London, Jul 2018
Having got out of Patient Zero in good time, we had exactly an hour plus walking time to get to our next booked game… so squeezing in another one at AIM was inevitable. Psychopath’s Den is of course a serial killer game, one of surprisingly few in London, though their take on it is quite friendly to nervous players: no restraints and no jump scares involved.
Most serial killer games start with the premise that your tormentor has conveniently popped out for about an hour, giving you the chance to escape. This one is unusual in that it instead has the psycho watching you throughout, toying with you – not only is the intro video a message from him, but he’ll even give you hints, should you need them. That might sound like a strange decision (why would a maniac let you go, even if you complete his puzzles?) but in fact this turned out to be very well thought through, a smart premise that added to the game.
While it has less sci-fi glitz than its sister game, Psychopath’s Den boasts similarly impressive set design, particularly in the atmospheric lighting. That atmospheric lighting was also a big source of frustration for us for part of the game. Although it wasn’t too dark for most purposes, it was dim enough to be a real struggle to find the right digits on a padlock; and at a point where we needed to match some colours, we were reduced to doing to more or less by guesswork. However, it appears we were supposed to have been given a torch before we started… So it seems that was an unfortunate one-off, and with a torch it’d have hit an excellent balance of atmospheric but comfortably playable.
It’d be easy to get stuck and annoyed at various points. A big skill game resisted our attempts to solve it, even when we tried to cheat a little, until the unseen psycho got bored and let us bypass it. I’ve seen the same task in various other games, but this was definitely the hardest to solve I’ve seen yet. A different large puzzle seemed open to multiple approaches, though I may have been overthinking that one; and we also got tripped up by something that was either a reset error or that broke the usual single-use rule.
But despite all of those, Psychopath’s Den struck me as one of the better horror games I’ve played. One reason for that was the decor, which does resort to some fake blood and plastic body parts but in other respects takes a much subtler approach using ominous lighting and industrial stylings. Another reason was that a surprising amount of the content belies its grim tone with skill tasks that would seem more at home in a much more light-hearted game. Hard-core scare fans may find that disappointingly incongruous, but I like escape rooms that are fun to play – no matter how realistic it might be for the setting, there’s a limit to how miserable, bored or uncomfortable I want to be. By all means build a convincing atmosphere, but then make sure it’s also interesting and entertaining to play – making it an enjoyable game matters more than total fidelity to the theme. Psychopath’s Den succeeds at that, and in any case, the backstory gives a convenient excuse for any kind of puzzles or games at all: you’re doing them because your insane captor is forcing you to.
I felt Psychopath’s Den was, at different points, both better and worse than the other AIM Escape game we’d played. But the highlights stayed with me more than the frustrations, helped by a strong ending with a good final puzzle and unexpected end to the narrative.