River City Escape Room – Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Lord Byron’s Murder (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 2-5)

Price: $25 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Elementary

Theme:

From the River City Escape Room website:

Scotland Yard has brought you an intriguing case. Eccentric Lord Byron had a feeling his days were numbered, and now he has been found dead under suspicious circumstances. A will that benefits a distant cousin has been found, but his nephew claims it was forged. In his home, Lord Byron has left clues on where to find the original will and how to identify his killer. The judge will execute the forged will in one hour unless you can locate the original. Help the nephew by finding the original will before the greedy cousin claims the estate!

First Impressions:

After the stunning one two punch of Alice in Wonderland and Innocent!, we were raring to take on another room at River City Escape. After debriefing from Innocent! and having a quick chat about the room, we huddled into the briefing room again to get started!

High Points:

For this last River City Escape Room review, (for now, we’re definitely returning,) I would be remiss not to mention the fantastic game mastering done by Rachel and Dennis, our favorite GMs of all time! Thanks again guys for an astoundingly good experience. The room was well decorated, with a roomy set filled with puzzles to engage with, giving off the vibe of a cozy British study. The adventure starts in a non-linear fashion, and there is plenty to work on throughout to keep a larger group occupied. The room does encapsulate the spirit of Sherlock by presenting a game in which all the little details matter, and some of the biggest clues can be found in plain sight, as long as detectives know what they’re looking for! Many times, we would find items around the room that seemed innocent enough, but once we’d solved a puzzle, we’d find that our next step involved these newly identified clues. The mystery was very intuitive due to this, and we always felt like we were right on track, even if the solution was still evading us.

The game flow benefits greatly from the intuitive cluing included within Sherlock. The connective tissue of the game is well woven, and presents many ah ha moments throughout. Most stages of the game included a moment of revelation where everything came together, and the entire experience was an excellent run of satisfying solves. I actually have a difficult time determining what my favorite puzzle was, as the puzzles were constantly keeping me on that puzzler’s high while still presenting a fair challenge to us all. The quality of River City Escape Room is really evident from start to finish, and by the time we were done, we were already ready to return.

Low Points:

The introduction video for Sherlock is a bit silly. The theme it describes and the tone/word choices present the theme less like a Sherlock room, and more like a down home, country murder. This isn’t really a bad thing, it actually sounds like a super creative theme, it just doesn’t jive with the current stated ambiance of the room. It certainly didn’t dull our enthusiasm for the room, but it was fairly dissonant. Overall, the Sherlock theme wasn’t all that present, seeming more to be a light dusting of Sherlockian tropes to get the mystery started, and wasn’t really the main focus of the story. Black light usage was pretty heavy for part of this room, but all of it was properly directed, so this wasn’t a huge problem.

Verdict:

After sleuthing our way through Sherlock, it’s apparent that in terms of great customer service, engaging puzzles, and exciting escapes, River City Escape Room is tough to beat! I absolutely recommend trying out Sherlock, or any other room they offer, as their experiences are a delight. Book your time solving Lord Byron’s murder here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: River City Escape Room provided comped tickets for this room.

Sleuth Kings – Case 018: The Stolen Scroll (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $29.95 per box

Fight for Justice!

Theme:

Sullivan King’s newest case is a doozy! Martial Arts Instructor Travis Burnett has retained the services of our favorite Private Detective in order to clear his name of a crime committed 6,500 miles away! Accused of stealing a sacred scroll during his dojo’s trip to Japan, he has been kicked out of the dojo, and become persona non grata to all his friends. He’s spent twenty years forming relationships and teaching martial arts at the Dragon Dojo, so he’s understandably desperate to clear his name. The only problem is, most of this evidence is in Japanese! Sullivan needs your help to crack the case, or Travis will remain disgraced and friendless!

First Impressions:

Dear subscription box companies, if you all start adding small desserts to your boxes, I will love you forever. It’s almost embarrassing how delighted I was that when I opened up this box, a fortune cookie dropped out. I guess all the puzzles were interesting too, but we’re here for the cookies. Send more.

