London, Sep 2017
It’s taken me a long time to get out to the cluster of games at Room Lockdown in Hornchurch, partly because it’s a longer journey than some venues outside London, and partly because I had low expectations for the games. The company has five different games with a sixth under construction, more than almost any of the other venues inside the M25. They use an open booking system where you may end up playing with strangers – though my impression is that this rarely happens in practice, except perhaps at peak weekend times, and our team of two had the games to ourselves.
We started with their horror game, Possessed Doll. The story here, given via an in-room intro video, involves two buildings burning down a century apart, each time due to arson by a different small girl with the same sinister doll. You start in a creepy living room (wait, didn’t the building burn down?), with the task of finding the doll before your time runs out and you die a fiery death.
The room decor exceeded my initial low expectations. This venue uses red stickers to mark items you shouldn’t move, and there are plenty of these stickers as well as boxes concealing room mechanisms marked with ‘danger – high voltage’ signs. But if you’re willing to overlook those, it’s atmospheric and suitably spooky. (Part of the game is in darkness, but they get points for including refreshingly powerful torches that for us had zero problems with dodgy batteries.)
There’s less to enjoy in the actual puzzles. We got off to a slow start there, scouring the room for a full ten minutes before we managed to make much progress; but after that we had a better idea of the style of the game, and things went more smoothly. The style of puzzle here involves plenty of searching, often finding numbers or digits written on walls or items and working out how to combine them into padlock codes. The challenges weren’t so much in solving anything but in spotting which possible sources of numbers for codes were the correct ones to use, or working out the intended order in which to combine digits, or in not looking in a couple of frankly unreasonable search locations. To be fair, most of those frustrations were earlier in the game – the puzzle quality picked up thereafter, though was still very much run of the mill for escape rooms.
However, if you play this game you may get a completely different set of puzzles to the ones I played. Uniquely to my knowledge, the operators periodically do a complete refresh of the puzzles in each of their games, aiming to update them once every six weeks. Their goal here is to allow players to come back and play the same rooms again. That’s an ambitious idea, and must involve a great deal of work behind the scenes to constantly create new puzzles and props for their games. However, I suspect it also pushes them towards puzzles that can be easily swapped in and out, with yet another set of clues based around writing some numbers or symbols somewhere.
Even though the puzzles were a bit weak and sometimes frustrating, I had a good time playing the room. It’s all about the jump scares, and the operators go to considerable lengths to create a silly-scary experience. The style is campy Halloween horror, where they want players to startle and shriek and giggle. If that appeals, and you take the sometimes flawed puzzles in your stride, you’ll enjoy the game.
The Room Lockdown GMs and owners are an enthusiastic pair and deserve praise for what they’ve created. They clearly love making games, and the fact that they are steadily redesigning and replacing the games one at a time is an indication that their puzzle craftsmanship should improve over time. Their rooms are well decorated (although on occasion some distracting artefacts from previous versions of a game have seeped through, which is a shame).
It was fun to play the Possessed Doll game, and I’d say they struck a good balance of campy horror, mini jump scares, and gameplay. A few times we found ourselves with multiple escape-room-trope possible solutions to a puzzle. To their credit, on quite a few occasions those solutions weren’t the right thing to do and they’d come up with something unexpected. A counterpoint to that is that the signposting towards solutions to certain puzzles needs to be improved or increased to help us rule out certain possibilities and rule in others. There were a few puzzle solutions I truly don’t think I would ever have arrived at without a hint. (That said, our search – as always – is our weakness, and we definitely missed a thing or two that would have helped, too!)