Month: May 2016

Room review: U Escape: Szechuan Secret

Freeing SG has taken over the Plaza Singapura space instead.
This review is left here merely as a record.

Their description: You’re an undercover Government Operative on a secret mission in a foreign country. Will you be able to uncover the code in time?

Sometimes you play a room and you can’t wait to write a review (and have to deliberately delay doing so, in order to assess it in a slightly more detached state). And sometimes you play a room and just… don’t really want to write the review.

It would be easier if Szechuan Secret were just irredeemably bad. The problem is that there were some touches which I appreciated, and which made the room’s flaws that much more frustrating.

First, full disclosure: we did not escape. This rarely happens, and probably made our experience extra disappointing. It also means that we had only a partial experience of the room. Nonetheless, I’d argue that a good escape room should be enjoyable regardless of whether you succeed, and should be consistent enough that you do enjoy whatever percentage of it you get to see.

The room did not get off to a great start. When I go for an escape room, I expect to be solving puzzles or doing clever tasks. I don’t expect to be trying random hidden number combinations on whatever locks are lying around. I consider this approach so terrible that I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention it.

(It would be different if the number combinations were at least hinted at; for example, if you had a room full of books, and a clue pointed you to a specific book with a number on the spine. That is not what happens in this room.)

I also dislike 1) tedious puzzles 2) that are purely about execution. There is at least one of those in this room — and as if that wasn’t enough, the same puzzle is also unsatisfying for other reasons.

If all of Szechuan Secret had continued in that vein, then at least we could have just laughed hollowly about it later and called it quits. But what was truly frustrating — for me, at least — is that some parts of the room did work for me. One puzzle was a little tedious but made fun use of a gadget; another was just another hidden code, but at least it was cleverly hidden. Another puzzle was conveyed in a fun manner, reminded us of the storyline, and made decent use of the setting. If we had gotten further in the room, maybe we would have uncovered one or two other nice puzzles. Who knows.

As for non-puzzle aspects: the decor is fine and there are some nice physical flourishes. There’s a bit of scene setting (that unfortunately suffered from technical malfunction) at the start, and the previously-mentioned puzzle that tries to bring players back to the storyline, but nothing outstanding in terms of immersion.

U Escape bills itself as a US-style escape room outfit, and its rooms are apparently imported from a company in Kansas. I have to say, if this is representative of what US rooms are like, then I’m not particularly interested in playing them.

In case you’re wondering, this room is NOT RECOMMENDED. Unless you’re willing to brave the terrible beginning in the hope of discovering better puzzles later on.

Since it’s unlikely that I’ll return to try other U Escape games, I’ll just make some overall, non-room-specific observations here as well:
– Good things first: the hint system is relatively non-intrusive, in that you’re given hints on a television screen. This also means that you know someone is watching your progress, so you won’t be stuck in a situation where e.g. tech malfunctions and no one notices. The flip side is that their usual practice is to give unsolicited hints if a team seems stuck. But we requested for them not to do so, and they kindly complied, so that’s an easily avoidable option.
– U Escape is one of the pricier options around, at $29 before GST (something that caught us off-guard, since at all other companies, the advertised price is just what you pay).
– Unless you buy all 10 (!) slots in a room, you may be combined with other players.

Puzzle difficulty: 2.5/5
Puzzle logic: 3/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 3/5

Atmosphere and setting: 3/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 3.5/5
Storyline integration: 1.5/5

Their suggested number of players: 2 to 10
My suggested number of players: 3 to 5

Room review: BreakOut: Trapped in my own mind

Their description: You felt an acute headache, and then your bedroom was spinning like a top. The next thing you saw when you opened your eyes was a room full of puzzles.
This was not the first time it happened, but each time the room was different. You knew you had to solve all the puzzles to wake up from this madness; you knew you had to outwit your own mind.

This collab between escape scene stalwart BreakOut and escape event organiser extraordinaire Nomis Piy is around for a limited time only, so I’ll start with the conclusion: if you enjoy puzzles, this room is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, and you should get tickets for the remaining sessions on 28th May  book it like any of BreakOut’s other rooms before its last day on October 2.

Right. So, the review. This is, essentially, a room for puzzle enthusiasts. How much you enjoy this room will be determined by how much you enjoy clever, logical puzzles that require eureka moments rather than execution.

