Locked In Edinburgh is a company with a bit of a reputation – they create fun games that fit well inside their venue. Summerhall (the arts and events site where they’re located) has an interesting history, having been home to Edinburgh’s veterinary school, and as a consequence they have some interesting spaces to make use of. It just so happened that I’d visited a few weeks earlier, so I already knew they had solid games, but the rumour was that the Secret Lab was a big step up even from there.
It’s also a game for four to ten people so, with only three of us taking part, we were going to have our work cut out. In some games, being one person down on the minimum would be fine – that lower bound is often just about making sure the venue is taking in enough money to make the game cost-effective – but here we’d been told that wasn’t the case. We would have to fill the unforgiving hour with sixty minutes’ worth of puzzles done.
Walking into the venue is a grand experience indeed. The central lobby/reception is huge and in massive contrast to the basement venues where escape rooms are usually found. As you walk up to the games, you’re traversing hundred-year-old corridors that really help bring some gravitas to the experience.
All of which fits beautifully with the story, where there’s a clandestine but important laboratory that had been researching a deadly virus during the 70s. After greeting us and checking we were ready, the GM disappeared off and we were greeted in character to be told more about that story before being ushered inside to defeat the LIE virus.
The Kensie Research Lab was a marvel of 70s technology, with the best equipment money could buy. Situated in Edinburgh, smack in the middle of an old veterinary hospital so not to raise suspicion, the lab was designed around the research and creation of vaccines and viruses, both airborne and liquid. The mastermind behind the project was professor Lyall Kensie, a brilliant bio-chemist and an avid cinephile. He had a vision of a world where every illness could be healed with simple medication. In this world, there would be no need for war. But Lyall wasn’t alone. Along for the ride were his two sisters, Isla and Elise, both of them brilliant in their own fields of physiology and molecular science. They were triplets, inseparable by nature for as long as they could remember. They would have probably been featured in the newspapers as “the genius three”, if only they had any interest in fame. Instead, they chose to focus their efforts on their work. And my, what work they did.
As the government placed pressure on Lyall to weaponize his creations, he became distraught. Seeing the obvious ramifications of lies and half-truths of representatives of the world’s biggest nations, he became obsessed with the notion that lying was in fact a virus. All it needed was a vaccine. After months of isolation, Lyall, Isla and Edith finally sent a note to Buckingham Palace. Smelling of champagne, it read: “To those it may concern. We have cracked it. We have found the cure. More news will follow. Signed, Lyall, Isla and Edith Kensie.”
Expecting more letters, her majesty the Queen waited with baited breath for days, but with no prevail. Three weeks later a ragged and torn piece of paper arrived at her doorstep. It read simply: “There was an outbreak. It is contained. Never open the lab again. Isla.” The three professors were never seen again, leaving people to speculate on their whereabouts. The lab was sealed up and not opened since. Scribbles on the outside of the door indicated whatever virus was in there, Lyall had named it “L.I.E.”, and its primary attribute seemed to make the host unable to utter a single truth. The lab faded into obscurity over the years, causing rumours and legends to popup, some of them more accurate than others. But then, yesterday, during a simple blood test, a patient in the Marchmont Medical Practice right here in Edinburgh, was tested positive for the L.I.E. virus. No-one knows why, but the infection has started again. If we don’t recreate whatever vaccine the professors invented 44 years ago, the city will be obliterated by government officials in an effort to purge the danger. They will not risk it infecting the rest of the country or the world. We can’t allow this to happen. We must enter the lab.
Inside the room
The starting space for this game is bigger than average, as you’d expect with a game that can hold ten players, and it is busy, busy, busy. So much is on display that it’s hard to take it all in. Fortunately, I didn’t have to, as I was one of the pair who have an entirely separate task to start the game. I’m in two minds about this. Part of me likes it: when you’ve got a big room, taking a couple of people out of the chaos at the start is a good thing; but another part of me feels that you should be able to choose which puzzles you work on. Overall it worked, and most teams will be back working together within ten minutes, so it won’t have too significant an impact on the flow or what individual players get to see of the game.
