London, Jul 2018
It takes a pretty ballsy company to launch a set of escape games in London promising “the most immersive and high tech escape rooms you have ever experienced”. But marketing departments have a way of getting carried away, and while for most experienced players AIM Escape aren’t likely to live up to their own billing, they certainly do use plenty of tech and have some good-looking room designs. Their promo pics and design aesthetic have a particular style that I associate with game designs imported from the Russian market, which tends to mean strongly themed games with impressive sets and plenty of technology use, all of which are true here.
The first game I tried with them was Patient Zero 2150, set in a near-future laboratory hit by a containment breach. Your job is to get the lab under control and get out without contamination. That translates to a game with a strong sense of mission, driven by a sequence of objectives, where puzzles are presented in clear narrative terms.
Visual standards for escape rooms have been rising steadily, and the leading edge approach those of a Hollywood set; Patient Zero isn’t at that level, but should still wow most players, with an futuristic design executed well and enhanced with lighting and audio.
Of the four games listed on AIM’s website (two still to open when we visited), this one has the highest difficulty rating. Experienced players may find they do better than that suggests; we escaped Patient Zero in significantly less time than their theoretically-easier Psychopath game.
AIM had been open about a month when we visited, and in small ways it gave the impression of a venue recently opened and still settling down; there were a couple of tech/reset glitches such as a door left unlocked that allowed me to access an area earlier than intended. But the gamemaster managed to deal with those in a way that caused only a little confusion and which successfully kept the game on course. I wouldn’t expect that to be typical of the venue, although games with heavy tech use are often a bit more prone to small glitches.
Patient Zero is undoubtably impressive, and has potential to be among London’s top games – but for me fell short of that. That was partly because of a lack of clarity in some of the puzzles, such as one where the objective seemed ambiguously unclear until we received a hint telling us what we were trying to do. But it was also because it seemed that some of the technology had been added simply for its own sake rather than for how it could enhance the story and the game. Although well-used tech can really lift a game, I tend to be reliably more impressed by clever physical mechanisms over digital ones; sections involving one person doing something on a screen can feel like the high-tech equivalent of a sudoku or crossword in a room, in that it’s a one-person puzzle that players can easily play at home, and therefore inferior to something that makes better use of the escape room format.
Still, in the few places where Patient Zero uses tasks of this sort, it does so well, as part of a non-linear set of puzzles to prevent them from turning into bottlenecks; and those were only a few elements in a varied and sophisticated game. Ignore the hyperbole on AIM’s website and approach it with normal expectations, and you should have a great time.