Vienna Escape Review: Time Busters

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

Time Busters was one of the most interesting venues we visited in Vienna. With most companies, you get a very clear feel of what sort of games they create after you play your first. Do they like lots of automation, are their games pretty, do they pack their puzzles in? Time Busters felt like each room was designed by separate people. Some were stunningly beautiful, some were much grittier. One was packed to the gunnels with puzzles, another had very few.

Of the games we played, I’d recommend Mine and Bank Heist to anyone, and Labyrinth to enthusiasts who want something of a serious challenge and a game that’s very different from anything else they’re likely to have played before.

Note that the games are split across two sites, although they’re only five minutes apart.

The Mine (4 stars)

We left the street by a little side door, walked through a tattoo parlour (yes, really) and then… Wow, I couldn’t quite believe the transition. This really felt like you were underground in an old fashioned timber-filled gold mine. This game is a work of art that makes brilliant use of the space to give the sensation that you’re in the central well of a sprawling mine – wooden gates blocking you off from the various tunnels and plenty of mining equipment adorning the wall. Even the clues are given over an old fashioned mine phone. A lot of love, care and vision must have gone into building this.

In addition to a beautiful set, there’s a very clear goal: you’re trapped underground, so you need to find the dynamite and blow your way to safety. And, to some extent at least, that goal is reflected in the puzzles you follow, particularly at the finale. Most of the puzzles were reasonably enjoyable, although one that we eventually brute-forced felt contrived – when we worked out the logic it was really at odds with the quality of the rest of the room.

In truth, that was but a minor annoyance, especially compared to the two major complaints I had with this game, which took down the rating substantially. First, two of the puzzles are destructible. I don’t believe there should ever be something in an escape room that, once done, prevents you from finishing the game, although I might accept games where you have to make a choice right at the end (e.g. do I cut the red wire or the black wire?). So having two of these was a real disappointment. All I can say is that, if you go in knowing that’s the case, I think you can spot the puzzles where this is likely to be an issue and be extra careful.

The second issue was that one of the padlocks jammed. That’s bad luck and I can’t really hold it against the company, but it was exacerbated by there being no audio in the room (so they couldn’t hear what code we were trying) and the host not paying enough attention (so they didn’t see that we were repeatedly looking at the right information and then heading straight for the padlock but not getting it opened). The end result was that we wasted a lot of time and a lot of mental energy and got incredibly frustrated. By the time he came in with bolt cutters to remove the locks, our feeling about the game had turned.

This game makes me so sad because it’s close to being great. Add some microphones, get the host to pay more attention, stop the puzzles being destructible and then fix the one really weak puzzle, and I think this would have been one of the very best rooms I’ve played.  As it is, I’d still urge you to play it if you go to Vienna.

The Vault (4 stars)

When you first walk across the threshold, this game looks like an ordinary office, albeit one in a financial institution, but turn the other way and you’ll notice the huge bank vault that forms the centrepiece of the game. The game has a reasonably simple premise – retrieve a mystery item from the vault – with a slight twist in that you have to find a secret exit from the bank because the police are closing in.

That opening scene involves a fair amount of searching around the room to work out how to continue. The puzzles didn’t particularly fit the story at the beginning, but they were reasonably logical and had some nice variety. Enjoyable though the game was, it felt very stop-start – perhaps the feeling there was still some searching to be done meant that, rather than get into the flow of puzzle-solving, we tended to spend a little time trying to solve a puzzle and then make another attempt at searching the room for clues we might have missed.

Probably the most interesting thing to me was that there were two paths to progressing once you were in the vault itself: you could (legitimately) brute-force your way into the safety deposit boxes or solve puzzles to point you in the right direction. I’m really not sure whether I approve of that choice, but it was certainly an interesting design decision. Perhaps if brute-forcing had been a slow process it would have worked better; as it was, I suspect it might be the optimal strategy – surely tedious taskwork should never be an optimal strategy?

Labyrinth (4 stars)

Labyrinth is, without a doubt, one of the hardest, most original games I’ve ever played. We escaped in about 55 minutes but that wasn’t caused by us moving slowly – there is a huge volume of puzzles to be completed here across a massive twisting floorspace (one might say, almost labyrinthine…). There are puzzles of above-average skill and mental challenge and one that is downright evil in a way that I’ve only seen in one other game. It’s not the prettiest game in the world (although it has its moments) but, for me, the physical design of it more than made up for that, and it’s by no means shabby.

The puzzles came in all shapes, sizes and types and, to the delight of most escape enthusiasts, there was very little by way of searching to be done. Music, skill, physical, spatial awareness, observation, counting, logic and pattern-matching puzzles made an appearance, usually more than once and, in some cases, there were even multiple ways to solve a problem. It probably had the widest range of puzzles on display that I’ve ever seen in a room.

There are a couple of puzzles that may slow you down a little early on, but the majority yield to a bit of mental effort until you get right to the end of your journey, when the difficulty ramps back up as befits this kind of room.

A couple of notes: Firstly, some outside-the-room knowledge is required for a couple of different parts of one puzzle trail. If you’re not Austrian, there’s a good chance that you’ll have to ask for a hint at that point. A must-play for enthusiasts, although be prepared to be both frustrated and excited! Secondly, there are some physical aspects to this game. You don’t need to be strong but you’ll definitely want someone who’s mobile.

Temple of Montezuma (3.5 star)

Temple of Montezuma is a head-to-head game that you usually wouldn’t be allowed to play just one side of, but they generously allowed us to play as a four so that we wouldn’t have to round up additional players. It’s another beautiful game, with chunky set pieces that oozed quality – I’m always a mug for pretty temple-based games.

Beauty is great to have, but you need good gameplay to back that up, and this room felt really lacking in that department. I think the basic structure is there, but we were given a whole load of clues to unpick and very little information about which ones we should work on first or which went together. The result of that was us trying to solve puzzles with incomplete information and general frustration. Note that, talking to the GM, they were just about to do a redesign, so that may have improved things. I suspect from what she said that they were already pretty aware of the failings.

The puzzles were generally interesting and made sense once you worked out which clues went together, so hopefully they can drop in a few hints and change the order in which those props appear in order to improve the game. That said, there were a couple that were very weak, and one in particular relied on colour under yellow lights in a way that our team really struggled with – if you ever get frustrated by colour puzzles, then expect to hit that issue here!

Control Room (3 star)

Control Room was by far the weakest of the games we played at Time Busters, and the set reminded me very much of the gritty Budapest style of games – old machinery in a not very pretty space. For the most part it was fun, but we felt there were significant problems with one of the puzzles that resulted in us fighting against what were effectively red herrings for most of the game.

Strangely, the 60 minutes doesn’t technically start when you enter the room but, instead, when you complete a specific, obvious action. We didn’t do that (because we were worried we might break the prop), with the result that, a couple of minutes later, we got a call on the walkie-talkie explaining that we really could do the thing we were scared to try. It seemed an odd choice not to just make the game start on entry, but it did fit better with the story.

It’s a very authentic-looking control room, with banks and banks of dials, buttons and switches. That exacerbated the feeling of red herringness in the room but, as the game progressed, we did at least get a sense of which buttons/switches mattered so, by the end, we were only dealing with one confusing set of clues.

That’s all on Time Busters – want to read more about Vienna’s games? Click here to head back to the main Vienna page.

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