Northamptonshire, Aug 2018
I’m not going to mince words here: I hated this game. We played it as two teams of two, and our second group liked it even less. Reviewing escape games is inevitably subjective, but I try as best I can to separate out factors specific to my run-through of a game from underlying strengths and weaknesses, and from that point of view I’ll grant it credit for an effective grim flair in its design and good follow-through on its story. But a flood of problems minor and major drowned any enjoyment of the game in frustration.
Trapp’d have built some beautifully impressive game sets, and Dead On Arrival is (at least initially) surprising and disappointing for its lack of decoration: bare white walls with sparse decorations. It’s not that they didn’t bother; rather, it’s a deliberate design decision. This is a horror game where you’re trying to escape from a morgue, and it’s carefully decorated as a utilitarian and rather squalid place that you might find attached to some underfunded hospital in a rundown city. It’s actually refreshing that they’ve avoided the usual horror cliché of placing you in darkness, and have instead used coldly clinical bright lights for most of the game. That atmosphere is built further in various ways, most noticeably with a corner that literally stinks. That’s all admirable realism and attention to detail, but it doesn’t make it a very pleasant place to spend an hour.
A sequence of clever, well-designed puzzles would have left me appreciating its bleak design, but that’s not what we got. Running through an assortment of smaller gripes Powerpoint style:
- It’s fine to use a hidden sensor in an object to trigger something to open, but if there’s nothing to link the object to the sensor location then you’re reducing players to laborious guesswork.
- It’s not a disaster to break the ‘one key one use’ rule, but if you’re going to break it then make it clear you’re going to do so.
- If you release clue items for two different puzzles at the same time, make sure one set of items doesn’t physically match with the other in a way that makes them look related.
- With a multistep maths puzzle it’s good practice to give integer results at each intermediate step along the way, even if you’ve provided a calculator; when the numbers fill up the calculator screen with decimal places it’s usually a sign that you’re on the wrong track.
Each of those are pretty minor flaws, but I could keep going. An interesting sensory puzzle suffered by providing a tool that turned out to be useless, a clue that was ambiguous, and an answer mechanism that sometimes didn’t register a correct answer. (Part of that might have been due to a temporary tech failure, since the presence of the tool strongly suggested a different approach, one that would have worked much better.)
Most soul-crushingly horrible was a particular puzzle that involved combining four items to get a padlock code. There were a large number of permutations for ways to combine them, but should have been manageable; however, they combined in a way that obscured the very marks we were supposed to be looking at, and many of the marks were rubbed to near-invisibility by the fingers of previous players. After far too long trying and getting nowhere, with the gamemaster doling out partial hints that didn’t really address the problem, I gave up and told her I wanted to burn as many of our hints as it took to just be told the code.
Naturally, the venue has a policy of limiting hints to five per game. Most of the gripes above were in fact easy enough to get past, and individually would barely warrant a mention; but cumulatively undermined any faith in the game’s puzzles and meant trying to solve them felt something like cycling with a brake pad jammed against the back wheel.
Dead On Arrival was described as the most difficult of the games at Trapp’d’s Billing Aquadrome venue. It does indeed have a quantity of content that would be very satisfying if there were fewer problems with it. With some fixing it could be a grimly satisfying horror game; as it is I just found it joyless. The other two games at the venue are well worth getting out to the Aquadrome for, but I’d suggest giving this one a miss.