Sleuth Kings – Case 018: The Stolen Scroll (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $29.95 per box

Fight for Justice!

Theme:

Sullivan King’s newest case is a doozy! Martial Arts Instructor Travis Burnett has retained the services of our favorite Private Detective in order to clear his name of a crime committed 6,500 miles away! Accused of stealing a sacred scroll during his dojo’s trip to Japan, he has been kicked out of the dojo, and become persona non grata to all his friends. He’s spent twenty years forming relationships and teaching martial arts at the Dragon Dojo, so he’s understandably desperate to clear his name. The only problem is, most of this evidence is in Japanese! Sullivan needs your help to crack the case, or Travis will remain disgraced and friendless!

First Impressions:

Dear subscription box companies, if you all start adding small desserts to your boxes, I will love you forever. It’s almost embarrassing how delighted I was that when I opened up this box, a fortune cookie dropped out. I guess all the puzzles were interesting too, but we’re here for the cookies. Send more.

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A mystery that starts thousands of miles away and… A FREE FORTUNE COOKIE??? SOLD.

High Points:

Beyond the nice inclusion of the fortune cookie, there’s a lot to like about this box. As usual, Sleuth Kings packs their box with some really creative stuff, and this mystery is no different. Containing several interconnected clues, and a few standard puzzles tweaked to hold more secrets than usual, there is truly a lot to work through with this box. In fact, it took us a good hour or so longer than usual to work through this one, which is a testament to it’s density and challenge level. Many puzzles require looking at the props and clues in an out of the box way, presenting some excellent ah ha moments. The props are well integrated into the theme, and there are some fun easter eggs to hunt down for long time sleuths. There is a particularly fun moment where a pretty standard puzzle is used in a creative way, providing the satisfaction of solving the base problem, (which I’m actually a pretty big fan of,) and then the layer underneath. The game flow works well to reveal further mysteries as you progress, and the connections between stages of the game keep everything rolling in a satisfying way.

The story itself is more of a one off, with less tie in to the overall Sleuth Kings universe, but it’s still an engaging adventure that presents a few twists and turns as we solved. The idea of solving a crime committed so far away from home is an amazing idea, and we enjoyed going back through Travis’ trip to Japan, as well as trying to find more current clues using Sullivan’s tried and true method of breaking and entering for the greater good.

Low Points:

This mystery started out a little rough for us, as the first clue was a chore to work through. We liked the idea of this puzzle in theory, but felt it didn’t quite translate well in practice. Some of the elements that tripped us up involved language translation, and while we were given a hint sheet to help with this, overall, the sheet had too much on it and was somewhat small, making it hard to compare the writing to the characters. Further, the handwriting had a few distinct differences, making it more difficult to determine what was what. I am glad, however, that everything we needed to translate the puzzle’s text was included within the box, as we’ve seen others that just throw foreign languages in for “difficulty.” (Looking at you, Blowback.) Two specific puzzles will feel familiar, as these types have been used previously, however, they’ve been updated, and still manage to feel fresh, as a new twist has been added to each.

Verdict:

The Stolen Scroll is definitely a good mystery, outside of the tedious start. People who are interested in Japan and the Japanese language will definitely get a kick out of the very well themed puzzles, and though that isn’t quite our niche, we still appreciated the highly interesting theme presented in this box. I recommend giving it a go, especially if the theme seems like it would be up your alley! This case can be purchased from the Sleuth King’s archives here, and if you’d like to subscribe to upcoming adventures, you can use the promo code ESCAPEADVENTURE to get $5 off your subscription here! You can also read the rest of our Sleuth Kings reviews here!

7/10 (Good)

Full Disclosure: Sleuth Kings provided a complementary box.

The Deadbolt Mystery Society – The Strange Case of Mr. Mindgame (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $24.99 per box, plus $4.99 shipping

I want to play a game.

Theme:

From the Deadbolt Mystery Society website:

When a strange character calling himself Mr. Mindgame kidnaps five suspects in a recent murder, you must play his twisted game in order to determine who the killer is and set the innocents free.  But is his game everything it seems to be or is there a dark secret behind all the trickery? 

First Impressions:

The Strange Case of Mr. Mindgame seemed like it would be a fresh twist on the Deadbolt formula, casting us a pawns in a game being played by a Jigsaw-esque vigilante. This sort of high-stakes mystery solving game is right up my alley, so I was excited to see what was behind the veil of the unusually light theme description that had been posted!

