Friday, 13 March 2015

Review: The Escape Club - 7th of November

I stare at the soft, fluffy blindfold in my hands; it stares back with the cartoonish eyes of a cute panda.

Panda eyes. 

Our game master instructs us to put our fluffy panda eyes on and I hear the door creak open.

“Step forward slowly, I’ll guide you. When I stop, I want you to sit on the ground and then wriggle forward until your feet touch the wall. Then lie flat on the ground.”

These unusual instructions intrigue me and I wait for my friend to be situated before reaching out for the game master’s hands. For a moment, I feel like I’m situated in a void. I don’t know how large the room is, and as I lie down on the cool linoleum floor, apprehensive thoughts creep into my mind.

Beside me, my friend bumps my elbow. I feel less nervous.

“Okay, that’s all of you. When I close the door, you can take off your blindfolds. You have fifty minutes. Good luck."

There is a click and a rattle. As one, we pull off our panda eyes and blink as our vision adjusts to the light.

"What the hell."

The Escape Club was one of the first permanent escape rooms to open in Sydney and their Kingsford rooms appear to be a duplicate of an incarnation somewhere in Asia. While I'm not certain of their origin nor its success, I can certainly say that the process of transferral hasn’t quite properly translated to Sydney and one might describe their quarters as being… incomplete. They currently offer several rooms, and they continue to add new ones regularly:

Ghost Maze: Intended for larger groups, work together to save the world from restless spirits.

Tomb Raider: Also for larger groups, hunt for treasure that someone's father once discovered in a pharaoh's tomb.

Virus: Someone is messing around with incurable viruses. The FBI screw up. You and up to twelve of your friends have to clean up the mess.

7th of November: Made for smaller groups, you find yourself in a room. Some thing's definitely a bit off, though...

Prison Break: It's time for your group of four to six people to escape (Wentworth Miller not included).

The Curse of Hogwarts: Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs - all four pay a visit to the famous British School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Escape Club Sydney website is truly a sight to behold: paragraphs of broken English and jarring graphics overlaid on a clashing background. With inconsistent descriptions leading to a genuine lack of understanding, you may find yourself not knowing what a room is actually about, how difficult it is, or whether you'd be interested in it at all.

Fear not – that’s what I’m here to do.

Facing a busy main road, The Escape Club is easy to miss, located between a run-down second-hand white goods store and a Thai massage parlour. Once we announced our booking, we were directed outside, to the right of reception, where a worn set of steep, grey carpeted stairs lead us up to an unlit, slightly unnerving collection of corridors and rooms that might have once been residential.

Wooden bannisters, fading linoleum at our feet, it’s all there. With every door shut and no light fixtures, it’s guesswork until we reach a claustrophobic hallway, where another set of stairs winds downwards and away to The Escape Club’s more famous, larger rooms.

Today, we are doing 7th of November, a room about what seems to be about... I'm not sure, actually. Read the description and decide for yourself:

Fell behind the second time of opening the door, a fading shadow, combination, projection, reversal, numerous and endless.

The truth engraved behind the door, which is the whinny of silence. Never let you go within my heart, never embrace me with your love.

The website tells me it's a "Chimera" room, although you can be assured that there are no talking dogs with long black hair.

There's no briefing, no backstory. If you're so inclined, you may wish to read a short description of the room taped to the wall outside the entry with an few lines crediting the original creator. The room itself feels a little bit like a well-used toy. You're never certain if applying too much pressure might break something, and when nothing is happening, only guesswork can determine if that's because nothing is supposed to be happening, or if it's actually because something has run out of battery and your game master was simply too distracted to inform you.

First impressions aside however, I found the experience to be mostly enjoyable. Even with disinterested staff, crumpled, unintentionally obscure clues and a frustratingly fiddly final puzzle, my friends and I were impressed by innovative use of tech and the undeniably admirable ability to stretch what was obviously a limited budget to cover a theme and preserve the design of the original room.

The Escape Club: 7th of November Summary
Difficulty: 3.5/10
Staff have informed me that this is the easiest of their six rooms. It's a great room for beginners, and with about five rooms under our belt at that point, we managed to move through it so quickly that we had a worried member of staff asking us if we'd used the backup key and what our emergency was.
Theme: 7/10
The best way to describe this room is clever. Clues had continuity, telling the story of a desperate man trapped, alone and confused, although this faltered a little when it came to the actual puzzles. Credit given where credit is due, however - whoever made this room applied genuine effort to their attempt to incorporate the props and puzzle tools with the overall theme. Unfortunately, indifference towards details break the immersion - there is no locker in the foyer for your bags; you are invited to dump your belongings on the floor of the puzzle room, and for safety reasons, you are handed an emergency key upon entry. Knowing that there is a key in an envelope just sitting in the corner of room at your disposal does curb the urgency to escape somewhat.
Staff: 4/10
I think it's safe to say that the staff at Escape Club are over-worked and have been in the business for a little too long. While polite and friendly, they do tend to be inevitably jaded, willing to cut corners and incredibly weary of providing assitance. It may explain why their hint system is a cumbersome arrangement of having to call the often unmanned front desk from your own mobile phone.
Quality and Venue: 4/10
The building is old, and there is little that within their limited budget that staff can or seem to want to do about this. Wear and tear are unavoidable consequences of having customers pass through the place, but when you've been standing and doing nothing for five whole minutes because you cannot for love of all that is good figure out what this clue is even supposed to say, then something needs to be fixed.
Overall: 6/10
Shortcomings and all, we still managed to have a lot of fun. A few puzzles in particular were memorable and continue to be some of the best examples of interesting tech that I've seen in an escape room.

