Whole Brain Escape – Escape the Supervillain’s Lair (Review)

Location: Apex, NC

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

Price: $29 per person, private pricing available, see website for details

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Riddle me this!

Theme:

It’s 1963, the Darkest Timeline. Supervillians have taken over the world, and you are one of the few superheroes fighting back against their tyrannical reign! Unfortunately, you’ve fallen for a trap, and The Quizzler has stripped you of your super powers and trapped you within her lair. Always one for games, she’s devised a series of puzzles to prove she’s more clever than you once and for all! She’s given you one hour to solve her riddles or face destruction!

First Impressions:

Strangely, we’ve seen precious few Superhero based escape rooms, and that’s honestly quite puzzling to me. I feel like it’s an amazing theme, full of potential, so I was very excited to see what Whole Brain Escape could do with it! The theme, on the flip side, is one that could fall victim to lazy design via Intellectual Property theft, but I’m glad to say that is not the case with this room!

High Points:

The Quizzler’s lair is decorated with the colorful flair of a 1960’s superhero show, and boasts more than a few superhero props from the many titans she’s slain! It’s also a rather large room, one that can absolutely hold the maximum eight players comfortably. The décor is appropriately zany, with homages to superheroes we know and love, without being a ripoff of copyrighted materials. While exploring the room, the myriad props provide a highly tactile experience, and add to the game fantastically. The superheroes, villains, and team-ups that Whole Brain has come up with are wonderfully imaginative, and lend an air of believability to their comic book world. In fact, it’d be awesome to see these expanded on further in future rooms!

The game flow is, similar to Bustin’ Out of the Eighties, extremely intuitive and satisfying to engage with. The puzzles follow a reasonable, if challenging logic, and they line up with the locks they are meant to open in clear ways. There is a lot of variety in the clever challenges that make up The Quizzler’s lair, and the non-linear threads absolutely kept our group fully involved with the room from start to finish. Multiple puzzles were brand new to our seasoned group, and provided many satisfying ah ha moments when we made major breakthroughs. One puzzle in particular dealt with perspective, and are implemented in such deviously brilliant ways that we couldn’t help but appreciate. Another great puzzle took a fairly basic escape room trope, and through a small amount of tweaking, made it so much more exciting to engage with. The final goal of the room is climactic, and provides a fun objective based ending to the story.

Low Points:

Though there is a variety of puzzles within the room, there was one genre of puzzle type that felt as though it showed up a bit more than others. Being a fairly basic puzzle as well, they slightly repetitive. Like Bustin’ Out of the Eighties, this room is much more lock, key, and code based than some more tech heavy rooms, and while it fits the theme, a small technical surprise would’ve been a great addition to the Quizzler’s arsenal of enigmas. One puzzle involves what could be construed as a red herring, and though the reasoning behind it’s inclusion is sound, it still caused us a small amount of confusion after we’d completed our objective.

Verdict:

Whole Brain Escape does an superb job of creating physical escape experiences that utilize mechanical props and puzzles in creative new ways! Escape the Supervillain’s Lair is no exception, as the whole adventure was an exciting romp full of highly satisfying puzzling. The immersive comic book world they’ve created is ripe for further exploration, and I’d love to see a sequel down the line! In the mean time, I’m extremely excited to see what comes next from these guys! Book your time matching wits with The Quizzler here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Whole Brain Escapes provided comped tickets for this room.

Whole Brain Escape – Bustin’ Out of the 80’s (Review)

Location: Apex, NC

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

Price: $29 per person, Private Experience available, see website for details

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Bustin’ Makes Me Feel Good!

Theme:

As a rouge gang of time travelling bandits, you’ve marked your next target, a priceless Betamax cassette! You’ll need to travel back in time to the 1980’s to steal it away from The Collector, a mysterious keeper of esoteric artifacts. He’ll be away for about an hour, it seems, so you’ll need to be quick if you’re to find the cassette that time forgot and return to the future with your spoils!