The corollary is that if you come here looking for other things, you might be disappointed. The market has come a long way in the past few years, with code-locks being replaced by all sorts of exciting mechanisms and tasks; in that respect, Trapped in My Own Mind is a bit of a throwback, with code-locks galore.

It’s modest in other ways as well. The “trapped in a puzzler’s mind” framing isn’t much of a narrative, and you shouldn’t expect more of a storyline to emerge as the room progresses. The abstract setting also means that there isn’t too much in the way of decor, although there was one particular stretch I apppreciated.

But that’s because the thrills here are intellectual. There were some exciting physical flourishes here, but even those were an active part of our own puzzle-solving, rather than being some automatically-triggered effect.

And the puzzles here are true puzzles. There’s no blind matching, no tedious mathematics, no counting and searching, no sudoku-style brute logic. Instead, each puzzle turns upon some flash of insight, the ‘aha’ when everything clicks as satisfyingly as the last digit of a code-lock.

Nor are these pen-and-paper affairs; although there are quite a few puzzle-panels (perhaps where Nomis Piy’s event background shows through), there are also plenty of puzzles which make satisfying use of objects and decor — including two particularly clever ones which were genuinely exciting to crack.

At some point in the last three (!) years of playing escape rooms, I think I started lowering my expectations for puzzle quality, and became more willing to simply enjoy rooms as experiences. This room made me rediscover the simple thrill of cracking a clever puzzle; it’s HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for anyone who wants to do the same.

If strong puzzles aren’t enough to make up for other aspects of an escape room, such as exciting tech-enabled flourishes or a strong storyline, then this probably isn’t the room for you. But maybe you should give it a try anyway, and see how much fun pure puzzling can be.

Puzzle difficulty: 4/5
Puzzle logic: 5/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 2/5

Atmosphere and setting: 2/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 2/5
Storyline integration: 1.5/5

Their suggested number of players: Up to 8
My suggested number of players: 4 to 6

Room review: Xcape: Kungfu Panda X – The Return of Tai Lung

Their description: After 50 years, Tai Lung had returned to the Valley of Peace, stronger than ever, seeking revenge and to claim the scroll of Wuxi Finger Hold! As Master Shifu, Po and the Furious 5 were out fighting evils, Po Juniors were defenseless and had been locked away in the kitchen. There’s no time to waste! Po Juniors must quickly free themselves and stop Tai Lung from stealing “Wuxi Finger Hold”…

This feels like one of Xcape’s most coherent and thus satisfying rooms, combining their well-established strength of hands-on problem-solving, a largely convincing sense of setting (at least to begin with), fair and logical puzzles, and a ridiculously fun climax.

The physical tasks are non-trivial without being tedious — they really are about problem-solving, as opposed to execution, and thus provide a pleasantly different sort of intellectual challenge. [Update, 18 July 2016: Having now played some rooms at Breakout in Kuala Lumpur, it seems that the beginning of Xcape’s room is a copy of the beginning of one of Breakout’s rooms. The rest of Xcape’s room is distinct, but it’s a shame that such apparent plagiarism is part of this room.]

And while the more traditional puzzles (which, yes, include that old Xcape staple of matching…) aren’t game-changing, they’re at least enlivened in various ways, whether it’s fun use of tech in their execution, twists on the usual formula, or both.

There’s also a sustained attempt to keep everything relevant to the storyline — including some multimedia touches — and a conclusion that feels like a proper triumph. It’s not an especially demanding room, but even if you sail through it, I don’t think you’ll feel shortchanged.

RECOMMENDED as a competent, satisfying room with some particularly fun touches.

Puzzle difficulty: 3/5
Puzzle logic: 4.5/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 3/5

Atmosphere and setting: 4/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 5/5
Storyline integration: 4/5

Their suggested number of players: 5 to 7
My suggested number of players: 4 to 6. For logistical reasons, you really should have at least four players, and having more will help.

Room review: Xcape: Doraemon – A Dream Come True

Note: This room has apparently been rebranded as Mission X – The Love Confession. No idea if the puzzles are the same, but it seems likely.

Their description: You have always been in love with Shizuka, but never been able to muster up the courage to tell her. Today, with Doraemon’s magic tools, you have finally decided to give a cherry blossom bouquet to Shizuka and confess your love. This is not going to be smooth sailing, from what we always know from the comic. So can you overcome the challenges? Will Shizuka say yes? Will your dream finally come true?