High Points:

I was glad to find that Mr. Mindgame would not disappoint, theme-wise. Immediately we found that we had been cast as detectives by the villainous Mindgame, tasked with deducing who had murdered Jennifer Cochran, and further, making the connections between this murder, and one that Mr. Mindgame had been falsely accused of committing! His methods of confirming our answers and helping us eliminate suspects were exciting, and lent believability to the story, which felt as though it was unfolding in real time. I really enjoy when Deadbolt stories progress in this way, casting us as active heroes, racing against time, rather than as more passive detectives looking through a case file. (Which, to be fair, is still fun, just not as immersive.) The entire experience kept me guessing, wondering what Mindgame was up to, who they could possibly be, and what would happen when we finally won his twisted game!

Puzzles continue to be excellent, with clever clues winding around each other, leading us towards our ultimate goal. Mr. Mindgame is hands down the most difficult Deadbolt case to date, but not unfairly so. For the most part, each piece of the puzzle is intuitive and will reveal their secrets after an engaging solve and terrific ah ha moment. As we peeled back each layer of the mystery, I could definitely feel a sense of momentum building from point to point, until we finally arrived at the climax. The sense of achievement from solving each part of this box was palpable, and truly delivered a satisfying sleuthing experience from start to finish.

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Mr. Mindgame is a Puzzling Poe-esque Poe-t!

Low Points:

The story, while surprising and very entertaining, ends in a way we felt came out of nowhere. While explained well after the fact, there didn’t seem to be much that led up to it, causing it to fall a little flat with us. It was also rather hard to justify our involvement with this case, so overall, we would have liked to see the story fleshed out a bit more during the game itself. Some connections made during the mystery do feel more tenuous than others, with some logical leaps we made, but looked askance at while we were doing so. There were a couple times I posited an answer, which was correct, and when asked how I came to that conclusion, I had to admit it was a degree short of a wild guess. In general, neither of these issues pop up overly often, however.

Verdict:

The Strange Case of Mr. Mindgame is an excellent mystery for Deadbolt veterans and mystery enthusiasts that are looking for a tough, but fair challenge. While newcomers may have more difficulty with this box, Deadbolt’s fantastic hints will keep players on track, allowing for engagement without frustration. I recommend giving it a shot, and look forward to their next adventure, a Wild West adventure I’m sure will not disappoint! Join the Deadbolt Mystery Society here! Right now, you can get 30% off your first box with the Promo Code ESCAPE30! You can also see the rest of our Deadbolt Mystery Society reviews here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: The Deadbolt Mystery Society provided a complementary box.

Sleuth Kings – Case 017: The Cupid Killer (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $29.95 per box

My Bloody Valentine

Theme:

After three years of serial murders, the Cupid Killer is on the hunt again, and this time, it’s personal for Sullivan King. The killer, who stalks, taunts, and finally murders couples on Valentine’s Day has been sending Sullivan and his definitely not girlfriend, Celest St. Clair,  increasingly threatening messages, which have culminated in the disappearance of Celest! With the police baffled, and time running out, Sullivan needs your help to find Celest and stop the Cupid Killer’s reign of terror once and for all.

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Even psychotic Valentine’s themed killers can see the attraction, Sullivan! Wise up!

First Impressions:

The romantic tension between Sullivan and Celest has been building for almost half a year now, and though Celest knows exactly what she’s about, Sullivan has been blindingly oblivious to everything. When this case’s theme hit the website, however, we were excited to see that the attraction between the two sleuths had to come to fruition soon!

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Dare to take on Cupid’s Challenge?

High Points:

After the last few, fairly light-hearted mysteries, The Cupid Killer is pretty dark, story wise. For the bright Valentine’s colors and props, there’s an excellent undercurrent of tension and threat that works as an impeccable foil to the explosion of pink and purple Cupid’s Challenge clues. This case definitely boasts the most tightly themed aesthetic to date for Sleuth Kings, and it really impresses. The progression of the clues is interesting also, as we observe the Cupid Killer’s messages and gifts become ever more threatening. These touches lend a sense of urgency to a game that is otherwise not under any sort of time pressure. The overarching plot line ties well into the meta-story without requiring knowledge of previous cases, remaining accessible while still including some great story rewards for the Sleuth Kings faithful. The look into the personal lives of Sullivan and Celest is very entertaining, and the way that Celest’s kidnapping is handled doesn’t fall into the trope of fridging important female characters; leading to an excellent climax we really enjoyed.

