The Panic Room – CSI: Stranglehold (Review)

Location: Your home via the Magic of the Internet!

Players: 1-6 (from the same or different locations) – we suggest 2-3

Price: £20 ($26.73 at the time of this writing.)

Gripping

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From the Panic Room website:

Blood has been spilled across the streets of London, ‘The Eastside Strangler’ has yet to be caught, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. You must follow in the footsteps of the previous detective on the case and finally get some justice. Find out his identity and location before he strikes again! The power is in your hands detectives.

CSI: Stranglehold is a web-based escape game you can play at home, solo, or with a group. Includes audio, video, and visual files that are gradually unlocked as you solve your way through the exciting and fiendish puzzles to find the identity of the ‘Eastside Strangler’ before he chooses another victim.

First Impressions:

After finishing up The Panic Room’s Sherlock Holmes game, I was more than ready to jump forward a bit in time, and take on a new mystery! CSI: Stronghold’s somewhat flashier presentation, and inclusion of video and a grittier story line appealed to me immediately, and I couldn’t wait to see how the adventure would unfold!

High Points:

CSI: Stranglehold is a more complex mystery than Sherlock Holmes, ramping up the difficulty and the deductions needed to solve the puzzles, which appeals to the puzzling enthusiast in me. I also enjoyed the whole production of this game, with it’s snazzy videos and slick presentation. The videos themselves did a great job of upping the interactive feel of the game, and definitely helped pull us into the world of the mystery, for the most part. I also noticed that many of the locks and files we needed to interact with were shown from the start, giving this game more of an escape room feel overall. Inputs are clear, and the challenge remains in solving the puzzle, rather than figuring out what goes where, with clues subtly hidden in order to signpost what is important for progression. There are ongoing clues that come from a particular item, and it is always satisfying when a puzzle presents itself, and a connection is made, revealing the importance of something we previously thought to be innocuous. The game flowed very well from place to place, and while the experience is linear on the whole, this works in the game’s favor by ensuring that the story can progress smoothly. While some of the puzzles were real thinkers, we never came across a point where the logic became obtuse, so the adventure continued to move at a nice clip.

All interactions within the game are intuitive, and though some are particularly challenging, a good amount of brain power and some team work always ensured we’d be able to suss out the answers in due time. One early game favorite hid its solution well, and as we slowly determined what was important and how to apply these pieces, the ah ha moment slowly came into view. We continued to solve, working through this fast paced mystery; eventually making our way to the fantastic ending. We really liked the overall deduction of the who dunnit, (or the “who has done this,” for fans of Captain Raymond Holt,) as it comes together in an engagingly fun way. The climax was excellent as well, presenting us with a congratulations and denouement via another well produced video.

Low Points:

Some of the puzzles in this game are a bit “escape-roomy” in that they don’t quite tie into the theme overly well, taking us out of the immersion somewhat. The puzzles were interesting however, so it is entirely forgivable, but those looking for complete immersion throughout will find these moments a little jarring. We liked the audio soundtrack included as an optional immersion aid, but unfortunately, due to the amount of videos, it didn’t play nicely with hearing the actors as well, so it was paused and unfortunately forgotten about. Some of the portrayals within the game were somewhat hit or miss, but get the point across as needed.

Final Verdict:

CSI: Stranglehold is a great hour or two of mystery solving fun, and I definitely recommend checking it out. Though the difficulty is somewhat higher than that of Sherlock Holmes, it is a great next step for beginners who have completed that game or enthusiasts looking for a bigger challenge! The mystery presented was engaging, and I had a brilliant time working to uncover the identity of The Eastside Strangler! Book your time going toe to toe with a vicious killer here!

8.5/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: The Panic Room provided our team with a complementary game.

The Panic Room – Sherlock Holmes (Review)

Location: Your home via the Magic of the Internet!

Players: 1-6 (from the same or different locations) – we suggest 2-3

Price: £15 ($19.77 at the time of this writing.)

Elementary!

Theme:

From the Panic Room website:

The year is 1912, the location: London town.

You and your group think yourself to be a top-notch group of detectives and are raring to take on your first big case. What better than a case that Sherlock himself has been trying to solve?

You’ll need your wits about you, a keen eye for detail and don’t forget to take notes!