The two rooms at Xcape’s third outlet, Xcape Funtasy, are rather different from your usual escape rooms. This Doraemon room, in particular, is almost entirely task-based; there are barely any puzzles in the usual sense of the word.

But who needs puzzles when you have such fun tasks? This room features many gadgets from that fictional world, some of which were genuinely cool even to jaded veterans like us, and all of which contribute to the magical atmosphere of this room. It also helps that the tasks are largely non-tedious and logical; you’re never really at a loss for what to do.

Speaking of atmosphere: the setting is technically rather bare, with a heavy reliance on painted backgrounds, yet it manages to feel more convincing than should be possible (with one particularly fun touch midway through). You could even argue that the 2D backgrounds fit the comic/cartoon’s source material…

Another way in which this room differs from Xcape’s usual offerings is that it’s very narrative-driven — and in a rather unique way. To say more would be to spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that you get a real sense of progressing through the story, and it doesn’t involve reading lots of boring text.

In a word: fun. And given that the room was basically one tech-based flourish after another, the single malfunction we faced (which was quickly resolved by a staff member) doesn’t seem too bad.

RECOMMENDED for anyone who wants to have fun, especially beginners. Just don’t come here looking for an intellectual challenge.

Puzzle difficulty: 2/5
Puzzle logic: 4.5/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 3/5

Atmosphere and setting: 4/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 5/5
Storyline integration: 4.5/5

Their suggested number of players: 4 to 6
My suggested number of players: 3 to 5

Room review: CSI: A Good Night to Die

This review is left here merely as a record.

Their description: A suicide has occurred in the premises of a hotel. The police suspects that there is more to the death than meets the eye, but they are unable to solve it and the suspects will be released soon. You have been invited to help the police solve this mystery and find more evidence that the initial investigation may have missed. Will you be able to solve the mystery before the murderer goes scot free?

This is not a normal escape game, but a real life CLUEDO game brought to you exclusively by the Lockdown team. If you like investigating murder mysteries, come together with your friends and families to experience the new breakthrough in escape games!

As stated, this is very much not a normal escape game. I’d say it’s not an escape game at all, but a murder mystery — and that’s why it is absolutely worth playing.

While the escape room market in Singapore is pretty developed, there are few murder mystery options. Some companies have organised one-off events, but (apart from a notable exception) these are often large-scale affairs that don’t really give you a good sense of cracking a case.

With CSI: A Good Night to Die, you get the room and the investigation entirely to yourself. Even better, it’s a cleverly interactive game, in which you take pictures of evidence and send them to be analysed. The hotel room setting is also convincing, increasing the sense of immersion even further.

In fact, comparing this game to real-life Cluedo is selling it short. Unlike Cluedo’s rather boring method-of-elimination process, this game contains a substantial plot that unfolds throughout the investigation. You’ll have to juggle motives, alibis, and evidence to not only deduce the culprit, but get a full picture of the story behind this crime scene.

Speaking of which, I consider this the closest easily-available experience to that excellent Korean gameshow Crime Scene, which is high praise (as anyone who’s watched the show will know). [edit, September 2017: this is no longer the case, as Singapore now has a room that is directly modelled upon Crime Scene – Xcape’s Shanghai 1943, which is therefore the closest experience to said awesome show]

You do pay for this, quite literally. The experience can’t be booked via Lockdown’s normal booking engine; instead, you’ll have to contact them about a booking, and be prepared to pay rather more than you would for a normal escape room. But as I said, this isn’t a normal escape room, and the degree of interactivity helps justify the price.

I can’t really rate this on my usual rubric, so I’ve tweaked the criteria below. Suffice it to say that the room is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED — or indeed, unmissable — if you’ve ever wanted to solve a mystery. And who hasn’t wanted to do so, seriously?

Case difficulty: 3.5/5
Case logic: 4.5/5
Multimedia aspect of investigation: 4/5

Atmosphere and setting: 4/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 4.5/5
Storyline integration: 5/5

Their suggested number of players: 3 to 8
My suggested number of players: 3 to 6

Room review: Encounter: The Cruise

This review is left here merely as a record.

Their description: You are having vacation on a cruise. You felt a strong vibration followed by an emergency announcement. You rushed to the upper deck trying to find out more and entered a first class cabin which was left open to explore.

