Brighton, Oct 2019
Despite having been to Brighton any number of times, I was completely unaware of Preston Manor. It seems it’s an Edwardian manor house well preserved as a museum piece, with a relatively unimposing exterior but rather stunning inside, interesting for the snapshot of long-gone lifestyles and impressive for the finery of the showpiece rooms. This is the setting for a pop-up game currently planned to run for one week only, though it sounds like there’s a chance of additional future runs. I should make clear that I played an early test game, and it’s entirely possible some tweaks and small changes will have been made by the time it opens to the public.
The game is designed a lot like a murder mystery, without any murder. The old Lord of the manor has died (of natural causes), and his will can’t be found. To recover it, and ensure the manor doesn’t pass to the obligatory pantomime villain, you need to investigate the five individuals who were closest to the deceased and work out which of them he trusted the most.
That plot reflects the highly structured game sequence, which progresses through five different rooms each with its own set of puzzles, before reaching a final denouement where you have to pick one of the five characters. This gives a somewhat different feel to the game, where it’s a bit closer to a guided experience than a normal room. The host was energetically in character, and not only accompanied us throughout but also introduced each room; she was an active presence not someone lurking quietly in the corner. You can expect your host to be fairly free with small nudges too, since teams are kept from falling too far behind the expected time for each section; I found that less intrusive that I normally might precisely because there was already a lot of interaction with our host.
Frankly, we would have very likely messed up the final decision without some gentle nudging from out host. Making the right choice requires paying attention and picking up one or two key pieces of information during the game; being far too focused on the puzzles, I entirely missed them. That would be a problem, but the host is there as a safety net for those equally distracted.
With the puzzles set amongst the museum pieces it wasn’t always straightforward to know which items we could get hands-on with and which not, especially in one search-based area. Once again, the host was on hand to provide clarifications as needed.
Each of the fives areas was a very neatly self-contained mini-game. What worked really well was how each section had a distinct style of play, tying into the room in which it was set and the story character it related to. A couple of puzzles were of types I reliably dislike, for reasons that I don’t think are purely subjective, but leaving those aside it was designed throughout with the good puzzle sense and imagination that you’d expect from a company as well respected as Pier Pressure.
Preston Manor certainly has a lot to solve, and you’ll have to be quick to get through everything without nudges from the host. But you should expect something that’s noticeably more curated and guided than other games; and the finale uses a dynamic that’s more like a murder mystery dining experience (without the food 😛) than an escape room puzzle. I’d describe it as a site-specific hybrid game that blends escape room with other elements; if you play expecting something more freeform then you might find the format frustrating, but otherwise it’s an unusual game full of smart puzzles set in a fascinating and unique building.