Race City Escapes – Medieval Marauders (Review)

Location: Mooresville, NC

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

Price: $25 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

’tis a silly place.

Theme:

From the Race City Escapes website:

The king has died. He cared deeply for his cherished kingdom. He chose a leader from each of the four neighboring factions. Knowing that the lust for power would be a factor he hid the identity of his chosen benefactor inside the room. It is your job to find out who it is, eliminate the other factions to be able to claim the throne, and stop the Crusaders from taking control.

First Impressions:

Race City Escapes was a new (to us) business we visited on our recent annual trip out to Charlotte for a marathon of escapes, and we were hoping to find another diamond in the rough, akin to the glorious Masterpiece Escapes in Indian Trail.

High Points:

Continuing this trip’s trend, Medieval Marauders is a very spacious room, easily capable of physically holding the maximum ten players. It’s strange to have to list that as a high point, but it seems like so many rooms are intent of smushing as many players as possible within a tiny room, so it’s commendable that the room is large enough to fit comfortably within. The room is decorated adequately, and while it isn’t anything mind blowing, there are a few nice large scale props included, and it works for a small scale business. Some of the heftier props gave an excellent tactile feel to some of the puzzles, and a lot of the ideas are, at their base level, clever to build off of. The foreshadowing for some of the main endings of puzzle threads was nicely done, and the climax of the room ends things off in an exciting and fun way.

Low Points:

Race City Escapes has a lot of great ideas within the room but is overall lacking in execution. There were quite a few moments when large logical leaps had to be made, and from time to time we’d accidentally get something right, triggering the next box to open and having no idea how we did so. To quote one of my teammates from this room, there’s just a certain level of ridiculousness in place. If you can start to wrap your head around said ridiculousness, it does become somewhat easier to navigate the room, but this experience is very much akin to those in which you have to be inside the designer’s head to understand what’s going on for the most part. The game flow is very choppy, and this is exacerbated by a couple of issues. First, the game play mostly consists of opening a lot of locked boxes, causing a dearth of variety and never really elevating the experience with an exciting reveal. Even those items opened via some form of tech are never surprising as they are not seamlessly hidden and are obviously panels to be opened from the start. The other issue is that the game play is very linear, and there are many moments at which some players are just going to be casting about, looking for something to do. While the room may hold ten players, I can’t imagine a maxed out group staying engaged for the whole experience; there are just too many choke points along the way. The one thing that could improve the whole game is the introduction of a fair amount of cluing. As it stands, there is a lot of vagary and guess and check involved with the puzzling, which just isn’t an entertaining way to engage and immerse players. While the set design is adequate, a lot could be done to add to the immersion in this regard as well, and we’ve seen even smaller businesses execute a convincing castle before, it just takes a bit of know how and a good carpenter/set designer.

Verdict:

Medieval Marauders isn’t a terrible room, but it overall fails to impress. Alright for a small group itching for an escape, or new players looking for an alright introduction to escape rooms, I still can’t fully recommend it due to the absolute boon of escapes available to Charlotte area residents. If you’ve done everything else, it’ll be an ok hour, but I’d check out other spots first. Book your time claiming the crown here.

6/10 (Alright)

Full Disclosure: Race City Escapes provided media discounted tickets for this room.

The Conundrum Box – The Storyteller: Part Two – Scheherazade (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $30 per box

Theme:

From The Conundrum Box website:

FROM SCHEHERAZADE TO ALADDIN, EXPLORE THE 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS TO DEFEAT THE EVIL VIZIER OMAR

You have been transported within the world of the 1001 Arabian Nights, your mission is to retrieve four genie lamps in order to get back home. Meanwhile, a despicable tyrant, the Vizier Omar, has taken control across all the realm. He has imprisoned the princess Scheherazade and seeks to gain control of the lamps for himself. Travel through two legs of the journey, meeting many of the characters, heroes, and villains of the tales of The 1001 Arabian Nights.

First Impressions:

The initial box we received in the The Storyteller series, Aladdin’s Lamp, was easily the best game The Conundrum Box has put out. Filled with excellent puzzles, and amazing game flow, and, true to its namesake, a well woven story, it easily became one of my favorite at home experiences recently. With the sequel soon to be at our doorstep, I was ecstatic to see what would come next!