Will you be able to make it out before the cruise sink?

The Cruise takes Encounter’s usual strengths of atmosphere and setting, and applies them to a theme that’s markedly different from their other offerings. This makes for an experience that’s up to their high standards of immersion, yet very refreshing. As a bonus, this is also Encounter’s only 100% non-creepy room.

The use of ambient noise for the setting is great, but what really reinforces the immersion is how most of the puzzles are incorporated seamlessly into the premise and narrative. There are also some great hands-on moments that aren’t just simple matters of executing tasks. And as the room proceeds, there’s a great sense of adventure.

The only real weak point is the very last puzzle, which comes as a bit of an anticlimax after everything else. There’s also a puzzle midway through which requires a tiny leap of faith in the correctness of one’s answer, something I’m not usually fond of (I like solutions which you can be really certain of, once you arrive at them). But I’d say the rest of the room experience more than makes up for it.

I also have to commend Encounter for their dedication to not breaking character, which made for a great moment in this room, haha. Board The Cruise, and your team might realise what I mean. RECOMMENDED as an overall high-quality, fun experience. Unfortunately, this is not a room for players with mobility issues.

Puzzle difficulty: 3.5/5
Puzzle logic: 4/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 4/5

Atmosphere and setting: 5/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 4/5
Storyline integration: 4.5/5

Their suggested number of players: 2 to 8
My suggested number of players: 3 to 5

Room review: Captivate: Elixir

Their description: Oscar Lee disappeared 50 years ago and his son and two visitors vanished exactly 25 years later. As you explore you stumble upon a hidden room that hasn’t been opened for 25 years. Can you discover what happened to the missing people before you vanish too?

Elixir is perhaps Captivate’s most satisfying room for escape room veterans. Things start off fairly straightforward, but there are some clever puzzles in store, and fun moments when items obtained earlier suddenly gain new relevance.

Captivate’s strengths are probably its scrupulous approach to clues, making for puzzles that never require leaps of logic, and its attention to physical aspects; not in the gimmicky way that some rooms try to incorporate technology, but with hands-on fun. Both of these strengths are on show in Elixir; even the tougher puzzles are fair.

There’s also a decent amount of effort put into the surroundings, particularly in the first room. Captivate’s rooms can generally feel a bit bare, such that it’s obvious when something is a puzzle part; you don’t get that to quite the same extent in Elixir. (Though there aren’t red herrings either, which is nice.)

The endgame is perhaps the only moment that’s a little head-scratching, but it’s a minor point in what was otherwise an unobjectionable experience, and a nice way for our team to cap off our Captivate experience. RECOMMENDED as a decent all-rounder room.

Puzzle difficulty: 4/5
Puzzle logic: 3.5/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 3.5/5

Atmosphere and setting: 3.5/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 3.5/5
Storyline integration: 3.5/5

Their suggested number of players: 2 to 10
My suggested number of players: 3 to 5

Room review: Captivate: Black Out

Their description: You wake in an unfamiliar room with amnesia. You have no memory of who you are or how you came to be there. The door has been locked behind you. Outside, there is chaos on the streets as the world is threatened by a new catastrophe. Can you remember why you’re here and what you need to do to escape?

Black Out is a fun room. Simple as that. Most of the puzzles are straightforward, with that familiar staple of matching making an appearance — almost a disappointment, given the fairly original puzzles you get in Captivate’s other rooms.

But the room makes up for that in other ways. The bits of matching you have to do are enlivened in fun ways, making the room a truly multisensory experience. There are also some clever moments which deliver that much-needed frisson of realization.

Furthermore, I really enjoy when escape rooms lean into their real-world setting and involve hands-on tasks, and this room certainly delivers on that front. Better yet, these tasks are non-trivial but not tedious, which is a fine combination.

RECOMMENDED for beginners. Experienced teams might be a little bored, depending on their tolerance for matching puzzles, but the room’s other charms make it WORTH A TRY nonetheless.

Puzzle difficulty: 2.5/5
Puzzle logic: 4/5
Multimedia aspect of puzzles: 5/5

Atmosphere and setting: 3.5/5
Exciting flourishes, use of technology or physical aspects: 4/5
Storyline integration: 3/5

Their suggested number of players: 2 to 8
My suggested number of players: 2 to 3