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.

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.

Chapel Thrill Escapes – The Belltower (Review)

Location: Chapel Hill, NC

Players: 3-6 (We Recommend at least 4, as this guarantees a private experience)

Price: $20 per person (Discounts for UNC Students and Faculty)

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Theme:

From the Chapel Thrill Escapes website:

Dr. Venable, a famous chemistry professor, was last seen in 1934 at the top of the belltower. He pronounced he had made the world’s next greatest discovery. But soon after, he vanished. Now, you’ve been contacted by his distant relative to enter his secret study and find out what great, or sinister, discovery he made. If you so dare.

First Impressions:

Chapel Thrill Escapes hit our radar as something of a novel concept. This non-profit, student built and operated escape room is housed on campus at the University of North Carolina! We really dug this idea, and reached out to book a room as soon as we heard. We also appreciated them working with us when we needed to move the booking, and their customer service was great!

High Points:

First, I’d like to thank Parker, our game master, for being a great host and adjusting on the fly when something went wrong with one of the puzzles. I’ve been in professional escape rooms that aren’t nearly as responsive when something goes wrong, so the quick action is appreciated! Speaking of, I’ve also been in professional escape rooms that aren’t as well designed as this one. This student led effort showed some real promise, and is honestly better than some for profit rooms in the Triangle area. The set design is appropriate, and well done for their budget, with some fantastic hand crafted puzzles and props peppering the room. There were also some cool twists, subverting expectations in a couple areas, and delivering some cool surprises, especially in the second act. All the puzzles and set dressings remain on theme, and we really enjoyed how The Belltower invokes it’s namesake, allowing for a nice sense of integrated progression.

The game flow itself was great, with only one choke point we came across during our game. With enough non-linearity to keep four veteran escape room enthusiasts happily puzzling the entire game, and a density of puzzles that ensured we didn’t escape too quickly, I was impressed with how well designed the actual game was. Bereft of any red herrings or logical leaps, the experience remained satisfyingly intuitive from start to finish. Even those puzzles that included some very common escape room tropes did so in original new ways. One particular puzzle that I loved was a multi-step interaction that ended with us using a prop previously thought to be set dressing in a really cool way. In fact, there were several points at which we came across puzzles we’d never seen before, and that’s quite the feat for our group! The latter part of the adventure was densely packed with these sorts of puzzles, and we ooohed and ahhhed our way through them all. On the whole, we were pleasantly surprised with how masterfully this room was done!

Low Points:

The one choke point we came across could use a bit of iteration to ensure groups don’t get stuck on it, and from our conversation with our GM, this one is still being tweaked to ensure that it becomes as intuitive as the rest of the room. We came across a couple hiccups during our game, but our GM was very attentive and fixed these as soon as they came up, and I’m sure these growing pains will be worked out soon. Finally, there are a few points where the inner workings of some of the more technical puzzles are visible. With a bit of masking to hide some wires and that sort of thing, the immersion factor would be even better.

Verdict:

Chapel Thrill Escapes is a great new escape room in the area, and the fact that it is a non-profit, student led effort makes it even more of an achievement! Boasting puzzles and a game flow that puts some professional rooms to shame, I absolutely recommend giving this room a shot. It kept a group of enthusiasts well entertained for the entire experience, and is approachable and intuitive enough that new players will have an excellent time as well. Book your time puzzling through The Belltower here!

8/10 (Great)

Full disclosure: Chapel Thrill Escapes provided media discounted tickets for our group.

Total Escape – Temple of Tikal (Review)

Location: Winston-Salem, NC

Price: $30 per person

Players: 2-10 (We recommend 4-6)

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

It (still!) belongs in a museum!

Theme:

The Temple of Tikal is a legendary Mayan temple, rumored to house an ancient and incredibly valuable treasure, hidden away by the Jaguar King behind a series of traps and puzzles designed to only give way to those who are worthy of possessing his most prized treasure. You and your friends have found a way into the temple, and have one hour before the temple’s mechanisms seal again, leaving you trapped inside! Work quickly, and become the true heir to the Jaguar King’s riches!

First Impressions:

Prison Break was Total Escape’s first escape room, and it was a great experience, taking a fairly common trope and executing it better than most other escape rooms have. Before our venture into the Temple of Tikal, we spoke with one of Total Escape’s owners, and she gave us a sneak peak of the then upcoming Yacht Heist, which was a huge, and incredibly sleek looking room. All of this had us jazzed to see what the designers had cooked up for the Temple!

We were also impressed that Total Escape added in subtitles to their intro video, which is a small touch, but very much appreciated.

High Points:

Temple of Tikal began with our fantastic game master giving us our back story and challenging us to begin our game by opening us the Temple itself with somewhat of a pre game challenge. I always enjoy when escapes begin “outside” the room itself, and this was an unexpectedly cool way to start off our game. Once we’d pieced together this appetizer puzzle, the Temple was ours to explore! The experience remains highly non-linear almost throughout, with capstone puzzles measuring progress splendidly, and providing intuitive solves to ensure that all players remain involved with solves and there aren’t many choke points to stymie progress. The game flow works extremely well, and many solves provide great moments of revelation and satisfying pay offs. This may be one of the most hands on rooms we’ve done lately as the set is absolutely littered with large scale puzzles and interactions, displaying some amazing and tactile set pieces to puzzle around with your team. This focus on large scale, teamwork based puzzling is a constant theme throughout the adventure, and there was something for everyone to work on for almost the entire game.