During your investigation, you will come across quite a few individuals who will hopefully help connect the dots and lead you on the right path. Perhaps you will even be able to catch up with Sherlock and solve the case yourself?

Think fast, look closely, and of course just remember…Don’t Panic!

First Impressions:

It’s been so long since I’ve done a Sherlock-themed puzzle/escape anything! (Or has it? 2020 has been a long decade so far – what is even time?) Not that I haven’t enjoyed the various horror-themed rooms we’ve been playing recently, but I found the return to a classic a breath of relief and was excited to see what the Panic Room had to offer.

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Yay Points:

Sherlock Holmes is a great beginner-friendly introduction to the world of puzzling. The style, I think, was very apropos for a Sherlock-themed game. The puzzles were woven well into the storyline, and I really enjoyed how the case unfolded with each step of the way, with each win unlocking the next destination and a new piece of the mystery. I particularly enjoyed that we were able to use different pieces of evidence via embedded materials in the webpages. The interaction with these materials were thankfully smooth to both use and navigate (always appreciate the zoom-in feature and links to images!), and they seemed to have some nice, thoughtful details to them.

Additionally, the overall mechanics of the game play were intuitive and well set-up. It was easy to navigate back and forth between the pages, and we were happy to find that the site saves your progress so that we didn’t have to enter passwords to order to check back with previous pages. We were also pleasantly surprised when we happened upon a secondary way to get you to where you needed to go. A thoughtful use of materials! Optional audio narratives were also available for each story element, which (as it has been documented) we definitely appreciated.

The flow of puzzles we navigated contained a nice progression. Starting off with an easy win, your deductive skills are increasingly called upon as you strive to catch up to Sherlock and solve the case. The game makes it very clear what questions you need to answer and, for the most part, it’s straightforward as to what you need to use and do to solve each conundrum that appears. There were a couple of a-ha moments on my part when I realized what I may have been overthinking though, but then it was smooth sailing from there.

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Pondering Points:

Now that I know the answer for the climactic puzzle, I understand how we were supposed to arrive at the correct solution. However, we seemed to get tripped up by a clue that pointed us to different resources and thus a different conclusion than what was intended. I’m not sure if the evidence we focused on was unintentional or a red herring, but it seemed to be a more noticeable signal (to us at least) than what we were supposed to latch onto. Thus, the correct solve ended up being slightly anticlimactic for us, perhaps in large part due to our previous efforts on the erroneous rabbit trail.

While the passwords themselves were typically clear, they were on the longer side, so it might have been nice to be able to have the option to ‘reveal’ what answer you were typing to confirm you were entering it correctly.

Final Verdict:

I would definitely recommend Sherlock Holmes for beginners or enthusiasts who wanted to introduce their friends/family to the puzzling experience. For enthusiasts alone, it’ll definitely be on the easier side, but it’d still likely be a leisurely fun time. I think this was a great starter game before players try one of the Panic Room’s other virtual experiences, CSI: Stranglehold (review coming!) Try your hand at assisting the great Sherlock Holmes here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: The Panic Room provided our team with a complementary game.

Pebble Escape Rooms – Gothic Horror Escape Bundle (Review)

Location: Your Home via the Magic of the Internet!

Players:  We recommend 1-2 players

Price: £25.00 (About $32.75 USD at the time of writing.)

Classic Monsters Return!

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From the Pebble Escape Rooms website:

Enjoy our classic Gothic Horror Escape Bundle as you Escape from Castle Dracula, Defeat Mr Hyde and create your own monster with Dr Frankenstein. Puzzles and brainteasers await you in this triple game bundle.

This Gothic online escape room bundle is available now! You can play at home, solo or with a group of friends over video chats such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This game works best on a laptop or tablet but it can also be played on a mobile phone.

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First Impressions:

I always enjoy a good point and click adventure, as the genre has been a favorite since I was a kid in the 90s. Pebble Escape’s Gothic Horror bundle seemed to be right up my alley, with adventures inspired by Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula! We tried all three out one weekend, and were impressed by the 90s adventure game aesthetic!

