Gravesend, Nov 2017
Dino Land is a tricky game to review. It’s huge and impressive and silly, and I had a great time playing it. Be warned though that the emphasis is more on the theming and experience than the puzzle content, and for that reason some enthusiasts may find it not quite completely satisfying.
Following the premise of a certain 90s blockbuster movie, you find yourself in a dinosaur theme park where the prehistoric critters are running amok, and you must bring key park systems back online to escape. Each such system is dealt with in turn, structuring the game as a linear sequence of sub-missions involving different challenges and sometimes more dramatic set-pieces. With a 75 minute play time it’s longer than normal escape games, and has a larger footfall too.
Controversially, the game operators do not watch remotely via cameras – they’re in the game with you, in character as park rangers, who pop in and out as you make progress, giving you instructions, providing hints and sometimes ushering you to a new part of the game. We had mixed feelings about this. In general I’d argue there’s nothing wrong with having the host enter the game room as long as it’s done well and in character. Having the GM walk in to provide hints is sometimes a lazy option for lower quality venues, which breaks immersion, but a skilled (or at least enthusiastic) in-character performance can instead deepen immersion and make the game more fun and memorable.
Our ‘park rangers’ performed their roles with gusto in a way that did indeed make the game more entertaining for us. The biggest downside was that hints and help came faster than we wanted. Too much instruction kills the fun of a game by taking away the sense of accomplishment. We’d have preferred being left to struggle much more, and since my group finished the 75 min game in under 50 mins, it’s not that we were in danger of failing. Naturally, different groups have different experiences, and the level of help we saw may in fact be pitched correctly for typical groups, in which case I’d just recommend that experienced players ask beforehand the game for a low level of hinting.
On reflection, and after discussion with my teammates, I’m not sure having the hosts in the game quite works, at least with the current structure, for subtler reasons. At a couple of points there didn’t seem to be a good in-game reason why the rangers were asking us to fix problems rather than doing it themselves; knowing that they were around the corner or dropping in to ask how we were doing undermined immersion by making us feel supervised. The reality of an escape room may be that the operators try to support the players and make sure they don’t get too stuck, but should ideally, with some willing suspension of disbelief, leave them with a subjective impression of having overcome heroic odds to single-handedly (single-teamedly?) save the day. Most of the acting roles I’ve seen in other escape games have been antagonistic or neutral, or compromised in their ability to help in some other way. Here, the ‘park rangers’ characters are friendly, competent and knowledgeable, and that compromises the impression that everything’s down to the players; and the apparent arbitrariness of when they do and do not help leaves the scenario feeling more artificial.
I’ve dwelt at length on that aspect of the game because it’s unusual and because I suspect your reaction to it will have an outsized effect on how much you enjoy the game. But it shouldn’t overshadow the game’s many other qualities. It’s a big and lavish build full of impressive custom components. Different sections are bookended by sequences that achieve a good balance of drama and silly fun. The puzzles take a bit of a backseat, but there’s still plenty to get through with a decent mix of different puzzle types.
It’s full of cool moments and crazy ideas, many of which appear to have been packed in in a spirit of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ best exemplified by the gigantic dino statue in the venue’s lobby. The game is stronger on style than on substance, but apart from the too-quick hinting the substance was fine and the style was hella good. It’s the type of game where you might end up arguing about which was your favourite moment – although there’s one that’s should be a clear winner there.