High Points:

Part two of The Storyteller Series absolutely nails it with the amount of creatively implemented puzzles, including a incredibly smooth difficulty curve, and a run of highly intuitive enigmas. Signposting between related items is very good, and the clues are subtle, but elegantly implemented in order to preserve a great challenge. We started to see some excellent multilayered puzzles in these recent boxes, and the breaking down of each layer until we came to the final answers was fantastic and full of exciting moments of revelation. One particular puzzle that comes to mind involved a beautifully tactile interaction that built to a great run of really beautiful puzzles, all hidden well in plain sight. We came back to this particular set piece, (a term I never thought I’d use to describe a puzzle in an at home experience, but there you are,) a few times, and each subsequent task was excellently designed. One other large scale prop was densely packed with codes and conundrums, and one early game interaction was excellently creative and fun to solve. Honestly, it became increasingly difficult to determine our favorite puzzle as we worked our way through this box, there are just so many great ones! All of these puzzle threads wrap up nicely within the story, and the climax was perfect, including some easter eggs and tying up some story threads for long time players!

The game flow is incredibly tight, owing mostly to the well crafted linearity, presenting us with only one or two puzzles at a time to preserve the flow and the story progression. Though the box is linear for the most part, most puzzles are workable with a couple or small group, so no one is going to feel left out during the solving. I feel like this tighter focus has really helped the experiences grow, and ensures that the quality of the storytelling and overall adventure comes across so much better. Though we enjoyed the previous series, Sleepy Hollow, for the most part, it could sometimes feel rather scattered due to the more non-linear nature and amount of items available at any one time. The Conundrum Box’s other updates, such as pointing out needed items from previous boxes and updating the interface for mobile and tablets are also highly appreciated!

Low Points:

Typos have been cleared up a lot from previous boxes, but there are still a few noticeable errors here and there; they are getting much less prevalent, however. One particular puzzle had an error that did not derail the game as we were able to determine what the solution should have been using the rest of the puzzle, so this ended up being fairly minor. One particular interaction used somewhat more vague language, making it difficult to know what option for decoding to choose, but as there were only a couple options, it was fairly easy to see when we were on the wrong track and correct course. A slight change to the verbiage here would make things much clearer, however. Finally, there was another somewhat vague item in a late game puzzle, but again, it could only be one of two things, so it’s a very minor issue.

Verdict:

The Storyteller is, so far, my favorite series put out by The Conundrum Box. I absolutely recommend picking these two boxes as soon as you can! They weave a wonderful tale, and integrate some seriously clever puzzling into the narrative, ensuring that this is an awesome escape adventure! I loved these, and can’t wait for the next run of games, starting with The Emerald Isle. Subscribe to The Conundrum Box here! You can get $5 off your first box with our Promo Code ERA5OFF!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: The Conundrum Box provided a complementary review copy.

The Valcarol Missions – The Hidden Lab Mission (Review)

Location: Concord, NC

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 3-6)

Price: $26 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

I wonder if this lab is overseen by an umbrella corporation?

Theme:

From the Valcarol Missions website:

November of 3049, Dr. Dawking has been working on a vaccine that will allow us all to live with the radiation. He has been experimenting and fallen ill, but is safely confined in a containment box. Help us all by recreating the one vaccine that has been successful. Find the lever to enable the security check point system as soon as you’re in the security area. Pass both the retinal and thumb scans. Begin your search. You don’t want to stay in this biohazard area for more than an hour. You’ll need to figure out how to create the vaccine that works, activate it, and replicate it. Lots of sick people are depending you.

First Impressions:

Last year, we visited The Valcarol missions as one of our final escapes of a long marathon of puzzling, and it was The Crystal Cave Mission was one of the clear best rooms not only of the day, but in the city! We absolutely could not wait to see what was in store for us within their newest mission, but we were sure it would be great!

High Points:

The Hidden Lab starts off with a highly immersive introduction that perfectly sets the stage for the game to come. Some astounding effects and great technical work make this one of the best intros I think I’ve ever seen implemented into an escape game. The main puzzling rooms after this were spacious and well decorated, with some large set pieces integrated well into the puzzling. There’s a fantastic amount of tactile puzzling involved, and the props are appropriately post apocalyptic, with a main centerpiece that not only measures progress well, but reacts spectacularly as it builds. There’s a creepy atmosphere to the whole experience, and the vibe of the room jives well with the overall world of The Valcarol Missions. I really love how the lighting and sound design keep you immersed within their world, and there are few escape rooms in the area that quite match this level of design. There is also a specific surprise I really loved that served as sort of a fake-out for our group, and was a small, creative touch that added to the adventure well.

