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

Theme:

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.

Mystery Mansion Regina – Seen (Virtual Review)

Location: Your Home via the Magic of the Internet!

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

Price: $20 CAD per person (About $15.14 USD at the time of writing)

Time to Escape: 75 minutes

I seen’t it!

Theme:

From the Mystery Mansion Regina website:

Searching for a job, but having little luck due to the whole COVID-19 thing, you decide to turn to Craigslist. Everything seems pretty sketchy and illegal, until you come across a posting from DirkyDirk420. The posting reads: “Babysitter needed. To watch a baby. A big one. No physical contact; only watching via video link.”A little odd, but definitely the least strange you’ve found so far. You contact DirkyDirk420 and he hires you. He says he will send you another email with more details closer to the date of the job.Fingers crossed this Dirk guy isn’t some sort of pervert. I mean, you did find him on Craigslist…***Rated 14A For Coarse Language, Dark Comedy, and Inappropriate Themes***

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First Impressions:

We very much enjoyed Mystery Mansion Regina’s Night Terrors, but recently, they have made their in person room, Seen, available for online play. The most interesting thing about Seen, other than it being a horror comedy, is that there are two rooms, (side A or B,) that can be played competitively, or in our case, as a two-part online escape extravaganza!

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High Points:

Our team is custom built for low-brow humor, and the comic sensibilities of Seen and our in room avatar, the aforementioned “baby,” appealed greatly to us. While Seen is still a horror room, it never ceases to be silly and all around weird. Adding to the excellence, our avatar/game master played to our enthusiasm, ensuring the jokes and puzzles continued to come at us fast and furious! Both rooms flow pretty well, and are, for the most part, fairly linear, which plays to the strengths of an online live experience. Though there is generally a fair amount to do in each room, it is generally pretty clear what comes next in the puzzling sequence, and the challenge remains in determining how to solve the various conundrums rather than sorting through too much information at any given time. The rooms themselves are more “Generation One” style escapes, consisting mostly of locks and codes, but this does not hinder the adventure at all, as these sorts of games tend to shine in the virtual space. I really enjoyed how the story had been adjusted for a virtual audience, and hamming it up with our GM was a brilliant time.

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Puzzles ran a wide gamut, and there was a little something for everyone within each room, and while the experience was linear, it never seemed as if anyone was feeling left out or just waiting around for something to do. There were several ways Telescape, the inventory system used by Mystery Mansion for this room, was integrated in order to ensure the teamwork based interactions remained solvable by multiple players, as intended, and allowed us a little freedom to divide and conquer virtually. Each separate room has their own personal style, and conveys a particular facet of the overall story, ensuring that while each room works as a stand alone adventure, those that take on both rooms will get the extra bonus of seeing how everything ties together! We really loved the side that dealt with the gruesome and ridiculous traps the antagonist had been using to take out his enemies.

Low Points:

There was an instance in both sides A and B of a puzzle that relied on searching in a way that doesn’t quite translate to the virtual experience well. A small puzzle or something to direct remote players a bit more would help alleviate these choke points, as searching in a virtual game usually has to be streamlined to ensure players don’t get hung up because they aren’t physically in the room. When clues would come up in telescape during our first game, there was a fart noise that was hilarious at first, but became old through repetition, however, during our second run, it was cut down to levels that remain silly and not grating. One of the sides definitely gives off a better “SAW parody” vibe than the other, and we tended to enjoy this side more, though there have been a few updates to the other side to ensure the theme and creepy vibe carry through a bit better.

Verdict:

Seen is a great set of rooms, and we enjoyed playing through both sides in order to get the full story! We aren’t overly competitive folks, so we didn’t play competitively, but both rooms seem balanced for head to head play. I do love the asynchronous nature of the game, as it allows players like us to essentially have two different rooms to play, and for those who really love to compete, they can swap rooms afterwards. These rooms are approachable for new players, and enthusiasts will definitely get their escape room fix from Seen. I highly recommend it for folks who enjoy darker humor and horror comedies! Book your time taking care of the baby here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Mystery Mansion Regina provided our team with a complementary game.

 

 

 

MPower Escape Rooms – The Cabin (Virtual Review)

Location: Your Home via the Magic of the Internet!

