Bunschoten, Jan 2020
You may have heard of The Dome. In fact, I’m tempted to write two versions of this review: one for those who’ve never heard it mentioned, and another for everyone who knows of it as the game that came top of the 2019 TERPECA awards, the current reigning champion of the English-speaking world’s escape room scene. Hype kills enjoyment and no escape room, however magnificent, can live up to such billing; the best way to play it is to stumble across it having heard nothing about it in advance. But it’s too late for that, and if there’s any game that can survive the weight of such expectations, it’s the mind-bogglingly sophisticated Dome.
[EDIT: If you haven’t heard anything about The Dome, then the best advice I can give you is to go play it without learning anything more about it. It’s a general rule that the most exceptional escape games are best played with no prior expectations or hype, and the more unusual the game the more that’s likely to be the case. In which case you may want to pause at this point and come back and read the rest of this after making a trip to the Netherlands.]
Before getting to the game itself, the venue itself deserves a mention for its huge lounge packed with air hockey, table football, pool, darts and more, which makes for a thoroughly pleasant place to hang out before or after you play. This also includes the segregated TV room where you get to watch a post-game highlights reel of how you did – a very welcome bonus, as long as you don’t cringe at watching yourself on screen.
But on to the main event. The Dome places your team (which must be of at least four people) in a futuristic testing chamber… and events progress from there. Sci-fi games range hugely in the quality of their decor, and this one is right at the top end of the scale; but what’s visible at the outset is only the beginning of a remarkably dynamic game.
Everyone’s taste is subjective. The Dome is unquestionably the most advanced, sophisticated, high-budget escape room I’ve seen, raising the bar frighteningly high. While the often screen-driven puzzle style will appeal to some players more than others, the puzzles are hugely imaginative and original, as well as rock-solid. One in particular was both exquisite and genuinely beautiful; all were distinctive, and did well at requiring all four members of our team to be involved. More than that, they showed a sly mischief where they set up expectations only to subvert them, constantly putting us off balance and pushing us to adapt and then adapt again.
Perhaps even more impressive is the hallucinatory way the environment seems to change as you play. We’d leave a room, then re-enter it shortly afterwards to find it changed in a manner so thorough and smoothly executed it was like a conjuror’s trick – I still have no idea what the actual layout of the space was, or how the changes were achieved. I rapidly went past simply being impressed to just accepting the constructed, fluid reality of the game.
Again: everyone’s taste is subjective. No reasonable person could deny that The Dome is an astonishing construction. That doesn’t at all mean it’ll be the best time you’ll ever have in an escape room, and expecting it to surpass everything else is the surest way to dull the game’s shine. For us a big dent in the fun was a particular step on which we got stuck for a full quarter of our time. The puzzle in question is such a clever idea, a microcosm of the way the game blends the real and the digital to play with your sense of reality, and will be a highlight for many teams – but I suspect we won’t be the only ones for whom it becomes a frustrating stumbling block.
The other main criticism to make is that the narrative is weak. I love the concept that you’ve been hit by hallucinogenic gas, and what the game does with that; and of course we were trying to complete a set of tests. Other than that: you’re in a futuristic testing chamber, for unspecified reasons, possibly at the mercy of some kind of oppressive State; there’s an escaped mastermind, but little sense that he’s an imminent threat; and I have no idea at all what the second half of their trailer has to do with anything. That’s still more story than many escape rooms manage, but then I’m not applying normal expectations here. We proceeded from one remarkable set-piece to another, but without a particularly clear sense of purpose. Perhaps because of that, I thought it had less emotional effect than some other top games do; I was frequently surprised, amazed or impressed, less often immersed or invested.
Those criticisms are relative to the absolute highest of standards, and in any case: taste is subjective. You may find that the Dome instantly becomes your all time favourite game; you might find yourself unmoved by its digital wizardry and reality-shifting tricks. Either way it pushes the envelope of what you might expect from an escape room so far that it’s in a different category.
Under other circumstances my teammates are stubbornly reluctant to give a maximum score to even the very best of games. With The Dome there was instant unanimous agreement that it had maxed out the scale. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect and – I’m going to keep saying it – it doesn’t mean it will be your favourite ever escape room. It does mean that you should try really hard to make a trip to try it and see what the fuss is about – tastes may be subjective, but The Dome is objectively extraordinary.