First Impressions:

We have done one other Eighties room during our career as escapists, and suffice to say, we were unimpressed. We were cautiously optimistic, however, as Whole Brain Escape seemed to have a much better grasp on theming and design due to their credentials in video game design. Stepping into the room itself was an interesting experience, as we were transported to a room that boasted a retro soundtrack, colorful walls, and the feeling deep in our souls that somewhere out there, hair metal still lives. I could instantly tell that this room would absolutely be the nostalgic eighties room we were looking for!

High Points:

Bustin’ Out of the Eighties was truly a delight to play through. The non-linear game flow worked excellently, and allowed us to form two ever shifting teams, (some of us, myself included, like to wander over whenever a new shiny object is presented,) and stay engaged with the puzzling from start to finish. The props included are hugely authentic, and one of our team members gasped audibly upon being greeted with the many nerdy relics of yore several times during the experience. Nostalgia is utilized heavily in this room, and though you don’t need to be a child of the eighties to enjoy it, it definitely enhances the experience! Though nostalgic props and aesthetics are included within the room, nothing feels old or junky. In fact, the whole room feels like it could’ve been lifted straight from 1989, as the props we found were all in excellent condition.

Speaking of props, they were implemented in so many interesting ways. Several tactile puzzles were sprinkled throughout the experience, and the way we interacted with them was both elegant in their simplicity, but mind blowing all the same. The room is completely mechanical, which makes sense within the theme, and a variety of locks are used in order to keep the experience fresh. Though some lock types repeat, everything is clued excellently, ensuring that there were no instances of guess and check frustration. In fact, there was never a moment of obtuse ambiguity within the room. The enigmas presented were enjoyable and challenging solves, full of ah ha moments and intuitive links that made the game itself flow amazingly well. This room was so well designed that though some groups may want to use a hint or two, it can absolutely be solved without them, which is a triumph of game design if the average room is any indication.

Low Points:

While we did enjoy the set design of this room, it is fairly basic, but it was very minor for us, especially when the whole thing is filled to the brim with awesome props. Bustin’ Out of the Eighties is also an easier game, which isn’t to say it’s not a lot of fun, but if you’re the sort of enthusiast that wants to break out with seconds to spare, you’ll want to bring a smaller group. The story works for this room, but it doesn’t evolve much over the course of the experience, and I would’ve loved to find out more about The Collector during our game. For example, why is his lair in the 80’s? Does he have multiple themed lairs in other decades? Does he truly look like Benicio del Toro, or was that artistic license on Marvel’s part? Inquiring minds want to know!

Verdict:

Bustin’ Out of the Eighties is a great room full of wonderfully clever puzzles that we really enjoyed. If you’re looking for a pure puzzle focused experience peppered with a generous helping of nostalgia, I absolutely recommend checking it out. This room would be a perfect introductory room for beginners, but I think enthusiasts, especially those who were eighties kids, will love this one as well. Book your time Bustin’ Out here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Whole Brain Escapes provided comped tickets for this room.

Finders Seekers – Sydney, Australia (November 2018 Box Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players: We recommend 1-4

Price: $30 per box

Crikey!

Theme:

Each month, Finders Seekers invites you to accept a mysterious mission from the head seer. These “finds” are located in cities around the world and involve high stakes, cryptic puzzling, and shadowy societies! You’ll need a clever mind and some google-fu in order to piece together the puzzles and complete the find! And when you do, you might even receive a reward! This month takes place in Sydney, Australia, land of big dangerous animals that want to kill you!

First Impressions:

This one is a little late, so for background, after we completed the horrendous Mont St. Clair box, we had cancelled our subscription. You can read the linked review for more details, but to summarize, it was really that bad. However, our subscription had apparently recently charged us, so we received one last box. We sat on it for a while, as we had plenty of other excellent games to play though and were wary of the quality of this box, which was originally released in October of 2017.

High Points:

The initial puzzle is a real brain teaser that was truly a pleasure to solve, with satisfying ah ha moments peppered throughout the solve. There are a few more clever interactions we had a good time with, but the rest of the box didn’t really stand up to the great set up that this puzzle promises. There’s an excellent logic puzzle set up with a very high stakes story moment, which requires careful attention to detail and feels rewarding to complete. The fun facts and historical notes that are included throughout the experience make this an excellent game to present in a school based or family learning environment. The experience is blessedly non-linear, which has always been a boon when solving Finders Seekers boxes, and allows the game to prevent becoming bogged down by getting stuck on a puzzle.

