Chelmsford, Jun 2018
By the time I actually started playing Chelmsford Escape Rooms’ first game, I felt a right cad. This was due to the unusual premise: you and your teammates are at the residence of your recently deceased great uncle, who you never bothered to visit during his lifetime but whose inheritance you’re now eager to claim. Offended by your clear negligence, his will specifies that everything he owns will go to charity, unless you can solve the puzzles he’s left for you and thereby abort the bank transfer before it goes through. After a surprisingly long intro video – which effectively recreated the experience of being dressed down by an elderly relative who isn’t angry with you just very disappointed – I was half-convinced that the right thing to do would be to just let the money go to charity.
However, a game is a game, so we started ransacking our environment, and found… nothing. That’s not quite true, there was a smart initial puzzle that we got past, and there was no shortage of things to look at and investigate, but the minutes crept past and we just couldn’t find anything to solve. I can think of a couple of other games where I similarly hit a total inability to progress at the beginning, but none in an environment that appeared to be so full of stuff. But eventually a hint or two got us unstuck, and the rest of the room went more smoothly, for the most part.
The backstory gives a convenient excuse for including the most arbitrary puzzles, since they’re explicitly there as a ‘test’ set by the deceased proprietor. But Testament takes the more interesting option of tying puzzle content into the story, almost as if it really were designed by an old man trying to make you discover family history that you’d ignored. That authenticity seems sometimes at odds with the more humorous moments of the game, creating a strangely uneven emotional tone that left me unsure whether we were returned prodigals proving that we were worthy of a bequest or confirmed ne’er-do-wells laughing at the deceased.
The other striking thing about this room was how much more there was to the game than there needed to be. I can’t fully explain that comment for spoiler reasons, but the ‘house’ you’re exploring is realised much more completely than is actually necessary for the game. On one hand that’s an admirable lavishness of design, where they’ve put in a lot of effort even on things that only feature in the game briefly. On the other, it contributed to a sense that there was a lot to look at that turned out to be irrelevant. I’d only class one or two things as actual red herrings, but there were certainly plenty of opportunities to waste time with little signposting to what was actually relevant. That left an impression that victories were hard won in the teeth of distractions and perhaps even with the deck stacked against you, where you need not just careful observation or clever insight but also luck in trying the right things at the right moments.
Despite all the time we’d wasted chasing dead ends, we finished with plenty of time still on the clock and an impression that behind the busy appearance, it was a short game with surprisingly few steps needed to complete it. I’m left with mixed feelings. I suspect most teams will spend a lot of Last Testament confused and frustrated, and any group which manages not to get stuck will be finished very quickly indeed. But at the same time, it’s made with imagination and originality and constructed with a loving attention to detail that would normally win me over straightaway. As with their other game, there are jokes and easter eggs hidden in small details, and several clever ideas that I liked very much in isolation.
In the end I think it works well as an escape game while having the potential to be a lot better: a little streamlining to remove points of unnecessary confusion, plus the addition of a raft of extra puzzles, would go a long way. But even as it is, it’s an idiosyncratic escape room with enough creativity and style to make it worth any points of frustration.