Room Escape USA – Rock Star (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

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

Price: $25 per person, Private Sun-Thurs or any day with a 4 player/$100 minimum

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Swan Song

Theme:

From the Room Escape USA website:

Dean Waylon is the front man of the band, Us, Them, Or Dean. Tonight, they will be performing the last show of their concert run but Dean is nowhere to be found. As private investigators, your backstage passes give you access to his private studio.  They are set to take the stage in 60 minutes. Find the clues and solve the puzzles that lead to his whereabouts before that time.

First Impressions:

I’ve only done one musically themed room before, and it was pretty excellent, so I was excited to see another during our trip to Richmond. With a more mysterious and objective based theme, it seemed that Rock Star would be an excellent adventure! On top of that, this room is advertised as Room Escape USA’s most difficult room, and we always like a good challenge! We were given our backstage passes and immediately went to work.

High Points:

The set for Rock Star is compact, but believable, with excellent props and a great sound track to get you in the mood for musical meditation on myriad mindgames. It was really immersive to be able to interact with the wide range of instruments and sound equipment, some of which looked nice enough to prompt one of our teammates to ask if we were truly allowed to touch all this stuff! Though there are a lot of fantastic props decorating the entire experience, at no point does the game feel cluttered or messy, and everything felt as though it was important to the mystery or the slowly but surely evolving storyline.

The game flow of this adventure is solid, if highly challenging. The difficulty, however, never feels unfair or obtuse, rather, everything is embedded within the game cleverly, requiring excellent perception, teamwork, and attention to detail. Puzzles flow from point to point well, with each signposting towards the lock they’re meant to open in excellent ways. Interactions within the room were varied, ensuring everyone on our team of five remained engaged, while allowing us to shine individually when a puzzle within our wheelhouse was discovered. Clues emerged naturally as well, popping into our heads during solves as a clue triggered remembrance of something we may have thought was a throwaway decoration or random tidbit included for immersion’s sake. These surprises kept up during most of the room, and it was always fun to find a new ah ha moment during each step of the game.

Low Points:

A lot of clues were presented via paper, which isn’t necessarily a poor choice overall, but can sometimes feel as though puzzles are more from a coffee table book than from the green room of a rock band. One particular puzzle can feel somewhat arduous without at least a small bit of musical background, as even though the knowledge is somewhat basic, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that some groups may be unfamiliar with this enigma’s specific tells. I also feel the room/game flow would be fairly cramped with more than 6 people, especially since the difficulty caters to a more experienced crowd.

Verdict:

Rock Star was my favorite room at Room Escape USA, and absolutely a great challenge to take on with an experienced group of escape enthusiasts. Beginners should get a few rooms under their belts before taking this one on, or be willing to take a clue here and there to keep things rockin’. You can book your time facing the music here!

8/10 (Great)

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

Escape Room RVA – Cake or Death? (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 3-5)

Price: $25 per person, (All experiences Private Monday-Saturday, four person minimum to book)

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

No, I do believe I’ve changed my mind, I’d like the Cake, please.

Theme:

From Escape Room RVA’s website, since their theme description is fantastic:

When the circus closed, tensions grew and the drinking got out of hand. Krinkle the Clown did not take it well, and spiraled to a dark place. To support his habits, he started booking gigs at children’s birthday parties which proved to be his undoing. One dark night, he came back to the shuttered fun house, where he and the other Carnies lived. He was stark raving mad and screaming about cake. Apparently, no one remembered his birthday….it’s up to you to solve the madness. Do you have what it takes?

First Impressions:

Escape Room RVA was the crown jewel of our previous trip to Richmond, housing the enormously creative, yet unfortunately retired, Unicorns vs. Vampires rooms. With a couple more extremely original themes having gone live since our previous visit, we were excited to return to make our choice between Cake or Death. Unfortunately, we were not greeted by Eddie Izzard to start, but no game is perfect, I suppose!

