Southampton, Jul 2018
Assigning ratings to escape rooms is rarely easy, and it’s much harder when a game is ambitious and inventive in a way that gives it the potential to stand out, but then undermines that potential with the way it’s implemented – it can mean wildly different experiences for different teams, which no single rating score can adequately capture. And it’s exceedingly hard to write a review for such a game when the most important feature, the one that is its most original and divisive feature, is something that can’t be fully described for fear of spoilers.
So, some context: Exciting Escapes seem to have (deservedly) done very well over the last year, rapidly opening new games and expanding to Basingstoke, with a third branch opening soon in Portsmouth. Each of their other games is based in a specific decade in the 20th Century. This one breaks their mould in that it has a futuristic setting, uses a different briefing area, and is also longer than normal with a 75 min time limit. The visual style is different too, swapping the detailed historical accuracy of their other rooms with a brash spaceship interior.
At the time I wasn’t entirely sure where the Spies of the game’s name come in, since the briefing told us we were being taken on a tour of the spaceship HMSS Shirley; but the website description clarifies that we were operatives in search of suspected sabotage. Naturally, disaster strikes and you need to avert a catastrophe.
One unusual feature of the game I think is safe to mention: during the game, the gamemaster makes an appearance in the room with you. This is done in character, and for good reasons. Even so I found it very jarring, interrupting the flow of the game and breaking immersion.
Spies in Space also uses communication tasks in a significant way, as a major part of the game (details omitted for spoiler reasons). I loved the idea but not how it played out in practice, mostly for one reason: half our team were barely audible to the other half. This may have been due to when we played it, with aircon recently added to the room to cope with the summer heatwave, adding unwanted background noise. But I suspect it would have been a struggle anyhow, in a way that seemed very avoidable had the game used better comms technology.
The rest of the game was excellent, with puzzles well themed to the setting, a great progression through the space and a couple of memorably cool moments. The high tech environment is sometimes built using surprisingly low-tech, purely mechanical constructions, which might sound incongruous but which I found appealing.
At the same time, it felt in need of some tightening up. The communication issues that undermined a key part of the game were one such example. Another was with a puzzle that appeared to provide no benefit when completed. That’s a small thing, but stuck out to me as one way in which the game design seemed to fall short of its obvious high potential. Some relatively small changes could make exactly the same puzzle more rewarding to complete. Similarly, there might be ways to take the unfortunate necessity of having the gamemaster enter the room mid-way and turn it into a big dramatic moment in a way that increases immersion instead of breaking it.
Which all leaves me with having enjoyed a great deal of the game, and admired much of it, but still with some significant hesitations about recommending it. For a reliably enjoyable escape room, you might be better off trying one of Exciting Escapes’ others first. If you’re happy to risk some frustration, take a chance on Spies in Space for something that’s both more flawed but also more special.