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High Points:

Pebble Escape has created these games to appeal to families and puzzlers looking for an introductory experience, and I think they are perfect for this target audience. The puzzles are simpler, introducing young puzzlers to some basic code breaking and solving, while serving up some puzzle hunt style meta puzzles that are accessible to novice solvers. The presentation is intuitive, and reminds me of late 90s early 00s adventure games, like Dark Fall or The Crystal Key, which brought back some nostalgic feelings. Interactive areas are responsive, and some of the more intricate puzzles have intuitive machines to play around with. The sense of place exuded by the artfully constructed backgrounds is excellent, and we enjoyed spotting the buried clues integrated into these scenes. In scenes that are dependent on searching for hidden objects, an optional magnifying glass is included, which is greatly appreciated. The games are strictly linear, but do have important clues woven through each scene, and players will need to carefully search each area for items they’ll need to ultimately overcome the final puzzles. The difficulty curve is gentle, but does ramp nicely towards more complex solves as players work through each scene, and the finales presented some interesting mechanics to ensure they remain engaging. Puzzles within each game are varied in order to ensure there’s several different puzzling concepts to explore, and I think families will have a great time working through them together!

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Low Points:

One thing that would really help bolster the experience would be the addition of a soundtrack and perhaps sound effects when interacting with items. The immersion falls strangely flat when the game remains silent at all times. Even the addition of a suggested Spotify playlist could help players get more immersed within the world of the games. Enthusiasts aren’t quite the target audience, though if they’re looking for a game to play with their kids or family that is new to puzzling, this one will serve as a great introduction. Between the games, there are a few puzzles that repeat, which is alright overall, but the bundle does feel somewhat repetitive at times if played back to back.

Verdict:

Pebble Escape Games has created a fantastic little bundle of escape adventures for families with their Gothic Horror Bundle, which will introduce basic puzzling concepts and villains from classic literature in an accessible, spooky but not scary way! I definitely recommend this to enthusiasts who want to share their puzzling obsession with their children, as well as less experienced folks who are looking for a family focused adventure. Work through the puzzles and escape the monsters here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Pebble Escape Rooms provided our team with a complementary game.

 

 

 

Complex Rooms – Legends of Canada (Review)

Location: Your Home via the Magic of the Internet!

Players:  We recommend 1-2 players

Price: $15.00 CAD per connected device (About $11.27 USD at the time of writing.)

Oh, Canada!

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From the Complex Rooms website:

As proud Canadians we at Complex Rooms believe that our stories deserve a world stage in a venue that rivals the richest kingdoms of all time! Since we don’t have that sort of budget… We built an escape room instead!

This game replicates the in-room experience and challenges you to explore the legends, solve the puzzles and escape. No knowledge of Canada is required but, if you learn a thing or two… don’t blame us! So how would you like to play?

First Impressions:

A lot of businesses have created online point and click escape rooms in order to provide escapists with a fun outlet during the pandemic, but I hadn’t come across one that was based off a physical escape room just yet. I was interested to see how Complex Rooms converted their Legends of Canada room to this format, and I’m happy to say it translates pretty well!

High Points:

Legends of Canada is based off Complex Room’s live escape experience, and it definitely shows within the online version. The puzzles are a lot of fun, and certainly feel like they belong within a physical escape room. There’s a large variety between each puzzle, and things are never bogged down within repetition of the same style of puzzle. With this sort of variety, multiple folks can take on the enigmas that appeal to them, and enthusiasts will discover a wide range of engaging interactions to solve. The set up is simple, but well implemented, and we really loved how players are subtly encouraged to search the room, and then begin making connections between the locked boxes and the displays throughout the experience. These displays include some fantastic subtle cluing, and the signposting is well implemented, ensuring that while the puzzles are a challenge, determining where the solutions are to be entered is streamlined and easy to determine. The displays are also densely packed with interesting Canadian facts, which are all well incorporated into the puzzling threads, making the room educational without feeling banal.

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Making connections is a major theme within this room, and there are several points at which things just click together, revealing a satisfying moment of revelation. I played this game solo, and thought it worked perfectly for an enthusiast, but the puzzles also work well as teamwork based interactions as the group comes together to figure out how everything interacts together. The game flow is mostly non-linear, ensuring there aren’t any choke points, and the hint system further alleviates any worry about being stuck by providing increasingly revealing nudges for players. The hint system is also very directed and graduated, ensuring that you only get help with what you’re looking for, when it is needed. The difficulty curve works fantastically, with a few quick wins to get things going, building towards some more challenging puzzles as the adventure progresses.