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G’day from Australia!

Low Points:

This is an older box that has been rereleased without any meaningful update, and it absolutely shows. The props feel much cheaper than more recent boxes, and the whole experience is sparser on the whole. Many of the puzzles are easy to glitch past, even accidentally, and we found that at the end of the game, we still hadn’t used one set of props and were unable to solve one of the more obtuse puzzles but were still able to easily complete the meta puzzle, which was a weird unscramble game wherein buttons marked as hints were one hundred percent necessary for those who do not speak fluent Aussie slang. Luckily, a friend of mine is a true blue Australian native, so this puzzle was very easy for us to complete, but I can see casual solvers having difficulty with this one. It’s basically one step down from having to unscramble or decode words that aren’t from your native language. Most puzzles are fairly basic, and are based off of themes and mechanics that most experienced players will have solved before, and will not be very exciting for newcomers either.

Verdict:

Sydney, Australia was definitely a more finely tuned and well designed experience than Mont Saint Clair, but still doesn’t hold a candle to the Finders Seekers golden period of the Athens, Petra, and Mexico City boxes. The fact that a box from over a year ago that hasn’t been updated in any way was the main offering did not instill enough confidence in me to consider resubscribing either. As my fiancée has noted, this would make a really great homework assignment, but doesn’t really justify its $30 price tag. If you’d like to sign up anyway, you can do so here. If you sign up through our link, we’ll earn credits towards a free box, and can bring you more content! You can read the rest of our Finders Seekers reviews here!

5/10 (Mediocre)

Decode Ann Arbor – Pt. 3: Minerva’s Return (Review)

Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 4-6)

Price: $28 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

The internet, leading cause of AI revolts!

Theme:

From the Decode Ann Arbor website:

Minerva is back! After escaping onto the internet, Minerva hasn’t been doing so well, (Editor: #Mood,) and she needs your help to reboot her system. Will you complete the job before her data degrades? Can she trust you?

First Impressions:

Soon after releasing Minerva from her shackles and onto the internet, she returned not feeling so great! We were so ready to help her return after the excellent Part One: The Minerva Project, so after a quick break, we doffed our fancy Decode Detroit pins used to activate parts of the previous and current game, and set to work!

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Our super handy pin is capable of saving the world twice in a couple hours!

High Points:

This adventure started out with another actor based interaction, with our ever amazing GM and our new friend Minerva delivering the mission briefing to us. When it ended, we were particularly surprised that the room had indeed started! No spoilers, but the way Minerva’s Return begins is so unique and excellently handled that it really ratchets up the immersion! A couple of other amazing surprises are in store during Part 3, with some small and huge callbacks to Part 1 that we really enjoyed. Set design continues to be top notch, and the ongoing story line is phenomenal. Minerva is just as interactive as ever, and though our previous adventure, we’d come to care about what happened to her, ensuring that we were invested in saving her from the viruses plaguing her systems. The climax of the room is phenomenal, and an excellent capstone to the three part story line that Decode Ann Arbor has developed.

The game itself is implemented into the adventure perfectly, and ups the ante in regards to immersion, which is saying something! The game flows very smoothly, and only hiccups during one small part. Density of high quality puzzles is very high, and the enigmas themselves are highly satisfying to solve, hitting a range of different skill types in a non-linear fashion. Our group of seven were again fully engaged with the game from start to finish as there was so much available to work on at any given time. The design philosophy is much like The Minerva Project, in that it is divided into a couple “levels” in which the game flow leads to a capstone puzzle, which further flows into another set of puzzles, leading towards another capstone, which can lead to another set, or the endgame, depending on your progress. This is my favorite type of escape room game design, as it lends a sense of tangible progress as well as keeps even larger groups fully engaged within the narrative and puzzles. Decode Ann Arbor has implemented this mechanic into their experience incredibly well, and it absolutely shows.

decode-detroit-minerva

You know it’s going to be a good room when this is just the lobby!

