Insomnia Escape – Dungeon Things (Review)

Location: Washington, DC

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 3-4)

Price: Varies, see here for details.

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

Back to the 80s!

Theme:

From the Insomnia Escape website:

Our newest room “The (sic) Dungeon Things” is inspired by our favorite books of Stephen King. Find your missing friend while fighting with the ancient evil living in the town… Great for kids and adults! A terrible thunderstorm caused a power outage and created a unique opportunity to go back in time, find the missing friend and investigate the mystical disappearance of kids that plagued a small sleepy town of Lindale for decades. You always knew that this town is not like other towns…

First Impressions:

I love Stephen King, and Stranger Things, with its 80s themed D&D horror, is a great entry into the genre as well, so a mashup of the two seemed like an interesting way to set up an escape room. Though rooms that aren’t based on an existing property are usually more creative, I was intrigued to see how Dungeon Things panned out, as the glimpses I’d gotten of the room previously made it look pretty fun.

High Points:

The set design of the room is well executed, and while it isn’t Hollywood level, it certainly gets the job done, evoking the design sensibilities of an 80s home. The game begins spookily, and one of the puzzles to start things off sets the tone well. There is a particular set piece in this game that is really cool, and though the game comes back to the well for this interaction a few times, it’s interesting enough that it does not feel like a repeat and remains fresh for the full run time of the experience. This, along with a few other technical moments within the game, creates a nice sense of supernatural magic and mystery to the journey. There were also some great sound design moments, one of which felt rather real and was paid off well, though it was a subtle addition. The climax, (or what we were able to experience of it, more on that below,) was great, ending with a cool teamwork interaction, though that instance would have benefitted from better cluing overall. The early game was good for larger teams, as it started with a non-linear run of puzzles, allowing us to divide and conquer.

Low Points:

As a huge fan of Stephen King, I can definitely say there’s a couple of nods to Stephen King in Dungeon Things, but the overall room is not really inspired that much by King, but does take heavy inspiration from Stranger Things. To the point that it starts to feel somewhat like a ripoff, which is a shame, as it feels like it could’ve been a cool idea without the need for previously existing properties. This aside, the climax of our game unfortunately sputtered out during what should’ve been a very cool moment due to a technical failure. Luckily, the owners were advised independently by our game master, and they were kind enough refund the cost of the room to us, which we appreciated. While the room is advertised for a maximum of 10 players, even with just five there were some major choke points during parts of the room that became linear, and there was a good bit of standing around for some of our players. As most of the linearity compounded upon itself as we ventured further into the room, this could only have been exacerbated had our group been double the size. As previously stated, there were a few good and subtle nods to Stephen King and Stranger Things, and when they were subtle, they were great, but when they weren’t it was far too on the nose, breaking the immersion. One particular puzzle involving a fusebox was not particularly well explained, and a bit more cluing would help smooth out this interaction.

Verdict:

Dungeon Things has some good ideas, but ultimately there were enough issues that it was only a little better than average. Ultimate tech failure aside, some tweaking to the overall game flow to remove choke points and clarify some logical leaps, as well as a bit of reworking of the story to make it its own thing, would go a long way towards creating a really great room. As of this writing, though, I’d recommend other rooms in the area first. You can book your time going back to the 80s here!

6/10 (Alright)

Full Disclosure: Insomnia Escape provided media discounted tickets for our game.

Escape Room Herndon – 8-Bit Escape (Review)

Location: Herndon, VA

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 4-5)

Price: $28 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Totally Tubular!

Theme:

From the Escape Room Herndon Website:

Your friends have come over to play your newest video game; however once you get to the basement you see your mom has locked up all your gaming gear until you finish you homework. You and your friends have 60 minutes to find all your gear and put it back together before your mom kicks them out and they all go over to Wade’s house.

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First Impressions:

I have to say, as a child who grew up on the NES, 80’s and 90’s movies, and sitting in front of giant box TVs on grandma’s shag carpet, 8-Bit Escape was absolutely calling my name, as it called most of our team. I try to go in to rooms without big expectations, but the pull of nostalgia from this one was hard to resist, and I was giddy to see what wonders were in store during this escape!