The game flow itself is just as tight as the aesthetic. The case itself is certainly not insubstantial, but there is always an excellent sense of progression throughout the adventure. The puzzles are fantastically themed and tie into the Cupid Killer’s strange machinations appropriately, with his taunts and games feeling almost Riddler-esque. One particular puzzle is one we’ve seen a few times before, but with an added twist that breathed new life into what could otherwise have become tiresome. The game itself is well layered as usual, but there are some great points at which the puzzle path takes a few twists back around cleverly, and opens up new riddles we hadn’t noticed before. There’s even a killer cookie recipe that can actually be made and, from what I hear, tastes delicious! Finally, as of this case, Sleuth Kings no longer sends out your epilogue letter for delivery a few days after you’ve solved the case. While this does hurt the immersion factor ever so slightly, it’s nice to have some closure immediately close at hand. Sullivan still sends a follow up email regarding the meta-case a few days later, ensuring that your Sleuth Kings Solving High (TM) lasts a few extra days.

One last note, even if you don’t need a hint, check out Celest’s hint files included online after you’ve closed the case. Even if you don’t usually prefer to use her hints, for this one, it adds a lot to the story and closes what otherwise could seem like a plot hole. I have never seen a hint system tied so excellently into the story before, and Celest’s observations were a fantastic way to flesh out some aspects of the story. I’m glad we ended up needing a hint, because it would’ve been a shame to miss out on the easter eggs hidden within her hint files.

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Instant Epilogue Gratification.

Low Points:

There is one odd red herring-ish prop that didn’t seem to have a specific purpose, which was a bit confusing. We’ve become rather used to everything tying into a puzzle or furthering the story in some way, so when an item wasn’t utilized, it took us off track while we tried to deduce its purpose. We also felt as though one puzzle could benefit from a slight bit more cluing, as it didn’t perfectly line up with everything available, leading to a bit of uncertainty as to its validity.

Verdict:

Boasting a Valentine’s themed serial killer, some awesome story based payoff for long time fans, and a dense amount of puzzling, Case 017: The Cupid Killer is one of my favorite cases Sleuth Kings has released so far! Though completing some key previous cases would help players catch all the references, it’s still a great jumping off point for newbies, and I highly recommend it! This case can be purchased from the Sleuth King’s archives here, and if you’d like to subscribe to upcoming adventures, you can use the promo code ESCAPEADVENTURE to get $5 off your subscription here! You can also read the rest of our Sleuth Kings reviews here!

9/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: Sleuth Kings provided a complementary box.

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)

The Enigma Emporium – Blowback (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 2-4

Price: $15.00

I don’t trust the process.

Theme:

From The Enigma Emporium’s upcoming Kickstarter (Edited for brevity/errors):

Last you’d heard, J.C. was safe in witness protection. You even knew where, although you weren’t supposed to. The FBI wasn’t forthcoming with information, so all you could do was scour the internet for some mention of your friend, his family, or even The Ouroboros… (although you were careful not to attract too much attention on that front). Still, you had heard nothing, and somehow nothing was worse than something, in this case. 

A gentle shuffle told you that Alice, the mail carrier, was approaching, and your ears proved prescient as the soft thud of letters hitting the floor was followed by the squeak of the mail flap closing.

Your breath caught in your throat. You recognized that handwriting. An assortment of postcards–familiar yet entirely alien–tumbled into your hand. Your brow knitted unconsciously as you read, eyes flicking across the back of the first card. 

“…Please help me one last time” it ended. You sat up straight, pulse-quickened. A drop of fear fell like a pebble in your gut, rippling outwards. And you smiled. This was something, and something was better than nothing. 