Low Points:

One particular puzzle wasn’t very intuitive overall, there were certain extraneous bits as well as a couple similar pieces that could go in a couple different places which threw us off a lot. It is overall a good puzzle however, but a little bit of tightening up of the cluing would make this one a bit more intuitive without sacrificing the challenge. Enthusiasts might blow through this one, so $15 CAD might seem a bit steep for an online point and click game that cannot be replayed, but I think the price is on the whole, fair for new players or folks looking to scratch the escape room itch on their own time. Some boxes have a question mark button on them, and it seems like they might tie into a puzzle, but the boxes are triggered via a different method, leaving these buttons to be red herrings. The removal of these would prevent players rushing down unintended rabbit trails and remove some frustration caused by red herrings.

Verdict:

Legends of Canada is an enjoyable experience that will appeal to escape room enthusiasts and new players alike. I think this one works best for a solo enthusiast or a group of newer players, but either way, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this Canadian focused room! As someone who enjoys a good point and click adventure, it was very satisfying to work though the room, discovering the surprises Complex Rooms has implemented, and absolutely recommend giving it a shot. Book your time discovering the Legends of Canada here!

7/10 (Good)

Full Disclosure: Complex Rooms provided our team with a complementary game.

 

 

 

Clue Cracker – 3-pack Online Escape Games (Review)

Location: Your Home via the Magic of the Internet!

Players: We recommend 2 players

Price: £9.99 for one game, £24.99 for all three

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

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From the Clue Cracker website:

Bored of watching Coronavirus updates? Not sure which wall to stare at for the next two hours? Well, fear not! The Clue Cracker team have decided if YOU can’t come to our Escape Game, we will bring our Escape Game to YOU!

We have created a series of online Escape Games to suit every skill, ability and interest! The games can be played remotely from the comfort of your own home and you don’t need a printer! All you will need is a computer, laptop or mobile device to play on. It may be handy to have a pen and paper for your workings out, and perhaps a nice cool drink to hand for when the clock starts ticking and the adrenaline gets going!

First Impressions:

Clue Cracker has created a set of three online escape games for play at home during the pandemic, and we couldn’t wait to try them out. With a wide array of themes, and production values that seemed to be above average for your usual at home escape experience, these games appeared to be an excellent time! For this review, since there are three separate experiences, I’ve broken each one out into its own section, beginning with the easiest game, and moving toward the hardest. This is our recommended order of play as well, for the smoothest difficulty curve.

Escape Extinction Island (Easy):

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Extinction Island is a top secret, man made island that has been recently used to breed long extinct dinosaur. As Archeologists based in Kent, we’ve been called by our mentor Professor McDougall to help him escape the island after the dinosaurs had broken loose! We only have sixty minutes to get the good Professor out and secure the island, so we had to work quickly!

Escape Extinction Island was a great introduction to Clue Cracker’s online escape games, with clear, unambiguous puzzles, and an easy overall difficulty. Though the game itself wasn’t overly difficult, we did find the puzzles to be fun introductory challenges that will appeal to novice puzzlers and enthusiasts just looking for a well designed, but not overly challenging escape diversion. The difficulty curve was very gentle, but did ramp up into some nice climactic challenges, a few of which provided some satisfying ah ha moments once we sussed out the trick to solving. The videos presented between each puzzle stage are fantastic, with a bombastic actor playing the part of Professor McDougall, spurring us along and chewing up all the scenery as he goes.

If you’re feeling competitive, try to beat our completion time of 20 minutes and 41 seconds with no hints!

Fairground Felony (Medium):

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Faskin’s Fairground has come to town, and we’ve been invited to check out the rides and games for free! Unfortunately, however, the free tickets are too good to be true, as it seems a madman is on the loose, and he’s taken the various carnival workers hostage! It’s up to us to solve his puzzles and save the fair within the next 90 minutes, otherwise the solution to the mystery will disappear with us!

