London, May 2018
Namco’s games arcade near Waterloo contains one of the more unusual escape room experiences I’ve played, and when I tried their original game a year ago it was also among the worst. The format is bizarre by UK standards, although apparently common in Japan: you have 765 seconds (that’s 12.75 minutes) to solve the room and exit, with no clues available. Their previous game had a very high difficulty level, and seemed intentionally designed as a challenge such that only a few percent of teams would beat it.
It’s also operated in the style of any other arcade activity, which is to say there’s no online booking – you turn up and see if it’s free, and queue if not. I’d felt reluctantly obliged to make a return visit ever since they swapped their game out for a new version, but not to the point of making a special trip there, so had developed a habit of dropping by any time I was passing through Waterloo with suitable teammates. The first couple of times I tried it was too booked up to get a slot, and when I finally managed to find it available they’d changed their game again – it’s now on its third incarnation.
Braced with masochistic semi-glee for a terrible game, we took in our stride the total disinterest of the bar staff who perform the gamemastering. There is very little for them to do (take your money, let you into the room and return thirteen minutes later to see how it went), though our host still struggled with that, being unable to open the lock to let us into the room. Eventually she told us the code and let us input it ourselves. Inside the room was simple but acceptable Oriental theming, marred by a garish strip of LED lighting.
And then the game started, and I was gobsmacked to find… a sequence of perfectly decent, well-designed puzzles. There are five puzzles in total (that’s explicit from before the game starts), and where the previous Namco game suffered from poorly written cryptic instructions and dubious logic gaps, each of the puzzles this time resolved clearly with no ambiguities. The first was pretty straightforward and the hardest was tough but fair.
We finished with a few minutes to spare then stood around until the host returned, and once she’d got over her surprise that we’d completed it she handed us a truly huge wad of arcade tickets with which to claim a prize; naturally, agreeing on what to take from their array of themed tat took far longer than it had to finish the game.
The result was that the painful experience we’d anticipated turned out to be thoroughly fun. That’s not a wholehearted recommendation for Namco’s latest, though. It was enjoyable because it went well and because our expectations were set so low; in the complete absence of a clue system, it would be very easy to get stuck partway through and spend the second half of the (very short!) game flailing around in frustration. The attitude of the operators doesn’t help at all, and with the price now at £30 per game it doesn’t represent great value for money. Since it’s now a much fairer game enthusiasts have a good chance of beating it, in which case the stack of prize tickets will leave a better taste in the mouth; though in true carnival tradition, any victory prize is worth less than the entry cost.
Even so, credit where it’s due: the current game is far superior to the one I played there previously. If you play it as a short puzzle challenge and not expecting it to be a normal escape room experience, then it’s decent fun. And should you beat it, there’s the extra thrill of winning some funfair prize you’d never have chosen to buy.