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.

The Valcarol Missions – The Crystal Cave Mission (Review)

Location: Concord, NC

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

Price: $26 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

On post apocalyptic Earth, all that’s left are puzzles!

Theme:

From the Valcarol Missions website:

November of 3049, Valcarol’s people land on earth and plan exploratory missions. Will there be clean air and water on earth? Will there be people there to help them fix their ship’s hydro system? Will it be safe outside of Valcarol?One of our explorers has met a survivor on earth. This survivor gives us the secret location of their water filtration station. It is protected in a cave system that was used as a fallout shelter back when the bombs rained down. This cave system has the special element that makes radiated water clean and safe again. The survivor is to remain anonymous and will not accompany us. We are going to the caves at our own risk. Volunteers for this mission must enter the caves while security is off the premises and make it through any protective measures. Find the elements that purify the water, including the special element that is mined from the cave. Once all of the elements are found, bring them to the water filtration system and get it working. Security will be gone for only an hour, so be quick! This is an important mission because clean water is needed by the dehydrated people of Valcarol and our hydro systems engineer will need to recreate the cave’s water filtration system that can put Valcarol and her people back into space.

First Impressions:

After a run of two not so great rooms, we were really hoping for a room that would reenergize us and remind us why Charlotte is such a great place to go for escape rooms. Luckily, our next stop was The Valcarol Missions, a highly anticipated spot we’d heard great things about! From the amazing design of their front area to the exuberant enthusiasm of the owners, I could tell this was going to be something special!

High Points:

The Valcarol Missions has really hit it out of the park with their sets, storyline, and original puzzling! Stepping into the Crystal Cave was immediately immersive, and the painstakingly created walls of the cave itself were amazing! Lighting and sound design also played an integral part of this amazing experience, lending believability to the entire adventure. Puzzles made excellent use of the space, spanning entire rooms and feeding us new conundrums and props every step of the way. Everything is woven into the theme expertly, and the tactile nature of the room truly engaged us on multiple sensory levels.

As a game, The Crystal Cave mission is amazingly satisfying to complete. The flow is impeccable, with a non-linear approach that allows everyone to stay engaged, and signposting that gives just enough of a hint to keep things moving at a good clip. Each non-linear portion of the game leads to a capstone puzzle that is designed in such a way as to ensure it doesn’t become a boring bottleneck for other players, and it seems like everything was designed with a team focus in mind. One particular puzzle lent an awesome sense of discovery, and as we unraveled the mystery behind it, the ah ha moment was immensely satisfying. The method for entering codes is straightforward, and works within the sci-fi theme, removing the basic locks for a truly technological vibe.

Low Points:

The initial area for the room felt a little more snug than we would’ve liked, and any more than the six we had would be a squeeze, but the room opens up immensely after the initial stage. There was also one puzzle in which the clue to be revealed was very difficult to see due to the cloudiness of the area it was in. One other puzzle could use a mite bit more cluing in order to get across it’s general idea, but was otherwise very cool.

Verdict:

The Valcarol Missions is off to a resoundingly positive start with the Crystal Cave mission, and we absolutely cannot wait for their next rooms to open! Easily one of the top businesses in the area already, I absolutely recommending checking them out as soon as you can. Book your mission in the Crystal Cave here!

9/10 (Excellent)

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

Escape Artist (Concord, NC) – Area 51

Location: Concord, NC

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 2-4)

Price: $25 per person

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

Why’re they taking the cows?

Theme:

Area 51, the mysterious Air Force base in Roswell, New Mexico, has been the epicenter of much speculation about aliens and mysterious sci fi technology for decades. You and your friends have found a way into the facility, but something seems off; it was just too easy to get inside! You’ve made your way to an abandoned looking office as soon as the facility goes on lockdown, and you’ll need to figure out what’s going on, and possibly save the world, before it’s too late!