What We Did
4 Players
No hints
Finished with about 30 minutes to spare.

7th of November
Players: 3-4
Duration: 50 minutes
Child-friendly? Yes
Price: Members - $18 per person Monday to Friday; $22 per person on Friday to Sunday. Non-members - $26 per person Monday to Friday; $30 per person on Friday to Sunday.
It's not difficult to become a member - you can sign up on the spot and receive instant benefits! Escape Club vouchers enabling entry at $15 per person are currently a permanent feature of Groupon, and occasionally, Scoopon.
Booking: Online, on their website. Please be aware that they do not take bookings by phone, and they require a payment of $30 as a refundable deposit. Full payments are made onsite. Do not be fooled by their listed opening hours, and do not attempt to make a booking on the same night you intend to do a room. It simply won't happen.

The Escape Club
24 Gardeners Road
Kingsford 2032

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Review: Enigma - In Memoriam

The white laboratory coat on my shoulders is warm, but that's the last thing on my mind right now. A woman is in a coma and we're stumbling through her memories in order to find her most precious one and revive her.

The last puzzle sits before us, and the result is glorious.

With a surge of emotion, we leave the room, and for hours and hours afterwards, we cannot stop talking about what is the best escape room we have ever done.

I first heard about Enigma through word of mouth - a friend of a friend was doing beta testing for one of the rooms, and it promised to be mind-blowing. After reading a Gizmodo article, I was intrigued, and as soon as Enigma opened their doors, we booked ourselves in.

To date, no escape room my friends and I have done prior to or after In Memoriam has surpassed it.

Situated in an inconspicuous corner of the CBD, Enigma is run by a team of individuals with an impressive repertoire of skills and a fierce passion for escape rooms. They are meticulous in their detail and all they do, they do with love for the sport.

They currently offer two rooms, although a third is in the works.
- In Memoriam: as a doctor, you travel though a woman's memories to wake her from a coma.
- Dr. Disaster: sneak through the secret base of a super-villian as you try to save the world from nuclear fallout.

After looking through Enigma's gorgeous website, their recommendations helped me decide what to choose: I loved Inception and I have played To the Moon. If this room was, as suggested, similar to those titles, I could add it to the list.

We are received warmly and seated around a repurposed arcade console for the standard briefing from our game master, Matt. After explaining what not to touch and the unusual locks that they use, we are garbed in white lab coats and shown... a video.

They do things differently at Enigma. Instead of reading dully from a story card, the video provides an animated and dramatic scenario, and our game master is now a nurse, prepping us for surgery. Matt immerses himself in the role, and it's hard not to play along. The result is complete investment in the story - you are a doctor trying to save a woman, and while you're still trying to find a way out, you don't want this woman to be comatose for life because of your failure.

The room itself is a flawless execution of intelligent design and remarkably elegant puzzle integration. It is logical in progression and satisfying in its conclusion. I highly recommend it to everyone. Everyone.

Enigma: In Memoriam Summary
Difficulty: 7/10
The puzzles are not heavily challenging, but do require a bit of lateral thinking. Forget about pen and paper, as you'll be dealing with lots of technology and hands-on style puzzle solving. Enigma understands the frustration of attempting an escape room that is deliberately difficult for the sake of reputation and make their puzzles fair, balanced and solvable for the focused. My group found that the room flowed wonderfully, adding to the momentum of the story and made the room very enjoyable.
Theme: 10/10
Absolutely perfect.  Every detail is carefully thought out, and I know I keep saying this, but it is so easy to get caught up in the story, forget where you are and honestly, if you're not a little emotional by the end, then you have no heart ;___; In Memoriam is the first escape room I have done where the puzzles are true to the theme of the room, and that's something to brag about -  even in the bigger escape room chains, puzzles have a tendency to deviate from the central theme, breaking immersion and tethering you to the realisation that you are merely doing a puzzle room. Enigma also utilises a tablet-based hint and reminder system. We chose to receive hints only if we asked for them, and the soft chime reminding us of our remaining time was non-invasive and didn't interrupt our chain of thought.In Memoriam manages to involve you, and when you walk out of that room, that success will become one of your precious memories.
Staff: 10/10
Friendly and endlessly hospitable, the staff of Enigma are amazing. The sheer effort and dedication that they have to the art of the escape room is evident in everything they do. From the moment you are buzzed in to the end of the session, staff members will do everything in their power to ensure that you have fun. An innovative feature of the session is the Debrief, where your game master will perform a walkthough of the room you just completed to provide pointers, explantions and handy tips for next time. If you're lucky, they'll even point out the Easter Eggs they've cleverly included in each room.
Quality and Venue: 10/10
Fresh and new, everything about Enigma feels hi-tech, sleek and modern. The lobby is a gamer's delight with Pac-Man cushions and a fully-functional arcade cabinet coffee table. Sip on some cucumber water, munch some M&Ms and set a high score before being taken to your room, where you will encounter clean, crisp walls and well-maintained puzzles.
Overall: 10/10
I can't find a single criticism to make about Enigma and In Memoriam. We immediately booked for Dr. Disaster upon leaving and can't wait to come back for their third room.