Puzzle-wise, the enigmas presented by The Hidden Lab are really clever. There were a couple of real standouts that were elegantly simple, but challenging, with great payoffs in the form of truly satisfying moments of revelation. My favorite puzzle in particular made excellent use of some otherwise innocuous props and a small item hidden in plain sight. Once we made the connection between the two, the solve was beautifully intuitive, and most other puzzles within this room follow that same excellent template. The game flow is mostly non-linear, and works well to keep a larger group entertained throughout. Moments at which the puzzle threads come together involve teamwork, ensuring that no players feel left out, and everyone is involved in bringing the team closer to obtaining the elusive vaccine! There are no choke points, or huge leaps of logic, and I can easily say that the room presents a great challenge while employing fantastic signposting to keep things running intuitively.

Low Points:

The Crystal Cave Mission set an incredible standard for set design as a whole, and while The Hidden Lab does have a pretty cool set, it isn’t quite as drop dead awesome as that aforementioned masterpiece. The layout overall of the set also felt very similar to Valcarol’s previous game, so overall, we didn’t feel quite as surprised by certain elements. However, compared to escape rooms as a whole, the set is still top tier. The set up for the story was amazing, but there was not a whole lot of evolution through to the climax; it would’ve been great to see more clear narrative integration carry through to the end.

Verdict:

Overall, The Hidden Lab Mission is another great success for The Valcarol Missions! Though I think The Crystal Cave Mission does remain my favorite here by a small margin, this is still one of the best games in the Charlotte area, and should be on any enthusiast’s must play list for when they visit the area. Providing a beautiful game flow, clever puzzling, and a no lock experience that will entertain veterans and newcomers alike, this is one mission I absolutely recommend you accept! Check out the biohazardous Hidden Lab here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: The Valcarol Missions comped our tickets for this room.

Speedway Escapes – Sorcerer’s Quest (Review)

Location: Harrisburg, NC

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

Price: $27 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Merlin, who?

Theme:

From the Speedway Escapes website:

Your team of adventurers will enter the mystical chambers of a powerful warlock. Your quest is to find the sacred crystal of the Ancients by solving clues and combing your Magick. There is only one hour to locate and return the crystal to its rightful owner and keep it from being used to cast a spell extinguishing the sun and plunging our world into darkness. Can you save the world from eternal darkness? Remember in Sorcerer’s Quest You control the Magick!

First Impressions:

Speedway Escapes was a new spot we’d heard good things about, and not too far away from our usual haunts in Charlotte, NC, so we made the trek out to try their two rooms. Boasting set designs inspired by haunt attractions, I was very excited to see how they stacked up! A good set alone does not a great escape room make, but luckily, it seemed their puzzles would be up to the task as well.

High Points:

Upon stepping into the room, the first thing I noticed was how incredibly spacious Sorcerer’s Quest was. I’ve been in rooms that boasted a 14 player maximum that were nowhere near the size of this one, and even though most puzzles took place on the periphery, the experience never felt sparse, nor the room empty. I absolutely commend Speedway Escapes for building a large, comfortable space to puzzle in while still limiting the player groups to a maximum size that conforms to the limits of the game flow, rather than the size of the room. Set design was, as we suspected, lovely, and gave off the feel of a huge, ancient castle perfectly, and the lighting effects and soundtrack added excellently to the whole immersion of the experience. This shone through best via the responsiveness of puzzles, making it easy to know when we were on the right track, and when a solution was correct, the trigger was immediate and noticeable. Most of these puzzles were well integrated into the theme, and minus a physical lock or two, (all of which fit within the world of the room,) everything is a magical, tech based experience.

The game flow within the room is very accommodating to larger groups, with a non-linear run of tasks that allowed all six of us to become fully engrossed with the experience. Never did it feel as if we were standing around, waiting for the next part of the room to open up, and I think the maximum of eight players will be more than comfortable in the bounds of the game. Many of the enigmas within Sorcerer’s Quest were eminently creative, and a couple were ones I’d not seen before, or classic conundrums that were twisted in original ways to present something fresh. Several were in the running for my favorite until we reached the final puzzle, which was a logical interaction that was enormously satisfying to solve. The climax of the room is fantastic; finishing up with a great reveal and just enough fanfare to have us all smiling and ready for more!

