Macclesfield, Apr 2019
I don’t get many chances to visit the north west, and when I finally got an opportunity to do so a return visit to Escape Quest was top of the agenda. As with their Curious Encounters game, this meant playing with a team of two despite the official minimum team size. We also faced an unexpected choice in the briefing between three different levels of difficulty: according to the level chosen by the players, the game is set up slightly differently, with some content only included on the toughest version.
These levels of difficulty are framed as a choice of which detective agency has sent you, because the premise of this game is that you are private detectives investigating a possible series of murders at a theatre. Of course, first you have to gain entry. In most games that would mean maybe an initial set of puzzles in an ‘outdoor’ setting to unlock a backdoor, or something of that sort. Instead, House of Illusion sets you the wildly original task of auditioning as a conjuror – after suitable preparation. You might wonder how that could possibly work in an escape room, and all I’ll say is that it was very clear what we needed to do, and both funny and fun to do it. Introverts have nothing to fear, and extroverts will have a blast.
That all takes place within a convincing and rather lovely theatre set. The puzzles met the venue’s usual high standards of design and difficulty; I thought some were more interesting or successful than others, but there were no flaws and several creative ideas. Still, what remains in my memory more than the puzzles is, appropriately, the many moments of theatricality.
Even when an escape room does everything right, I rarely give a maximum rating; that requires something particularly memorable, something distinctively cool and different. With House of Illusion, that something is a couple dozen details large and small that combine into that fabled beast, immersion. This is a game where the story isn’t just window-dressing for puzzles; even if a little escape room logic is sometimes required, at every point you know what you’re trying to achieve and why. The titular Henry Fortune is a larger-than-life character whose presence nearby starts to feel very real, and more than anything it’s your interactions with him that really make House of Illusion special. Your mileage may of course vary there, and the more you pay attention to the story and the more you throw yourself into the scene, the more you’ll get out of it; it would be a waste to play this game simply as a succession of puzzles to solve.
One other factor that helps Escape Quest’s games is high quality gamemastering. I normally try not to put too much weight on gamemaster skill when rating games, even though it can make a huge difference to players’ experience – because it’s often not consistent. But Escape Quest follow a remarkable policy of only running one of their games in each time slot, meaning you always have your game run by the owners themselves and you always have their undivided attention.
I was a little nervous about attempting House of Illusion on its hardest difficulty level, since there were only two of us and we’d barely scraped out of our previous game. But I was thoroughly glad our hosts persuaded us to do so – I’d have deeply regretted missing out on the extra puzzles it introduces, and I’d recommend most enthusiast teams to go for the hardest setting also. Still, if you do decide to play an easier configuration, that shouldn’t undermine what makes the game stand out, merely cut down on the quantity of content.
House of Illusion is imaginative and daringly different. Like anything distinctive, I imagine it will suit some tastes more than others, but I loved it; and with the reliably excellent hosting I have few reservations about encouraging you to put it very high on your list of games to play.