On a trip round the south coast, we decided to stop off in Portsmouth and drop in on The Real Escape. We’d booked to do all three games, and they’d been kind enough to flex our start times a little and make them fit back-to-back. Even better, when we got there, they were pretty happy to play the schedule by ear – we turned up a bit early and they were happy to let us jump straight into the first game and then take an extended break later for lunch. It’s great to have a company that doesn’t regimentally stick to its schedule but instead thinks about what’s actually possible on a given day.
It’s a bit of a tricky place to find – the entrance is at the back of a row of shops – but, once inside, it’s comfortable enough, with a large waiting area. We were there on a weekday, so we didn’t see many other players, but I think there would have been plenty of room even if all three games had been in use. The GM was friendly and gave us a quick intro on top of the standard video that basically implores players to behave properly.
All three games were enjoyable, though none really stood out as being must-plays. In some ways, the Guardians of the Elixir is probably the one I’d recommend most, not because it was impressive in and of itself but because it made a bold choice that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and it’s interesting to see how enthusiasts find that.
The Guardians of the Elixir (3.5 stars)
In essence, Guardians is a themed puzzle room. There’s no background story (or, if there was, I totally forgot it), and the decoration is minimal (unless you count 20+ identical compartments with three-digit codes).
Yes: 20+ identical compartments with three-digit codes. I’ll let that sink in for a while. This is not a room where you want to start randomly trying every code you find against the locks unless you’re very, very confident it’s the right solution. Fortunately, that initial fear was soon put aside as I realised that it should be abundantly clear at any given point which compartment we should be trying to gain access to. I’m pretty sure that it’s designed to be intimidating, and it worked.
With all those compartments, you’ve obviously got a great barometer for your progress. You’re looking to knock one open every 2-3 minutes so, if you’re looking round the room thinking that half your time is done and you’ve only got a third of the spaces open, then you know you’re in trouble. Or at least you think you are. This game doesn’t just aim to throw you off by presenting you with those locks right from the start: it continues to mess with you throughout the experience. That clear sense of progress isn’t quite as clear as you might think and, looking back, we never really knew where we were up to in the game. The result is that you may choose to take clues when they’re not really necessary or, maybe, not take clues when they are.
In terms of puzzles, they had a wide range to choose from. Without the shackles of strong theming, I think they’d been a bit freer to choose the best puzzles they could come up with. That probably led to me finding this game the strongest of the three rooms from a “hard puzzle” perspective. The one place where it fell down, however, was on a distinct lack of physical challenges – the heart of most of its puzzles could have been plucked straight from the pages of a book.
Having said that, there were a couple of physical-ish elements that I did enjoy – for all that it looked like the game would be completed just by following through the sequence of three-digits codes and opening all the compartments, there were a couple of ways in which they played with us a little that kept it from becoming the monotony you might otherwise imagine.
But – and it’s a big but – the ending to this game has an element that just wasn’t much fun. It broke the conventions of escape rooms in a way that is likely to trip up lots of players and that isn’t easily fixable. If you haven’t followed their instructions (and it’s very likely you’ll forget or make a mistake), then it’s incredibly difficult to solve the final challenge. I believe that escape rooms should always be played in the moment. A mistake ten minutes ago shouldn’t continue to hurt you beyond the wasted time, but this game punished you for even one mistake early in the game. The result: either failure or (as in our case) reliance on the GM for help. That took the edge off a game that stood out for being different from most experiences.
Dr Ryddle’s Memories (3.5 stars)
Coming from such a harshly decorated room, Dr Ryddle’s Memories was a veritable assault on the eyes. It was a bold choice to try to create a room like that but, for me, it paid off – giving the impression of being inside a mind that was full of energy and ideas. Sadly, that wasn’t the case with the choice of furniture, which was a little more IKEA-esque and less exciting.
The puzzles were pretty much linear, which worked well with just two of us, but I can imagine this getting more than a little frustrating with a larger group. That feeling would be exacerbated in a room with relatively little by way of fixtures and fittings, causing players to quickly get tired of searching. The style of puzzle solution got a little repetitive too, although you could argue that was in part trying to make the solutions feel like you were unlocking parts of the Doctor’s memories.
The puzzles were, on the whole, forgettable. They weren’t terrible: they just weren’t particularly interesting. There were, however, a small number of exceptions: One was a fun, chunky puzzle that the two of us could work on simultaneously, while another involved a fun search which managed to feel both trivial and difficult at the same time.
The finale is telegraphed to you from a little while out, and I was almost certain it was going to be easily brute-forceable. The good news is that it isn’t, so you’ll have to work your way through all (or at least nearly all) the puzzles. The solution made good use of the room in a way that felt almost like we were being given the chance to reflect on what we’d been up to during the game. While it wasn’t the most exciting ending, it was still a fun way to finish the experience.
The Chamber of the Deep (3.5 stars)
Pirate rooms always seem appealing, particularly from a visual point of view and, with its abundant wooden furniture, this one was no exception; and, while it may not have really looked like a ship, it certainly gave off piratey vibes. As the game progressed, we came across a few weaknesses in the decoration – I’d describe it as a little workmanlike in places. It definitely did the job, but it didn’t feel like they’d tried to add much flair.
The puzzles were reasonable, although some aspects were a little repetitive. One trope had been nicely re-imagined, while another puzzle involved using a piece of furniture in a slightly surprising way. Indeed, this was a game which often had puzzles that yielded “hints” rather than codes. I say hints but, in most cases, you would have stood little chance of finding the item in question if you hadn’t been given those clues.
That led to a slightly different dynamic to the room, where you’d less often be doing numerical puzzles and more often decoding into instructions. This worked reasonably well in a theme where code after code would have jarred more than most. In fact, I’d go further than that: it worked well and is well worth considering if designers can set it up without the risk of massively shortcutting the game.
In spite of probably being the most expansive of their games (not that that’s saying a huge amount), it still failed to get me excited. I get the feeling that they’re mainly about creating reasonable-looking rooms with solid puzzles than aiming for anything out of this world (and, in fairness, they deliver on that).
The big issue with this game, at least for me, was the finale. As the game progresses, the excitement should be building up. Most teams will be hitting critical levels as they approach the final puzzle, and their excitement should be palpable. I found it frustrating that the last thing we had to do in the space was find a small and fairly well hidden item. If you’re lucky, you’ll have found it in passing but, if you’re not, you’ll find that they’ve taken that potentially frantic and exciting finale and turned it into a tedious search across the entire space. Even though we finished in time, I don’t think we got over that disappointing ending.
That ending to Guardians _really_ wound me up. 😀 Usually my teammates take a harsher view of games than I do, with that one it was the other way round.