First Impressions:

We’d had a good time at Escape Artist, especially with their Yin and Yang experience, and to a lesser degree, their Hangover room, and we were ready to see what would happen when we broke into their version of Area 51! Upon entering, we saw that in the dark, there was a glowy alien hooked up to an IV, and no Men in Black around, so we got to searching the office for clues!

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I need 50 ccs of green goopy stuff, stat!

High Points:

Area 51 was described to us by our game master as Escape Artist’s most difficult room, and while we didn’t find it overly difficult, it did provide a good challenge for our group of four enthusiasts. A mixture of logic, math, dexterity, and spatial reasoning puzzles kept us all entertained throughout this mostly non-linear adventure. This mix allowed each teammate to shine, and when one of us was stumped, the next could pick up the puzzling thread and run with it. The game flow worked well, and with the exception of a small search failure on our part, each puzzle led into the next seamlessly. Hints provided within the game were vague enough to challenge us, but not so obscure as to become a game of “guess what the designer was thinking.” Props around the room were fun to play around with, and added to the somewhat spooky sci fi theme.

Low Points:

Probably the lowest point to Area 51 is the ending. Unfortunately it is highly anticlimactic, and doesn’t lead to an exciting escape or huge revelation, as it mostly feels more appropriate as the end of a paper based puzzle hunt than an escape room. It is also incongruous with the entire reason you’re trying to figure out the puzzle itself, as it makes it seem as if the stakes are really high, and then completely falls flat onto a non sequitur. There are also a couple points at which props feel worn and overused, ready for replacement. The room itself is only of average set design, and really doesn’t feel like it would be on the inside of the mythical Area 51. The experience is very much based in early days escape room design, never quite cracking into new territory, so as enthusiasts, nothing blew us away. Finally, there are several groupings of locks that accept the same type of codes, requiring guess and check around the room until you find which one ties to the codes you find.

Verdict:

Area 51 is a classic escape room, and while it doesn’t exactly shine as brightly as Yin and Yang, it’s still a decently fun experience that reminds me of the online puzzle rooms of the 2000’s. As long as you’re not expecting a deep story or anything too technical, there’s an enjoyable run of puzzles to be found here. Beginners will definitely get more out of the experience, but enthusiasts looking for a more nostalgic adventure will have a good time as well, though it won’t blow your mind. You can book your time in Area 51 here!

6.5/10 (Alright)

Full Disclosure: Escape Artist provided discounted tickets for our team.

Escape Artist (Concord, NC) – The Hangover

Location: Concord, NC

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 3-4)

Price: $25 per person

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

At least we didn’t wake up with a face tattoo!

Theme:

Last night was a doozy, and you’re sure you had a great time at the Las Vegas bachelor party, but you just can’t remember it! Waking up in your booze bottle littered hotel room, you remember you need to bring the wedding rings… somewhere. You also can’t remember where you put the rings… maybe somewhere safe? Try to piece together what happened last night and find those rings before the wedding starts in an hour!

First Impressions:

Yin and Yang was a fantastic room; a hard to pull off, yet very satisfying pure puzzling adventure. We were excited to see how Escape Artist did with a story involved, especially one involving the hazy aftermath of a Vegas hangover! We were led into our hotel bedroom and set loose on the mystery, complete with spinning colored lights and tiny casino game!

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No time to sleep, theres’s escaping to do!

High Points:

The room itself is well decorated, with a few zany props adding a touch of color and fun to the room. Game flow is linear, and solutions to puzzles are, for the most part, very clear cut, though challenging enough to require some logic and deduction. The room is set up in such a way that searching for new puzzles and locks is interesting, and the space is used in an entertaining and clever manner. Several in jokes for fans of the movie are scattered around, and provide a nod to the main influence for this room. There are a couple of points where previously nonsensical items become important after a specific puzzle is solved, providing a nice payoff through sometimes humorous interactions.