Technology in the game is incredibly responsive, and players always know when a solution has been accepted, as many times when a correct answer has been input, there’s instant feedback. This feedback takes inspiration from great adventure games, and we were wowed many times by the exciting moments our actions triggered. This was one of the few games in which I felt as though I was in the middle of one of the great puzzle moments during a Tomb Raider game. The intuitive nature of the game ensured that even during the more challenging parts of the room, we were never left to cast about wondering what came next, and the high energy journey through the Temple remained engaging through it’s appropriately exciting climax. Like Prison Break, the absence of a game timer really elevated the experience, ensuring that we remained focused on the game and immersed within the story. I lost all track of time in the best possible way, and this small exclusion helped keep outside distractions from encroaching on the game.

Low Points:

One particular puzzle is an interesting interaction to begin, but is somewhat arduous to complete, due to it’s nature. It boiled down to a guess and check interaction at its core, and until we’d found the right way to manipulate things, it felt like busy work. An additional puzzle or clue could easily skip a lot of the aimlessness of this one, preventing the novelty of the interaction from wearing off. Though the room is non-linear and provides a lot for larger groups to do, there is one particular choke point we arrived at that leads to some standing around as only two players could comfortably work on it before becoming a case of too many cooks. Overall, though, both of these instances were minor points during a run of great adventuring.

Verdict:

Temple of Tikal is an awesome leap forward from the already great Prison Break, and if our sneak peek of Yacht Heist is any indication, the sky is the limit for Total Escape! Boasting some excellent set design, cool interactions, and large scale teamwork based puzzling, Temple of Tikal is a must play for any enthusiast in the area, and new players will be astounded by the highly approachable, yet challenging gameplay as well. Uncover the buried secrets of the Jaguar King’s treasure here!

9/10 (Excellent)

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

Breakout Greensboro – Runaway Train (Review)

Location: Greensboro, NC (There are locations nationwide, however.)

Price: See website, varies per person depending on size of group. All games are now private!

Players: 2-7 (We recommend 3-4)

Time to Escape: 60 Minutes

All aboard!

Theme:

From the Breakout Greensboro website:

As the train winds through beautiful countryside, news spreads of an uproar in the locomotive car. Radicals have taken control of the conductor’s cabin, planted explosives, and set the train for a non-stop destination in the heart of the city. Gain entry to the conductor’s cabin, stop the train, and free the passengers before time runs out.

First Impressions:

Runaway Train is Breakout’s newest experience, and after the fun, if slightly flawed, step forward that was Do Not Disturb, we were excited to see what Breakout had cooked up next! We definitely got the more high tech feel Breakout’s newer rooms seem to have from the opening cinematic and screens showing our ill-fated train’s breakneck speed, and couldn’t wait to begin our adventure!

High Points:

Runaway Train’s tech and set design is definitely well done, presenting a convincing train car to puzzle within. The whole experience starts off pretty quickly, and gives us a great impetus to begin working on getting the train’s brakes back online! Some flashy tech and engaging hidden spaces are a lot of fun to interact with, and the set did surprise us from time to time, especially during the climax, which takes a note from Do Not Disturb’s playbook. This final interaction is well implemented, and instills a real sense of urgency in players, but unlike Do Not Disturb, the puzzle presented to close out the room is signposted in a much more intuitive manner, allowing for less frantic frustration. It also encourages more teamwork, keeping everyone engaged with the game’s ending. The latter half of the game also plays host to some of the best puzzles in the game, and though they are the most challenging, they generally aren’t frustrating to work with, unless there is a technical glitch, as noted below. One point of the game becomes non-linear, and the experience really shines during these moments as we were able to divide and conquer, playing to our strengths and working together to progress to the next level of the game.

Low Points:

A puzzle type that worked pretty well in Mystery Mansion, due to it’s ability to engage our whole team and present the problem in an interesting way, falls completely flat during Runaway Train due to the arduousness of the solve, coupled with some vague cluing that further exacerbates the issues we have with this sort of puzzle. The game is almost completely linear, and there were several moments in which only two or three players could work on a problem while the rest of us toodled about until the next item was opened and we could move forward. This is most noticeable during the late game when several puzzles take place in an area that can fit maybe one and a half people at max. The game flow is very choppy, and the connective tissue between each step of the process tends to be very thin, leading to a lot of time just wondering what in the world is going on. One particular puzzle is very hard to see, and is a dreaded process puzzle, but luckily, the solution is extremely easy to hack, if players look at the problem holistically, but I’m sure the game designers did not intend this side method of solving, due to our game master’s shock at our having solved this one so quickly. We also experienced a fair bit of frustration when one tech based puzzle failed to trigger on multiple occasions, leading to the need for our GM to override the problem.

Verdict:

Breakout’s newest games have been great for introducing new ideas and tech, but have been generally fairly uneven in execution. However, Runaway Train isn’t a bad experience, just an uneven one. I like the steps forward Breakout has taken with this and Do Not Disturb, but a little more iteration is needed to make these games truly shine. Still, this one isn’t a bad time, just not the best room currently on offer. If you like Breakout and have played the other rooms, you’ll like this one well enough, but if not, this game won’t convince you otherwise. Stop the Runaway Train at your local Breakout here!

6/10 (Alright)

Full disclosure: Breakout Greensboro provided media discounted tickets for our group.