Low Points:

One ongoing aspect of the game does keep tensions high, but not really in the best way. We enjoyed the sound and lighting effects, but the interaction itself became tiresome after a while. One particular puzzle could benefit from more precise cluing, as one member of our team didn’t really get to enjoy the rest of the room due to the confusion that was caused by a somewhat vague part of the game flow and lack of feedback when solving.

Verdict:

Minerva’s Return is an astoundingly well designed game, capping off the story of our new favorite AI wonderfully. The folks at Decode Ann Arbor are obviously passionate about their craft, and have truly designed an adventure worth experiencing! Further, the dynamic difficulty system that has been developed for this game will create an excellent challenge for enthusiasts while ensuring the adventure is accessible to all experience levels. I absolutely recommend giving their Minerva saga a shot, as it is definitely one of the best escape experiences we have had to date! Book your time saving Minerva here!

9/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: Decode Ann Arbor provided media discounted tickets for this room.

Decode Ann Arbor – Pt. 1: The Minerva Project (Review)

Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 4-6)

Price: $28 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

We, for one, welcome our robotic overlords.

Theme:

From the Decode Ann Arbor website:

The Minerva Project centers around Minerva, an adolescent artificial intelligence who has ambitions that are too big for her motherboard. Will you help Minerva escape or take a risk by working against her?

First Impressions:

Decode Ann Arbor are masters of immersion, with the entire business designed to keep with the running theme of the games they offer. The Minerva Project is just the first of a three part epic escape adventure, and the folks who run the show have absolutely ensured that the story is one hundred percent immersive from the moment you step through their front door. I could tell immediately that we were in for something truly special.

decode-detroit-minerva

Welcome to The Minerva Project!

High Points:

The storyline running through the entirety of this room is fantastic, and is further bolstered by the game master’s presence throughout the game to deliver what I felt were interactive “cut-scenes” of a sort. His enthusiasm and ability to improvise, (I like to engage actors and have a… weird sense of humor to put it mildly,) were great assets towards making this room shine. Minerva’s constant presence within the rooms is astounding as well, and her interactions with our group were a lot of fun. Affable and just ever so slightly threatening,  you really become attached to this feisty AI in a way I’ve never quite seen in an escape room. All these interactions culminate in an exciting climactic choice you’ll make during the room, and the story can end in a few different ways depending on your success, failure, and choices. The way the story has been so closely integrated into the game is astounding, and Decode Ann Arbor deserves all the praise that comes with accomplishing this feat.

The adventure itself contains a dense array of tactile and engaging, non-linear puzzles, allowing for a fairly large group to keep busy for the entire experience. We had seven players, and not one of us stopped puzzling until the finale, and I’m certain that the maximum of ten would still be will entertained by the absolute smorgasbord of enigmas on offer. Of the many interactions, there are several that are technically themed takes on classic puzzle types, somehow managing to keep these much loved, but standard mind games feeling completely fresh. Decode Ann Arbor also provides a dynamic difficulty experience, ensuring that escapists of varying experience levels can all have an amazing time. Through the clever puzzles, a completely engaging story, and emphasis on a divide and conquer method of teamwork, The Minerva Project truly does evolve beyond the standard escape room game to become a true adventure.

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Suit up, it’s time to escape!

Low Points:

The initial parts of the game are a bit scattered, theme-wise, though there is a perfectly reasonable in-universe explanation for this. However, it is still rather basic to start, and takes a little bit to get to the really excellent parts. Slow start aside, once it does get going, it gets going fast, so it’s a small critique. There is one crucial part of the game that I feel was a bit vaguely explained to start with, leading to some confusion when we began the game. Luckily, the Game Master provided a free hint (that we all promptly ignored until it finally clicked with us, totally our fault there,) and corrected our course excellently.

Verdict:

The Minerva Project is an amazing escape room that absolutely must be experienced if you’re ever in the Ann Arbor area. Escapist of all ages and experience levels can enjoy this room, and I highly recommend getting a team together to take this room on! The best thing about it, though, is that once you finish, the story continues! With two further entries into Minerva’s Saga, this truly is an epic experience. Book your time in Minerva’s den here!

9/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: Decode Ann Arbor provided media discounted tickets for this room.