8_Bit_Escape

High Points:

There are several pictures in this review that show the amount of detail that has gone into making 8-Bit Escape a truly convincing blast to the past, but these pictures alone cannot describe the absolutely amazing feeling of stepping into the room for the first time. The experience is truly brilliant, with a set design that stays one hundred percent faithful to it’s gloriously creative theme. Sound design was amazing as well, and hearkened back to the NES era of chiptune earwigs that I still cannot get out of my head decades later. The story is simple, but effective, and calls to the kid in us; it does a fantastic job to frame the adventure, but doesn’t need to be overly complex, as the main draw here is the immersion within the old school theme of the room. The first thing most folks will want to do upon entering is get their hands on some of the fantastic, true to life props and just start playing around, and in some cases, there are items within the room that are marked as simply that, games and toys to play around with while you explore the room. this touch is fantastic, and though they may not further the puzzle flow, they do add to the immersion of the room, and allow players to indulge their nostalgia to their heart’s content.

8-Bit Escape is a room that’s just enormously fun to be in, but there’s still an escape game to play inside, and it is just as exciting. The game flow is fantastic, with a non-linear run that ensures big groups with have plenty to work on when they aren’t playing around with the Atari or He-Man figures. Every single puzzle within this room is integrated perfectly into the theme, and there are so many superbly creative interactions, some of which we’d never seen before. One early puzzle rewards a bit of outside knowledge without requiring it, and gives a rush of satisfaction to those that can solve it early without breaking the game flow by skipping ahead, which is great. One of my absolute favorite parts of the room involves a full scale arcade cabinet, and an interaction that expanded the room in a way I did not expect. There are further surprises in the late game that are beautifully done, and during this climax, there are some absolute full-scale gems that are just joyous to work through. All in all, this room is a pleasure through and through, and I cannot say enough good things about the experience. It goes without saying that I recommend booking a slot here, no questions asked.

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Low Points:

We had to eventually leave. Seriously, though, that was kind of a bummer. We could spend all day in this room if you let us, I’m sure! Honestly, the only problem I personally can think of is that there are a few props that feel a bit worn. Beyond that, I really can’t think of much that I could write here.

80s

Verdict:

Only one other escape business I’ve visited has ever received more than one ten out of ten review from us in three years, but Escape Room Herndon absolutely deserves to be just the second business to receive this honor. 8-Bit Escape is an escape room that is elevated from merely a simple game to an experience that is a pure joy to engage with. The set design, nostalgia, clever puzzling, and great easter eggs come together to deliver a room that absolutely deserves the title of must-play! Book your time in mom’s 80’s basement here!

10/10 (Phenomenal)

Full Disclosure: Escape Room Herndon provided comped tickets for this room.

 

NC Escape – Alien Escape (Review)

Location: Durham, NC (Also available at Green Light Escape Room in Wilmington, NC)

Players: 3-8 (We Recommend 3-5)

Price: $26 per person

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

Revenge of the Aliens!

Theme:

From the NC Escape website:

You and your team awaken in what appears to be a cryogenic chamber… cold and confused in this dark space you must find your way to the control room before your captors realize you’re missing. This room is designed with experienced escape room players in mind.

First Impressions:

We had played the previous incarnation of this room at Green Light Escape in Wilmington, NC Escape’s sister location, and had a great time. Now two years later, we were interested to see how this room had evolved when it made its debut in Durham. After our previous two trips to the new and improved NC Escape, we were certain we were in for another exciting romp!

High Points:

The previous owners had housed the wholly disappointing Dreamscape within this room. What a difference new management makes, however, as the room is now completely unrecognizable, as well as leagues better than that game. In fact, compared to the original Alien Escape in Wilmington, this adventure is even cooler than the last, with updates to technology, scenery, and the addition of brand new puzzles. Though we had played this game a couple years ago, it didn’t feel like a retread, and whenever a puzzle we remembered came up, it was easy to pass it off to someone who hadn’t done it before and move to another interaction, as the non-linear experience is absolutely filled to the brim with puzzles. I’ll admit, there was one puzzle I didn’t get to do last time that I remembered thinking looked really fun, and I’m glad I was able to literally give it a whirl this go.

