Total Escape – Yacht Heist (Review)

Location: Winston-Salem, NC

Price: $30 per person

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 4-6)

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

Steal from the ultra rich and give to the poor. The poor being us.

Theme:

Your team owes a loan shark a lot of money, and in order to raise it in time, you look to your only skill set, thievery! You’ve identified a swanky yacht and have the inside scoop on a couple million dollars worth of crowns and coins hidden inside. You need to collect at least a million to get keep the knee breakers at bay, but anything beyond that will definitely make for a good nest egg! You’ve only got an hour, so get in, get the loot, and get out before the cops arrive!

First Impressions:

A few months ago, we’d tried out Total Escape’s two previous escape rooms, Temple of Tikal and Prison Break, which we had an amazing time escaping from. We just barely missed the opening of Yacht Heist the last time we came out, and couldn’t wait to return, as when they gave us a sneak peek of the build, we were absolutely floored at how awesome it already looked! To cap off our Charlotte area road trip, we visited on our way back home, and I can easily say that it was an awesome way to end our 11 room run!

High Points:

The finished set of Yacht Heist is absolutely beautiful, with an ever expanding, wonderfully spacious set of rooms that were filled to the brim with astoundingly good props, puzzles, and technical effects. Matching the great set is the excellent premise, which tasks players with stealing as much loot as they can within an hour, rather than simply escaping. One of my favorite introductions for any escape room is breaking in, rather than out, and the initial stages of the game have players doing just that, ensuring they feel like the master thieves the theme promises. As puzzles are solved and the money total ramps up, the sense of accomplishment and immersion into our roles was enormously satisfying. This room truly lived up to the hype I’d built up in my mind, and then some. We were told roughly how much loot was in the yacht from the start, and the way progression was marked was beautiful, giving us a tactile way to log our spoils, while at the same time ensuring we knew exactly where we were within the flow of the room itself. As far as the set, thematic design, and overall game mechanics go, this room was executed beautifully.

Puzzles did not disappoint either, with a non-linear run of interactions that kept our group fully engaged from start to finish. The multiple threads weave through the game fantastically, and branch off of the main path with what could be described as fun side missions as we investigated suspicious areas of the yacht and uncovered new and exciting items and loot! (and bottled water once, which was greatly appreciated.) Many of these interactions were housed within some fantastic tech, which were seamlessly implemented within the luxurious floating puzzle room and I don’t remember coming across a single basic lock! The difficulty curve works wonderfully, and delivers some easy wins on the way to some deviously clever puzzling. The gamut of challenges was also astoundingly varied, with something to appeal to all types of solvers! Our team split up and came together for various puzzles multiple times, finding conundrums that played to each of our strengths, and at no point did anyone experience any time standing around. By the time we triggered the climax of the room, we were jazzed at having solved this densely packed room, and amazed at what was certainly one of the best rooms in NC.

Low Points:

There is quite a bit to find within the titular yacht, but some of it boils down to aimless searching. As completionists, we wanted to make sure we found everything, and we did, but some of the more well hidden items were unclued. It would’ve been more interesting to have a clue or puzzle to point towards these, especially one hidden stash that seemed like it was in a place we were told would hold no secrets. This was really the only point where we hit a snag in the game flow, and luckily, we aren’t averse to taking hints when we need them, so it didn’t become overly frustrating. There is one piece of outside knowledge that wasn’t an issue for us, but the younger crowd might not know what’s being referenced.

Verdict:

Yacht Heist is my absolute favorite room at Total Escape, and that’s certainly saying something, as all of their rooms have been beautiful, top notch puzzling experiences. This business is absolutely one of those to keep an eye on, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Their rooms have evolved by leaps and bounds each time, and I highly recommend checking this, or any of their others out, as they’re some of the best around. Book your yacht heist here!

9.5/10 (Excellent)

Full disclosure: Total Escape provided media discounted tickets for our group.

