Oxford, Feb 2017
The Oxford branch of City Mazes has four rooms, and Pandora is listed as the easiest. If going to this venue, be warned that it’s some distance from the town centre, out by the southern ring-road – though this review is unlikely to persuade you to make the effort to get there.
This game (and, as it turned out, all the rooms at this venue) is divided into two clear, distinct halves. These could be described as ‘kitchen owned by a severe depressive’ and ’90s rave with string’. You might wonder what either of those has to do with the ‘Pandora’s Escape’ theme – we did, and I still have no idea. If there was a story, it was better hidden than any of the puzzle clues. I guess there was a box to open as the final puzzle (spoiler, sorry!) so that’s the Pandora connection?
The first half was fairly simple, and very padlock-centric. I’d have expected it to lead to the usual irritation of needing to try various numbers in different permutations in each of the available padlocks; that didn’t happen, maybe because we just got lucky and tried the right lock first each time, or maybe thanks to the operator, who told us which area to focus on first when we entered the room. I’m in two minds about that. On one hand, unsolicited hints can be annoying. On the other, it meant we got stuck into the puzzles without having to use trial and error to find where to apply the first couple of codes.
Despite the padlocks, I quite enjoyed this part of the room. The kitchen decor is simple but quirky, and while the puzzles are pretty easy they make a decent warm-up.
The second room was a complete change. Later on we overheard a different group being briefed for Pandora and the operator asked if anyone had epilepsy, something our operator omitted asking us. Fortunately none of us have it, since part two of this game takes place in a dim room full of flashing and pulsing lights and (fairly) loud music. At one point we discovered the speaker and tried turning the volume down, but there is at least one sound-activated element in the room that’s needed to solve it…
That’s all fine, at least as long as players know what to expect. What wasn’t fine was that in this room of flickering multi-coloured light, most of the puzzles are… colour based. We spent the next twenty minutes squinting at blobs that under the lights were indistinguishable shades of ‘dark’ or ‘light’, and trying different permutations of number code based on which blob was yellow and which one white.
I asked the operator afterwards if there was a torch or a light-switch somewhere that we’d missed. It seemed just crazy that anyone would make that design choice, so it seemed probable that we’d missed something and done it the hard way, like the time a room had a Kakuro puzzle and we did all the working for it in our heads because we hadn’t noticed a pen on the shelf right behind us. But no, he confirmed there wasn’t and slightly sheepishly added that it could ‘probably use a bit more light in there’.
The number of puzzles is also sadly lacking. We got out in 34 minutes, and with one decent torch in the second room it’d have been under 20.
City Mazes use a fixed £25 per-person pricing model, so the larger the team the more expensive the game is, and they give 10 as the maximum team size. It is frankly shocking that they would offer this as an experience for 10 people at £250. Though I suppose the more people you have the better your chances of having someone whose colour perception happens to be exceptional.
Kitchen Nightmare Escape was our first City Maze game, and made a promising start. the first room was an adequately decorated kitchen-like affair – with a number of traditional puzzles. Although they felt a little laboured in places, we made fast work of them – and got into the second room pretty quickly. It is from there that things went downhill, and didn’t really recover…
The second room relied on being able to distinguish different colours in pure green light. Using the scarce amounts of trace pollution in the light of the room, and some superhuman visual acuity, my two team-mates were able to identify the components of the various puzzles in the room and open the final box. It took ages, and it was frustrating because we fully understood what we had to do, and the only thing slowing us down was simple colour matching. I was useless, as my ordinary human vision just can’t do that. Yours can’t either, and neither can the designers – so it’s not really clear why they thought this was a good idea, unless people were completing their games too quickly.
“music” noise in the room was uncomfortably loud, and drove a set of flashing lights we needed to be able to see what we were doing. (At one point, I turned it down, thinking I was being helpful. As the lights dimmed I realised my mistake, and we had to put it back up again.)
Quite why the two parts of
Pancake’s Trance Revenge Bop this game are so different is anybody’s guess. The first half seems like an unimaginative room, but not awful in its own right. The second half seems like it must have failed play-testing over and over, and wasn’t fun at all.
The staff at City Mazes made a real effort to be friendly and professional, and they can’t really be blamed for the quality of the games!