The set design has been updated, and looks even nicer than before, with some crazy props and tactile puzzles that work beautifully within the world of this escape. One particular large scale set piece has been upgraded quite a bit from the original, and it looks  absolutely amazing now. We really enjoyed how interactive the room felt, melding physical pieces with well hidden technology to ensure that the game was as immersive as possible. Sound design and lighting play a great part as well, and though I think Brewery Heist is the coolest set in the Durham area, Alien Escape certainly doesn’t slack off in this regard. In terms of puzzles, this room continues to be incredibly creative, and some of the new puzzles strike that great balance between seeming overwhelming at first, but becoming increasingly intuitive as we interacted with them. One puzzle in particular gave nothing away via a very minimalist presentation, but evolved into one of my favorite interactions in the room by the end. This puzzle, as well as a few other very clever enigmas, deliver some of the best ah ha moments I’ve had lately, and overall, they are just a blast to work through. The game flow is effortlessly smooth, and is paired up with some fantastically subtle signposting to ensure our group of five remained fully engaged with the adventure from start to finish.

Low Points:

There was one particular puzzle we came across that, for us, was easily hackable. In fact, we solved it in a way that it had not been done before, but we weren’t clear at all on how it was supposed to be solved until we inquired about it afterwards. The puzzle in question didn’t have a wholly intuitive way to solve in room, and could use a bit of cluing to ensure the usual method of solving makes more logical sense.

Verdict:

Alien Escape is a great adventure, and I’m glad that it has made it’s way to Durham! Even better, this game isn’t just a retread of what we played in Wilmington, but an updated and still immensely entertaining escape that was absolutely worth another look. I highly recommend checking out this room, as well as the others at the new and improved NC Escape. I cannot wait for their next creations! Book your time in the alien spaceship here!

9/10 (Excellent)

Full disclosure: NC Escape provided comped tickets for our group.

Escape Room Fairfax – 1960: History of the Future (Review)

Location: Fairfax, VA

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 4-5)

Price: $27 per person

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Back to the Future!

Theme:

From the Escape Room Fairfax website:

You and your teammates are customers of a booming new company, New Horizon Tours, which offers trips to dozens of locations across time and space. Today’s tour: The History of Time Travel, which starts…in the 1960s? In the past few years (of the sixties, that is), INSPiRE Laboratories has been rising in the public eye and offers many innovations for your home and family, but there may be more behind its cheerful façade.When you arrive on location, your tour guide is nowhere to be found, but when the offices of INSPiRE LABS lie just down the hall, curiosity gets the best of you, but with nobody tending to your device, it leaves without you! You will need to seek out a new way to return to your own time in one or be stuck in the 60s forever. Can you make it back to modern times? You’ll be successful either way, if you want to wait 50-60 years.

First Impressions:

2233: Fighting for the Future was our favorite room at Escape Room Fairfax so far, and 1960: History of the Future is the asymmetric partner/prequel and/or sequel to that room, so I was interested to see how the stories interacted as well as how the room was paced to match up with 2233 during competitive games. The lobby was split down the middle via designs inspired by the two separate themes, so we knew that the set design would be appropriate, at least!

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Subtle, but appropriate.

High Points:

As a tie in to 2233, 1960: History of the Future is a cool follow up, if not quite as exciting. Easter eggs that reference each other are sprinkled throughout both rooms, and the experience is certainly more cohesive having done both rooms. Some of the storyline is fleshed out better having done both rooms, and seeing some of the tech from the previous room as it is being invented is a lot of fun. The set design feels very 60’s, and while not quite as flashy as the designs within 2233 by virtue of their highly different time periods, it still manages to overcome being “just an office,” with touches here and there that feel dated without feeling dated. Sound design was interesting, and media used within the room was fantastic, lending an authentic feel to the experience.

The game flow worked well for the most part, with a non-linear design that kept us fully engaged with the experience. Tech puzzles abounded, and while it wasn’t a futuristic room, the tech felt as though it belonged and lent a retro-sci-fi feel to the game as a whole. Some really great interactions, tinged with a bit of humor, elevated some of the puzzles, and there were a few really clever puzzles that were hinted in subtle, but intuitive ways. The ending of the game definitely felt more climactic than the end of 2233, and made more sense overall, leaving us with a certainty that this game had the better ending in terms of story and game.