First Impressions:

I’m honestly very conflicted about writing this review, so I’m going to use this section to explain a couple things, since it’s sort of an outlier. You see, it took me weeks to complete Blowback, when usually I spend a few hours with my fiancée solving at home puzzle experiences. This isn’t due to the level of difficulty or length of content, though I’m sure dedicated folks who eschew hints may take as long as I did. No, the reason Blowback took me so long to finally get around to finishing is that I actively despised working on this game. No bones about it, I hated it, and actively felt worse while I was playing it. I picked it up several times to push forward with my task, but almost every time, I would shake my head, say, “Nope,” and shove it back in a drawer as a problem for future me.

Now, with that vent out of the way, my revulsion towards Blowback is extremely easy to pinpoint, and if you wanted the long and short of it right away, here it is. I cannot stand process puzzles. If you’ve read my previous review regarding Wish You Were Here, you know this. Process puzzles are those which require you to first, solve the puzzle, (which is generally enjoyable,) and then apply that process over and over, (which is incredibly tedious.) Not only does the tedium grate my nerves, but it feels like homework. I finished doing homework over a decade ago, I’ve served my time! This game is almost strictly process puzzles, and therefore, I can definitely say this game is not for me.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? This game isn’t for me. It was designed with a completely different type of puzzle solver in mind, so keep that in mind when reading this review. If you are the type that likes deep google searches, applying processes to puzzles, and doing research to solve games, and that doesn’t sound frustrating to you, you can ignore almost everything I’m about to say, Kickstart this game, and have a wonderful time. If that, however, sounds like a grind to you, first, you and I are going to get along swell, and second, this review is for you.

High Points:

It cannot be denied that The Enigma Emporium are masters at packing so many puzzles into so few postcards. Blowback contains five ordinary postcards that are filled to the brim with codebreaking and puzzles. The price is a very low barrier to entry, and you definitely get your money’s worth, quantity of puzzle-wise. There are a few clever puzzles that provide a highly satisfying break from the process based and google focused research ones, and I really appreciated those during my time with Blowback. One particular puzzle that really triggered a nice ah ha moment came after being completely puzzled by the whole interaction. Unfortunately, the rest of that process was not well clued, stymieing progress. The puzzles are easily identifiable for the most part, and aren’t hidden obtusely, you just have to derive the meaning behind them.

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The beginning of the end?

Low Points:

I was sent Blowback after completing Enigma Emporium’s previous venture, Wish You Were Here. While there were points of frustration and bits from that game I generally did not like, it was overall very clever, and packed with mostly enjoyable, satisfying to solve puzzles. For Blowback, unfortunately, the problems with Wish You Were Here are doubled down on, and the things that made me ultimately enjoy the previous adventure are minimized if not totally absent. For example, one of the best parts of Wish You Were Here was the slowly evolving and mysterious story that was conveyed via solving each of the cards. Unfortunately with Blowback, the story is presented at the beginning, but does not continue until you’re already at the final puzzle.

I’ve already explained how process puzzles and research tasks dulled the luster of this game, so I’ll just mention again that they are copious and that will be that. Many points of the game do not give great feedback due to the method of solving. Without spoiling anything, I had successfully solved certain puzzles to a certain stage, but was completely unaware of this fact due to a deficiency in my background knowledge. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon deficiency, and throws several of the puzzles into a tailspin. Luckily, the clues will point you back in the right direction, but for a game in which I already felt over-reliant on clues, going back to the well began to dull my enthusiasm for puzzling further.

There’s also a pretty high barrier to entry for this particular entry. Though many seasoned Puzzle Hunters and at home Sleuths will recognize many of the ciphers and codes presented herein, most folks just starting out with their puzzling career are going to have a very hard time cracking this nut. At a few points within the game, the cluing that a particular cipher is meant to be used is very vague, and is sometimes absent. New players are then pretty well set adrift without taking additional clues.

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Oh thank the gods.

Verdict:

As I’ve said, Blowback was not for me. It’s like Fortnite or fighting video games; possibly highly enjoyable for a certain group of players that I just don’t belong to. And that’s fine! You might be the type of person that would love this sort of experience, so definitely take that into account if you’re pondering whether to give this one a shot. If you’re like me, though, definitely give Blowback a wide berth, your sanity depends on it. While Blowback isn’t currently available for purchase, the Kickstarter is set to begin in February. You can keep abreast of the upcoming news via The Enigma Emporium website here.

Update: Blowback’s Kickstarter is here.

3/10 (Poor)

Full Disclosure: The Enigma Emporium provided a complementary envelope.