Warsaw Escape Review: Black Cat Escape Rooms

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

Set on the fourteenth storey of an office block (I know this because I shunned the lift and climbed up all fourteen floors), Black Cat have some controversial rooms – there’s something to be offended by in three of their five games, and – I’ll warn you now – at the advice of one of my team mates, I chose not to play one game. I’m not easily shocked, but seeing the faces of the players who had played it made me feel that it wasn’t an experience I wanted to have.

Painter’s Workshop and Balcony are interesting games. The Sex Room is a game that is exactly what you’d expect from the title and will either thrill or shock you, depending on your personal tastes. Murderer’s House is the room that I didn’t play and which I’d recommend you avoid, both because I don’t think it’s something that should have been made into an escape game and because, by my friends’ accounts, it’s an unpleasant experience. Finally, Nazi Gold was a reasonable game but, even if you’re OK with playing a game that has a Nazi theme, it had one moment that stepped over a line for me.

Nazi Gold (3.5 stars)

The premise is pretty much obvious from the title. During the war, the Nazis hid away some gold in a secret bunker, and you’re there to steal it back. “Nazis as bad guys” may be something you’re happy with in an escape room, or you may consider it unacceptable in a gaming environment. I’m going to sidestep that discussion (I had a long chat in a private forum with a bunch of people around the world to get my head round how I felt about it) and assume that the readers of the rest of the review are comfortable with that aspect (if you’re not, then obviously this isn’t the game for you).

This game could have been forgiven for throwing you straight through the door into the heart of the bunker, but they didn’t take the easy way out and instead deposited you on its doorstep, with your first mission being to break in. I loved the opening because it kept you guessing about how the room would look until well into the game, as well as aiding immersion by carrying your journey into the game, not to mention the fact that the bunker doors were visually stunning. The inside was an impressive depiction of what a Nazi bunker might be. It’s an example of a game where the décor was deliberately a bit rundown but without giving the impression that it was out of laziness. Perhaps that strong opening helped, but I think generally it was that, where it mattered, they’d put more effort in.

The opening to the game, as well as the play that followed, delivered a sense of exploration that fitted with the bunker theme. It was never going to be massively expansive, but what was there delivered well. Add to that a clear mission and ending (find the gold!), and you have a solid experience on your hands.

Puzzle-wise, there was a decent mix, with the odd moment of theatre in the game to convert the puzzle solutions into something more impressive. There was generally good direction, although one puzzle in particular felt like a bit of a leap, while another tech-based puzzle was a bit temperamental for at least two of our teams, which took the edge off what would otherwise have been an impressive conclusion.

That’s all good, but there was a part of this room that made me dislike it. At the beginning of this article, I talked about whether you think the Nazi angle might be an issue. It’s quite in your face here, more so than in other games, and at one point they stepped massively over the line for me. One of the puzzles has a set of instructions that indicate the mechanism can be a little temperamental so you should retry a couple of times. Then, in a throwaway comment, they tell you that, if you can’t make it work, it’s probably because you’re a “stupid Jew”. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt at immersion but, for me, it took a game that I was slightly uncomfortable with because of its in-your-face-ness and made it an unpleasant experience.

Sex Room (3.5 stars)

From one type of uncomfortable to another. This time I was playing a sex-themed escape room with Mrs Logic and two friends. It’s pretty clear from the website that this isn’t going to be a soft touch but instead aims to shock. It isn’t the sort of room that will show you some nude photos and a vibrator to carry the theme. Having said that, there’s nothing that’s fundamentally distasteful – if you can cope with watching a few seconds of hard-core pornography, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Décor-wise, you’re presented with a slightly over-the-top boudoir containing a wide range of sex-related props, some of which are part of the game and others more geared towards the post-game photos… Happily, it didn’t give the appearance of having had a hundred drunk stag groups running through it, and I never felt I needed to wear latex gloves to touch the props.

Truth be told, I’d gone in very much as a joke, expecting the puzzles to be disappointing and the “fun” of the room to come from what they got you to do (and what they got you to do it with…), but there was actually a surprising amount of solid puzzling in the game. I was particularly impressed by a couple of moments of humour that they’d thrown in.

