Margate, Jul 2018
What’s not to love about a Victorian-style mad scientist’s laboratory? Your job is to finish the work started by a missing genius, before a thunderstorm blows over – something to do with building a Monster…
An unexpected start provided a nice lead-in to what’s initially quite a traditional style of escape room, involving some searching and unlocking of drawers and cupboards, and items to collect to turn into a code – though not a code for a padlock, since the venue makes a point of not using any in their games. That’s achieved sometimes with hidden electronics and maglocks, sometimes with locked furniture, and sometimes with more ingenious physical mechanisms that require a little lateral thinking to get past, with the creativity and scale of the game increasing as it goes on.
An atmospheric green lighting effect could easily have been an absolute disaster by making the game’s various colour-based puzzles near impossible to distinguish properly. Fortunately players are also provided with a couple of sources of white light, which entirely neutralised the potential problem as long as we remembered to double-check that colours were what they appeared to be.
I found Frankenscape an absolute blast to play. Part of that is the theme and what they’ve done with it, and part of it is because we were playing well, but it was also thanks to the clarity of the game’s structure. ‘Flow’ is an ambiguous and subjective concept that is often used just as a proxy for whether a team happened to do well or not, but to the extent it’s a real characteristic of a game’s design, it’s linked to how puzzles are structured, whether they accidentally point players in the wrong direction, and what kind of feedback the game gives to show whether the players are doing the right things or not. Frankenscape does all of that right. It’s a mostly non-linear game where after an initial flurry of exploration there is a large number of different puzzles simultaneously available to work on, but with a unifying structure that provides context for how to use their results and also helps give an indication of progress through the game. Each time you complete a major puzzle, a thunderclap sound effect gives you confirmation that it’s been successfully finished as well as a Pavlovian buzz of triumph.
Also helpful is that you need to find only most of the search targets not all of them, meaning teams don’t get frustratingly stuck scouring the room over and over for that one final clue piece. A few items are in fact technically superfluous, in that they provide helpful guidance that isn’t necessary to complete the game but which helps guide players away from points of confusion. This also helped when we found a particular audio clue difficult to hear properly – not having the bits we struggled to make out made the puzzle harder to solve not impossible.
The clarity of game design is also evident in the use of warning stickers for items that are not part of the game. I always prefer it when a company finds a way to avoid the need for those, but much better to use them than to cause confusion as to what’s in play, and here the layout of the game area makes them necessary.
So there’s a great deal that Frankenscape does right that’s not particularly obvious, but which helps the game go smoothly. But there’s also a lot that it does right that’s very visible indeed and that you’ll likely be talking about for some time after playing it. I’m going to avoid spoilers here, so I’ll just say that it delivers on the promise of its theme in a way that I could see coming but which still had me cackling with glee. The 90 minute time limit seems designed primarily to make sure teams have enough time to get to the end of the game, and thanks to the non-linear structure larger groups in particular may blitz through it without their time going over an hour, but it still has more content than an average escape room. And with that content impressing on quality as well as quantity, I very much recommend heading down to do your best mad scientist impression.