What We Did
5 players
No hints
Finished with 19 minutes and 48 seconds to spare.

In Memoriam
Players: 2-6
Duration: 60 minutes
Child-friendly? Yes, with adult supervision, although the puzzles may be a little difficult for younger players.
Price: $186 for 6 players, $165 for 5 players, $140 for 4 players, $111 for 3 players, $78 for 2 players. Be sure to follow their Facebook page and blog page for discount codes!
Booking: Simple. Book online on their website or give them a call. Payments can be made in person, and they do accept EFTPOS. Make sure you Google "enigma room".

The Enigma Room
Suite 602, Level 6
262 Pitt St
Sydney 2000

Review: Parapark - 9A Gateway

The lock pops open in my hands and I pull it off the door as quickly as I can. As the entry swings open, I step forward excitedly - and the lights go out.

Although I'm not new to this mechanic in escape rooms, in this darkness, my pulse starts to race as I realise that I can barely see and a few feet away, my friend finds another clue.

"Oh my god."

In the silence, we hear the moan of a death rattle and all of a sudden, none of us are quite so quick to press on.

Parapark hails from Budapest and is the mother of what we now know of as escape rooms. They bring to Sydney a plethora of international experience from eight other countries and the wisdom of knowing what works to make you sweat during your escape.

Their logo is a classic bent nail puzzle, an elegant representation of simple solutions in seemingly impossible situations, and their name as Emi patiently explains to me, borrows meaning from the term paranormal.

They have been open since November, but it's now late February and business has only just started picking up. Being located in Macquarie Park, they're unfortunately tucked away from the bright lights of the CBD where spontaneous post-dinner visits are a possibility.

That said, Parapark is more than certainly worth the trip.

Currently, they only offer one theme, 9A Gateway, but they are well on their way to completing two new themes (including a crime-scene based room, which has certain members of my group quite excited) within the next couple of months.

The room is sharply designed, with ingenious use of technology and amazing atmosphere. At this point, my friends and I had completed ten other rooms in Sydney, and we were seeing things in 9A Gateway that we had never seen before - a member of the group mentioned afterwards that he felt like he was learning to do an escape room for the first time all over again.

Parapark Sydney: 9A Gateway Summary
Difficulty: 6/10
Emi aptly describes 9A Gateway as being of medium difficulty. Puzzles are not exceedingly difficult, although clever use of technology keeps you on your toes. There is a balanced amount of searching and solving and a nice, clear sequential method to progression throughout the room. Those with an eye for detail will benefit greatly, and those who loathe maths will be happy to know that numerical skills are not a necessity.
Theme: 9/10
The atmosphere in the room is simply amazing. Parapark uses sound, lighting, and the fear of the unknown to create perfect bumps in the night. Though immersive, the theme is not too frightening, and even those who have to cover their eyes during horror movies can have fun. Only two things stop me from giving Parapark a perfect score for theme: the lack of thematic consistency found in the puzzles, and the use of a walkie talkie for hints, which I will talk about in the section below.
Staff: 9.5/10
Emi and Las are friendly, professional and hard-working. You'd never know that the room was put together with only the two of them! As hosts, they are impeccable, offering us drinks, talking us through the history of Parapark and making us feel comfortable and welcome. They kept a very close eye on us during our time in the room - so close that their hints were almost invasive at times and ruined the immersion in the theme a little bit, but their dedication is obvious and I do not doubt that Parapark will only benefit from their contribution.
Quality and Venue: 9.5/10
Parapark's lobby is a clean, welcoming combination of dark blue walls and soft brown leather sofas. Situated in a warehouse, they have plenty of room, newly rennovated facilities and well-lit, comfortable surroundings. The room was well-sized and with the ability to play around with space, I'm sure that the rooms still in production will be just as excellent.
Overall: 9/10
A well-structured room, great service and a lot of fun.

What We Did
5 Players
6-7 hints given
Finished with 14 minutes and 50 seconds to spare

9A Gateway
Players: 2-5
Duration: 60 minutes
Child-friendly? While Parapark recommend this room for players of 14 years and older, they do allow children to play with strict adult supervision.
Price: $150 for 5 players, $140 for 4 players, $120 for 3 players, $90 for 2 players.
Booking: Simple. Available online. Make sure you search "parapark sydney". Full payment is required in advance. Vouchers can also be bought on their website by becoming a member - a perfect gift for your puzzle-loving friend!

2/119 Wicks Road
Macquarie Park 2113