Lisbon, Nov 2017
Escape Hunt are a multinational escape room company, who have branches in cities on various different continents. Long ago I played a game at their now-closed London branch without being very impressed, but had heard rumours their latest games had improved since those days, and so was curious to try a game at their Lisbon branch.
The game we played is themed on the catastrophic earthquake that levelled Lisbon in the 18th Century. Our briefing told us to rescue survivors and then rebuild the city, which sounded like a tall order for 60 minutes! Our initial instructions in fact went further than that and pretty much told us the first couple of things to do. Since the very first step is a search task that could otherwise see teams stuck with a frustrating lack of progress, I suppose that level of prompting is sensible to get players off to a smooth start.
It’s not likely that any escape game will have you hauling actual people out of actual wreckage, so as you might guess the rescuing of earthquake victims is performed with representative puzzles, in a way that I thought worked well and was rather charming. Beyond that the game went downhill, with our progress repeatedly grinding to a halt for reasons that struck me as weak puzzle design.
This included some use of symbols where with one players need to know its normal mathematical use (which wasn’t unusually obscure, but which certainly not everyone knows) and where another involved a rather improbable intuitive leap. Non-enthusiast players are perhaps less likely to get thrown by these – part of the reason we were thrown by them was because they went against normal escape room conventions, and we dismissed the correct solutions out of hand. Enthusiast habits also tripped us up at another point, where we spotted a couple of things and assumed they were for later where they were actually immediately accessible.
I was also dubious about a set of mathematical equations that looked like it could be solved, but which resolved ambiguously with five possible options for the final code, and used a separate puzzle to resolve which option was correct. That works, I suppose, but is sloppy design in that it invites players to brute force the answer. It would be easy to adjust the equations so that that missing piece of information is critical. Even once that was solved, the device into which the values needed to be entered was unintuitive in operation. That’s fine when the code is clear: the puzzle then becomes how to operate the item. But where the device is effectively the verification mechanism for a puzzle, if it’s unintuitive to operate that’s a recipe for player confusion, as they end up thinking the correct code is wrong.
In the game’s defence, it has some nice visuals, though these were concentrated near the beginning with later decor being a lot more perfunctory. It’s also a lot more sophisticated in the technology it uses than the Escape Hunt game I remember playing in London years ago: they’ve moved from padlocks and codes to maglocks and physical mechanisms, sometimes purely mechanical and sometimes electronic. But the technology used is only as good as the puzzles as story that it’s implementing, and despite some clever ideas and fun moments, the basics of the game were a bit lacking.
My other disappointment with Earthquake is that after a strong start it seemed to drift away from the theme. Although the briefing said we would rebuild the city, it wasn’t clear how the puzzles we solved had anything to do with that. Rather, it felt like we played until we ran out of puzzles, and once we’d done the last one the host opened the door for us.
I’m not ready to write Escape Hunt off yet, partly because I’ve seen a strong recommendation for one of the other games at this venue (which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try), but this game didn’t manage to restore my confidence in them.