Amsterdam Escape Review: Escape World (Harbour and Waterlooplein)

This is part of a series of articles on games in Amsterdam – click here for the introduction and links to all the other articles.

Escape World has three venues in Amsterdam – two fairly close to the centre and one a half-hour drive away. If you’re looking for a comparison point with a UK game, then they’re very similar to Breakin‘, the London operator. In fact, they’re more than a little similar – some of the rooms are from the same designer. The Flying Dutchman, one of the games in their Waterlooplein location, is the same as the Breakin’ game of the same name, while their Hospital shared one puzzle prop with the Butcher’s Lair. If you’ve played in Budapest, you may also notice games imported from (Serial Killer) and Mind Quest (the Matrix).

A lot of people are quite dismissive of bought-in games, but I’m quite open to the idea, and I think it worked well here. They’d obviously gone across Europe looking for games that they thought were good quality and then buying them in for Amsterdam. Designing games is a tiny (albeit important) part of running an escape game and, while you still need the ability to tweak those designs based on customer feedback, buying in a good design to start with gives you a huge step up.

Of the games we played, I’d recommend The Pirate Ship, The Cabin and Who Killed the Painter? for enthusiasts. None of the others are terrible so, if you want to play a bunch in a row, they’re all reasonable.

Both locations had great waiting areas, with plenty of space to sit and chat. The GMs at Harbour are right out in the corridor, though, so be aware when you finish a game not to look or listen too closely!

The Pirate Ship (4 stars)

We didn’t really know what to expect when we turned up here – it wasn’t that high up the TripAdvisor ranking but, in the context of a city which is reputed to be full of great escape games, that didn’t worry me too much. As we opened the door, it became clear that it was a serious place. They’ve gone to town with the pirate ship theme, not just in recreating an old ship but in some of the props driving the story forward.

It feels like a reasonable warning, given you’re told this before you go into the room, that your group will be split in half and one of those halves will be shackled. It shouldn’t be for very long and you’re never very separate, but I will say that the shackled players are very, very close together in a corner, so pick good friends if you’re in the half that go in first!

The game starts pretty simply, with a couple of very accessible puzzles, but the communication aspects and a fair number of red herrings left us struggling and we didn’t get moving for several minutes. Things did pick up, but the game is pretty much linear throughout, so expect a mix of beautiful flow and getting utterly stuck.

The puzzles are varied, with a good level of difficulty – none of them felt really easy and, while we did take a clue or two, it felt that we should have done better. One puzzle was a particularly enjoyable variant on a standard escape room trope that worked well as a metaphor for the storyline. The automation to the room was a real highlight. Most solved puzzles rewarded you with a chest or cupboard popping open. The one real negative for me was that an otherwise fun skill puzzle had a flaw that meant that, even when executed successfully, it didn’t always give you the information it was meant to. In the end, we got sufficiently disheartened that I decided to brute-force the solution – a rare occurrence.

The finale was the perfect ending to the game, acting out exactly what you were told was the mission in the initial briefing.

The Serial Killer (3.5 stars)

So, this is an interesting room to review. It turns out that I’d actually played a variant of it before in Budapest. Now, when you recreate a room, it obviously looks a bit different, but surely you’d recognise the same puzzles? Well, yes and no. I recognised a couple of them near the end, but the overlap wasn’t that huge and, with four or five people in each game, there was actually very little I saw that was similar to the parts I’d been involved with first time around. Certainly, the two places where I noticed an overlap didn’t help us in the slightest.

This was probably the better of the two versions in terms of set design – it was atmospheric, with the lighting at just the right balance to give some moodiness but without making searching a pain. Don’t go in expecting amazing set design, but it did the job.

That’s pretty much where the immersion ended, though. There’s no real story progression – find the murder weapon to lock up the criminal – and the puzzles weren’t massively on theme. This is old-school escaping where they put you in a room full of challenges with just the vaguest hints at the story along the way. That said, the puzzles were good enough. One felt like it needed a leap of logic, and another right at the start felt shoehorned into the room; however, those aside, I had no complaints.  This was most definitely a room where “escape room logic” abounded, though.