High Points:

Horror themes, especially those regarding crazed killers who’ve kidnapped your group, are fairly ubiquitous in the escape room industry. I have a soft spot for them, but it is always nice to see a unique take on the genre from time to time, and Cake or Death is absolutely that! Housed within a run down funhouse, the clashing pops of lighthearted color and evident dismemberment mix together to create a creepy atmosphere and immersive set. The way that the experience physically twists and turns kept everyone on their toes throughout, and though we had played a room in this same area and recognized some of the spaces, overall, it felt like an entirely unique set. The icing on the cake is the interactions with our GM, Krinkle himself. While not physically inside the room, his presence is always felt, a humorous, yet subtly (and sometimes not so subtly,) threatening figure that brought a whole new level of immersion to the game.

Puzzles themselves are wildly creative for the most part, with the vast majority of them involving some sort of tactile interaction to solve. The props themselves are tied well into the theme, and belong in the run down fun house home of a band of down on their luck carnies. Two big items in particular worked in clever ways to provide solutions that were hidden in plain sight and provided enormously satisfying ah ha moments when solved. The game’s progression is non-linear and can keep a larger group fully engaged with the adventure throughout. The progression is also blissfully free of any overlong or tedious choke points, allowing for each culmination of a puzzle thread to come to a conclusion elegantly and without frustration.

Low Points:

Escape RVA’s website noted that there would be a bit more climbing and crawling than usual in this room, but even that felt like an understatement after the amount of bending, ducking, and climbing we did. The spots that required climbing could’ve benefitted from a stepstool, as at average height, I was still having trouble safely getting over what I needed to. I don’t mind physicality in rooms, but a misstep would’ve been slightly more dangerous than usual here. Some cluing could be cleaned up a bit, as there are moments of vagary that tend to cause the logical progression to stall in places. The final climax of the room is a good finish, but to trigger our escape, we had to contend with some fairly finicky tech.

Verdict:

Cake or Death is a unique take on the Serial Killer/Killer Clown genre of escape rooms. While the game flow does hiccup here and there, it’s still a solid horror themed room that we had a lot of fun messing around in while we solved Krinkle’s challenges! If you’re a fan of horror and aren’t too skittsh about the crazy clown theme, I’d definitely recommend checking out this funhouse of horrors! You can book your time at Krinkle’s birthday party here!

7.5/10 (Good)

Gnome & Raven – The Museum of Light and Shadows (Formerly, Once Upon a Time) (Review)

Location: Richmond, VA

Players: 2-12 (We recommend 4-6)

Price: $25 per person, every experience is Private, with a four person minimum

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Once upon a time…

Theme:

The Museum of Light and Shadows has been robbed! A mysterious raven and the most powerful magic wand in the land have disappeared, but no one was seen leaving the premises with these priceless relics. It’s very possible that the thief has stashed them inside the museum itself in order to create confusion and secret them away at just the right time. It’s up to you to find the missing items and restore the museum to it’s former glory!

First Impressions:

Gnome & Raven is Ravenchase’s newest family friendly experience, boasting the ability to not only entertain kids of all ages with their escape experiences, but also provide the space for a party replete with cake and all! Though we weren’t celebrating any particular occasion, other than being on another whirlwind escape adventure, we were excited to see what Ravenchase could do with this whimsical, family oriented theme!

High Points:

As is usual for a Ravenchase room, the Museum’s set is absolutely beautiful! Boasting a large table, ornate accoutrements, and fantastical props, The Museum of Light and Shadow is truly a sight to behold! The whole place is filled to the brim with elegant and whimsical items, befitting for a fairy tale museum. Though there is a lot to look at and use, there is very little clutter, and everything that seems important, usually is. The room itself would be mind blowingly magical for a group of kids set to celebrate a birthday, but challenging enough for a group of enthusiasts to enjoy. Gnome & Raven also provides a character actor for introduction to the room, as well as for game mastering, and though the actor doesn’t usually stay in the room, we were advised that they are available to for younger groups that might need a little more direction.

The game flow works well for the most part, with only a couple of spots where it stalled out. The museum itself is massive and packed with a fairly large amount of non-linear puzzles, which allowed our group to divide and conquer as necessary. The experience utilizes a fantastic mix of technical wizardry and mechanical lock based puzzles, instilling a sense of magic to the room, heightening the immersion within the mythical museum. All enigmas and interactions are themed well into the theme of the adventure, and most are introduced with a riddle that evokes the cadence of a childhood storybook, without being patronizing. The whole room struck a unique balance between family friendly and challenging, which is truly a feat on it’s own!