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A mystery that starts thousands of miles away and… A FREE FORTUNE COOKIE??? SOLD.

High Points:

Beyond the nice inclusion of the fortune cookie, there’s a lot to like about this box. As usual, Sleuth Kings packs their box with some really creative stuff, and this mystery is no different. Containing several interconnected clues, and a few standard puzzles tweaked to hold more secrets than usual, there is truly a lot to work through with this box. In fact, it took us a good hour or so longer than usual to work through this one, which is a testament to it’s density and challenge level. Many puzzles require looking at the props and clues in an out of the box way, presenting some excellent ah ha moments. The props are well integrated into the theme, and there are some fun easter eggs to hunt down for long time sleuths. There is a particularly fun moment where a pretty standard puzzle is used in a creative way, providing the satisfaction of solving the base problem, (which I’m actually a pretty big fan of,) and then the layer underneath. The game flow works well to reveal further mysteries as you progress, and the connections between stages of the game keep everything rolling in a satisfying way.

The story itself is more of a one off, with less tie in to the overall Sleuth Kings universe, but it’s still an engaging adventure that presents a few twists and turns as we solved. The idea of solving a crime committed so far away from home is an amazing idea, and we enjoyed going back through Travis’ trip to Japan, as well as trying to find more current clues using Sullivan’s tried and true method of breaking and entering for the greater good.

Low Points:

This mystery started out a little rough for us, as the first clue was a chore to work through. We liked the idea of this puzzle in theory, but felt it didn’t quite translate well in practice. Some of the elements that tripped us up involved language translation, and while we were given a hint sheet to help with this, overall, the sheet had too much on it and was somewhat small, making it hard to compare the writing to the characters. Further, the handwriting had a few distinct differences, making it more difficult to determine what was what. I am glad, however, that everything we needed to translate the puzzle’s text was included within the box, as we’ve seen others that just throw foreign languages in for “difficulty.” (Looking at you, Blowback.) Two specific puzzles will feel familiar, as these types have been used previously, however, they’ve been updated, and still manage to feel fresh, as a new twist has been added to each.

Verdict:

The Stolen Scroll is definitely a good mystery, outside of the tedious start. People who are interested in Japan and the Japanese language will definitely get a kick out of the very well themed puzzles, and though that isn’t quite our niche, we still appreciated the highly interesting theme presented in this box. I recommend giving it a go, especially if the theme seems like it would be up your alley! This case can be purchased from the Sleuth King’s archives here, and if you’d like to subscribe to upcoming adventures, you can use the promo code ESCAPEADVENTURE to get $5 off your subscription here! You can also read the rest of our Sleuth Kings reviews here!

7/10 (Good)

Full Disclosure: Sleuth Kings provided a complementary box.

Room Escape USA – Dr. Ensaine (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 2-4)

Price: $25 per person, Private Sun-Thurs or any day with a 4 player/$100 minimum

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Ensaine in the membrane.

Theme:

From the Room Escape USA website:

Dr. Ensaine is renting the space out from us to run his dentist practice. We’ve heard a lot of weird noises and frankly, we are too scared to check it out. You are here for your 60 minute appointment and we need you to let us know what is going on. As you take a seat in the waiting room, don’t mind the screams, Dr. Ensaine’s current patient probably has a cavity.

First Impressions:

Ever since that one episode of Escape This Podcast, (which can be played as a text adventure here!) I’ve wanted to play a dentist themed escape room. As one of the most enduring fears most people have, a trip to the dentist seems ripe for a horror themed room, so I’m somewhat surprised that we haven’t found one until now! As we entered the waiting room, I was excited to see what horrors awaited us, despite the doctor’s unfortunately punny name.

High Points:

While we weren’t overly impressed with the first half of the game, in regards to the set and game flow, there was a particular surprise we encountered during the latter half of the game that made the game a bit more exciting and fun to engage with. The use of space during this part of the game is interesting, and the props here were tactile and very enjoyable to play around with. There are a couple very clever puzzles here as well, both of which we found presented their solutions in ways that challenged how we looked at the room.

