Sofia, May 2018
Not many escape room briefings ask players whether they have any experience cooking class A drugs, but BlueLab is based on the Breaking Bad television serial, and presents you with an industrial chemical laboratory in which you need to work out how to cook up a batch of crystal meth. This being a complicated process, you have 88 minutes in which to do so, making it almost half again as long as a normal game.
Of the many escape games I’ve played with a laboratory theme, most settle for setting the scene with some test tubes and lab coats and perhaps a Periodic chart on the wall, which might give a general impression of ‘doing science’ but bears little relation to an actual industrial lab. BlueLab is far superior, with machines and containers that look like the real thing, and also in several places recognisable from the TV show.
That goes beyond surface impressions to the actual game content, which includes a fantastic sequence of puzzles based around setting up the laboratory equipment and using it for simulated chemistry – it felt as much like operating a real lab as playing Guitar Hero feels like being a rock star, which is to say it gives you the emotional payoff without all the unpleasant bits.
Along the way it’s quite a traditional style of escape game, with plenty of keys and familiar types of puzzles mixed in. However, even oft-used puzzle ideas are executed with skill and imagination, such as a big skill-based task that took a more interesting form than usual and which was built in a way that fitted smoothly into the lab decor. I felt some of them showed an almost mischievous creativity in their unexpected use of objects familiar from completely different contexts, and in cunning double use of parts of the room I’d not normally have paid attention to.
We played as a pair, and larger teams may find that in places there are bottlenecks where it’s hard for more than two or three players to be involved at once; though the large space and often non-linear structure is well suited to bigger groups in other respects.
Those who are sensitive about health and safety, or who just have a well-developed sense of self-preservation, should note that the game uses some components that resemble emergency buttons, electrical boxes, and hazardous chemicals. I rarely like warning stickers, but here they help greatly in reassuring players nervous about fiddling with dangerous-looking items that you might normally expect to be firmly off-limits. The stickering system was also used to good effect to keep the team from getting distracted by irrelevant decor items.
A couple of points we managed to trigger things but not immediately notice we’d done so, but in both cases there was reasonable signalling in the environment that should have cued us to what had happened, so that’s down to our wobbly observation skills rather than the game design. In any case the skilful gamemastering from the enthusiast owner helped nudge us past any potential sticking points without ever feeling heavy-handed.
The game managed to surprise and delight us even before it officially started, and was an unbridled pleasure to play from start to finish. I played it at the end of several days of remarkably high quality games in Eastern Europe, and measured against the most impressive of those it was not quite as visually spectacular (though by any normal standards it looks fantastic) but for sheer fun and puzzle solving satisfaction, it’s up there with the most enjoyable I’ve played anywhere.