Crawley, Apr 2019
Nethercott Manor, the third game from Tulleys Escape Rooms, has sat at the top of my must-play game list ever since it opened, while garnering one rave review after another; it’s currently the highest ranked game on this site by player reviews. And it thoroughly lived up to expectations – with one very glaring problem, that will bother some players greatly and others not at all.
Tulleys’ usual superb production values are on display from the outset. The briefing takes place inside the room, but with the lights carefully darkened so players don’t get distracted or start solving early, and the result manages to be beautiful, atmospheric, and slightly creepy. Once the lights come up it’s perhaps a slightly ‘theme park’ version of realism, in that it’s all rather clean and glossy for an old haunted mansion, but it’s lovingly detailed and satisfyingly solid. Clue items are attractive, chunky and robust; environments are crammed with things to look at, while still managing not to distract with decorative red herrings.
Tulleys have been in the scare industry for many more years than they’ve been running escape rooms, but Nethercott’s chills are fairly mild. You can expect plenty of atmospherics and maybe a few startles, but nothing more intense. We were some way into the game before I realised that some of the jump effects were being used as hints, to draw our attention towards one or another part of the room. In theory that’s a nice idea, but in practice it was highly ambiguous whether a sound was encouraging us towards something or away from it, and I was grateful when our gamemaster switched to ghostly voices instead.
While the haunted manor contained rather a lot of numerical padlocks, these were used well with almost no room for doubt as to which code opened which lock. One puzzle near the end seemed wildly open to interpretation with many equally plausible ways to construct a code from the clues, but that was very much the exception, the only weak link I noticed in the vast sequence of different puzzles. And I noticed and appreciated the careful theming of the puzzles, the variety of tasks and the rock-solid reliability of the technology.
Above all Nethercott Manor is huge. Each area is packed with things to look at and do, and each time you think surely you’re nearing the end of the game, you find another area with another array of clues and puzzles to dive into. All of Tulleys games so far are large, challenging not so much because of puzzles that are individually difficult but because of the sheer quantity of content
Which brings me to Nethercott’s big weakness, which is: there’s just too much of it. That probably sounds like a bizarre thing to complain about; whoever objects to having too much of a good thing? But when you book in for this game, you need to be aware that you will very likely fail to complete it. I don’t mean just that most teams fail the room; I mean that the majority of skilled enthusiast teams will fail the room, even when playing well. There are of course impressive exceptions, but completing Nethercott in under an hour requires the sort of lightning efficiency that would have you walking out of most rooms around the 20-25 minute mark.
That efficiency requires not just speed but good division of tasks, in a way that means even if you do succeed, you’ll have missed significant parts of the game due to working on other areas in parallel. Bringing a large team helps somewhat, though it’s then very possible to end up badly bottlenecked on one or two potentially time-consuming tasks, if you happen to tackle things in a sub-optimal order.
The venue is well aware of the game’s extreme difficulty level: the success rate for teams playing Nethercott for the first time is a few percent or lower. They expect teams to fail, and suggest coming back for a second attempt (and may offer a discount for a return visit); the posted leaderboard times for the game includes teams who completed it on their second (or third?) attempt. For this reason, Tulleys are also highly reluctant to give failed teams a walk-through of the puzzles they didn’t get to.
My first reaction upon realising this was that it’s an outrageous way to operate. After careful reflection… well, I still don’t like it much at all. I wouldn’t want them to cut down such a sprawling, elaborate game to make it fit better inside a 60 minute time limit; but it badly needs a longer time limit. It would be entirely reasonable for them to offer it as an extended game at a premium price, and that would be vastly preferable to having to play it in two sessions, the first time ending in failure and the second requiring a replay of puzzles already solved.
Nethercott Manor is unquestionably amongst the U.K.’s strongest games, a huge and brilliant 90 minute game – it’s a terrible shame that they only allow teams to purchase two thirds of an experience. Skilled teams who divide and conquer well will have a fantastic time, but when playing Nethercott your expectation should be that you won’t see all of it, at least without coming back for a second attempt, and I think that caveat will significantly compromise the experience for many groups. With a longer game time I wouldn’t hesitate to give Nethercott a maximum rating, but as it is, I’d actually recommend most teams choose one of Tulleys’ other games ahead of it.