For those of you who start in the main section, there’s a huge amount of work to be undertaken right from the start. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s a clear structure to the experience and, with it, a way of monitoring your progress. Indeed, the puzzle flow in the game is exceedingly well constructed to allow the team to parallelise at the start but then brings you together towards the end so that you can experience the finale as a team.
Each of the puzzle trails within the game is well signposted and coherently themed. Sometimes, they’ll be located in a single place, but more often than not you’ll have to jump around various parts of the space. The advantage of this having been a veterinary school is that they have plenty of cages in the room, which they use to good effect. Having locked areas which you can see into but which you can’t access properly added a surprising amount to the game. It meant that you could plan out how the puzzle pieces might fit together (essential for us with only three people, so that we could map out the next steps as we went along) but also that you were presented with a huge amount of information at the beginning which *might* be relevant. It also felt a bit of a tease – you desperately wanted to solve the puzzles so that you could play with the next cool piece of tech.
And, yes, there was tech in this game. Far more technology than in their previous games, and potentially the largest amount of overt technology that I’ve seen in any game. This wasn’t technology creating magic effects but tech that fitted within and added to the storyline. And it worked. Flawlessly. I was impressed.
Cluing is done via a dot matrix printer. They could easily have given walkie-talkies, but this was a beautiful way of fitting the clue system within the confines of the room. For most teams, where only a few clues will be needed during the game, it’s a great addition, adding a sense of theatre to each clue you get along the way. It has the potential to get frustrating if you need to receive a lot of clues, and obviously there’s a greater risk of it breaking down, but I think overall it’s worth the payoff because it really does augment the seventies theme well. (I queried the owners – if it does break down, they enter the game in character as a printer technician, so they’ve got this well thought through.)
The finale to the room deserves a mention – once you’ve solved the main part of the game, there’s a final interaction which is part puzzle and part play. That worked well for us – throwing us around the room in a rush – but I’d have found it less enjoyable had we been down to the last minute or two. Personally, when I get to the end game, I want every puzzle to be potentially solvable in a moment, otherwise you’re left feeling like you’re doomed if you’ve only got a very short amount of time left. That said, there’s plenty of humour thrown in and, after the pressure of the 60-odd minutes beforehand, it was a blessed relief to not have to think too hard in the finishing straight.
We escaped in around 55 minutes having taken a single clue for something that was staring us right in the face. We worked harder than I’ve ever had to work in a room and I finished utterly exhausted.
The Secret Lab is, to put it simply, a brilliant game. I was left pretty much speechless for fifteen minutes after playing. It’s hard to describe just why it’s so good. It’s not an expansive game, there’s no single amazing moment, and there’s not a huge amount of theatre to it – at least one of which I would expect to appear in my favourite games. What this did well was deliver a coherent set of puzzles that meshed beautifully with the story, force you to criss-cross the space throughout the hour, make good use of technology and pitch itself at a perfect difficulty level. The start to the game may have bordered on overwhelming, but the satisfaction at having made our way across the expanse of puzzles was awesome. The Secret Lab hardly put a foot wrong across what is one of the most ambitious set of puzzles I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter. At the time of writing, this is my favourite escape room. Ever.
Make no mistake: enthusiasts should make a pilgrimage to Edinburgh to play this game (and a few others!). Based on the game as I played it, I would recommend this for four to five enthusiasts or six to eight beginners. Since playing it, however, I’ve been told they’ve added significant signposting to some of the puzzles to make it more accessible to new players. I can’t say how that will affect the gameplay but, judging by how the times have dropped recently, I’d suggest taking along a team of four enthusiasts or around five to six beginners.
We ate in an excellent Italian pizza restaurant that specialises in sourdough pizza. If you’re ever visiting Edinburgh, I can recommend Civerino’s.
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.