Low Points:

For the most part, the set is incredibly basic. It certainly fits the theme of “unfortunately named dentist rents out space from an escape room company,” but does very little to impress visually. One puzzle became needlessly complicated when we found that one of the three identical necessary components we used was not working. To remedy this, our GM came in and brought us one replacement. With no idea which of the items was the offender, we had to waste a fair amount of time guessing and checking which item needed to be removed, until we were finally able to move forward. There were also a few puzzles that just weren’t integrated into the game flow very well. At these points, logical leaps were either made, or the gameplay ground to a halt. There was really no middle ground, and most times we were correct, we prefaced our solution by saying, “So I know this is probably dumb, but…” Overall, the room suffered from a lack of solid connective tissue keeping the flow running smoothly.

One specific interaction was not only a bottleneck for us, but an enormous time sink. It’s a fairly ubiquitous puzzle for escape rooms, and when we first identified it, we figured it’d be pretty standard, but as we attempted it we found that it was probably one of the worst implementations of this sort of task we’ve seen. Put simply, there’s just too much going in in too small a space, with too many restrictions for it to work as a fair challenge. There are also just too many locks that are solved by finding a random number and entering it. Escape room puzzles have progressed too far by now to justify the inclusion of this sort of banal interaction. Story-wise, the game has the skeleton of something interesting, but is never really explained satisfactorily. I understand that there’s creepiness in not knowing the why, but in an escape room, where a huge component of the fun is discovery, it’d be nice to be able to delve a little further into the demented story of Dr. Ensaine.

Verdict:

Dr. Ensaine presents a bevy of good ideas that are, unfortunately, not capitalized on as well as we had hoped they’d be. A room that very much has its roots in the early days of escape rooms, it would need a lot of updating and overhauling to its set and game flow to be able to compete with the powerhouse rooms that can be found in Richmond. In fact, it is dwarfed by Room Escape USA’s own Rock Star, which I would recommend trying out instead. If you’d like to try your hand at escaping the good doctor’s Ensanity, you can do so here.

4/10 (Subpar)

Full Disclosure: Room Escape USA provided media discounted tickets for this room.

River City Escape Room – Innocent! (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 3-5)

Price: $25 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

I didn’t do it!

Theme:

From the River City Escape Room website:

The River City is shaken by two ghastly murders. You were just passing through town, having a few drinks at the local bar and someone picks a fight; no big deal, but this time is different. You’re in custody, accused of those murders! You’re booked into the local jail when the police are called away. You have an hour to prove your innocence and escape before its too late.

First Impressions:

Originally, we had only planned to run through one room at River City Escape Room, but after our excellent experience with Alice in Wonderland, our amazing GM Rachel invited us to return the next day. Reasonably sure that the other rooms would be astounding, we gratefully accepted, eschewing the privilege of sleeping in in order to do a couple more rooms at River City!

High Points:

When we returned to River City Escape Room, we were greeted not only by our favorite GM of the weekend, Rachel, but another GM, Dennis, who had come to assist with our rooms as well. I can say, without reservation, after completing 227 rooms, Rachel and Dennis are the best Game Masters we have ever had, full stop. The room itself did not disappoint either. Innocent! is the most challenging room River City has, with an advertised 15% escape rate, but it was a fair challenge. No obtuse, “read our minds” puzzles to be found here! We began by splitting our group into two, one behind bars and the other roaming the police station searching for a way to spring our friends from their confinement! Almost every time our group is split during an escape room, one half, (usually mine,) is in a much duller room and the other half solves way more interesting puzzles, but this was not the case here! There was plenty to do on either side of the bars during our short time apart, and the group came back together at a reasonable point during the game flow.

Speaking of game flow, the flow and connective tissue of the game here are excellent! Our group of five was never fumbling about for something to do, and even when we were stuck, we were actively engaged in the adventure. Further, there was a fantastic puzzle density coupled with a mostly non-linear set-up that allowed for a large group of enthusiasts to always have something to work on. Several of the puzzles encouraged teamwork, and effective communication is rewarded by highly satisfying solves. Every solve also contained some form of feedback, so we always knew where to go next, and all levels of the game were intuitively directed, but in subtle ways, challenging the players to sort out all the little details in order to make their escape! The set itself is well done, and though a police station is a pretty standard room theme, this one is decorated well enough to stand out from the crowd. At no point did it feel as if we were in a boring, converted office space, and the immersion was greatly bolstered by this. There were even a couple of reveals that were huge surprises, which is awesome to see as escape veterans! The story is light, but fun, and fitting for the room, and the final puzzle and climax are great, leaving us basking in the glow of a thrilling break out!

