For many of us, 2020 will be a year that we want to forget as soon as possible. The effect it’s had on physical, mental and financial health has been widespread and, while many people will have been affected in many different ways, I want to take this opportunity to think about all those owners and employees who’ve poured their hearts and souls into businesses and are now watching them sit empty while lockdown bites. My heart goes out to you all.
That said, before we close the curtains, I’d like to take one last peek back at the year gone by and shine a spotlight on some of the best moments. Unsurprisingly, my escape room playing has been largely curtailed, with trips to France, Spain, Bulgaria, Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands all cancelled. Instead it became a year of two halves. Right at the start of the year, I made a long-awaited road trip around the Netherlands and Belgium, playing the highest quality set of ~20 games I have ever had the joy to experience. Then, once COVID hit, I played a small number of the very best avatar games I could find.
Those trips have involved over 20 TERPECA-nominated experiences, of which NINE won awards. Yes – more than a third of the experiences I’ve played this year have been nominated for TERPECAs. What I missed out on in quantity, I made up for in quality.
From across those games, I’ve picked out the ones that I look back on with particular fondness and awarded them a Golden Key. 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:
|There’s not much to say about the Dome that hasn’t already been written. It’s just been voted the best escape room in the world for the second year running and, honestly, I can’t see anything matching it for a while to come. It’s got a huge, beautifully decorated, set, with each space having its own distinct feel. It surprises you again and again. It packs the game with memorable moments – relatively weak parts of this experience would be the highlight of most games. Most impressively, it manages to build great puzzles on top of that, including one of the best I’ve ever seen in an escape room. If you get a chance to play this game, then you should seize it with both hands.
Catch Me If You Can (Next Level – Eindhoven, Netherlands)
|There was a time when a game that delivered well decorated rooms with very different styles was enough to amaze me, but that’s no longer enough. Fortunately, Catch Me If You Can delivered more than that, with set design that was truly stunning both in individual quality and in contrast between spaces. The game managed to take us on a journey to help convey the story and delivered a frantic finish that ensured an adrenaline-fuelled end to the experience.
The Secret of Saint-Rumoldus (De Gouden Kooi -Mechelen, Belgium)
|For me, this is the natural evolution of escape rooms. They’ve upgraded the game in virtually every way imaginable. There are strong puzzles that are beautifully woven into the room. There was plenty of content to entertain our team of five. It’s an expansive set with a real sense of exploration that takes you on a journey of exploration within the story. There are moments of excitement and a big conclusion to the room. They’ve even made it a 70-minute game. Everything about this experience is top quality, and I have incredibly fond memories of our team rushing back and forth around the set solving puzzles in parallel to reach our final destination.
The Triplicate Institute (Escape Room the Cube – Hellevoetsluis, Netherlands)
|Walking into this venue, you wouldn’t expect anything special. It’s located in a shopping mall and has a relatively plain waiting space. I thought it would be a fairly traditional game, but the Triplicate Institute most definitely isn’t that, and it turned out to be a hidden gem. The start is simple but elegant, making it clear that this is a company that knows what it’s doing without giving you any sense of what’s to come. The answer was good quality sets, some innovative puzzles and one particularly outstanding concept that doesn’t just tell players the story but helps them to live it.
|The Execution is a phenomenal game from start to finish. It’s big and it’s bold, combining enjoyable puzzles, fantastic theatre and a beautiful set. There’s a slightly intimidating start with a little bit of theatre, so you’ll need at least one person who’s willing to take that on but, after that introduction, it moves towards being an adrenaline-fuelled adventure. As with all the greatest games, it’s not just in one aspect where they excel but in many: the opening theatre is great, the sense of rushing around what really feels like a prison space gives you a true sense of immersion, and then there’s an amazing ending to wrap up the experience. This should definitely be on your playlist if you’re visiting the Netherlands
|If you like La Casa de Papel (Money Heist – the Spanish bank robbery series on Netflix), then you should visit Escape Room Katwijk and play this game. If you haven’t seen it, then be warned: I enjoyed the game so much I ended up watching the series (which, in fairness, also turned out to be a good decision). The best way of describing this game is like a love letter to the show. They’ve captured the essence of the story, delivering the feeling of being on a heist along the way. In fact, so well did they capture that feeling that at one point we forgot to keep solving puzzles and instead just did what came naturally to us in the heist storyline. A beautiful room, fun, varied puzzles and a feeling of adventure to the whole thing – what more could you ask for? Well, since you asked, a second game inspired by Vis a Vis/Locked Up that they’re working on at the moment. Sounds like another one to look out for!