Fairground Felony is a definite jump in difficulty, presenting some very creative puzzles and mind twisting logic! After the introduction of Escape Extinction Island, we found the interface easy to navigate, and really enjoyed this more challenging game. All puzzles still made good sense, and the rise in difficulty was due to puzzles being more intricately  layered, with clues to their solutions more subtly hidden rather than obtuse puzzling and red herrings. I really loved the variety of puzzle types to be discovered within this game, and there were several entertaining “interactions” with some of the characters integrated into the enigmas. There was a wider array of characters within this game, and I very much enjoyed the over the top portrayal the actor brought to every performance. A particular favorite of mine was the magician, who not only delivered a fit of laughter, but a very satisfying moment of revelation once we solved the puzzle he was involved with.

We did notice once that if we did not pause a video while it was running and entered a solution successfully, the video’s sound continued to play over the next part of the game with no ability to go back and stop the video, which could be an issue if the next puzzle requires sound as well. There was also a logic puzzle we weren’t overly thrilled with, as it slowed down the pace for a somewhat longer term solve that didn’t seem to fit as well with the others. It was still well integrated, and presented a fair challenge, it just seemed to overstay its welcome, length-wise.

For the competitive, we completed Fairgound Felony in 47 minutes and 34 seconds without hints!

The Haunting of Harlequin House (Hard):

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The Haunting of Harlequin House found us moving into our newly purchased home. The large manor is just perfect for us, and even comes with it’s own ghost! Unfortunately, it seems the ghost has some unfinished business, and if we can’t get it sorted within the next 90 minutes, we might not live to enjoy our new home!

The Haunting of Harlequin House really brings the challenge, presenting a tough, but fair run of puzzles. Though this was definitely the most difficult of Clue Cracker’s challenges, it was absolutely my favorite of the three. The puzzles themselves were all incredibly clever, and I really have trouble choosing a favorite, as they were all a lot of fun to solve, with multiple ah ha moments to be enjoyed! Harlequin House also added in a fantastic meta puzzle that ensured that our final solve would tie everything together in a neat and highly satisfying final package. We very much appreciated that the game directed us to write down our solutions, as this becomes very important during the end game. The videos for Harlequin House are meant to be somewhat spooky, but never become overly scary, with a few silly jump scares here and there, and an overall tone of light hearted humor that runs throughout. I really loved some of the sight gags that the ghost was involved in, and this humor really made the experience for us.

We also noticed here that the previous problem with videos not automatically ending after moving on persisted. (At this point, we should’ve known.) It would, however, be nice if in a future update, this could be corrected, or, at the least, a back button be implemented.

If you’d like some competition to further spur you on, we escaped Harlequin House in 52 minutes and 15 seconds with no hints!

Final Overall Thoughts:

All three games are well developed, and we appreciated how clear inputting our answers was; we were given immediate feedback on whether we were correct or not, and once we’d determined the correct password or sequence, it was always intuitive and logical. The timer is always visible at the top, allowing you to see how much time remains, and there is a tracker that gives players a general idea of how much time remains, ensuring they are able to gauge how well they are doing, and if a hint is needed. The creators have done a great job combining energetic, over the top humor with inspired gameplay, and I hope they continue to create these sorts of games in the future, as this set of games were an amazing time. On the whole, though these games can be purchased individually, I highly recommend picking up the discounted complete pack, and playing all three in sequence made for an entertaining couple hours of fun! The only overall downside we found to this pack was once you’ve played through each game, you cannot go back. Though puzzle games do have limited replayability, it would be nice to retain the ability to play again, as I do enjoy revisiting some of my favorite puzzle games years later.

Verdict:

Clue Cracker’s online escape room complete collection is a brilliant set of at home escape experiences! We truly loved working through each of them, and once we’d started, we couldn’t stop until the whole pack had been completed. Filled with clever conundrums, humorous videos, and excellent presentation, I absolutely recommend picking up all three. There’s certainly something here for everyone, from complete newbie to hardened puzzling veteran. Pick up your games here! And if you’d like to get a quick taste of how these games work before buying, the quick and easy “Disappearance of DJ McDee” is available here. As a heads up, this is definitely a simpler game, (it took us 5 minutes and 11 seconds to complete, for reference,) so be aware that the paid experiences are certainly more challenging.

9/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Clue Cracker provided our team with complementary games.