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

Price: $49.95 for the first 2 connections; $14.95 for each additional connection

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Ain’t nothing but gators out there in the swamp!

Theme:

From the MPower Escape Rooms website:

Tracking your friend’s last known whereabouts, you find yourself near a cabin deep in the Bayou. You and your team will need to search for clues and crack the codes in order to solve the mystery.

First Impressions:

MPower Escape Rooms was interestingly set up, and after speaking to our Game Master regarding our upcoming experience, we were virtually taken to their lobby to be given our mission briefing as well as get set up within the virtual systems they are using. This was a great start, as I’ve not seen such an in depth, yet brief tutorial for a virtual room before. I could tell that they’d put a good bit of effort into ensuring players were comfortable with the system, so I had high hopes for the in room experience!

High Points:

During our time in quarantine, we’ve played a lot of virtual escape rooms, and they’ve all provided very different experiences. Some are highly theatrical, some remind me of popular video games and movies, and some are fun puzzle rooms. The Cabin, however, is a first for us, as it is the first virtual escape room we’ve played that replicates the feeling of being in an escape room with your friends very well! This is due to the incredible implementation of the Telescape software that MPower uses. While we have seen this software used to great effect in other rooms to provide inventory systems, MPower has done a fantastic job porting the entire room into Telescape, allowing our group to split up to search separate rooms, check out different puzzles and props, and work on different puzzles, all while being in the comfort of our own home! It was great to be able to fall into our old rhythm of searching a room and calling out what we’ve found; dividing and conquering based on our puzzle preferences and strengths. We still worked with our Game Master to search the room, but not in the traditional Virtual Escape Room way. Instead of the GM walking around the room as our avatar, we searched the room virtually on our own, and if we saw something suspicious or interesting, we could ask them if we found anything by searching said area. If so, we were rewarded with a new hot spot or video revealing what we discovered. Overall, the set up and presentation of this room was beautifully implemented, and working through it was about as close to doing the room live as I can imagine without popping on a VR headset!

Remote Cabin Picture - Brandon's Team

The room itself is a lot of fun, with a cool, well designed set that starts players off “outside” and tasks them with finding a way into the titular cabin. The difficulty curve of the room was great, starting us off with a few straightforward tasks, (one so straightforward that our group, notorious for overthinking, forgot to use the solution until a good 40 minutes after we discovered it,) and evolving into more challenging, layered conundrums. The puzzles were intuitive, and making connections between the subtle clues, puzzles, and locks was a great, challenging time. The room was also very technological in places, and while most rooms that have implemented tech don’t quite translate very well to the virtual space, we found that the way MPower has converted their room worked perfectly to make sure we got the magical feeling of the tech without actually being there. The room lends itself to teamwork and makes it easy for players to split between rooms and clues to ensure the challenge lies in the puzzle itself, and not the interface. A favorite puzzle of mine involved three of us making some highly satisfying connections in order to put together a tactile interaction into place while our fourth player sussed out the relevance of another puzzle in a separate room. Making a tactile puzzle satisfying is difficult remotely, and I’m pleased to say that MPower has made it happen. All told, this room did a wonderful job ensuring all of us remained engaged and puzzling for the full experience.

Low Points:

The story, while wild and crazy, mostly develops during the introduction and conclusion, and while we didn’t mind this, it would have added to the experience to have a little more story integrated into the puzzling. Sometimes there was quite a bit in the inventory, which made it difficult to keep track of what we had and where to find it. The owner, however, is working on streamlining this, so it should be a non issue soon. We also were sidetracked during one puzzle due to a particular word choice that was meant to be interpreted in a slightly broader way than the strict definition would entail. After speaking with the owner regarding this puzzle, though, they seemed receptive to adjusting the phrasing to ensure there were no unintentional red herrings involved with this one.

Verdict:

I am so glad we sought out MPower’s The Cabin for our team’s weekly escape room, as it was an amazing time! Working through this room together was as close to being within the room live as we could imagine, and though we have enjoyed some of the different ways other rooms have implemented their games virtually, nothing quite captured the escape room feeling like The Cabin did. Enthusiasts will love basking in the feeling of “being there” and I think new players will love the intuitive puzzles and great quarantine friendly introduction to escape rooms. Book your time in The Cabin here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: MPower Escape 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

Theme:

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.