Overall, it was a decent way to spend an hour (or at least, half an hour), but it was almost instantly forgettable once you’d left the room – perhaps explaining why I didn’t notice that we’d played something similar before until my teammates pointed it out…

Who Killed the Painter? (4 stars)

I’m a mug for an unusual theme and, while this was, in effect, just a murder mystery, making it about Van Gogh definitely intrigued me. As with several of their rooms, there’s a stylised, slightly tongue-in-cheek film intro once you enter the game. I really enjoyed the three intros we saw here – in particular, they used the characters in the game to both set the story and tell you the rules without breaking from the immersion they’d created.

This game was packed full of references to Van Gogh’s paintings, and you’ll find more than a few copies of his work around the room. Beyond that, there’s nothing particularly exciting about the set – it’s just a rendition of an artist’s house and so is pretty plain aside from the pictures. Once again, the set was where the immersion ended – these puzzles made use of the imagery but there was absolutely no reason for their existence in the storyline. In fact, I don’t even recall how solving them was meant to lead you to the killer.

They were fun puzzles, though, and at the upper end of the difficulty level. There were several escape room tropes but nothing that got us too frustrated; and one, which diced with moving from tricky to tedious, did at least do a great job of showing you that Van Gogh would paint several different versions of the same scene.

So, where does all that leave you in deciding whether or not to play the game? The set isn’t inspiring, the story doesn’t develop, the puzzles aren’t on theme and the game peters out at the finale. A novel theme, plenty of Van Gogh imagery and enjoyable puzzles are where this game is at and, for me, that was sufficient to make me recommend it to people.

Down the Rabbit Hole (4 stars)

This Alice in Wonderland-themed game is another great example of what Escape World can do with the set design. It’s wonderfully imagined in a surreal way that fits with the story. That’s slightly at odds with the puzzles which, while generally making use of the theme, really didn’t mesh with it very well. They took some of the concepts from the story but it very much felt like the puzzles were forced into the game. I may be judging it harshly, though. We’d recently visited a fantastically well themed Alice game in Brussels, so my standards were pretty high.

They were decent puzzles though, and we found them relatively tricky. Considering we had four very experienced players in the room, I was amazed at just how often we hit a brick wall. Usually, that would indicate that the puzzles were a bit questionable, but that wasn’t the case here: each time they gave us a clue, I really felt like we should have done better.

The puzzles fitted together nicely so that, while the game felt as if it was very open and you could do plenty of exploration, in general you were only exposed to a small number of puzzles at once. Again, there was a decent balance of puzzles, with communication, observation, searching and a little bit of physical interaction. One of the puzzles felt a little bit mathsy for an escape room but, in truth, it turned out not to be very difficult once you got over that.

The room did have one mis-set, but it was a forgivable mistake and their only one of the day. The previous team had put a piece of paper that contained an answer in a slightly odd place. Fortunately, we realised the error so it didn’t disrupt the game flow.

Hospital (3.5 stars)

With so many beautiful games, it’s easy to become blasé about decoration and expect only the highest standard. In most venues, Hospital would have been a very solid-looking room, but here it felt weak. It’s a huge space, which I found added slightly to the intimidating storyline. Speaking of which, in terms of story, it’s a run-of-the-mill “evil science experiment” but, as with many of the Escape World rooms, there’s a video that works well in terms of delivering an above-average intro to the game..

Before you go into the room, you’ll need to choose one of your team members to be taken in early. Unsurprisingly they’re held separately from the rest of the team, although it’s not for long and it’s not a solid separation, so you shouldn’t feel worried about it unless physical confinement is a concern. If you’re organising a stag or hen do, then that “special treatment” might make it particularly appropriate.

In terms of puzzles, it was pretty standard. Nothing really jumped out at me as amazing. One puzzle that we had to solve was identical to a module in London’s Breakin’ Escape’s The Butcher game. I think that’s likely to become more and more of an issue in escape rooms as we see more companies selling modular puzzles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the modularity, while the puzzle was solid, it really had no place in this game and just felt like it was a filler added to extend the gameplay.

