London, Dec 2019
Well known in the U.S., Komnata made it to London last year and has been steadily opening games since. Doctor Frankenstein is one of two games at their initial location on Drury Lane, and is a theme that’s impossible to describe without repeated use of the word ‘steampunk’ – while there’s an obvious inspiration from the Mary Shelley novel, the visual style owes more to the sort of Camden stall that sells darkened goggles, Victorian waistcoats and masks decorated with metal cogwheels.
Our gamemaster informed us that the first task was to turn on the lights, which earned a wail of dismay from my teammate. The initial sequence might be tricky for those who struggle with low light levels, but was otherwise handled well, avoiding the usual pitfall of letting the players stumble around in darkness in a large area until they happen across the right switch.
Some of the steampunk stylings were lovely – I particularly liked the properly old-fashioned switches. While the overall effect was convincing, some of the decor looked a bit cheap on close inspection, modern fittings disguised with a quick slap of paint.
While enjoyable, the gameplay let itself down in small ways. We spent a while wondering what to do with one item before eventually realising it was intended to help with something we’d solved long before. I managed to avoid sinking lots of time into a ghost puzzle where they seemed to have replaced a mechanism with something easier without disabling the original version. And perhaps the coolest puzzle in the game was rather obviously manually triggered by the gamemaster, and I ended up narrating my actions out loud to make sure they were noticed: “Okay, so I’m turning the thing again… now”.
More than any of those, it felt rather bitty – a collection of disparate puzzles linked only by the diary of cryptic instructions that points you towards the game’s main puzzles. The book of hints is an over-used trope, and Komnata’s was thankfully free of random distraction text; but was still used in places as a crutch for weaker game design – if a puzzle only works with the help of separate written instructions, it’s probably not that great a puzzle.
Even so, Frankenstein was an acceptably enjoyable game. My various gripes added friction to the game experience but never seriously damaged it. It has the characteristics of many recent games from larger chains – investment in superficial glitz, a strict absence of padlocks, pre-recorded hint messages that are well themed but often hard to hear clearly, gameplay that’s stronger on individual puzzles than overall experience. The atmospheric decor will probably win over beginner groups more than experienced teams.