History Mystery: Leonardo Artmergency!

By | July 7, 2019

Central London, Jun 2019

Rated between 3.5 and 4 out of 5
Toby says:

History Mystery specialise in games in distinctive locations, but even by their standards an escape room set in Buckingham Palace is pretty noteworthy. Artmergency is a pop-up, running on selected evenings only through the summer, and takes place in the Queen’s Gallery as part of an exhibition of sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci. During the daytime the exhibition is open to the public in the normal way; if you book a game slot, you get the gallery all to yourself.
The Gallery is a series of rooms, each room as vast and grand as you’d expect from an exclusive exhibition space. Physical space is at a premium for most escape rooms, but here the huge floor area and vaulting ceilings make it more akin to an outdoor game; you end up spending a noticeable amount of time just criss-crossing the floorspace. And of course this is an actual gallery with genuine Da Vinci sketches hanging on the walls – there are so many games that reference his artwork in one way or another, it’s a shock to remember that this time it’s the real deal.
Although History Mystery created this game, your gamemasters are not that company’s staff but the official Wardens of the gallery, who have been trained up on how to run the game. Newly trained gamemasters often over-hint through their eagerness to help, but the friendly Wardens did well at keeping that impulse under control, and when they did prompt on something, they aimed to do so in a subtle way instead of blurting out a spoiler.
One further unusual feature is that the game is divided into a series of sections each of which has its own time limit, and if you run out of time in a section you have to abandon the remaining puzzles there and move on. Only the very fastest teams will complete every area ahead of the time, but you don’t need to to beat the game; reaching the end of the sub-sections just means you get additional clues for the finale puzzle (and of course get to see more of the game). Perhaps because there’s so much to complete in the time, it’s listed as being for teams of 4-8; while there’s no time to waste, it’s actually a mostly linear game and I’d recommend sticking to the lower end of that range.
History Mystery’s usual inventiveness and electronic ingenuity is on display, with various custom mechanisms built to riff off aspects of the art and history being exhibited. Naturally, the game has been designed to require no changes to the space and to be easily removable during the daytime, but it makes constant use of the Da Vinci illustrations and other exhibition content, sometimes for straightforward ‘search and find’ and sometimes in much more ingenious ways.
The way it uses the exhibition is at once the game’s strength and my main hesitation about it. There’s a tension between wanting to look at the lovely, interesting art displayed around me and needing to focus on the puzzles. The puzzles do an excellent job of using the artwork, and not just in a superficial way, but while I was scurrying to locate such-and-such a picture or discover some piece of information about Da Vinci’s life, there wasn’t much space for contemplating what I was looking at, or really absorbing all that much. I think the only sensible way to reconcile that is to make a separate visit to the gallery to properly see the exhibits, since there’s no way the time pressure of the game leaves you a chance to take them in properly.
History Mystery’s other games explore their historical themes through the game content. Artmergency also does that, but is less self-contained – because the game content constantly refers to, and in some ways is upstaged by, the artwork surrounding it. It successfully kindled my interest in the exhibition, without giving me enough of a chance to explore it;
and although it made a stab at bringing everything together to a neat endpoint, it still felt more like a collection of puzzles and trivia on a theme than any single clear narrative.
That’s I think inevitable given the constraints of the theme and the location. Even so, it’s a polished and pleasant game brimming with nicely designed puzzles. The ‘time gate’ system where each section has its own time limit may not suit everyone, but ensures that all teams will get around a full hour of game while still giving all groups a decent chance of a victory. And above all, this is probably your one and only chance to play an escape game within Buckingham Palace – the illustrious location alone is sufficient to make this a rather special experience. 3.5 / 5
Lewis rated this:4 / 5

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