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.

Riddle Me This Escape Rooms (Formerly 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.

Riddle Me This Escape Rooms (Formerly Room Escape USA) – Family Secrets (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

Some secrets should remain buried.

Theme:

From the Room Escape USA website:

Grandpa Earl has been drugged for the last 30 years by your parents who have been running an illegal medical clinic. He has since escaped, sobered up, and he is angry! He has kidnapped you and your cousins and we’re not sure what he has planned. Handcuffed in a darkroom with the temperature rising, you must escape before grandpa Earl returns!

First Impressions:

The first thing that I should note is that this room utilizes handcuffs, but do not include a safety for removing the handcuffs. Recent events have proven that this is unacceptable, and while there is a way to remove what keeps you stuck in the room, this requires an extra step and still does not rid players of the cuffs should an emergency situation arise. I’m all for handcuffs for immersion, but there should always be some way to quickly rid yourself of them should an emergency arise. This issue, coupled with the fact that the initial room is pitch dark could become a recipe for tragedy should a crisis strike.

High Points:

I really enjoyed one specific puzzle that, while we’ve seen one very much like it before, worked very well within the theme of the game. There were also a couple of surprises when we solved certain parts of the adventure.

Low Points:

As I’ve pointed out previously, there are some serious concerns about safety with this room, and while they aren’t the most egregious I’ve seen, they’re still an issue and can and should be easily corrected. Further, the handcuffs really do little to add to the experience overall, and provide only discomfort. Safety issues aside, the room just really isn’t that fun. The game starts in a pitch black room, with one dim light that fades in and out, and several tiny tea candles for players to use. The dark only serves to make the initial, severely banal puzzles somewhat more difficult, but in a way that only serves to frustrate players. The set is also very bare, and looks like a converted office space rather than a creepy basement and bedroom.

Beyond the set design, the hum-drum puzzles and choppy game flow continue to make the experience feel incredibly dated. None of the enigmas included within Family Secrets is very memorable, in stark contrast to the great run of interactions we found in Room Escape USA’s newest room, Rock Star. The initial room definitely would be uncomfortable with the maximum 10 players, and even if a group charged forward with this many, a lot of folks are going to be at a loss for anything to do in this slightly non-linear room. The puzzle that provided the most items to work on at any one time is a dreaded process puzzle, proving that sometimes, sitting around with nothing to do is preferable.

Verdict:

Family Secrets just feels like a game that’s far past its prime. With safety issues, a much too large player count, choppy game flow, and average at best puzzles, it’s high time for Family Secrets and Grandpa Earl to be put out to pasture. I don’t recommend this one, especially since the much more engaging Rock Star can be escaped at this venue, but should you wish to book yourself a kidnapping, you can do so here.

2/10 (Bad)

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

Gnome & Raven – The Tomb Ruins (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

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

Price: $25 per person, every experience is private, with a 4 person minimum

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

It belongs in a museum!

Theme:

From the Gnome & Raven website:

Ever since archaeologists uncovered the tomb of the young pharaoh Nekauba and took his favorite ruby, strange things have happened in every museum to display it. Inexplicably, museum workers would find nearby exhibits damaged or broken and mysterious power outages plagued every building to store it. Some even claim that a ghostly red light fills the hallways at night. It was finally decided that the ruby needed to be returned to its beloved and rightful owner. Your job is to navigate Nekauba’s tomb and restore the ruby to his tomb once again. But beware – the tomb is still protected by traps and ancient puzzles and getting to the pharaoh’s room won’t be easy!

First Impressions:

After a fun romp through a fairy tale museum, we were very interested to delve into the ancient tomb of Nekauba! We began our trek at the archaeologist’s base camp, ready to seek out the stolen treasures. Though the Museum of Light and Dark was pretty large, the scale of The Tomb Ruins was even more magnificent in it’s size and décor. As our game master began to brief us on our mission, I could tell we were in for an excellent adventure.

High Points:

Katie, our game master, was phenomenal. She did an excellent job portraying the story and psyching up our group for the mission. It’s great that Gnome & Raven has game masters that introduce their rooms in character, and have ensured that the folks they’ve hired are all in for the performance. As mentioned before, the tomb itself is huge, with a Hollywood quality to its design, and the soundtrack that goes along with the experience lends it an astounding measure of immersiveness. Lighting also serves to keep the tomb dim and spooky, without making it arduous to complete puzzles due to lack of light. There were a few traditional locks at the base camp, but the tomb’s puzzles, barring a couple instances of locks explained by the story, utilized hidden technology to great effect, making the solving process feel mystical while still sticking to the over arching theme of the game. The whole experience was very tactile and intuitive, with many excellent surprises sprinkled throughout, and a few set pieces that provided large scale “wow” moments.

The game flow worked splendidly, with a non-linear run of puzzles during any given stage of the game keeping our group entertained and fully engaged. I really enjoyed the fact that the room begins with your team breaking into the tomb itself, rather than starting us out already in the ruins. There’s something about busting into the escape room ourselves that adds to the fun, and I think a lot of rooms would benefit from not beginning in medias res. The definitive beginning, middle, and climax really solidifies the flow of the game, and when we did reach the end, it felt like a triumph. There’s not a specifically deep story, but the adventure exhibits shades of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider by presenting a tomb full of traps and puzzles and a mystical treasure to find.

Low Points:

One particular puzzle was a bit irksome, and required us to engage in a banal interaction that seemed out of place in the tomb. It was over fairly quickly, but was still a weirdly ho-hum puzzle in a sea of otherwise amazing interactions. There were also several hidden drawers that would trigger, and while they were luckily easy to find when they triggered due to the sound they made, they were also very, very slow to open. It wasn’t too big of a deal, but the whole team did have several occasions to crowd around drawers, crack a few jokes, then go back to marveling at how slow the drawer was moving.

Verdict:

The Tomb Ruins is one of Richmond’s most amazing games, and is absolutely one of my favorite rooms in the area, and of all time! Families, friends, new players, and old veterans will definitely find something to enjoy within the ancient tomb of Nekauba, and I recommend checking it out without reservation! Book your time in The Tomb Ruins here!

9.5/10 (Excellent)