Low Points:

The Hangover is heavily inspired by the movies, to the point that during some puzzles, you’ll need to have at least a surface knowledge of the movie in order to get by. It’s an unfortunate spot of outside knowledge that shouldn’t be included. The movie itself plays in the background during the game, and although it’s a funny one, it doesn’t really add to the experience and was overall more of a distraction, especially while trying to solve enigmas quickly. Puzzles aren’t quite as creative as we’d have liked, as the majority of the interactions come off as merely banal. Many random props are scattered about, and though it isn’t overly cluttered and messy, the room fails to deliver a tightly designed experience. Some puzzle solutions rely on immersion breaking leaps of logic that really don’t have much basis beyond “escape room logic.” A lot of similar locks abound here, with guess and check becoming mandatory, especially during the early stages of the game. The ending is clear, though the climax falls flat as the story doesn’t really go anywhere during the game.

Verdict:

The Hangover provides a decent game, with a few clever puzzles, but relies a little too heavily on the movie of the same name to really become its own thing. Add in some outside knowledge and a few more leaps of logic than necessary, and the game becomes just an okay experience. If you’re a fan of the movie, I’d say go for it, but if you’re looking for the best puzzling experience, Yin and Yang is definitely a better bet. You can book your time recovering from your Hangover here!

5.5/10 (Mediocre)

Full Disclosure: Escape Artist provided discounted tickets for our team.

Escape Artist (Concord, NC) – Yin and Yang (Review)

Location: Concord, NC

Players: 2-6 (We recommend 2-4)

Price: $25 per person

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

Thing about my ‘scape room it don’t matter if it’s black or white.

Theme:

Escape Artist provides very little information about Yin and Yang on their website, only to say this:

Yin and Yang. Black and White. The fact is that opposing forces actually compliment each other.

Only together will you be able to escape this room.

Are you ready?

And honestly, though there isn’t really a story, it works. Yin and Yang is a pure puzzle room in the best way.

First Impressions:

Going in unsure what to expect from this mysterious room was exciting! I kind of enjoyed being kept in the dark as to what the room would entail, and an efficient and well designed puzzle room was exactly what we needed after the disastrous Mine Trap.

High Points:

Yin and Yang is a smaller room, and unlike many escape rooms we visit, the maximum amount of players is capped low to ensure there is space to move around. Speaking of the room, the set design is perfect for the theme, with a black and white checkered floor, walls, and ceiling that contains just the slightest smidge of color on a couple locks and the timer. In fact, this room harkens back to the classic online escape rooms of yesterday with its simple theme and streamlined puzzling. Your goal is simply to work your way through all the challenges within the room and stop the countdown that has been locked away, just out of reach! Escape Artist really delivers the best in classic escape room design with this room, and the game flow works very well from spot to spot. A semi-non-linear adventure, Yin and Yang challenges you to keep track of each puzzle, allowing you to solve in tandem with your teammates and obtain new codes and items for future and current puzzles all at once. Everything is important within the game, and there is a lot to open up, revealing ever more mysteries! Puzzles themselves are very intuitive, and with a some logic and a little searching, there are several great moments of revelation to be found.

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Monochrome Puzzling Adventure Awaits!

Low Points:

Lock variety is low, and though most items hint at what will solve them, there are a few that do not, leading to the need to exercise a lot of trial and error when unlocking new steps. Though the non-linearity allows for great tandem solving, keeping everyone involved, some items are not gated, making it easy to obtain late game codes early, so a lot can get lost in the shuffle. As with most rooms, though, staying organized can mitigate this problem a lot. A couple of the props within the room could be finicky at times, and one prop in particular had obviously been jostled a little too much and needed repair. Otherwise, the room itself was on point.

Verdict:

Yin and Yang is one of those rare rooms that prove that a simple, more streamlined, and genuinely classic game can still provide an awesome experience! I loved the nostalgia provided by the early days inspired game design, and the efficient set design really helped this one shine more than it honestly had any right to! I recommend giving it a go should you be looking for a pure puzzling adventure. You can get lost in the balance of the Yin and Yang here!

8/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: Escape Artist provided discounted tickets for our team.