Portsmouth, Jun 2017
Outbreak is not a normal escape room. It is a hybrid blend of escape room with immersive scare attraction, and that makes it difficult for me to rate in the normal way because what it’s aiming for is significantly different.
The format consists of a series of mini rooms. You have eight minutes in each, with two minutes in a connecting area in between each one. In each room you have a short series of puzzles to solve which, if completed successfully, lets you collect a vial of antidote. Whether you succeed or not, when the time is up you need to exit the room and move on. If you get the vial early you need to wait until the time is up before exiting.
The areas between rooms do not contain puzzles, but sometimes contain instructions for the subsequent rooms. They’re decorated to the same high standard as the main rooms, and both these and the puzzle rooms sometimes contain live actors who may be in varying states of zombie infection.
This then is a game that can be played for the puzzles, for the scares, as an immersive experience, or for some combination of those; and can be evaluated for each of those separately.
Atmospherics are high quality and effective. Inspect some of the walls too closely and the illusion gives way, when stone turns out to be moulded plastic; but the rest of the time the industrial set works beautifully, with various combinations of darkness and smoke and flashing lights putting the players on edge. And opportunities to stop and peer at the walls are scarce, since as the game proceeds it’s increasingly non-stop and focused on interactions with the actors.
As an immersive theatre experience it’s great fun. I counted at least nine different actors involved in our game, and the two with whom we had the longest interactions were particularly good, throwing themselves into their roles with gusto.
But since this is an escape room review site, that’s the angle from which I need to judge it. The puzzle content appears to have been carefully selected to cover a range of skills, with a communication task, a search task, a physical task, and so on. Actually, several tasks throughout the game err on the side of being more physical, which is fitting enough. Near the beginning of the game the emphasis is much more on puzzles and escape room style content, and gradually transitions away from that towards the theatrical elements, with the finale involving pretty much zero puzzles.
We found the first room pretty simple and had to stand waiting for a couple of minutes, vial in hand, until the time ran out and we could continue. Thereafter we finished each room close enough to the time limit for there not to be a lengthy pause. Hints for the puzzles are readily forthcoming, often from an actor in the room, rather too quickly for my taste; I’d have preferred to be left to struggle more, even if that had meant failing some of the rooms. For their typical clientele, the pro-active help is probably pitched exactly right, though.
Given that we came close to running out of time in several of the rooms despite receiving ample hints, I’d like to claim that the puzzles were fiendishly difficult. That’s not the case, with the difficulty level raised by the distractions of being surrounded by zombies, by noise and dim lighting and time pressure. But while there aren’t a huge number of puzzles, I liked what there was, particularly the hands-on nature of some of the design.
While the game overall is highly immersive, the puzzles are placed in the rooms purely as puzzles to solve – there’s no attempt to integrate them as part of the storyline, other than the fact that the reward for solving them is a vial of antidote. I do think that’s a missed opportunity. With a hybrid game like this it’s only to be expected that it have fewer puzzles than a normal escape room, but with so much effort invested in the theatrical experience it’s a shame that the puzzles weren’t designed to more obviously tie into the theme and story.
A couple of other reservations: it uses colour-based puzzles in a couple of places which were okay for us despite the variable lighting, but which could be highly frustrating for players with colour blindness. Players will also need a decent level of physical mobility. We played with a team of three, which is one fewer than the official minimum; with the maximum team size of eight it would get extremely cosy.
Note also that it uses a public booking system, where if you book for fewer than eight then other people may join your team. I suspect I’d mind that less in this game than in other escape games, but it increases the odds of the game feeling crowded.
There’s a bit of a risk of this game falling between two stools. If you’re mainly looking for a room full of challenging puzzles you might find it light on content, and if you like zombie scares and experiential theatre then you might think that the puzzles break immersion and throw off the experience. But as long as you fall into the large overlapping area in the Venn diagram of escape room fans and scare aficionados, you should have a great time.
Full disclosure: we were invited to play this game for free for review purposes.