Altrincham, Jul 2017
Code To Exit is based in Altrincham on the outskirts of Manchester, about half an hour by car from the city centre, built and run by a couple of Hungarian business partners. There’s a particular style of escape room that I think of as Hungarian, being games that emphasise puzzles over story, with plenty of hand-made wooden components and a use of skill-based puzzles, all of which are true of The Dark Age.
The setting is a search for the Holy Grail, and follows a knights and chivalry theme. The room is attractively decorated – there are certainly more visually impressive rooms, but this one is striking in that so much looks carefully handmade. It’s clear that a great deal of attention and effort has gone into the build. Purists might object to anachronistic padlocks and some modern materials (and of course the hint screen), but the decor isn’t aiming for immersive realism so much as a well-themed set of puzzles.
I said this game emphasised skill-based puzzles, and there are two large tasks of this sort. One in particular may be the longest and toughest skill puzzle I’ve seen in an escape game, needing an extended effort. It can only be attempted by one or perhaps two people at a time, though we swapped players in and out; it would create a problematic bottleneck in the game except that there was plenty for the rest of the team to get on with in the meantime. Despite the time needed to get past it, it didn’t become repetitive or annoying – frustrating yes, but in the way that makes it al the more satisfying to beat. Though if one person does the whole thing, they may find they’ve missed a big chunk of the rest of the room by the time they finish.
The home-made feel of the room led me to expect it to be low-tech. Not a bit of it: the purely physical and mechanical sections are complemented by surprisingly many puzzles involving hidden sensors, with various forms of object placement tasks and sections that lit up or fell open in response.
Although the final goal is the Grail, the game is structured with a couple of sub-goals. The second of these was described as part of the pre-game briefing, the first became clear as we played. Both worked well to give a coherence to the game beyond just ‘here’s a puzzle so let’s solve it’.
There were a few rough edges, in particular one large puzzle that had recently failed and been adapted to compensate – which was fine, except that it still provided information that was no longer relevant to solving it. But it felt like quite an original game, partly because of the skill puzzles and partly because it entirely avoided some too-common ideas such as counting objects, hidden numbers, and so on. Between that sense of originality, the satisfyingly hands-on nature of much of it, and the quality of the props and hand-crafted puzzle components, it added up to a memorable and fun game. If you’re in the Manchester area, it’s well worth the trip out to play.