Low Points:

Audio tracks for spoken lines were somewhat spotty, which was more noticeable in contrast to the great soundtrack. While that came through very crisply, voices could come across as crackly or muted, when a more booming, magical presence was called for. Some props in the room have started to become worn, and could use a touch up or two to ensure everything still looks fresh. Finally, a particular addition to the room was a cute idea that added a small surprise here and there, but was too close to being a puzzle, and created a red herring for us.

Verdict:

Sorcerer’s Quest is Speedway Escape’s first room, and it’s a knockout! Despite a few minor issues, it’s an amazing time, with some cleverly original challenges and a highly immersive set design to boot. Enthusiasts will have a great time dividing and conquering the adventure’s non-linear game flow, and new players will find the experience immediately approachable. Book your time holding back the darkness here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Timed Out provided comped tickets for our group.

The Deadbolt Mystery Society – The Pretender (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $24.99 per box, plus $4.99 shipping

Not to be confused with the 90’s TV series

Theme:

From The Deadbolt Mystery Society website:

A group of die-hard fans have been given a chance to spend the weekend with their favorite horror author, Bradley Raymond. Only one of them is not at all what they seem. One of them is a twisted killer known only as The Pretender.

First Impressions:

It’s always good to see a tie in to previous boxes, and The Pretender reaches all the way back to Murder in 3B, the very first, (but still beloved,) Deadbolt Mystery box, to look back into the life of Bradley Raymond, Valley Falls’ favorite horror writer. I am always excited for horror-adjacent mystery solving, so this one seemed right up my alley!

High Points:

The Pretender starts off with a very interesting concept, and The Pretender themselves is a chilling villain, a master of disguise who kills and assumes the identities of his or her victims. The character development in regards to this antagonist may be one of the best so far, surpassing even The Collector in this facet due to the up close and personal nature of the mystery and player’s interactions with them. Other characters and suspects are convincingly portrayed as well, and their possible alibis and identities are integrated well into the mystery. While the brunt of the story is front and back loaded, it is a good one, delivering an enigma that kept us guessing until the fantastic climax and reveal. I also enjoyed the open ended nature of the finale, which provides a mostly satisfying conclusion while still leaving things open ended enough that future appearances and world building are not out of the question.

Props and puzzles are high quality, as usual from Deadbolt, and one particular inclusion adds a great optional story for players to peruse at their leisure. The Pretender is a highly intuitive game, with a fantastic flow and non-linear presentation that kept us fully engaged throughout, minus one point at which we forgot about a vital item we had uncovered, which is totally on us. Clues were very clear, and it was easy to sort out that which was important from that which was not, but answers were certainly not spoon fed, and challenge was preserved though clever puzzling and devious, yet satisfying solves. Signposting is well implemented, and subtle hints direct players towards what goes together. Props are used to their fullest, and I was very pleased to find one that included a couple layers of solving, allowing us to work on the same puzzle from different directions, coming together in the end to reveal its secrets. Elimination of suspects is handled well, and the meta puzzle that involves clearing certain suspect’s names not only adds a fun small puzzle to the mix, but ensures that progress can be cleanly tracked. There are fewer QR codes in this box than some previous adventures, and somewhat more deduction, but codes that lead to password protected items and those which are immediate clues is well identified within the theme.

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Low Points:

Though the theme is appropriately original, and the characters interesting, The Pretender didn’t quite grab us as much as previous boxes. I think it may be that the story doesn’t quite develop during game play as much as it usually does, but to keep this in perspective, the story is still better than most at home experiences, so it’s a minor quibble. One particular puzzle didn’t quite line up for us, but it was intelligible despite a typo or two. Finally, the climax was interesting, but the epilogue didn’t quite stick the landing, with a few strange errors committed by the villain of the story, though I have a few theories about how those might actually be intentional, serving a greater plan, but I suppose a sequel would be needed to confirm these.

Verdict:

The Pretender is a great mystery box, and I really enjoyed the original theme, engaging characters, and well developed puzzling. This box was moderately challenging, and I think enthusiasts are going to have a lot of fun with the highly original mystery and puzzles included. New players will love this one as well, and I can easily recommend it to anyone looking for a conundrum to solve! Join the Deadbolt Mystery Society here! Right now, you can get 30% off your first box with the Promo Code ESCAPE30! You can also see the rest of our Deadbolt Mystery Society reviews here!

9/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: The Deadbolt Mystery Society provided a complementary box.