While the game wasn’t exciting, it did little wrong. One clue was ridiculously well hidden, with the result that I’d expect most teams to need a hint or brute-force an answer. Another puzzle had a very strange mixture of professional-looking clues and badly scrawled clues, which I found grating. It was particularly strange given the high production values elsewhere in the venue.  And that was about it – I enjoyed my time in the game but it’s the sort of room you play because you’re already in the venue.

(The Matrix – 3.5 stars)

A kind of half review this time round. As soon as walked into the room, I realised my teammates were behaving a bit differently. After a couple of minutes of exchanging glances, it became apparent that they’d played this game before on a trip to Budapest. We muddled along but it was a strange experience because they sort of knew what they were doing (there had only been three of them in the room). and so I was always left catching up. I write this review more based on a walkthrough than having played the game and, for those of you who worry about numbers, I don’t count it in my list of games.

As befits the title, this is a high-tech game with several different technology interactions. I really enjoyed the journey that you took through this game with a transition early on that took you from “reality” to the Matrix and other steps in the game which were metaphors for aspects of the story. The set was nicely caricatured, although at times some of the props crossed the line into red herring territory.

The challenges in the game were all solid with sensible solutions, and there’s one particularly fun interaction that I think will delight players. Well, with one exception for which I’ll give you a slight spoiler – this game uses lasers. I’m sorry, but it has to be talked about, and the imagery they use to advertise the game does hint strongly at that. If you’re going to have lasers in a room, you have to have sufficient smoke/dust to make the beams visible. They just weren’t, and even our star laser maze expert couldn’t get past it. We talked to them afterwards, and they said that, whenever they put enough fog into the room to see the beams, they kept on getting accidentally triggered. I suspect the problem is that the space they’re in is just too big or they’re trying to reflect the beam too often – most laser mazes I’ve seen have used far smaller areas. That should have been a centrepiece to the game, but here it just left led to significant frustration.

Escape World Waterlooplein

At the time of playing, there was only one game open at Waterlooplein, but they were rapidly building some more, and there are now already three different games at the venue, one of which has a second copy. It’s nowhere near as spacious as their main venue on the harbour, but there’s still plenty of scope for hanging around before games, and the staff were just as enthusiastic.

The game quality seems to be just as high in the new venue, with good-quality bought-in games that have a pretty linear flow but stunning set design.

The Cabin (4 stars)

I’m not sure what I expected from a game that’s called the cabin but, whatever it was, this exceeded it on the visual side. They’ve created a really impressive backdrop to the game, which implements both the inside and outside of the cabin. Small touches within the game really help to transport you away from the building that houses the venue to a log cabin hidden in the woods. For example, they’ve put up a tilted internal roof complete with skylight so that you both have the feeling of being enclosed but don’t end up with too little light.

In fact, given the theme, this was positively bright. I never felt the darkness got in the way of searching. And there was some searching to be done around the room on entry. Well, soon after entry. Your first task is to work out how to reunite the team, since this is yet another room where you’re split at the start. Of the games we played with this company, half of them had team members split up to start the game.

The puzzles within the game were generally fine. A few of them pushed my comfort zones in terms of being entirely logical, but there was one right in the heart of the game which seemed to use a huge leap of logic to trigger a result in the room. That hit us pretty much halfway through the game, and the remainder of the experience was coloured by that stumbling block. Otherwise it went pretty smoothly. There was one place where we needed to be nudged towards the answer but, in fact, that was an unfortunate ambiguity in the way the instructions were worded that left us feeling like we needed to solve something else before we could proceed.

The finale to the game was a fitting end to what was a fun game. It pulled the narrative together nicely in a room that otherwise hadn’t had a huge amount of storytelling and left us with a positive feeling as we exited the room.

(The Flying Dutchman – 3.5 stars)

Bonus content! I’ve played this game elsewhere and, based on a quick tour round the almost-completed building site, it looks like a carbon copy of the version we tried. If you want to read an in-depth review, you can see one here.

That’s all about Escape World – want to read more about Dutch games? Click here to head back to the main Amsterdam page.

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