As part of a trip to Belgium, we headed along to Gent to play some escape rooms. It was just an afternoon trip, so we didn’t play the full set – just four of the more interesting-looking ones. Lockdown and Puzzle Escape Rooms were both reasonable games but, if you’re an enthusiast, I’d direct you towards Kubus and Labyrint at Locked Gent (which I’ve reviewed here). Technically, I’d say they’re worse escape rooms (the puzzles are disappointing to say the least), but they’re such a different experience to anything else that it’s pretty amazing.
Locked Down and Puzzle Escape Rooms, on the other hand, are the far safer choice, with good puzzles and sets. You’re not going to be amazed, but there’s far less to be disappointed in! Also, if you’re relatively new to playing escape rooms, they’re pretty conventional, so you’re not likely to be put off the entire genre by an atypical example. Of the pair, I’d probably direct you to Room 7, which had a better sense of exploration and quality of puzzles.
It’s worth mentioning that Brussels is just a 30-minute train ride away (or an hour in the car) and has several good games. You can check out my round-up of pretty much all the rooms in the city here.
Lockdown – Room 7 (4 stars)
Set just next to the canal in an industrial facility and car park, Lockdown Gent may not look that welcoming at first sight but, as soon as you walk in the door, it’s clear that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. There’s a comfy waiting room with plenty of space and none of the harshness of the outside area. We’d booked in to play Room 7, a CSI-meets-serial-killer game with a seven-deadly-sins theme.
They get the game off to a great start by having a small hallway with a coat rack, which very much gives you the feeling of entering a flat. That feeling of realism continues throughout the game with the sensation that this isn’t just an escape room but a re-creation of someone’s apartment. And a relatively realistic one at that – it felt a very “busy” room with so many things to investigate that it was almost overwhelming. That’s not helped by the game starting in poor light, although you should expect that to change well before it becomes annoying.
There’s a central theme to this experience which gives you a good feeling of progress. Every so often we’d solve an important puzzle which would give us some idea of how far through the game we’d got. It’s by no means perfect, but it gave us a sense of satisfaction that we were on the right track. That was good, because there were lots of seemingly random pieces of information in the game, several of which could be interpreted as four-digit codes. Without that sense of progress given elsewhere, it could have been daunting (leaving us thinking we still had plenty of combination locks to crack!). That wasn’t the only case of misleading codes: one puzzle threw in a whole lot of red herrings and, when we finally worked out what they wanted us to do, there were several different viable solutions. That confusion followed by ambiguity was frustrating to say the least.
That said, there were several very strong puzzles set around pivotal moments. Two teamwork puzzles stood out as particularly impressive. One was slightly physical and, while it didn’t particularly fit the room’s theme, it was still a fun experience. The second, of a slightly adult nature, had a great set-up and involved plenty of humour in the communication.
I particularly liked that set-up because it put a lot of pressure on players to make a quick decision about what to do. It’s not a game-ending choice, but it certainly got my heart pounding when I realised the split-second choice I would have to make.
The final part of this game was an impressive attempt at a finale on several levels. Visually, it looked good (although that was somewhat dampened by it being a little darker than ideal) but, more importantly, it tied the whole room together into a coherent whole. It was a little overwhelming – just like the start of the experience – but, given a bit of time, it became clear enough and brought the whole game back in a circle. That would have been great if the experience had ended there, but unfortunately there was one more thing we had to do – find a particular item – which meant another painstaking search through the space. To be honest, most teams will likely find it on the first sift but, with so many red herrings, it’s easy to overlook the one item you need to find. It’s always a risk allowing the game to finish with a search – we came out a little flatter than we might have done if they’d forced us to make that discovery before solving the real finale.
Puzzle Escape Rooms – The Russian Laboratory (3.5 stars)
Puzzle Escape Rooms is inside a strange, labyrinthine building with lots of other businesses and almost as many ways of finding your way to the escape room. They’ve got two rooms for teams that are about to play – a reception for you to wait in and then a separate briefing area. Something I found a little strange was that they had a pre-game puzzle which we had up to ten minutes to solve that helped unlock one of the locks in the room. It was a strange, mathsy puzzle of a type I would enjoy outside an escape room (and, technically, we were!) but which gives a very strange impression of the challenge you’re about to be up against. It didn’t particularly bother me in itself, but it sends the wrong impression to first-timers and made me nervous about other decisions they might have made in their room.
There’s an unimpressive start to the game, with the full team trapped in a small, undecorated space. In fact, this isn’t a visually impressive game: it’s very much a concrete shell with some furniture and puzzles moved in. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly didn’t make me think “laboratory”. Having said that, that first space is very much a training area where you get to grips with what escape rooms are all about. Perhaps a little trickier than your average training puzzles but, by keeping it small, they’ve minimised the distraction from future puzzles that you tend to get in other games.
Once we were into the main body of the experience, it became fairly typical, with a reasonable number of standard puzzles to keep us busy. There’s one central puzzle that involves a lot of searching. I’d usually be averse to that, but here it worked pretty well, possibly because we didn’t need to find every single part. Each search success was also followed by a small puzzle, so we got instantaneous rewards for that and then a meta puzzle at the end. Or, at least, we should have got a meta puzzle. As it happens, we fluked the solution, with the result that we bypassed several puzzles in the game. Again, I’d usually criticise them for that, but I don’t think it was an easy fluke – it affected our game but it shouldn’t affect most people’s. My one criticism is that the correct solution involved a search that felt like we might be going somewhere we really shouldn’t. Your opinion may vary, though!
The upshot of that was us missing out on a cool puzzle and being very confused by what effectively became red herrings. In retrospect, our GM should probably have realised what was happening and clued us to the missed search that would have allowed the game to get back on track. In fact, I think that’s generally a good rule of thumb: if players skip a part of the game, give them a clue that uncovers the bit that they’ve skipped so they don’t get confused later on.
The game degenerated from there, with some poor design choices. One was an incredibly lazy puzzle exacerbated by another puzzle with the same style of output but an ambiguous answer which left us inputting a lot of variations of a code in entirely the wrong place. Unsurprisingly, that was met with little success… It’s one of the problems with padlocks and numeric codes in a game: as soon as you have a few of them, it becomes easy to misinterpret and use them in entirely the wrong place. Perhaps that earlier skipping of puzzles came back to bite us – we’d lost a little faith in the room. A seeming abundance of red herrings, a leap of logic when we’d “solved” the puzzle and the presence of that lazy puzzle meant that we were ready to assume the room was at fault.
Ironically, having said all of the above, we spent a significant time fighting with the ambiguity of turning a particular puzzle solution into a numeric code when it turned out that we’d been barking up entirely the wrong tree. Instead, we should have used it for the ending of the room – a physical, thematic finale that added a little theatre to what had otherwise been a fairly run-of-the-mill experience.
It’s sometimes hard to separate bad luck from bad game design. We came out of this room reasonably quickly but frustrated. I’m choosing to give them the benefit of the doubt, though. I think we were just unlucky with our experiences on the day. At its core, there’s a fun escape room here. The decoration and storyline aren’t going to engage you much but, assuming you don’t skip the puzzles like we did, I think you’ll find enough challenges here to keep you occupied.