Porto, Nov 2017
Vera Cruz was the name originally given to the trans-Atlantic territories claimed by early Portuguese explorers that later became Brazil. This game’s premise is that you are the discoverers of that land, captured by a Spanish fleet at Madeira in your route home, trying to escape before your discovery is claimed by the Spaniards.
At time of writing I’ve played six games in Portugal, and of them Vera Cruz had the most ambitious and elaborate decor. It’s certainly not flawless, having some items marked as off-limits with stickers, a low piece of ceiling covered with hazard tape, and at one point a type of door that is very clearly modern (though covered to make it less glaring). Starting equipment includes a walkie talkie and a stopwatch, which also jars with the 15th Century setting. But as long as you’re not a stickler for details like that, you’ll likely be impressed with the visuals here.
On the other hand, Occultus have opted for a style of decoration where almost everything is immovably bolted down. I guess this helps keep players’ attention focused on the right places, and probably reduces game reset time too, but personally I find it makes a game feel less involving and more artificial. By reducing the number of moving parts it also leaves the room feeling surprisingly sparsely decorated, despite the otherwise impressive set.
Our experience was that the game felt quite stop-start. One reason for that was that it required plenty of searching, including a couple of hiding places that to me were pushing the bounds of what’s reasonable, though we did eventually find both without hints so I suppose I can’t object too much there. Separately, several puzzles were designed in a way that tends to interrupt flow. A couple let players do the right thing but had no effect until they figured out a further additional step. Another was ambiguous in a way that may leave teams guessing between two or twelve possible codes, depending on how observant they are; another needed the players to continue doing the right thing even though it initially might have little visible effect. All of those were small things but meant the game hit points of friction or frustration more than it needed to.
In other respects, it’s thoroughly high quality. It avoids standard combinations locks and codes in favour of hidden mechanisms, period-appropriate locks and custom components. There is a lovely progression to the game that follows the theme and story, for an unexpected and cool finale. I wanted to like it more than I did, and felt that numerous small details of the puzzle design held it back from being as enjoyable as the quality of the build deserves, but it was still a good game well worth playing.
The venue has one interesting quirk I haven’t seen elsewhere. The game doesn’t end when you open an exit door, but when you get back to the entrance lobby, which has a finish line marked on the floor for you to race across. While that could be an odd transition, finishing a game set on historical Madeira with a dash down a whitewashed corridor, it does ensure than teams finish in a final burst of excitement and adrenaline.