Outside the room
Back at the start of 2016, The Panic Room opened its doors in Gravesend. It was clear from the bookings that it was proving to be pretty popular, and so I resigned myself to enduring the Dartford Crossing at some point and finding out what all the fuss was about. Imagine my delight then, when The Panic Room Harlow opened its doors a mere thirty minutes’ drive away, thus changing it from a weekend day trip to a cheeky after-work trip. As a bonus, with two rooms available we could take a larger than average team across.
The venue is in the heart of Harlow in the same building as Quasar. It’s kind of strange going in at 7pm for an escape room because the laser tag is shutting up and leaving the place somewhat deserted. We were greeted warmly, though, and shown to the bar area. Yes, there’s a bar here should you want to have a drink before or after your game, as well as comfy sofas to sprawl out on. Not to mention a pool table, mini air hockey and table football.
The briefing at the Panic Room is given in two parts – the generic “don’t do silly things” part is in the form of a video, while the per-game briefing is given by the host in the room itself. I’m not a fan of video briefings because, while I realise that they’re good for providing a consistent message, they feel a bit dry and impersonal to me. This, however, was far from that and made me realise that it’s perfectly possible to make a recorded intro engaging and fun.
You are a team sent to a crazed conspiracy theorists mansion where he has been found dead. He found out something he shouldn’t have and clearly someone wanted to cover it up and hide it. The room is trashed and clearly in the murderer’s haste he couldn’t find the documents. It is now your job to solve the trail of puzzles and riddles left by the conspiracy theorist, find the files and exit code and escape before the 60 minutes is up. Just remember…Don’t Panic!
Inside the room
I was a little nervous entering the room because the backstory described it as having been trashed. I fully expected to walk into a room in disarray but, quite the reverse, it was all perfectly tidy and the main thought that crossed my mind was that it felt quite bare. Looking back, I think the whole game very much showed its age – I might call it a first-generation room if I believed in that sort of classification. It’s full of padlocked furniture with very little more advanced technology in sight. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (hence why I don’t like to talk about generations) but it pushes you towards a certain style of room with few mechanical puzzles and answers in the form of number codes and five-letter words.
This isn’t a strongly themed game; it’s set in a mansion, so expect oldish-looking furniture but little more to set the scene. And the big air conditioning duct that ran through the industrial building we were in was a definite eyesore. There’s also almost no development of the story within the game – or, for that matter, really much of a story at all – you’ve just got to find some documents and it’s never really explained why that’s so important, which I think was a missed opportunity.
Where this game is stronger is on the puzzle side. It’s got logical, fun puzzles and, pleasingly, there’s enough variety in the lock type to save you from having to test out combinations on a bunch of different padlocks, which is one of the most common frustrations in the more traditional games. Indeed, I encountered a lock type that I’d not come across before, which is pretty rare these days! There were also plenty of puzzles which, given they allow up to eight people to play these rooms, is good to see. Most of those puzzles were standard escape room types, but one impressed even the seasoned veterans I took along, and there was plenty of breadth in the types of solutions.
There was one puzzle which I felt let down the game. It was conceptually a nice idea but its location in the game and, in particular, the lighting around it, meant that it was nigh on impossible to spot its existence (although, having spotted it, I think solving it would have been straightforward). “Fortunately”, we were able to skip that puzzle because all it did was help you find the clues for the next puzzle, and we managed to find them without its help. To my mind that’s fundamentally flawed – we found it significantly easier to find the subsequent pieces of the game through a painstaking search than to even find the puzzle that would give us the clue that was meant to help us find them.
We escaped from the room in under half an hour without taking any clues (although, as noted, we skipped one puzzle).
Although the theming and story were lacking, the puzzles were fun and there was a sense of flow throughout the game that meant I left the room having enjoyed myself. This was the first game from the Panic Room stable, and I think it shows. There’s plenty to love for first-timers, and experienced players will find a solid game. However, there was little to wow you. I find it strange that they advertise as a game for eight because I really don’t think it could engage that many people and, in truth, it’s got about as much in it as a typical six-player game. Experienced players should look to take along at most four players, and probably only three. Beginners can probably get away with up to six.
We headed over to Five Guys for a very rushed meal beforehand. As with previous experiences at this chain, the burgers, fries and milkshakes were excellent. There are also a bunch of other chain restaurants on the same strip – Nando’s, Pizza Express and Frankie and Benny’s.
Detailed Room Ratings