Leeds, Apr 2018
Escape Reality’s Leeds branch is out on the western side of the city sharing with a laser tag facility next to a major road; we managed not to miss the turning for them on the third attempt. Perhaps because of the location or the number of games they offer, we found it much easier to get some last-minute weekend availability with them to top up our schedule than with the various venues in the centre of town.
Unsure of which of their games to book in for, I used the dubious tie-breaker of seeing which game had the most polished looking trailer on their website. Escape Reality’s trailer videos are well worth watching: they tell you almost nothing about the games they’re advertising, but they vary wildly from slick to accidental parody to downright weird.
Escape Reality has a distinctive hint system, which has a huge influence on the whole structure of their games. Players are given a tablet that acts as their timer, and which may also be used to scan QR codes in the room to display a preset hint – though this also incurs a five minute time penalty (added at the end, not subtracted from actual play time), and a ten-minute cooldown before the next hint may be taken.
For particularly competitive players, I can see some advantages to this approach; it’s the kind of system you might design if you wanted to make teams’ completion times meaningfully comparable. It’s far less to my tastes: if you get stuck twice in quick succession, then ten minutes of waiting to take a hint is pointlessly punitive. The pre-packaged hints may not be useful (and will inflict the time penalty either way), and if you take the wrong hint you might get an unwanted spoiler for a later puzzle.
None of that affected our game, since we didn’t take any hints. But the hint system also affects the game structure. Like other Escape Reality games, Machina is a strictly linear game; it has to be, since each puzzle is labelled with a numbered QR code. Flagging the puzzles like that undermines immersion and also the sense of exploration that, for me at least, is part of the enjoyment of a good escape game.
That’s a matter of personal preference. However, I was also unimpressed by the use of a puzzle that I’d seen being shared around on the internet, as well as some minor ambiguities in a couple of the puzzles. They also often use wipe-clean plastic components, and while I appreciated being able to write directly on a puzzle for once, those parts of the game still felt too much like completing pen and paper puzzles in a magazine.
If all that hasn’t put you off, Machina has several redeeming features. The fairly bare space is nonetheless lit dramatically in a way that looks great without unnecessarily getting in the way. Those sections of the game that don’t feel like they were taken from a puzzle magazine have excellent build quality, and the highlights of the game manage to be genuinely cool. Things broadly improves as they go on, and by the time the exit door opened I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Although we then remembered that the timer didn’t stop until we scanned the QR code in the corridor outside, cueing a frantic search for the tablet that we’d long since left unloved in a dark corner somewhere…