Exeter, Jun 2017
The Scarlet Shadow is a 1940s detective story dripping with noir cool. The titular Shadow is a legendary mask which you may recognise from their Heist game. While hot on the trail of this artefact, the intrepid adventurer Jack Armstrong has been kidnapped. Your task is to piece together what happened to him and who did it, and thereby rescue him and secure the artefact.
As that suggests, this game is built around theme and narrative. Pages of Armstrong’s journal emerge as the game progresses, slowly constructing a continent-crossing tale featuring a cast of dangerous dames, sinister academics and foreign colonels with ambiguous motives. The story is not just window-dressing, it’s an integral part of the game and paying attention to it is essential for finishing successfully. This extends to the puzzles along the way: several are along the lines of, find the right hidden number and enter it into a padlock – but in each case, it’s justified and supported by the story in a way that takes away the artificiality of that.
The flip side of this is that it requires more time spent reading than you’d normally expect from an escape room. Depending on your tastes, there’s nothing wrong with that… but I suspect some teams will find it more of a chore than a pleasure to trawl through the journal entries with precious seconds ticking away.
None of that should be taken to mean the game is based around padlocks and paper clues. The written information is accompanied by some lovely period-appropriate equipment, a clever bit of lateral thinking, and much else. The charm of the game is in the story, but it’s built on very solid game design with plenty of imaginative touches.
While there are currently two games at Red House Mysteries, these are the third and fourth escape games produced by the venue, with the first two having been retired and rotated out. The links between games go further than the mask that is a common goal between Heist and Scarlet Shadow – the character Jack Armstrong appeared in one of the original games, and it seems they’re gradually building up a continuity and a shared universe used by all their games (which includes other types of game too, with a play at home boxed game and an online puzzle hunt also available).
Be warned that most of this game is spent one thin door away from the reception area, so if you’re waiting in the venue while another team is playing it there’s a danger of overhearing spoilers.
Personally I give the edge to their Heist game over this one, due to its greater physicality. But offhand I can’t think of any game quite as successful as The Scarlet Shadow at building a vivid world and story, particularly with such a distinct style – somewhere between Indiana Jones and Philip Marlowe. A week after playing it I have a clear mental picture of not just the main character but every one of the characters on the suspect list – and with my often patchy memory, that’s quite an achievement.
To add to Toby’s review, we visited this room on a separate occasion the week after.
We were, for once, a little early for the appointed slot, and a quick phone call to the venue meant we could get going ahead of schedule. A little flexibility is always a nice bonus.
The venue itself is just off the quieter end of the main shopping drag through Exeter, and sits as part of a small business unit estate tucked away behind shops and housing. Quite close to another ER venue, I’m told.
Once through the main door, controlled by a buzzer/intercom lock, up the utilitarian shared staircase you immediately enter a very nicely dressed corridor.
A ‘noir’ feel is everywhere, in the rooms, reception and in the game itself – much work has been done to create an inviting and realistically themed space.
After the usual briefing and clarification about the plot from the enthusiastic and well informed host, the game began.
Faced with a single room initially, progress was fairly steady, with a variety of relatively common puzzles, but of particular note here is the vast array of typed sheets which appear throughout the game, and right from the start.
Ostensibly, to the player, these are just story points, or perhaps evidence in deciding who the real culprit is – after all, the point of the room is not really to escape, but to solve the crime.
For a narrative led story, it did feel inexplicably disengaging.
Whilst we had some clear protagonists in play, it wasn’t terribly obvious how seriously to take each piece of evidence, or even if something was useful or not. We picked our way through it, but it never felt as though we were solving a crime, merely solving a long figurative jigsaw puzzle the designers had set. Mixing wordy evidence sheets with a fixed time to “escape” never feels quite right.
On a far more positive note, as an escape room in itself, it does hold its own very well. Again, the strong decor and theming, with some excellent unique equipment, and use of sound and lighting as drama create an ambiance rarely seen. There’s some excellent set pieces, and surprises throughout.
We were also impressed by some of the unique puzzles, and that most obvious of escape room currencies – great “ah-ha!” moments along the way.
We escaped, as a pair, with a clue in around 45 minutes.