Reading, Jan 2018
Located on the west side of Reading, Deadlocked currently have two games. Their first is Phoenix Research, named for the documents you’re trying to retrieve: the critical notes of a missing scientist employed by the dubious Wexell Corporation.
If you put a lot of weight on visual presentation of a game, you might be unimpressed with Phoenix Research. The setting is a scientist’s office, and the decor is suitable – which is to say, fairly mundane, built using mostly standard escape room fare such as furniture drawers, with some paper-based clues. However, these hold together surprisingly well as a set of hints created by a scientist as a breadcrumb trail to his hidden research. It may be a set of mostly unconnected puzzles, but it manages to make you feel like you’re finding secret backdoors into protected systems.
Deadlocked shares creative talent with the excellent Thinking Outside The Box in Peterborough. That company is notable for their innovative intro and hint systems, where characters who exist only as video or audio recordings appear to respond to players. The same technology is used here to good effect, with your mission handler from Wexell Corporation keeping an eye on your process and interjecting comments now and again. This is mostly audio-only, which is a step down from the way it’s handled in T.O.t.B., but adds an extra layer of light amusement to the game as well as giving a naturalistic façade for any hints for which a pre-prepared comment is available.
The strengths of this game are subtle: not so much in its appearance, but in the way the narrative holds together with the puzzles, and in the way it strives to be original and clever in its details. The hint system is one example of that; another is a mechanism I’ll avoid describing for spoiler reasons, but which introduces a slightly different element into each group’s game.
Separate to that, the game has a longer and a shorter version, with different endings. Almost all teams see the shorter version, but enthusiast groups who finish particularly early may get the extended game. We saw both endings, though I believe the normal intention is that this is invisible to the group, who will see one ending or the other without knowledge that the other existed.
That’s an innovative way to make sure the game is a reasonable difficulty for first-time teams while also providing a challenge for more experienced players. The trade-off is that the normal-length version contains several elements that appear to be part of the game but which aren’t used (explained as bonus puzzles that give additional backstory if players ask about them).
The extended version is a substantial addition, notably more difficult than the rest of the content. I thought it needed some fine-tuning, with more ambiguity to some of the puzzles – no doubt because it’s had much less testing than the rest of the game! – but that it was also a great addition to the game, and made the overall story work better.
Enthusiast-run venues tend to have very good hosting, and that was the case here. More than most locations though I thought that Deadlocked’s game designs were built with enthusiasts in mind. Phoenix Research perhaps suffers a little from being designed to support different difficulty levels, but that design decision also allows for experienced players to tackle a more challenging game than would otherwise be possible. Your experience with the game may depend on which version of it you see, but either way it’s an interesting and ambitious game beneath a relatively plain exterior.
[N.B. A previous version of this review was written on the belief that the extended version was content that had been deleted after beta testing; I’ve adjusted the above to more accurately describe the game following clarification from the venue.]