Happy New Year! Already it looks like it’s going to be an exciting twelve months but, before we look too much ahead, I’d like to take one last look at the year gone by. It’s been (by my standards) a quiet year, with just 116 games played. Having said that, I’ve been concentrating on quality over quantity, so I’ve probably played as many great games as ever. Those games have taken me across much of the UK and into Europe – Austria, the Netherlands, France, twice to Spain and Greece, including to five TERPECA-winning games and nearly 40 TERPECA-nominees. From those games, I’ve picked out the ones that I look back on with particular fondness and awarded them a Golden Key. That’s not just a case of taking the top-ranked rooms: some five-star rooms didn’t make the cut, while other lower-rated rooms did.
To paraphrase the Room Escape Artist, there’s no such thing as a perfect room, but some rooms make you smile long after you’ve escaped. Here are the ones (in playing order!) that made me smile the most:
|clueQuest consistently delivers good, fun games, and cQ ORIGENES is no exception, with big, chunky puzzles baked into the room decoration that flow beautifully through the game. Interestingly, they have chosen to move away from the cutesy cartoon appeal of their first few experiences and added in a slightly darker edge to the material here. London’s escape room market isn’t as strong as you’d expect, but clueQuest are doing a great job of ensuring that there’s a company I can recommend to almost any visiting group.
|Lucardo has one of the strongest reputations in the North West of England, and their Rawtenstall branch seems to go that step further to elevate their offerings. All their games are good, but Dragon’s Heart gets a Golden Key for its absolutely stunning start – it really did feel like I’d been transported to a magical universe. If you do get the chance to visit, I’d recommend booking a game at twilight or later for the maximal effect.
|After placing #13 in the TERPECAs, it should be no surprise to see Going Underground receiving a Golden Key. It’s been a long time in the making, but the game is well worth the wait. Beautiful sets that totally immerse you in the world, an interesting storyline to engage you, a twisting route that makes you feel you’ve travelled far further than the building should allow and great puzzles contribute to making this a fantastic experience.
|Another TERPECA winner, in 19th place, the Catacombs manages to mix good puzzles with phenomenal theatre and deliver a scary room that’s still mentally challenging. This isn’t a cheap jump scare type of game but one where they’ve really thought out how best to leave you, well, terrified. But don’t pay too much attention to that – every person who’s worked up the courage to play has said that they’re very glad they did.
|DarkPark create beautiful experiences with amazing sets and enjoyable puzzles. The Honeymoon Hotel would probably deserve a Golden Key anyway, but the specific thing I want to pick out is a single scene close to the end. They used a simple puzzle and interaction with the set to such good effect that we utterly panicked, and that panic evoked the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare. It’s one of the strongest memories I have of escaping this year.
The End (DarkPark – Zoetermeer, the Netherlands)
|The latest DarkPark game had opened less than a week before we played, and that came back to bite us with a couple of prop failures in a key part of the experience. Despite that, we still had an amazing time, which is testament to just how good this game is (and enthusiasts agree – this made it to 23rd place). Specifically, though, what impressed me so much was the concept of the finish, which is such a cool way to end this stylish game.
|I was a little surprised when HintHunt Paris kept appearing on players’ recommendations for the city, as the London games didn’t suggest they’d be a must-play. Once I’d visited, though, I could see why it’s so popular. Secret of the Pirate conveys a journey to some far-off land incredibly well, and then there’s an effect in the middle of the game which filled me with delight. Well worth playing if you’re in the city.
|Pier Pressure has built its business on creating games around local history, but Loot the Lanes is a real step up from their original experiences. I’d spent the morning wandering the city, including visiting “the Lanes” from which the game takes its name. When I got inside the room and saw what they’d created, I was mesmerised and spent the first few moments looking at the set detail they’d added. This is a game that I think will go down incredibly well with locals; and, for maximum enjoyment, I’d recommend wandering the Lanes before playing so that you have as much context as possible.
Sanatorium (Lockhill – Athens, Greece)
|Athens, how you spoiled us. If you’re into horror, then Athens is likely to be high up your to-do list, and Sanatorium will be one of the reasons. It’s a beautiful (in a scary sense!) set that does wonders to surprise you and, when you add in the scare element, this is a ninety-minute adrenaline rush. If you’re not easily scared, you’re likely to find that most scary games fail because you don’t really “buy” the scares they deliver. Here, the scare was built into the game mechanic, which meant that you still had to react regardless of whether you felt genuinely scared, and that helped to seal the scare immersion for me. We played in NIGHT mode, but I’d highly recommend choosing MIDNIGHT mode if you think you can stand it! And at #24 in the TERPECAs, you probably should at least try.
Cosmos 05 (Escapepolis – Athens, Greece)
|Galactic Pioneers in Prague was one of my favourite games of 2018, but a big criticism was the opening scene, where the transition into the spaceship was not well managed. No such problem in Cosmos 05, however, where they really delivered the opening seconds of the game incredibly well, helping to build a sense of disorientation in this beautifully created experience.
The Mansion (Paradox Project – Athens, Greece)
|Paradox Project gives you a three-hour experience which seems almost unfair to compare against other games. It’s overwhelming at first and managed to keep me both excited and relaxed throughout – the combination of knowing that there was so much to come and that time wasn’t running out too quickly was incredibly helpful to help maximise my enjoyment levels. While there were plenty of tropes throughout the game, there were also plenty of subtleties that show the effort that’s gone into this room.
The Bookstore (Paradox Project – Athens, Greece)
|I thought the three hours of the Mansion was impressive, but this 200-minute game blew me away. The standard of scenery was phenomenal, the puzzles were a step up both individually and in how they were structured. There were twists and turns throughout, surprise after surprise came, emotions built, and there were so many individually strong memories in this experience that it became one of my favourite games – and I’m obviously not alone given it took second place in the TERPECAs.
|Mrs Rose’s Cottage as a scary game was fun enough. We found the scares a little tame (although our other team found them terrifying!), but what really impressed me was the opening, which left me thoroughly disoriented. It’s a huge space, and there’s the opportunity, should you desire, to wander off without your teammates and feel the true terror of being alone in the dark. Few games have left me feeling quite so vulnerable (although Sanatorium, above, is one of them!)
|Locked In Glasgow’s Christmas game was only around for a handful of weeks, but you wouldn’t know that if you’d played. They created a delightful experience that had me grinning from ear to ear throughout, full of childlike glee. You can create an amazing story, you can make beautiful rooms and throw in twists and turns, but the number one most important thing that you need to do is make the game fun, and Christmas Dream delivered that in abundance. We played a bunch of impressive games across a weekend in Scotland, and this wasn’t the best, not even at this venue, but it was without a doubt the one that brought the most joy to my heart.
Full disclosure: We weren’t charged for six of these games – see individual reviews for details. That doesn’t influence the review though – you can read more on the About page.