Outside the room
If you’re a massive escape room enthusiast, then you’ll likely have heard of SCRAP. If you’re not, then the name likely means nothing. This three-day visit by Defenders of the Triforce was their first foray into the UK market, but they’ve been around for a very long time. In fact, depending on your exact definition, you might consider them one of the seeds of the escape room industry, having opened their first game in 2007.
Over time they expanded to North America but, until recently, they’d stayed out of the European market. Along the way they’ve developed two main modes of games – their traditional “escape room” experiences and what they slightly disingenuously refer to as “escape games”, supposedly to emphasise that they’re not played in conventional rooms. They’re often referred to by enthusiasts as ballroom games, with 20+ teams taking part simultaneously in large halls. Each team has a table where most of the puzzling takes place, but then there are a number of locations around the edge of the room which you visit along the way.
Defenders of the Triforce was one of those ballroom games and that, combined with poor reviews and me not being a Zelda fan, meant that I was pretty ambivalent about the whole affair. Expectations can be important in escape rooms and, while I try to review in as objective a manner as possible, I think it’s relevant when reading the review that I went in with very low expectations.
The game took place in the Islington Assembly Hall, where we were asked to turn up a minimum of fifteen minutes early. For the record, it seemed to make little difference when we arrived as long as (a) it was before the scheduled start time and (b) we didn’t mind being further back in the room (which hardly affected the experience). As it was, we just stood in a queue for twenty minutes waiting to be allowed entry to Hyrule.
Golden triangles that grant the wish of whomever touches them: this sacred relic is known as the Triforce. The Triforce was left behind by the Golden Goddesses after they created the realm now known as Hyrule, then sealed away so that none would be tempted to use it.
That is, until the Great King of Evil, Ganondorf, used his dark powers to steal the Triforce for himself. Responding to his unending ambition, darkness has begun to cover the land. If left unchecked, Hyrule will soon be completely controlled by evil. There is only one way to escape from this terrible fate: find the legendary Master Sword.
Inside the room
Walking into the room was a distinctly uninspiring experience. Being greeted by twenty tables crammed into a sparsely decorated hall wasn’t the sort of immersion I wanted for around £30 (the early bird price!). I realise that we were paying extra for the Zelda name, but this really felt quite cheap. I guess the real issue is that the logistics cost of setting up a game that only sticks around for a few days means it could never be great value compared to a more permanent offering.
As we sat down around our table, our attention turned to a collection of interesting objects in front of us. It wasn’t entirely clear whether we were meant to start work on them, so we took our lead from the other people around the room, who seemed to be diving straight in, albeit surreptitiously. A couple of minutes after we started investigating, we found the instruction sheet that told us not to touch anything on the table. I’m no expert, but perhaps a sign that made that clear from the moment you sat down would have been sensible…
It wasn’t long before the main show was ready to begin, introduced by some sort of priest-like character who told us the rules, explained how the game would work and showed us a decidedly low-res video that introduced the quest we were about to undertake. He was just one of the non-player characters we would encounter during the game and, while he gave an acceptable performance, the standard of acting was decidedly hit and miss.
The intro over, it was on to the game proper and the pieces of paper in front of us. I was impressed to see that they’d provided sufficient puzzles for everyone to get involved individually from the start – critical given that you might be on a team where you didn’t know anyone and the last thing you’d want would be for the first interaction to involve fighting over a puzzle.
From that point on, we repeated a fairly standard cycle for the entire game: solve some puzzles at the table, use them to produce some action, work out where that action should take place and then head over to get more puzzles to work on. That sounds kind of terrible, and in some sense it was, but it had the added incentive of constantly measuring yourself against the other teams. That was where this game excelled, at least for me.
That’s not to say that the puzzles weren’t fun. They were, but I can play puzzles at home, so there needs to be something to them that differentiates them from that genre. Often they were reasonably straightforward puzzles that you could imagine appearing in a book, but there were three genuinely impressive steps that involved unexpected physical interactions with the game. Often, games impress by exceeding expectations, and SCRAP did exactly that here. These were puzzles that would have been at home in an escape room, something that I really didn’t expect to see.
One of the biggest issues was that it was often hard to know what you were meant to do once you’d solved a puzzle. Which of the destinations were you meant to visit? That was partly because we were trying to rush ahead as fast as possible and perhaps not paying as much attention to the materials as we could have, but often it was just that the hint was too vague. That’s fine for a puzzle but, if your entire team has to wander up to the gallery only to find that you’ve gone in the wrong direction, then I think it needs to be a little more direct.
Each destination was a hastily constructed tent where you could retrieve the next item you’d need on your quest – whether that was a box, a scroll of paper or, for the end of the game, the Master Sword. They were guarded by characters who could point you in the right direction if you’d got a little lost, either geographically or in solving the puzzles.
And yes, there was some logic to those different locations and why you were visiting them. There was an underlying story to the game (one which, in spite of what they suggested, was much easier to understand once I’d had a bit of Zelda lore explained to me), which took me by surprise. I’d expected this to be a collection of random puzzles thrown on the table, but there was a mission, individual quests and a story – albeit a thin one – that held things together.
The game, or at least the version that we’d chosen to play, was relentless, with us barely taking a moment to sit down and solve a puzzle before it was time to move on. There was a pretty cool sense of urgency and, to add to the theatre, there were three points in the game where you had an incredibly clear indication of the other teams’ progress. Being the first team to achieve those goals was a major motivation.
Escape rooms are almost always competitive at some level, but not in a very active way. Most are just races against other people’s times. Some are races directly against your friends, and one or two allow you to see through to an adjoining room to get a vague idea of how your opponents are doing. Defenders is all out in the open, so you have a very clear picture of how teams are progressing from the start to the end. There are few finales better than being the first team to make their way up to the temple with the missing piece of Triforce to collect the Master Sword.
We “escaped” in around 40 minutes, having taken some minor clues along the way from the various characters. The direction in the game was generally a little muddled, so the clues weren’t so much about solving puzzles as about finding out what we were meant to do next.
I came out of Defenders of the Triforce having really enjoyed myself. The high-octane puzzling, the fun team, some surprisingly inventive puzzles given the format and a little bit of theatre all came together to produce a good experience. The fact that we went in with low expectations and that we were the first to lift the Master Sword aloft will undoubtedly have helped, but I think there’s some good gameplay locked inside the performance.
Yes, the puzzling had some weaker moments, and the theatre was at times bordering on the embarrassing, but overall it was an enjoyable experience that I’m glad I took part in. If you’re a big Zelda fan or want to experience something that’s right on the edge of escape rooms, then head along with low expectations on the puzzle and spectacle front. If you go in with that mindset, then I think it’s perfectly possible to have a thoroughly enjoyable hour of fun.
Detailed Room Ratings