Riga, Jul 2017
It seems the good people of Riga are rather obsessed with theft based games, since this was the fourth heist themed game that we played. In this instance, you’re given a pre-burglary briefing with various bits of equipment and instructions to follow. Whilst this meant that perhaps we had a bit too much guidance, it did mean we didn’t waste time using equipment in the wrong area.
The theming was excellent, with some lovely touches that the puzzle flow didn’t strictly require but which added hugely to the atmosphere. All the puzzles up to the inside of the vault itself were bang on theme. In particular, a task that is often seen in many heist games was particularly well executed, both in how you could make it clearer what needed to be done, and the fact it started very difficult but automatically got easier in levels until or team were able to do it (with an appropriate time delay as penalty). There was also a beautiful mechanism for opening the vault.
And yet… this is yet another Riga game where a great setup and theming are let down by technical faults and poor staff attentiveness. One of the codes had a digit that was written in a manner so indecipherable we thought it was a number when in fact it was a letter. We also got stuck at one point and waited what felt like an age before the requested help came through. It did feel like either the staff weren’t paying attention or that they were simply understaffed. The last room was also weak, with a confusing puzzle structure, an unhelpful hint, and a task that was ambiguous and not particularly relevant.
If this game were well run, I would have given it 4.5 – as it is, it’s still enjoyable, but frustratingly short of its potential.
One of the challenges of reviewing escape games is that many of the factors that influence players’ enjoyment are specific to the team or their visit. One team gets a good host and another doesn’t. A mechanism fails and causes problems on one day, but perhaps works perfectly on other occasions. One player likes the style of a room where another has high expectations and finds it disappointing, or just takes against a particular puzzle – and the puzzles that we manage to solve inevitably seem fairer and higher quality than the ones we get stumped by.
With “Mona Lisa” Affair we encountered multiple problems, some of which I think are genuine issues with the game and others not. The one that caused us greatest frustration was the indecipherable letter/number that Sam mentions. It wasn’t that it was sloppily scrawled, it was just written in a continental style that made it near-unreadable for English players. However frustrating for us, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the game operators hadn’t identified that as a problem for foreign teams. It’s less reasonable that we visibly and audibly struggled with it for five minutes without intervention from the operator.
One reason for the frustration there was that we had no way to request a hint except by waving at the cameras, which tended to elicit no response. The game uses a nicely on-theme system for delivering the hints, which blurs the line between in-game instructions and operator hints, all of which is great… but left little recourse on the two occasions when we were badly stuck, actively asking for help and not getting a reply.
The final section of the game was confusing and weak in a way that left me unsure if there had been a reset mistake. We achieved what I’d have expected to be the final goal right away, then found ourselves following a series of puzzles that seemed to peter out, with the final step needed to escape being something we could have done right away on entering the room. I’d have asked the gamemaster to walk me through the logic so I understood the intention properly, but he seemed pretty disengaged and language issues made it trickier.
And despite all those frustrations, it was a stunning game that I enjoyed thoroughly, at least up to the last quarter. I liked the progression of starting outside and breaking in through different environments, each distinctive and impressive in a different way. I loved the points where the decorations went the extra mile to create atmosphere, and did it with style and creativity. Breaking into the bank’s systems uses a series of cinematically cool and satisfying tasks that are leagues beyond a more typical escape room style (such as, say, solving a logic puzzle tacked to the wall that just happens to give you a code to open a vault). The big skill-based section hit a beautiful balance between presenting a real challenge for the ambitious, and ramping that down for teams who are struggling. The up-front instructions also ensured we knew when to use a piece of equipment instead of trying it on any number of fruitless places where we’d have wasted time finding nothing.
I don’t know if the poor hosting we experienced is typical for this venue, and I’m not sure if the confusing and confused finish to the game was how it’s supposed to be or if something went wrong there. Pretty much everything else about the game was superb though, so I’d encourage you to try it – if you encounter the same problems it’s still worth it for the good bits, and if you find it goes more smoothly then it’ll be a first rate experience.