If I’m being perfectly honest, the finale was a little bit of a letdown (the story of Mrs Logic’s life…). I mean, it fitted the mission we’d been given and there was a humorous puzzle just beforehand, but I felt this game needed to go out with a bang. A “normal” ending seemed just a bit too tame.

Painter’s Workshop (4 stars)

Of the five rooms at this venue, Painter’s Workshop was the most interesting to me as an enthusiast, because it was structured in a very different way from most games that I’ve played. Visually, it’s a nice rendition of an artist’s workshop, managing to convey the disorder that I imagine is prevalent amongst many creatives while not feeling that the room is filled with red herrings.

Interestingly given the other games we played at the venue, there was a strong narrative element to the experience, with us getting little snippets of the story as the game progressed. It’s subtly done and not critical to the overall plot, with the result that different players will interpret the storyline in different ways. While you could dismiss that as weak storytelling, I like to think that they give you the bare bones and allow you to fill in the gaps as you see fit – with whichever spin on the story best fits your psyche.

The puzzles range from fairly dull escape room tropes to genuinely novel and interesting challenges. One of my favourites was a style of puzzle I’ve seen used only a couple of times in other rooms, a subtle variant of which worked well here. It’s worth mentioning that, while the game is played in generally reasonable light, there’s one particular moment where you’ll need to be able to see reasonably well in low light levels. Some team members couldn’t see a particular clue even when they knew exactly what to look for. That, an ambiguous puzzle and a sensor that required you to get something just right were the only true flaws in the challenges we faced.

The interesting thing, as an enthusiast, was the game’s puzzle structure. I often talk about a sense of progress in games and how that adds to the experience. This went in entirely the opposite direction, with us feeling that, in spite of having uncovered a lot of information and kind of having solved a number of puzzles, we’d made absolutely no progress towards finishing the game. Five minutes later we’d escaped. That feeling of uncertainty was an interesting choice and, much to my surprise, worked in the game. It was backed up by those last few minutes being an interesting experience that gave a solid finale to the room.

Roof (3.5 stars)

Roof had only just opened when we visited, but I was pleasantly surprised by how robust it felt for a new game. The theme was that you’re a restaurant customer who’s been locked in by a psychopath. They’ve planted a bomb but given you a series of puzzles to solve in a bid to save yourself.

For most rooms, I’d start by giving my initial impression of the decoration, but here it’s the view that stands out. There aren’t many games that give you the view of an entire city while you’re playing. Warsaw isn’t as stunning as some of the older European capitals (in part because it was heavily bombed during the war), but it’s still a great view on a warm summer’s day.

But… the game! While the theme definitely had some restaurant-related puzzles in it, the biggest theme to me, perhaps appropriately given it was exposed to the elements, was of water. Many of the puzzles made use of water in one way or another, and it was interesting to see how they’d come up with a variety of different puzzles under that theme. As you’d expect given that, there were plenty of hands-on physical puzzles. Indeed, there were relatively few conventional locks on show, with some behind-the-scenes tech used for many of the puzzles.

My biggest complaint about this game is that they feed you some of the puzzles at predefined times. For most teams that’s not going to matter, but in our case it left us blocked for no reason. I’d much prefer a system whereby solving a puzzle triggers those extra clues to be released. As it was, we thought we were being given a clue because we were stuck and spent the rest of the game bemused as to how we were actually meant to solve the puzzle, only to find out how the game worked afterwards.

Solid puzzles with an interesting (if unintended) theme and interesting setting made this an enjoyable game for us. It’s probably not worth traipsing across town just for this experience, but if you’re in the area for some reason or have chosen to play their other games, I think it’s well worth a look. Just make sure you finish a few minutes early so you can enjoy that view.

(Murderer House)

I didn’t play this game but what I can tell you is that it’s based on the story of the Long Island Serial Killer who was still active in the last decade, with an intro video that uses footage of the victims’ families and contents that include graphic pictures of bodies (although it’s not clear whether they’re genuinely dead bodies or not) and a puzzle based on a sex change operation. I’m not sure where I draw the line at acceptable subject matter for escape rooms, but this one went well past it in my opinion. Some day, rooms will be used to explore difficult subject matters, but that time hasn’t come yet and, even if it had, this room wasn’t trying to explore a difficult topic: it was merely trying to shock.

That’s all on Black Cat – want to read more about Warsaw games? Click here to head back to the main Warsaw page.

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