Outside the room
Exciting Escapes (not to be confused with the similarly named Oxford company) opened up a few months ago in Southampton and I’ve been hearing positive feedback ever since. They specialise in what I’d call modern history themes, with espionage stories against a backdrop of the 50s, 70s or 80s.
The South Coast has a particularly strong vein of games so, when they extended an invitation to us, we organised a day trip, dropping in to Live Escape in Salisbury and ClueCapers over in Winchester. If you’re ever looking for a road escape room trip, you’ll find rich pickings in the areas surrounding the South Downs and the New Forest.
Shirley may not be the most glamorous destination in the world but, once inside, you’re greeted by a large, pleasant waiting area. Games are introduced by the GM but the safety briefing is in video form, with a delightful balance between telling you how to behave in an escape room and staying true to the secret agent theme.
It’s 1957, and as the Cold War is waged across the world, a small, innocuous flat in Shirley is the scene for the latest battle. British Intelligence have captured an enemy agent, but with their own networks compromised by double agents they need you to help them. Can you get in, discover the truth, and leave before the agents handlers arrive and clear up the evidence….you included!
Inside the room
Or should that be “Inside the house”? Walking into this game felt like we were genuinely entering somebody’s house – through the front door into their hallway. Immersion is definitely the strong point in this game, with 50s music playing lightly over the scene and decoration that didn’t try to force the 50s on to you and instead just faded into the game world. So many places use old themes as an excuse to have tatty furniture, but not here. That made a massive difference to the immersion, in my opinion. Old-fashioned furniture may fit the theme, but that doesn’t mean it has to look old.
The mission in the game was, at first glance, very simple – find some evidence against the enemy agent – but, as the game progressed, you realised there was more to the storyline than that. This isn’t the sort of game where you have to pay careful attention to the narrative, but it improves the experience if you do. I loved the way they’d brought the characters to life while allowing players to just get on with the escape room if that’s what they wanted.
The room didn’t deliver much in the way of mental challenges that was genuinely novel, but they were generally very logical. Only one of them left me feeling that the solution required a bit of a leap. They’re quite fond of padlocks in this game, but they’ve chosen to give strong direction so that you aren’t reduced to spinning the locks over and over again for each solution. I absolutely applaud that approach, but it had its drawback: at times it felt like the hint with each padlock didn’t just help with direction but told us exactly what the puzzle components were. That came to our aid on one occasion where we might not otherwise have spotted there was a puzzle to be solved at all. I think that’s probably a good thing for beginners but, as enthusiasts, it took a little bit of fun out of the challenge.
There were a couple of good physical interactions in the room, one of which was beautifully engineered to make it extra difficult. Be warned, though: if you’re not great at that sort of puzzle, the careful engineering may result in quite a lot of frustration! We were fine with that, although we did get frustrated at a couple of other points: once when a physical prop failed very subtly, leaving us having to brute-force a combination lock, and once when we needed a clue for something we’d chosen not to do because it felt like we might be breaking an element of the game.
I can’t be entirely disappointed about needing a hint, though, because it gave us a chance to use the clue system, which was absolutely on theme. The mechanism sat well with the 50s, and the spy theme gave them a perfect reason for why it was possible to get help.
For me, the one genuine weakness was the ending. Exciting Escapes make games that are more about completing a mission than escaping the room and, in this case, that involves retrieving an object from the flat you’re in. Yes, we knew we’d finished, but there’s something about the endorphin rush you get from rushing out of a room that makes the whole experience so much better. Perhaps they felt that tacking an escape onto the end would have broken the immersion a bit, but I think it would work and make Exciting Escapes slightly more exciting escapes!
The two of us escaped in about 40 minutes with just a single clue. It’s worth factoring in that we got stuck twice with things which were caused by (minor) problems with the room so, in spite of the time, I’d rate this as being at the easier end of the scale.
If I had to choose a word to describe A Hidden Past, it would be “gentle”. The puzzles were logical and well directed, the storyline was absolutely there but could be happily ignored if you weren’t interested, and the ambiance of the room wasn’t shoved in your face and instead washed over you during the game.
This is a great game for beginners and still thoroughly enjoyable for enthusiasts. As enthusiasts, I wouldn’t recommend more than three, while beginners could easily take five into the room and enjoy exploring the space although the start would be slightly crowded.
Detailed Room Ratings
Full disclosure: We weren’t charged for these tickets. That doesn’t influence the review – you can read more on the About page.