Low Points:

For how authentic some of the set design feels, some of it is entirely too authentic, with horribly loud desk drawers and creaky old set pieces that added some unintended frustration to the game. Searching the room sometimes devolved into a cacophony of horrible sounds that reduced us to being unable to think, and unfortunately, a can of WD-40 was not at hand. The puzzles included within the game could feel disjointed at times, dropping out of the theming and feeling random rather than purposefully designed with story in mind. While everything in 2233 felt like part of a futuristic lab with high tech machinery, 1960 tended to have some interactions that were included “because escape room.” It was a little immersion breaking, especially when some puzzles involved some banal office sorting or a placement puzzle who’s inclusion was just tenuous at best. One late game puzzle caused a bit of frustration due to the similarities between two categories that weren’t clearly differentiated enough to ensure that the solve ran smoothly.

Verdict:

While not as cohesive or flashy as 2233, 1960: History of the Future is a serviceable game, and an interesting tie in to it’s companion experience. I would recommend checking it out in tandem with 2233, but would suggest doing it first, as it is definitely not as exciting as 2233 on the whole. Book your time in INSPiRE’s 1960’s lab here!

6.5/10 (Alright)

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

 

Whole Brain Escape – Mystery of the Mad Scientist (Review)

Location: Apex, NC

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

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

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.

Theme:

From the Whole Brain Escape website:

Dr. Conundrum has broken the laws of space and time, and opened a doorway to the Luniverse. Will you restore order to this world, or be trapped in this psychedelic madhouse?

First Impressions:

Whole Brain Escape is one of our favorite new spots in the Raleigh area, and we were thrilled to hear that their fourth and final, (for now,) room would be opening its doors. The room seemed to have a Dia de los Muertos theme, along with some wild and colorful interactions from the promotional materials, so we could not wait to see what the designers had come up with this time!

mystery-1

High Points:

In the past, we’ve enjoyed how Whole Brain puts together their sets, but have noted that sometimes they didn’t quite feel as immersive as they could. Each previous room in which we noted this has seen an upgrade, and we think that’s an excellent sign. In Mystery of the Mad Scientist, however, this was not a problem. The set is fully decked out as a whimsical and subtly sinister place to puzzle, and this theming keeps up throughout the experience. There’s also a great point in the story which triggers a moment that changes the whole set, allowing for whole new clues to pervade the room, and adding a great surprise to the adventure that I thought was an amazing touch. By my estimation, this room is easily Whole Brain Escape’s most atmospherically complete and exciting set, bolstered by a fun soundtrack and simple touches that evoke some fantastic world building. The props, puzzles, and side items all remain in theme, and honestly, I’d love to see more of the Luniverse universe that has been created here.

The storyline of Mystery of the Mad Scientist is simple, but highly effective, peppered with the great humorous touches that we’ve come to expect within a Whole Brain room. The whole journey is a weird, abstract romp through a loony world, and I loved every strange minute of it. As a result, the theme is wholly original; a mad scientist room that doesn’t take place within a boring lab or converted office. Everything ties up into an appropriately mysterious climax that left us wanting more in the best possible way, tying up the room’s mission while leaving us with some entertaining questions to ponder. Puzzle wise, the game flow is astoundingly good, with multiple paths of linearity that come together and branch out multiple times, allowing for no choke points and ensuring that we remained fully engaged with the game for a good while. In fact, it has become common for our team to break out of rooms fairly quickly, but the density of interactions within this one kept us puzzling well beyond our average time, which is always great.

The enigmas we faced were varied and clever, and no puzzle type was repeated within the room. Every step of the adventure felt fresh, and the system used to tie solutions to locks was subtle and intuitive, removing any need for trial and error at any point. There’s truly so many great puzzles in this room that it’d be impossible to discuss them all, but one favorite engaged us all with a bit of tech that ensured we’d have to work together in a hilarious way, and another run of puzzles engaged us during the most surprising point of the experience, playing with perception in fantastic ways.

mystery-2

Low Points:

There are a few points that include seeming red herrings, parts of clues that hint towards puzzles, but really aren’t. While it is overall pretty easy to spot that which is important and that which isn’t, these could trip up and frustrate some players, especially those who are easily led down rabbit trails. For enthusiasts, this may be on the easier side, and those looking for six figure set designs might be disappointed, but our group still enjoyed the challenge it presented and thought the set was more than appropriate.

Verdict:

Presenting a truly immersive experience filled to the brim with puzzles, Mystery of the Mad Scientist is absolutely my favorite room at Whole Brain Escape. The addition of a little bit of technology coupled with continued light hearted game design, I think this room is a perfect recommendation for escape room die hards and new players alike. Book your time in the Luniverse here!

8.5/10 (Great)

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