Salisbury, Mar 2019
As their website will tell you, Salisbury Escape Rooms is the “only U.K. escape room run by detectives”, which is true to the best of my knowledge. And their current game does seem to draw on that, with a description that talks about investigating past crimes that have gone unsolved.
Based on that I was expecting perhaps a fairly dry, serious game, some kind of forensic examination of papers and evidence, probably with plenty of padlocks and filing cabinets. I was delighted to discover that Cold Case Unit is a far more playful, varied and lively game than that. In fact, the impression you get from the website is actively misleading, about both the style of the game and its theme – but since the venue seems to have made a deliberate decision to be cagey about the game’s story I’ll say no more here.
What I can say without spoilers is that it follows a sequence of well-defined stages, each with its own style and a set of puzzles tailored to that stage, as well as a video snippet to set the scene. Several of those puzzles are physical or skill based, and contrary to my expectations puzzles throughout are built with large, satisfyingly visual components not (for example) scrappy paper clues. I particularly liked one bit that I suppose technically counts as a jigsaw puzzle, but which must be one of the coolest ‘jigsaws’ I’ve seen in a room.
We played with three, which was a good number. A larger team might be faster on the sections that can be tackled in parallel, but would be crowded or bottlenecked elsewhere. There’s no time to waste though – I thought we were ticking along nicely without really getting stuck anywhere, and we still finished with only five minutes left. While the difficulty level is thoroughly approachable, the sheer quantity of puzzles to get through means I’d expect many less experienced teams to struggle to complete it on time. However, it sounds like the venue takes an admirably tolerant line on that, where even if you go over time you can probably play through to the finish.
Despite the strong theming, the separate stages could have done with a little more narrative resolution. Each sequence worked very well as a set of puzzles, and the theming was clear and appealing, but the end of each stage felt more like we’d run out puzzles than we’d resolved the original plot hook. However, the story arc for the overall game finished well, with a strong ending that resolves the original goal and ensures the game ends on a high.
Wessex Cold Case Unit is the venue’s fifth game, with no more than one game run at a time – each year they close their game and build a new one in its place. I didn’t play their earlier games, but on the evidence of their current one they’ve been diligent about honing and polishing their design skills. The result offers an array of puzzles refreshingly free from unwanted ambiguities, consistently fun, full of nice moments and creative ideas, for an escape room I’d warmly recommend for beginners and enthusiasts alike.