Low Points:

There was a fair few interactions that just required searching about, and those sections felt overly like a scavenger hunt, though luckily our team, notorious as we are for being bad at searching, was able to find these items without burning a hint.

Verdict:

Overall, Innocent! was a highly intuitive, but immensely challenging experience that we really enjoyed. Though newer players may want to get a room or two under their belt before taking this challenge on, just to hone their escape room senses, I think it’d still be a great adventure for any player to take on. Full of surprises and engaging interactions, I absolutely recommend checking this place out. Book your escape from Innocent! here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: River City Escape Room provided comped tickets for this room.

Unlock! Mystery Adventures: The Tonipal’s Treasure (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-3

Price: $14.99

Hoist the Black Flag!

Theme:

You’ve been on the trail of Captain Smith’s fabled buried treasure, and are on your way to Tonipal Island to claim it when the Governor throws you in prison for some contrived reason! Not coincidentally, the treasure hunter Johnson has started to make his way to the treasure himself, and will snatch it out from under you soon if you don’t hurry! You’ll need to escape from prison, find a treasure map, and enlist the help of a Voodoo practitioner along the way if you hope to succeed!

First Impressions:

The Tonipal’s Treasure is right up my alley, presenting a pirate treasure hunt full of swashbuckling adventure and devious puzzles! I noticed that the cards themselves were a bit different from their usual design, and this hinted at an excellent surprise that was in store for later. The full design of the game is one of the best in the series, and I couldn’t wait to see if the content matched the excellent packaging!

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Talking parrots, broken compasses, and a treasure to seek!

High Points:

The Tonipal’s Treasure is jam packed full of puzzles, and working through it is an absolute blast! There are loads of creative interactions to play around with, and at no point do any of the puzzles presented feel boring. This adventure is also full of surprises, as many of the cards will be used in creative and innovative ways, unlocking various ah ha moments every step of the way. The game flow is impeccable for the most part, with only one point creating a roadblock due to insufficient cluing. This treasure hunt is also the most challenging, but fair, Unlock! game I’ve experienced to date. The game presents several locations all across the fictionalized Caribbean, and there are always several puzzles to solve at any given moment. Regarding the puzzles, they’re highly logical, and do not require any strange leaps to be made, and on the whole, each one provides just enough hints to lead players to fantastic moments of revelation.

The atmosphere that is set up by the Unlock! app is also fantastic, boasting a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque score, and loads of audio hints that are revealed by many of the cards. Feedback from the app is great, and the ability to take hints, track time, and work on certain “machine” puzzles in a more interactive way all combine to bolster the experience and make it more immersive than a basic at home escape room. The story develops throughout the game, and though it isn’t particularly deep, it accompanies the game well, and presents a climactic and satisfying finale.

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It wouldn’t be an excellent Unlock! game without a friendly puppy to help you out!

Low Points:

One particular puzzle is very poorly clued, and involves a fair bit of math that doesn’t make much sense on the surface. Honestly, it feels as though there’s something missing throughout the solve, and the reasoning behind one number never made much sense at all until we realized that a certain letter was actually a number. If you’re unfamiliar with the metric system, this one will become even more difficult.

Verdict:

The Tonipal’s Treasure is a fantastic addition to the Unlock! line of at home escape games. Innovating on the basic formula and including loads of surprising new ways to interact with the cards, I highly recommend checking it out. A more difficult adventure, veteran players will definitely enjoy the challenge, but I don’t think newer players would be lost thanks to the excellent game flow and helper app. We bought ours at the ever excellent Atomic Empire in Durham, NC, check out their online store here!

9/10 (Excellent)