London, Aug 2018
AIEscape’s previous game Kill M.A.D. has been the London escape room I recommend most often and enthusiastically for a little while now, so to say I’ve been eagerly awaiting their new sci-fi game would be an understatement. Project Delta casts you as the crew of a spaceship at the start of a three-year mission involving biological research for the purposes of space colonisation; and, naturally, there are hints that all may not be as innocent as it seems.
I’ve seen spaceship games built using an array of cutting edge technology, and others built with little more than silver foil and sellotape, and either approach can work well. Project Delta is, unsurprisingly, closer to the former extreme. It’s not a huge, elaborate set; in some ways it feels quite sparse, thanks to AIEscape’s pared down design style where absolutely everything is there for a purpose. However, with the exception of a warm-up puzzle, it’s remarkably free of escape room clichés. The impressive technology is not used for its own sake, but to implement puzzles that advance the narrative. This starts you out fulfilling your scientific brief through some outstandingly original puzzles, and then – well, best let you discover that yourself.
As that suggests, this is a very plot-driven game, and you need to pay attention to that plot not simply gravitate to anything that looks like a puzzle. As with AIEscape’s other games, Project Delta is completely linear and at times the structure of the game effectively forces you to pause while the story advances, in a way that may make some players impatient. The story does not unfold along obvious, predictable lines: on hearing the premise I immediately guessed broadly which way it would develop, and was pleased to find I was wrong. The puzzles are unlikely to instantly yield to you either, with much that’s tricky, often more complex than it initially seems.
Normally, if an escape room is an emotional rollercoaster, that’s some combination of frustration and elation related to how well (or otherwise) we’re doing. I greatly admire AIEscape’s originality and skilful use of technology, but their genius is that their games make you feel things. Each escape room they’ve built so far has had a genuinely interesting storyline behind it that avoids obvious clichés; each room then successfully involves players in that storyline; and each room, to one extent or another, has had an emotional charge that’s quite unexpected in an escape room. That’s actually less true for Project Delta than their previous games, mainly because the sci-fi story is less rooted in real-world experience, and has more of an action / suspense feel. Still, I found it both engrossing and repeatedly surprising, with two brilliant moments in particular that on their own were enough to make the game special.
I suspect we particularly enjoyed it because we’d making an effort to take our time and pay attention to the narrative clues as much as possible, having wished I’d done that more in their previous game. Project Delta doesn’t spoon-feed you, and beginners may be confused and put off, both by the plot and by the puzzles. Conversely, expert escapers may rush through at maximum speed, get annoyed by the points where the game seems to impose unavoidable delays, and finish with only a vague idea of what on earth had been going on. For those reasons, what you get out of it may depend on how you approach it.
Which gives me a tricky dilemma with this review. Our reviewers are pretty damn hard to please, as a rule. Even with the slickest, most amazing games there’s usually someone on the team who decides to give a rating a bit lower than the maximum; at time of writing, only two games have ever got a unanimous five star rating from three or more of my team. Project Delta is the third. The pressure of high expectations can spoil players’ experience of a game, so I need to give some context for that.
I’m rating it higher than its predecessor Kill M.A.D., though I’m not certain which I like better; Project Delta is more ambitious, but Kill M.A.D. has a stronger emotional kick and a more weirdly distinctive design. There are other games in the U.K. (though not many!) that I’d send enthusiasts to more confidently, knowing they’d be certain to be bowled over. Project Delta will evoke a wider range of reactions, and probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. I can imagine many teams finding that it doesn’t quite come together for them, because of the pacing or due to finding the puzzles or plot a little confusing. It’s not a perfectly executed instance of the genre, although it’s certainly excellent as an escape room. Instead, it’s distinctive and successful on its own terms, in a style that makes it much better suited to enthusiasts than beginners. (This won’t come as news to anyone who’s read AIEscape’s website description for the game, which clearly states it’s not recommended for first time players.)
For those reasons, it might be more appropriate if our overall score for the game had a broader spread in the ratings. However, none of us felt inclined to give it a lower rating so as to achieve that. Project Delta is glorious, idiosyncratic but wonderfully clever, a demanding game that requires you to engage with it on its own level. Its blend of story, innovative smart puzzles and unusual design are exactly what I like in an escape game, but even if the style is a less good fit for your tastes it remains a remarkably interesting and cool game that you really need to try. At time of writing it should absolutely be top of any enthusiast’s list for games to try in London, and is well worth seeking out from much further afield. Do yourself a favour and book in as soon as you have a chance.