Peterborough, Feb 2017
It was with some wide-eyed excitement that I booked a slot for three at Merlin, Thinking Outside The Box’s second room. Excitement mainly because their previous room “Stranded!” is one of my favourite UK rooms and I had been checking their page every other day to see slots open up for the first time.
It’s the second “wizardy” room in Peterborough, but other than a vague similarity in theme, there’s no crossover whatsoever.
Parking is ample, given the location set at the base of a large multi storey car park, and a very warm welcome was provided despite our early arrival. There’s plenty of choice in terms of nearby food – this venue is centrally located in the Cathedral city.
The venue’s foyer is spacious and contains some nice wooden puzzle boxes to keep you amused whilst you wait for the main action to occur – a particularly nice one is the “skyscraper” one, so if you end up trying them, check that particular one out. They also provide bottled water for teams, which I think is a great idea and adds some welcome hospitality which matches the hosts’ warmth and enthusiasm well.
A dramatic and clever start to the room experience kicks things off before you even set foot inside Merlin’s cave, and once inside, it gets even better. TOTB have knocked the styling, theming and set dressing out of the park. The Stranded room does a great job of immersing you in a desert island situation, despite being in a car park in Peterborough, yet for Merlin, they’ve turned the dial up even more. There’s space in the room aplenty, and there’s a lovely juxtaposition between old-school wooden puzzles, props and high technology throughout the hour. The focus is not on actually escaping – I’m fairly sure the door is left open. Getting out isn’t the point.
Writing escape room reviews without spoiling set pieces, providing information about the puzzles or saying too much about the theme is difficult. Room owners are rightly precious about their creations, so finding the line between being able to enthuse without revealing anything is tough. It’s especially true here, but I shall try..
As a three, it felt about right number for this room in terms of difficulty- we split into a pair and a singleton initially. A list left for Merlin’s helper helps guide you through the initial parts of the challenge, we were dealing with plants, recreating an ancient city and hunting for hidden items. So far, so ordinary… except everything felt like it was flowing so perfectly. An incredibly intricate and cleverly designed interactive clue system is there not just to help players solve the puzzles and mysteries of Merlin’s Cave, but also to entertain and act as part of the narrative itself.
It. Works. Brilliantly.
It also allows a unique experience for each team too, which was explained in full afterwards to the review team.
As we made steady but unspectacular progress, the room opened out and gradually we were being asked to make use of all of our senses and faculties. At the back of my mind was still a feeling of “what’s the end goal?” and part way through the hour, it was revealed to some fanfare.
The designers’ background in Theatre is evident again, as lighting and sound is used expertly to keep the storyline going, and creates an ambience which means the immersion is never lost. I barely remember any padlocks, too, which means they fit well into the storyline.
A more physical game left us slightly foxed and resulted in doing the Wrong Thing for a short while, but that simply added a bit of post-realisation mirth to proceedings rather than frustration at lost time.
Come the “third act”, we were solving some of the toughest puzzles in the room, and building the solutions together to achieve the goal of the room – some excellent parallelisation of tasks at this stage required us to split up individually again. We didn’t need to solve everything to “escape”, but that’s somewhat the point. It’s a smart gameplay technique that avoids the need for requiring an answer to everything. The more you have, the better, of course to reward the more able teams.
This room would work pretty well for an experienced pair – I’d suggest three or four for experienced teams would be the optimum number.
So much care, love and attention has been put into this room. It’s the antithesis of the “franchised” room-by-numbers. Is it 2nd gen, 3rd gen? Who cares? It’s fantastically enjoyable and challenging in just the right ways.
An hour of escape room bliss.
Well. 50 minutes in our case, but you get the point.
Peterborough is fast becoming an ER hotspot, and the two games at TOTB are the cream of the crop.
I’m reliably won over by games that go the extra mile on small details. For example, the game intro, where the standard approach is to play a video or have the host describe the back story. Living up to their name, Thinking Outside The Box take a much more creative approach to their lead-ins, with each of the two games I’ve played there having a different on-theme start. With Merlin this is an interactive and wittily, tongue-in-cheek immersive sequence that the owner delivered with aplomb.
The same quality shines through in the in-game hinting, with a hint system you must first unlock and which then acts as a source of entertainment as well as help throughout the game.
Starting in what appears deceptively like a dark and mostly empty cave, the game rapidly springs to life with some engagingly physical tasks from the outset. It’s full of interesting puzzle ideas, attractive custom components and extra amusing little touches.
For me, a few aspects of this game detracted from its many strengths. The beautiful decor didn’t stand up quite so well to close inspection, with stone walls being revealed as flimsy styrofoam (which is fair enough really, but I’ve seen more robust versions). UV ink was used in a way that created an entirely unnecessary bottleneck exactly at the point which should have most rewarded divide and conquer tactics. And the big final puzzle was just more ambiguous than it should have been, which took the edge off what ought to have been a great climax. That may have just been us overthinking it, but there seemed to be at least three reasonable ways to combine the clues and a couple of options for how to then employ them. We were also attempting to use the clues with one missing, having skipped a puzzle (I know, I know, but we weren’t sure how close we were to running out of time and panicked a little, okay?), which made it more painful than it should have been.
I may be at risk of dwelling too long on criticisms there, perhaps because Chris covered the game’s qualities in detail above. Merlin is a lovely game infused with the designer’s clear love of puzzles and drama. There’s a clear difficulty gradient as it progresses, and a triumphant finale to close off the game. The owner’s care for the players’ experience was obvious not just before and during the game but also afterwards, where he went through a list of things he’d noticed us do while playing: not some kind of assessment or score, but a way to highlight each player’s contribution and remind us of funny moments we might have forgotten.