Exeter, Jun 2017
I got a good impression of Red House Mysteries from the moment I entered the venue, through a corridor lightly but skilfully decorated to evoke an air of old-time mystique. They have two games with quite distinct themes and styles, and the first one we tried was The Heist, with the goal being to break into a museum and steal a valuable enchanted mask.
The theme is familiar, but the game format is quite unique. It’s separated into two halves, with the first half consisting of ‘preparations’, and the second being the heist itself. For the first half the team has a thirty minute deadline and a list of five aims to achieve, such as disabling security sensors and distracting the guards. It’s also necessary to find the way into the museum, though that happens as part of completing the other objectives.
Each objective completed in the first half of the game grants an extra two minutes of time for the second half. With all preparations successfully complete, the heist section has a thirty minute time limit; with none of them complete, the time limit is twenty minutes. Strictly speaking a team could start the second half of the game as soon as they find the way through – but starting early doesn’t result in extra time, so that would just mean the team misses out on part of the game for no benefit.
I initially thought that two minutes wasn’t much time to gain as a reward for completing one of the objectives. But another way to look at it is that each of the five main puzzles in the first half comes with a two minute penalty for failing it; and I certainly would want that time penalty to be larger. The structure is odd in another way, when you think about it: the teams who do badly in the first half get less time in the second, even though those are the teams who probably need more not less time. But from a narrative point of view it makes perfect sense, and it strikes a reasonable balance between rewarding success and not making it impossible for teams who are struggling.
Our game suffered from a bit of a screw-up. One section has a search task that involves finding a number of small items, and one of them had gone missing. We knew how many we were supposed to find, but couldn’t work out where the last one was; and it turned out it wasn’t in the room at all, possibly having been accidentally pocketed by the previous team. The thing was, the operator had warned us before we went in that something might be missing, because she hadn’t been able to find it during the reset; and when it transpired that we couldn’t find it either, we were allowed to bypass the puzzle for which it was needed.
While it’s a difficult situation for an operator if they’re not sure whether a critical item is in the room or not, that wasn’t the best way to handle it. It would have been better to place a backup copy of the item in the room and warn us that there might be a duplicate, for instance. However, in the end this was only a small sour note in an otherwise highly enjoyable game.
One of the five preparations tasks is to disable the security lasers. If you enjoy a more physical style of game, I highly recommend deliberately failing this task, or perhaps asking the operator ahead of time to leave the lasers on anyway. The heist half of the game looks better that way and is (depending on your tastes) more entertaining to play, with only a modest increase in difficulty.
Having gone into lots of detail about the game format and the problem we encountered, I need to make sure I’m singing its praises sufficiently. The heist portion looks and feels like skulking around a museum at night, with low lighting that manages to be atmospheric and not annoying. Puzzles are built around a succession of exhibit items, in a way that uses the museum theme brilliantly. It’s a linear, padlock-based sequence, but one that shows immaculate standards of component quality and puzzle design. Across the whole game there’s great variety, from the search and more mechanical/electronic style of the first half to more abstract (but mostly quite hands-on) puzzles of the second. And one step in the first half simply took my breath away for being the single most realistic-seeming ‘hacking’ task I remember seeing in a game.
It comes together for a strong, high-pressure finish. It’s not a flawless game – one early puzzle in particular felt weak to me, and I’d suggest a small improvement to another – but even so it’s excellent quality overall. The two games currently at Red House have very different styles, and which one you prefer will be a matter of personal taste, but if in doubt: play both.