Low Points:

One particular part of the game advises against taking a certain course of action, which we later determined was supposed to be necessary in order to progress. This caused no end of confusion, and ended up stalling us for a good while as we put together a workaround that we were told was not the intended solution. The fact that we were told not to do something, then were given a punishment (albeit a small one, but there was no way to know that at the time,) for doing so is a poor way to design a interaction, and was frustrating to no end. Another puzzle was very unclear in it’s presentation, and could’ve used a bit more cluing to clean up the ambiguities inherent to the solution.

Verdict:

The Museum of Light and Shadow is a fantastic room to book for kids of all ages, and would be a wonderfully whimsical place to reserve for your child’s birthday! I one hundred percent wish that there had been something like this around when I was a kid; I imagine the adventure of finding your cake at the end of such an immersive experience would be stunning. Adults and enthusiasts can find a lot to like inside as well, as the usual Ravenchase challenge has not been dulled in favor of the theme. You can book your time in the fairy tale museum here!

7.5/10 (Good)

Whole Brain Escape – Escape the Supervillain’s Lair (Review)

Location: Apex, NC

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 3-5)

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

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Riddle me this!

Theme:

It’s 1963, the Darkest Timeline. Supervillians have taken over the world, and you are one of the few superheroes fighting back against their tyrannical reign! Unfortunately, you’ve fallen for a trap, and The Quizzler has stripped you of your super powers and trapped you within her lair. Always one for games, she’s devised a series of puzzles to prove she’s more clever than you once and for all! She’s given you one hour to solve her riddles or face destruction!

First Impressions:

Strangely, we’ve seen precious few Superhero based escape rooms, and that’s honestly quite puzzling to me. I feel like it’s an amazing theme, full of potential, so I was very excited to see what Whole Brain Escape could do with it! The theme, on the flip side, is one that could fall victim to lazy design via Intellectual Property theft, but I’m glad to say that is not the case with this room!

High Points:

The Quizzler’s lair is decorated with the colorful flair of a 1960’s superhero show, and boasts more than a few superhero props from the many titans she’s slain! It’s also a rather large room, one that can absolutely hold the maximum eight players comfortably. The décor is appropriately zany, with homages to superheroes we know and love, without being a ripoff of copyrighted materials. While exploring the room, the myriad props provide a highly tactile experience, and add to the game fantastically. The superheroes, villains, and team-ups that Whole Brain has come up with are wonderfully imaginative, and lend an air of believability to their comic book world. In fact, it’d be awesome to see these expanded on further in future rooms!

The game flow is, similar to Bustin’ Out of the Eighties, extremely intuitive and satisfying to engage with. The puzzles follow a reasonable, if challenging logic, and they line up with the locks they are meant to open in clear ways. There is a lot of variety in the clever challenges that make up The Quizzler’s lair, and the non-linear threads absolutely kept our group fully involved with the room from start to finish. Multiple puzzles were brand new to our seasoned group, and provided many satisfying ah ha moments when we made major breakthroughs. One puzzle in particular dealt with perspective, and are implemented in such deviously brilliant ways that we couldn’t help but appreciate. Another great puzzle took a fairly basic escape room trope, and through a small amount of tweaking, made it so much more exciting to engage with. The final goal of the room is climactic, and provides a fun objective based ending to the story.

Low Points:

Though there is a variety of puzzles within the room, there was one genre of puzzle type that felt as though it showed up a bit more than others. Being a fairly basic puzzle as well, they slightly repetitive. Like Bustin’ Out of the Eighties, this room is much more lock, key, and code based than some more tech heavy rooms, and while it fits the theme, a small technical surprise would’ve been a great addition to the Quizzler’s arsenal of enigmas. One puzzle involves what could be construed as a red herring, and though the reasoning behind it’s inclusion is sound, it still caused us a small amount of confusion after we’d completed our objective.

