Oxford, Feb 2017
If you’re reading these reviews in order, you’ll have noticed that I wasn’t hugely impressed with City Mazes. Entering their fourth and allegedly hardest room I thought things were looking up. As with their other games, Star Breaker is divided into two distinct halves, with no carry-over from one half to the other – you’re effectively playing two separate mini-escapes. I suspect the main reason for this is to allow each half to be reset while the other is being played, so that they can offer slots one hour apart.
The first half is a little cramped, but pleasantly decorated, and more importantly consists of a couple of coherent, well-designed puzzles that were entirely successful. No laminated paper instructions here, the clues are symbolic, it requires thought to crack, and once the solution is seen it fits so neatly that you know it’s correct before trying it; and applying it requires good teamwork and communication. I might take all that for granted elsewhere, but here it was a breath of fresh air.
Progressing into the second half of the game, first impressions were also good: a large area that looked good and had a big, somewhat physical puzzle as its centrepiece. Alas, it didn’t live up to appearances. We did waste some time and two clues getting the room started, and while I can think of small tweaks that would improve the puzzle here, that one is squarely on us with no fault to the room. What was really disappointing was that the design of the main puzzle requires you to backtrack repeatedly – effectively you need to do a task several times in different permutations, remembering the answer given by each task as you do it, then re-do something you probably solved earlier so as to be able to input those answers; and then possibly repeat everything one or more times if you’ve made any errors or misremembered anything.
I struggle to understand why they’d design the puzzle that way. One reason might be because the components were easier to wire up that way, which would be laziness or cost-cutting at the expense of providing a good experience. Or it might be a deliberate decision so as to make the puzzle ‘harder’ and more time consuming. Needless to say, making a game tougher by making tasks more repetitive, unnecessarily time-consuming or error-prone is not a good design choice. I suspect it’s intended to slow teams down, because otherwise there would be no reason not to just provide the team with pen and paper, so they don’t need to memorise multiple codes at the same time.
All of that could be hugely improved with some re-wiring. The problem is that this would then still be a game with only three puzzles. They’re fairly large puzzles, and one of them involves doing essentially the same thing multiple times, but still: without the annoying, pointlessly time-wasting aspects to the game, it would be badly short of content. As it was, we ended up failing after adding on a penalty of 3 minutes for each of three hints.
Star Breaker, and also their other three rooms, comes across as either poorly play-tested or like it was designed and tested by people who didn’t really get how to build puzzles. The complete absence of coherent story could be excused if the puzzles were high-quality; but one puzzle after another is badly flawed in ways that seem like it ought to be easy to identify and fix. That those flaws remain unaddressed doesn’t say much good about the company. Teams could certainly come here and have a fun time, particularly if they don’t mind being pushed towards the intended solutions by a succession of hints, but I just want to stop people at the door and encourage them to find somewhere with better rooms.
Star Breaker is not a space game. However, stars are (eventually) involved, so whilst yet again there’s no real back story, there is at least a bit of theming…
The first half of Star Breaker isn’t bad at all. As this was our final game, we had learnt enough of the routine to cut short the initial clues. It’s frustrating to have the first puzzle of a room handed to you on a plate. Solving the first puzzle, then, was satisfying. (And for once, it really is a puzzle, with some cooperative work to do.)
Sadly, the second half of the game was an ambitious idea that fell short of expectations.
We really couldn’t believe that the game would be designed to require you to reset and re-do a lengthy procedure several times (even in the best case). Without too much by way of spoilers (really though, I don’t expect you’ll want to play these games), we had to determine a series of codes based on a time consuming task. However, once we had the code, we couldn’t test it to know if we’d got it right until we’d completed another time consuming task, which erased the first. Effectively, it took several minutes to obtain a solution and several more to test it. If we were wrong (we were out-by-one a few times!) we had to rinse and repeat – there was no way to tweak it and try again. Moreover, there were three of these to do. We found ourselves in an endless cycle of repetitions – which quickly stopped being fun, and just became a chore.
Oh and in this room, unlike all the other rooms, the twiddly little bits in the painted iconography actually were significant. We learnt that after a few false moves!
In each of the 4 rooms at City Mazes, I could point to a significant portion of the game that had clearly been geared to slow us down without adding any additional play or content. Those aspects frustrated us the most, and really weren’t necessary. It seems like they are a budget solution to a problem that could be solved by designing a few more puzzles, and making sure they’re fun to play.
At one point, we almost decided that since we knew everything we had to do to get out of the room, and doing it was such a time-waster, we might as well just go for dinner. We nearly did!