Amsterdam Escape Review: Questomatica (formerly Claustrophobia)

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

Russia has an amazing reputation for escape rooms and particularly for making high-tech, automated experiences. I’ve taken the decision not to visit the country until the regime changes significantly, so I’ve almost no firsthand experience of how good they really are – the only time I played a game with significant Russian association was at iLocked in Nottingham.

Although they’ve recently changed their name, Questomatica‘s games are very much from the Claustrophobia stable, so I was keen to give them a go, especially since they’re highly rated amongst enthusiasts. Note that they’re not the newest games – they appeared on the scene about eighteen months ago, and I’m sure some of the latest offerings from Claustrophobia are much higher tech.

If you were a keen gamer in the 90s, then you’ll have an absolute field day in Arcade Fire, while the surreal nature of Wake Up will enchant those who want to return to their childhood in a slightly less adrenaline-fuelled way. Both games are good and worth a visit, but I was surprised to find a fair number of flaws in games that had been rated so highly by so many reviewers.

Arcade Invasion (4 stars)

There’s an unusual story to this game, which sets the scene for how it’s likely to progress. You start off in a street and have to break into the game characters’ bar. That done, you need to find the secret portal to the digital world before working out how to destroy the bad guys. That’s a decent structure to start with, and there’s no real need to expand on it: the point of this room is more to expose you to cool arcade game references.

The challenges within the game are almost entirely linear, and they’re pretty physical – not in the sense of a laser or magnet maze but in the sense that you physically interact with the room to get the reaction you want. The puzzles are laid out in an almost linear fashion, which caused us problems when we chose the wrong starting points. To my mind, the first puzzle in a game or new space should always be reasonably well directed, if only to help the first-timers. As experienced players, we sunk a lot of time into entirely the wrong puzzle, and the GM watched on without saying a word – clues were only given if specifically requested.

The puzzles have been chosen to integrate well with the theme, and several of them add some humour into the mix. Talking about the puzzles is obviously interesting, but the key part of this game is silliness, and that they managed in spades. Aside from slightly comical gaming references, there’s one part where they get you to carry out a silly action. That would have been fine and helped the team bond had it not gone on for too long to the point where it just became annoying. If I were to make one criticism of the puzzles, it was that all too often they lacked direction. You might work out what to do next, or you might need some help, but all too often it felt like they were a stretch. Not a full logic leap but something on the edge.

The big issue in this game came around ten minutes from the end. We decided to ask for a clue to help us solve a puzzle. No answer. A minute later we asked again. No answer. A couple of minutes later we asked again. Still no answer. Had the operator just left and not told us? We waited a while longer and then tried again, finally getting the hint we required. After almost ten minutes. When you ask for a clue with around ten minutes left, having not reached the finale, I don’t expect them to make you wait round till well after it’s literally too late to complete the game. It turned out that our host (who was shared between the two games) was too busy chatting with our other team to notice our cries for help.  To be left frustrated in a room for that long is simply unacceptable, in my opinion. The only saving grace was that the cluing system for this game is absolutely on theme and with a really cool implementation, so it was at least fun when the clue finally came.

When we eventually reached the finale, I was disappointed. Perhaps that was because I felt like we were already doomed to failure or because of the frustration of being left without clues. I’d seen photos of the game, so I had a reasonably clear image in my head of how it would end. Turns out that it really didn’t match up with reality. The fun part was there, albeit briefly but, before you could take on that fun part, you had to undertake what I can only describe as admin. I just don’t see why they chose that option when they obviously had the technology to make this a proper “arcade invasion” finish.

For all that the above sounds a bit negative, if you’re an arcade fan or an enthusiast in the area, then I’d say it’s well worth a visit. I just feel they left a lot of potential on the table.

Wake up! (4 stars)

In some sense, the two games at this venue have a similar subject matter: childhood. In truth, though, two games could hardly be more different. Where Arcade Invasion was an intense, rapid-fire game, this was much more of a relaxed – if slightly creepy – affair.

The premise is pretty weird as escape rooms go: you’re trying to wake up a little girl. You’re inside her dream and trying to get the alarm clock to ring before 7am when some unsaid calamity will befall you.

The game starts you off in a very normal bedroom. So far, so OK but, as you progress, it takes you on a much more interesting journey. It’s worth taking the time to think about what each space you encounter is meant to represent. It wasn’t till afterwards that I fully appreciated one particular aspect of it, and I can’t help but feel I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d realised at the time. Everything in this room makes sense in Matilda’s dream world so, whenever something seems a little arbitrary, have a think about why it’s the way it is.

Whereas I’d often felt that Arcade Fire lacked direction, this game always felt like you were being given clear hints about what you were meant to do next. Not spoon-feeding but enough to at least give you an idea of where you were heading.

The finale is probably the most interesting part of the game. It’s a tough puzzle that requires you to complete a long sequence of instructions precisely, but there’s a very reasonable chance that you’ll make a minor mistake along the way. Worse still, when you make that mistake, not only will you not notice but it’s very, very likely that you’ll undo all your good work and have to start again. Perhaps you can look at that as a challenge, but I know it made our sister team incredibly frustrated and we came very close to following in their footsteps.

The GM seemed to be reasonably attentive this time. On the two occasions we needed help it was given quickly. One thing that was highlighted after the game is that they have a computer screen showing your exact progress. On that final puzzle, they know exactly what you have and haven’t completed correctly, so they can give you very targeted advice even if they can’t see on the CCTV what actions you’ve taken.

This is a very solid game that’s close to being great. It’s never likely to be a stunning game in the way that Arcade Fire might have been, but it’s an interesting theme and I loved the sense of journey during the game.  Oh – for the avoidance of doubt – there’s nothing hidden in the air conditioning vent. Unless you count the sign that says “well done – you’ve found the air conditioning”. Well played, Questomatica!

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

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