Verdict:

Whole Brain Escape does an superb job of creating physical escape experiences that utilize mechanical props and puzzles in creative new ways! Escape the Supervillain’s Lair is no exception, as the whole adventure was an exciting romp full of highly satisfying puzzling. The immersive comic book world they’ve created is ripe for further exploration, and I’d love to see a sequel down the line! In the mean time, I’m extremely excited to see what comes next from these guys! Book your time matching wits with The Quizzler here!

8.5/10 (Great)

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

Whole Brain Escape – Bustin’ Out of the 80’s (Review)

Location: Apex, NC

Players: 2-8 (We recommend 3-5 )

Price: $29 per person, Private Experience available, see website for details

Time to Escape: 60 minutes

Bustin’ Makes Me Feel Good!

Theme:

As a rouge gang of time travelling bandits, you’ve marked your next target, a priceless Betamax cassette! You’ll need to travel back in time to the 1980’s to steal it away from The Collector, a mysterious keeper of esoteric artifacts. He’ll be away for about an hour, it seems, so you’ll need to be quick if you’re to find the cassette that time forgot and return to the future with your spoils!

First Impressions:

We have done one other Eighties room during our career as escapists, and suffice to say, we were unimpressed. We were cautiously optimistic, however, as Whole Brain Escape seemed to have a much better grasp on theming and design due to their credentials in video game design. Stepping into the room itself was an interesting experience, as we were transported to a room that boasted a retro soundtrack, colorful walls, and the feeling deep in our souls that somewhere out there, hair metal still lives. I could instantly tell that this room would absolutely be the nostalgic eighties room we were looking for!

High Points:

Bustin’ Out of the Eighties was truly a delight to play through. The non-linear game flow worked excellently, and allowed us to form two ever shifting teams, (some of us, myself included, like to wander over whenever a new shiny object is presented,) and stay engaged with the puzzling from start to finish. The props included are hugely authentic, and one of our team members gasped audibly upon being greeted with the many nerdy relics of yore several times during the experience. Nostalgia is utilized heavily in this room, and though you don’t need to be a child of the eighties to enjoy it, it definitely enhances the experience! Though nostalgic props and aesthetics are included within the room, nothing feels old or junky. In fact, the whole room feels like it could’ve been lifted straight from 1989, as the props we found were all in excellent condition.

Speaking of props, they were implemented in so many interesting ways. Several tactile puzzles were sprinkled throughout the experience, and the way we interacted with them was both elegant in their simplicity, but mind blowing all the same. The room is completely mechanical, which makes sense within the theme, and a variety of locks are used in order to keep the experience fresh. Though some lock types repeat, everything is clued excellently, ensuring that there were no instances of guess and check frustration. In fact, there was never a moment of obtuse ambiguity within the room. The enigmas presented were enjoyable and challenging solves, full of ah ha moments and intuitive links that made the game itself flow amazingly well. This room was so well designed that though some groups may want to use a hint or two, it can absolutely be solved without them, which is a triumph of game design if the average room is any indication.

Low Points:

While we did enjoy the set design of this room, it is fairly basic, but it was very minor for us, especially when the whole thing is filled to the brim with awesome props. Bustin’ Out of the Eighties is also an easier game, which isn’t to say it’s not a lot of fun, but if you’re the sort of enthusiast that wants to break out with seconds to spare, you’ll want to bring a smaller group. The story works for this room, but it doesn’t evolve much over the course of the experience, and I would’ve loved to find out more about The Collector during our game. For example, why is his lair in the 80’s? Does he have multiple themed lairs in other decades? Does he truly look like Benicio del Toro, or was that artistic license on Marvel’s part? Inquiring minds want to know!

Verdict:

Bustin’ Out of the Eighties is a great room full of wonderfully clever puzzles that we really enjoyed. If you’re looking for a pure puzzle focused experience peppered with a generous helping of nostalgia, I absolutely recommend checking it out. This room would be a perfect introductory room for beginners, but I think enthusiasts, especially those who were eighties kids, will love this one as well. Book your time Bustin’ Out here!

8.5/10 (Great)

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