Key to Escape – Under Pressure (Review)

Location: Statesville, NC

Players: 2-6 (We recommend 3-4)

Price: $28 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Watching some good friends screaming “Let me out!”

Theme:

From the Key to Escape website:

In 1925 our city of Statesville had a devastating fire that nearly leveled three city blocks. The fire was started when the hidden still at Key and Co exploded after being left unattended. The owner of the still had been nabbed by police and no one was able to find the hidden valve key to release the pressure from the still in time to save our city. Your escape room adventure entertainment begins as your team is selected to travel back in time to prevent the explosion. We have built a time portal machine and have the opportunity to send your team back in time for only one hour to try to save the still and our city from ruin. The pressure is on as you race the clock.

First Impressions:

We’ve been planning on making a trip out to Key to Escape for a good while! Though we intended to go a full year ago, our schedule just didn’t work out, but this year, it was the first spot we put on the docket! After hearing so many folks rave about their rooms, we were sure this was an experience we would not want to miss. Not only that, but this would be my 300th room, which the owners of Key to Escape made even more exciting by presenting me with an Escake!

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It was red velvet, for the curious.

High Points:

Under Pressure displays some excellent set design that truly ups the ante for escape room immersion going forward! Though it is housed in a smaller space, everything is used to the fullest, and nothing feels out of place or anachronistic. The speakeasy is extremely well appointed, with so many fantastic props and design touches that evoke the feel of the 1920’s, and the historical building that Key to Escape is housed within is utilized in amazing ways. A myriad of hidden secrets are incorporated into the design, and we were constantly amazed at so many of the reveals. So much practical design work has been done in this room to truly simulate the sound, sights, and intensity of a still that’s about to blow, and it really did keep us under pressure for the full time! Though we didn’t use it, the hint delivery system is completely in theme, as with the rest of the room, and it’s obvious that no corners were cut in the creation of this amazingly designed experience! The soundtrack is a real treat throughout the room, and the awesome into and fantastic climax bookend the adventure perfectly.

The game flow was mostly non-linear, and our team was almost always engaged with one puzzle or another for the full experience. There’s a great mix of mechanical, hand built puzzling and well hidden technical wizardry going on throughout the room, and there are just so many intensely clever enigmas within! One of my favorites takes the usual escape room maze, flips it on it’s head a bit, and tasks players with some deductive reasoning rather than standard, everyday maze solving. There are others that make code breaking feel fresh and new, with some cool twists on the theme. Any included locks feel completely convincing for the in game universe, but the majority of the game forgoes traditional locks for much more interesting interactions and tactile puzzle solving. The story is historically interesting and very well implemented, and though the mission not overly complex, completing it is a fantastic challenge! The difficulty curve is not insurmountable, however, and the cluing and signposting is well implemented in order to prevent frustration. It truly took our whole team working together to solve this one, and there were conundrums to satisfy all types of puzzlers!

Low Points:

Later stages of the game were housed in really cool areas, but unfortunately were a bit smaller, creating a choke point that made it so not all players got to check these awesome areas out. While there were a few teamwork puzzles that got others involved, it did dampen the later stages for some of our team. The soundtrack was awesome, but from time to time, it did get rather loud.

Verdict:

We’ve escaped a few speakeasies in our time, but this room takes (and gives) the cake! With a set design and ultra clever puzzles that are absolutely to die for, Under Pressure absolutely delivers an astounding escape adventure! I highly recommend checking this room out if you’re in the area, as it will give enthusiasts an engaging challenge while still presenting an approachable run of enigmas that will give new players one of the best intros to escape rooms they could ever hope for. Book your time solving the clues while under pressure here! Also, at the time of publication, COVID-19 is shutting down escape rooms everywhere. Key to Escape has created I’m Bored/The Game for at home play, and if you’d like to support them and receive this experience, you can here!

9/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: Key to Escape provided media discounted tickets for this room.

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 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.