks! – the gameplay never feels boring or like a chore.  You get to play around with the water in the test tubes, with a magic cauldron and with some spices, as well.

Some of the puzzles seem to have been designed with young and older children in mind – sorting through a number of animals, fishing for keys with a magnet, recognising the zodiac signs, and so on. Actually, the electric devices and contraptions you come across are very family-friendly, as well: Whenever you fiddle around with a mechanism, you always know when you’ve activated it, and what other thing it opened up or turned on. The childish glee at opening a secret compartment in another corner of the room will seep into even the most grownup of us – and that’s just great! Indeed, the straightforward nature of the gameplay will leave you with a great sense of accomplishment. Which just underlines that “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a fun escape room to play.

Game Master: Over and out!
Our game master/hostess was very kind, forthcoming and excellent at English. She welcomed us with a smile and showed us around. However, she also followed us all the way into the room itself as a sort of standard procedure – and as always it makes the gameplay less immersive.

And then there’s the hint system: As in most other escape games in Prague, you are equipped with walkie-talkies and communicate with your game master in this way. And as in many other escape games in Prague, it fits the overall theme of the game very poorly. In “The Alchemist’s Chamber” you’re supposed to be 16th-century alchemists at Rudolf II’s court. So, therefore there should be no walkie-talkies – the hint system should be integrated into the game in a different and more creative, more immersive way. Maybe you could have a magic mirror that could give you hints in writing or pictures instead. Or maybe you could conjure up a spirit that could speak to you from beyond. Other solutions are available, but walkie-talkies should be a no go in this game setting.

Interestingly, the countdown timer was actually integrated into the game in a very elegant way. Mounted on one of the walls is an hourglass, and then each 15 minutes played is marked with a sound effect mixed into the dramatic music: A hooting owl, church bells and so on. That was an excellent idea.

All in all, “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a nice and family-friendly room designed so that even 6-7 year olds can participate. That’s another way of saying that the room lacks atmosphere and thereby also a sense of realism and immersion. But then it’s a good thing that the puzzles are fun, coherent and down-to-earth. There’s a little something for everyone here, so it’s very hard not to like this escape room.

Room: The Alchemist’s Chamber
Company: Mindmaze, Tyršova 9, 120 00 Nové Město
Languages available: Czech and English
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: CZK 1200,- for 2 players, CZK 1400,- for 3-5 players

This review:
Game date: 12 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Mindmaze suggests that you are 2-5 players, but we wouldn’t recommend more than 3 grownup players due to the size of the room. A family including 2-3 children should be fine.)
Hints: 1

We survived, 41:52 minutes played

søndag den 20. august 2017

Inglourious Basterds: Spring of 45 (Door Z, Prague)

You have to tip your hat to “Inglourious Basterds: Spring of 45”. Not only have the creators behind this escape room dared to recreate the plotline of a World War II prisoner-of-war movie – they also succeed in this seemingly impossible task. To a large extent, at least.

The idea behind “Spring of 45” has absolutely nothing to do with Quentin Tarantino’s counterfactual World War II film (2009). There are no hints or references to neither the film nor Tarantino’s gratuitous violence or humour. In fact, “Spring of 45” is a family friendly if still adventurous escape room. The setup may actually be the scariest thing about the whole room: You play allied soldiers who have been taken by the Nazis and locked up in a shed. You will be executed at dawn, and therefore you have to escape into the woods while there’s still time. And not just escape: Along the way you have to blow up the Nazi headquarters. And like most of the beloved classic WW2 movies, this escape room is probably not historically correct in any way – but it sure is a lot of fun.

Set decoration: 7,3 points
You start the “Spring of 45” escape room enveloped in darkness. Then the lights come on and you find yourself locked up in a tiny shed made of solid wooden planks. And no door! The lights are dimmed, and old discarded stuff fill up the shelves on the walls and the floor space. You can actually smell the wood, and in the distance you can hear soldiers fighting, shooting and screaming. This is a great way to start the story and get immersed in the story and the setting.

As you venture forward into the plot, the set design gets a little less impressive. You never feel that you stand in a real forest, but Door Z (the people behind “Spring of 45”) have made a decent attempt with a couple of tree trunks on the cramped 8 m2. It’s a difficult setting to create, and the solution here is most of all cute. Other creative solutions work far better. They involve lighting effects and TV screens functioning as windows – both of which open up the space of the escape room and underline the war theme. The room is also well designed in the way that it integrates various antique knick-knacks in the puzzles. This creates cohesion, which leads to immersion in the game play.

Still, the set design of “Spring of 45” isn’t perfect – it’s actually pretty easy to make the game even more immersive. For instance: They should turn up the volume of the sound effects to make it sound like there’s a war right around the corner. When we played the room, all the shooting and shouting was nearly drowned out by the Mission: Impossible theme music playing in the other game room. And then there’s the huge explosion towards the end of the game – where did that one go?

Puzzles: 8,8 points
Where as many escape rooms are constructed as a Freudian maze where you constantly have to unlock yet another box or open the door to a secret room or solve a riddle to reveal something hidden – “Spring of 45” is nearly the opposite. This escape room is constructed as an action-adventure computer game: You have to move forward, and you have to do things. Of course, you still have to unlock some doors, and find secret codes to deal with a couple of padlocks, but it’s not to solve some secret mystery. Your main goal is to escape from the claws of the Nazis and blow them to pieces in the end. This means that the game is very straightforward and linear: You have to move from room to room – from the shed to the forest and so on. So, once you get moving, the next door – the next challenge actually – is easy to spot.

This makes the game fun and action-packed. The 12-13 puzzles themselves are varied and involve a lot of physical activity and fiddling around with the set decorations. Light and sound play a crucial role during the game, as do German airplanes and an old accordion initially found in the wooden shed. You have to collaborate on some of the more inventive riddles, and you also have to search high and low for different details and clues, but it never becomes a chore of finding the needle in the haystack. In all fairness, there’s something for everyone in this room. 

Overall, due to the linearity of the game, there’s a nice flow in “Spring of 45”. This just underlines the sense of adventure and action, and you are quickly absorbed in the gameplay despite the set design.

Game Master: 4,8 points
Our game master was kind and forthcoming, but not very good at English. In fact, it was quite impossible to strike up a conversation with the poor guy before and after the game. However, during the game he was alert and responded to our three hint requests. Communication via text and a screen is not an option, but here it wasn’t a problem because we played the game pretty much on our own. Still, it’s annoying to ask – and ask again – about the deadline: There’s no clock or countdown timer in the game.

As with many other game rooms in Prague the hint system here also relied on the use of walkie-talkies – which doesn’t work very well with the game. It simply breaks the illusion of the World War II theme. Door Z should really come up with a creative solution that could go well with the 1945 setting – an old wireless perhaps and messages from our allied friends and fellow spies in Germany. Perhaps that could also incorporate the missing timer somehow. That would be a great improvement, but – again – we didn’t really need the hints, so we didn’t get all that annoyed with the walkie-talkie solution.

Conclusion: 7,0 points
If you forget about the missing connection to Inglourious Basterds and just play “Spring of 45” as a World War II-inspired escape game, it’s quite fun and adventurous, and works well with the whole family. The set design is pretty good, but it’s the inventive and diverse puzzles that provide most of the immersion in the gameplay.

Room: Inglourious Basterds: Spring of 45
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 each room)
Hints: 3

We survived, 52 minutes played

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