Manchester, Jun 2019
Prison is one of the timeless escape room themes. It’s been done so many times in many different styles that it’s very difficult to build a prison game that feels original, doubly so because there’s a very limited range of items you can plausibly put in a prison cell, and an obvious set of tropes to draw upon for puzzles. Nonetheless, Lucardo’s take on the genre manages to take classic jailbreak ideas and turn them into a satisfyingly physical sequence of puzzles with something of an action-movie feel.
The backstory is straightforward: your gang of criminals has been put in the slammer, and you’re trying to escape, with the help of a useful contact and a convenient riot. So far so unsurprising, but the venue’s dedication to building immersion was immediately demonstrated when we were given T-shirts to pull on in a fetching shade of prison orange.
All escape games involve suspension of disbelief to one extent or another, but there’s still something incongruous about, say, finding a sudoku in a jail cell that gives the code to unlock the cell door. This game completely avoids anything of that sort, setting a high bar for realism right away and then sticking to it all the way through. There were plenty of cool ideas that I appreciated but had seen enough times not to get excited about (but which will definitely wow those seeing them for the first time); and there were a couple of ideas that were entirely new on me, which doesn’t happen very often these days. And all of those were exceedingly well suited to the setting, involving tasks that could easily appear in a movie not just in a puzzle game.
The set design is also detailed and convincing, busy without providing too many accidental distractions. Our team of two found plenty of points to confuse ourselves, and maybe some of the middle game is a little light on signposting, with several potential false trails and dead ends to confuse players; but that was only really a problem of knowing which of many different places to focus on in which order; everything made abundant sense when we paid sufficient attention to the right items. Lucardo also get points for the excellent in-character hint system and for finding a way to give a general indication of your remaining time without using anything as obvious as a 60 minute timer ticking down.
Most of all though, the whole thing comes together as a convincing, cohesive experience, full of memorable ideas and some extra twists to keep you on your toes. I’ve commented in other reviews that Lucardo are unabashed about using a great many padlocks and number codes in their game designs (not that there’s anything wrong with that, when done well); The Prison emphatically demonstrates that they can also build the opposite style of escape room too, and do so with a whole lot of skill and flair.