The Orphanage (DarkPark – Zoetermeer, Netherlands)
|DarkPark are well known for their excellent games, and the Orphanage is no exception. It’s a big, scary experience where they rattle you early on to ensure that you’re in a nervous mood and then play with your fears constantly through the game. Spells of normality will be broken by sudden jumps or extended periods of scariness. There’s a real sense of exploration to the experience as you discover different parts of the Orphanage, moving back and forth between them, and get a sense of what went on there. The one part of the game that I felt let it down a little were the puzzles. It was perhaps a little weaker on the puzzle front than I’d have liked, but that was a relatively minor aspect to a game that was otherwise excellent. To cap it all off, they wrapped up the experience cleverly with a beautiful end sequence.
Virtual X-Caper (Agent November – Online, London, UK)
|I had so much fun playing Agent November’s Virtual X-Caper that it was an obvious choice for a Golden Key. Two things stood out for me. First, they’d made a good effort to incorporate the players’ presence into the storyline. We hit technical issues with our connection and, when we reconnected, the storyline for our experience had been altered slightly to allow for that. They cared that our presence in the game made sense, and that showed throughout the game that they’d created. The second thing was something that had no real effect on the gameplay but really added to the memories. I don’t want to spoil it because the (small) surprise is part of the charm, but it gave our GM the chance to congratulate and tease us and then for us to relive our highs and lows at the end of the experience.
Pursuit of the Assassin Artist (Omescape – Online, San Jose, USA)
|Remote experiences necessarily stop you doing some of the things that are possible for in-person escape rooms. So, to make up for that, you should take advantage of the remoteness to do things that wouldn’t be possible in person. And that’s exactly what Omescape did. There’s a clever concept in their experience that they made good use of to create pivotal moments and ramp up the tension. It created a kind of meta-puzzle to the experience as well as leaving me with strong memories of the storyline. Add to that some fun acting, good immersion and enjoyable puzzles, and you’ve got a great all-round experience.
Project Avatar: First Mission (Legendary Escape – Online, Lviv, Ukraine)
|Trying to describe Project Avatar is almost doomed to failure. It’s a surreal experience packed with unusual and memorable moments. There’s an avatar that manages to be thoroughly engaging using just their hands and without speaking. There are cut scenes galore with pre-prepared video to allow them to create effects that wouldn’t be possible live. There’s an overlay screen to make the game feel like a first-person computer game complete with power ups, score and inventory. There’s a huge space to explore. The only downside was a lack of puzzles in their first outing, but the good news is that they’ve fixed that up in their second experience. I’m still awarding the golden key to their first mission because it was the one that broke the mould and showed me just how far you can stray from a traditional experience while still giving the vibe that attracts me to escape rooms.
The Exorcist (Emergency Exit – Online, Manchester, UK)
|My favourite of all the online games I played, this was a lovingly crafted experience that conveyed the satanic theme without becoming gruesome. There were twists, humour, cut scenes and fun acting from the GM (as well as occasionally from the cameraperson!). I’m not usually a fan of horror games, but this one won me over, in part, perhaps, because it was more creepy than scary.
Most games are impressive because of specific aspects but, in the case of The Exorcist, it felt like the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. From the clever GM intro, through the solid puzzling and the pervasive storytelling right the way through to our escape, this experience delivered without weakness. And, as a bonus, if you enjoy the game, they’ve released The Beast, a high-quality sequel that tells the second half of the story.
Congratulations and thank you to all of this year’s Golden Key recipients – it may not have been the year we hoped for, but your games helped make it a little brighter for me and many other people.
Full disclosure: We weren’t charged for The Dome. I’m pretty confident that doesn’t affect its inclusion here. You can read more on the About page about my policy on free games.