Central London, Oct 2018
Previously seen at the Vault festival at the start of the year with their team vs. team pop up Lifeboat, mostly harmless… returns with a new full-length game. I say ‘new’, but the commonality with their previous production is easy to spot – a similar sci-fi setting, some familiar decor and a couple of shared puzzles. You could even describe it as an extended version of the same game, though very much adjusted and polished; but despite the couple of puzzles I remembered from Lifeboat it was distinct enough that it’s absolutely worth playing even if you’ve played its predecessor.
Your mission is to board a derelict spacecraft and salvage its cargo of uranium before the background radiation cooks you like a microwave dinner. This is cheerfully explained by the host, in character as your captain, with the confidence and gusto that suggests a background in theatre. The briefing area might just be the smallest I’ve seen anywhere; they’ve clearly chosen to use as much of their available space as they can on the actual game, and if you play with the maximum team of four you’ll be cheek to jowl for the intro.
It’s very clear that Phobos 17 is a labour of love, and the surprisingly sophisticated set design combines with back-to-basics choices such as a hint system which involves shouting to the gamemaster through the door. This works where in a more solemn game it might not, because everything is handled in an energetically light-hearted style that will strike a chord with fans of Red Dwarf and Douglas Adams. This humour is in fact one of the great strengths of the game. From the initial briefing through to the little printed notes you find that present clues in the form of sarcastic messages between crew members, everything sparkles with character and wit. The confirmation email suggested an optional dress code, and this is absolutely the sort of game where you could turn up in costume if you fancied it.
Underpinning that humour is a well-designed game with a very clear structure, where the design of the puzzles helps you focus in on the right things at the right time. That’s a welcome improvement from Lifeboat, which I found quite confusing – though that may have been due to not the puzzle structure but a combination of the shorter time limit, the public booking system and the ambitious format that combined competitive and cooperative elements.
I did find Phobos 17 quite short. Our play-through went smoothly so it may seem less short for others; still, I suspect it relies on a couple of trickier ‘aha’ puzzles to keep average completion times from dropping too low. (Our finish time benefitted from accidentally stumbling across the correct answer for a lock when we attempted an incorrect answer that by chance was almost identical to the correct one.)
Because of that it struck me as a light, rather brief game. It’s an excellent choice for a team of two, and in any case I’d suggest going with fewer than the stated maximum of four. But even if it’s less substantial than many games, I found it irrepressibly fun throughout, and as an experience it compares well to many much longer-established and higher-budget London escape rooms.
As a pure escape room, it’s well decorated if not spectacular; the puzzles are logical and reasonable if not blinding; as a pure game then this would fall firmly into the 3.5-4 bracket. However what made this so good for me was our host the Captain, who turned a simple room into a near immersive theatre experience, full of tongue in cheek jokes which took the game far above the sum of its parts.