Southampton, Aug 2017
Crystal Maze is quite different from what most enthusiasts may have come to expect from an escape game. The website tells you that “a big variety of puzzles are waiting to get solved”, and that’s exactly accurate: the game is designed around the solving of puzzles, not so much the type of puzzle found in most escape rooms but logic puzzles, maths problems, brain teasers.
The aim of the game is to gather as many crystals as possible, with a maximum of eight to win. The difficulty is intentionally set such that very few teams will get all eight (we did 😛 – although we fluked one where we’d actually had the wrong answer, and were allowed a little more than the official time in which to do so). The structure is mostly non-linear. Many of the puzzles resolve to codes for padlocks; a few unlock crystals.
Some of the crystals are inside wooden boxes called ‘decision boxes’. As explained in the briefing, each of these first needs to be unlocked. The players can then move a slider to select their answer to a particular logic problem, and then pull a trigger to release the box’s crystal. If the team solved the problem correctly and put the slider in the right place, the crystal falls out of the box. If not, it stays in the box and the team have lost it.
Players used to elaborate, immersive environments should be aware that the game here is a very home-made style, set in the upstairs room of a house with no theme or decorations other than the game components themselves. These components include a number of hand-crafted and hand-decorated custom constructions which I liked a lot – as with the decision boxes for instance, which are a clever mechanism for dispensing a crystal (or not) according to the players’ one-shot attempt at a multiple choice answer.
I enjoy good theming, an immersive design, a set that knocks your socks off when you enter. Nonetheless, it’s entirely possible to have an excellent escape game that has none of these, if the puzzles are good enough.
Do the puzzles in Crystal Maze meet that standard? Well, that’s a matter of personal taste. The brain teasers this game uses are the sort of mind games and conundrums that you might see shared on Facebook – in fact I believe I’ve seen several of them before. I quite enjoy this sort of puzzle, though I consider them more suitable for tackling individually at home than as a team in an escape room. Several of them are both time consuming and hard to work on collaboratively, meaning one person may spend a period looking at just one puzzle and miss what’s being solved elsewhere. The difficulty is higher than is typical for escape room puzzles – which arguably is not unreasonable, since it’s listed as a 10/10 difficulty game and one in which you’re not expected to solve everything. But they’re also of a nature where if you’ve seen the puzzle or similar puzzles before they’re a lot easier to get to grips with than if you haven’t. My least favourite part of the room was a sequence of puzzles played on an electronic device, which I had in fact played and enjoyed before as an okay computer puzzle game – but which I was not pleased to re-encounter as part of an escape room.
For all those reasons, it would be possible to completely slate this game. I didn’t hate it though, and had a reasonable time playing it. There are escape rooms which are bad because the operators don’t care, which are cynical attempts to cash in on the new craze, and that’s not at all the case here. The operator is clearly passionate about his games and has put a lot of effort into building some of the physical components. I did like the way the game had physical hands-on versions of a couple of puzzles that I’d only seen online before, and the room included a couple of jokey touches too.
However, even for players who enjoy puzzle-based games with minimal decor and story, the nature of these puzzles, and the fact that I’d seen several of them before on the internet, means I can’t recommend Crystal Maze. The style of the game may appeal to some players, but the vast majority of enthusiasts should head to one of the other escape venues in Southampton.