Thursday 26 October 2023

Next Level Escape - Forest of Echoes Review (Sydney)

Hi all

In October 2023, my usual team of 4 returned to Next Level Escape to play their latest room, Forest of Echoes.  We have played all of the other rooms designed by Next Level over the years (including online rooms and even some pop-up rooms at cons) and we have always loved their rooms.  They are rooms designed by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, and it shows.

Forest of Echoes was our 229th escape room.  The summary of the room from their website is as follows:

All right, scouts! Are you ready for your big adventure in the woods? Don’t mind the rumours about the forest being haunted by spirits, we’re pretty sure it’s all nonsense and poor old Sam will find their way back one day soon. After all, time can pass very quickly in there; morning to noon to evening to night and before you realise, it’s morning again! Stay safe in the woods, scouts – it’s everyone’s responsibility!

Here is what I thought of Forest of Echoes:

·        the famous Next Level Escape sense of humour that we have come to love and expect was included in our experience in Forest of Echoes.  Our game master (er, scout leader) took us through our mission briefing and then led the way into the forest…;

·        the space in Forest of Echoes is truly beautiful.  An immense amount of work has clearly gone into the construction of the room – all surfaces inside the space have been considered and hand-crafted, which really adds to the immersion.  Adding to this are the impressive lighting and soundscape;

·        there is a really strong backstory to the room and I think it is true to say that every single puzzle has been designed so as to link back to that backstory.  That sounds like a pretty simple premise, but this is something that so many rooms do not do well.  The backstory in Forest of Echoes is really strong and very well-considered [Quick side note – you can check out an interesting article by Scott Nicholson, a Canadian professor of game design and development, here with respect to the undeniable link between great back stories and immersive escape rooms]

·        the most unique element of Forest of Echoes is a mechanism which allows players to control the time of day or night.  The entire experience has been designed around this aspect, as different puzzle elements appear/react at different times of the day/night.  Purely from a design perspective, this is uber cool as it allows for various different experiences to occur within the same space.  The mechanism worked perfectly and it soon became abundantly clear just how much hidden tech there is in the space to make everything work; 

·        Forest of Echoes is a non-linear (or multi-linear) room, which tends to suit my team over a linear room (as it allows us to divide and conquer).  However, although the room is a non-linear room, some puzzles need to be solved (or even identified) at different times of the day/night, so our team generally worked together on each puzzle.  The signposting is subtle in the room, so players will need a keen eye and attention to detail in some aspects to discover all of the puzzles (and their solutions).  However, the game master (scout leader) is always available to assist newer players in particular;

·        as far as the difficulty level of the room, I think Forest of Echoes is pretty challenging. We escaped (from memory) in about 62 minutes of the allowed 90 minutes, but I don’t feel like we were speeding through at any point in time;

·        Forest of Echoes is certainly one of the most high-tech rooms that we have played.  The lighting (as well as other aspects) plays a really pivotal role in the space, given the time changing mechanism. On that front, this room will also appeal to that part of the market that that love magic magnetic/RF car reader mechanisms over more traditional padlocks (as there are none of the latter in sight in Forest of Echoes); and

·        the room is only available for players 16 years or older.  This is due to some light sexual and drug references, as well as the fact that there are many breakable elements in the room.

Our team was talking afterwards about Next Level Escape’s rooms and we agreed that their 5 rooms on offer (as well as their online rooms and previous pop-up rooms) are all so very different.  The common denominator to all though is their humour, great puzzles, high quality theming and the fact that they ensure that players have a great experience. We really enjoyed Forest of Echoes and can’t wait to play their next room.

Where:                        Next Level Escape

Duration:                    90 minutes

Themes:                      5

Cost:                           $60 per person (assuming team of 4)

Overall Rating:           A beautiful and unique narrative driven adventure

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Mission Sydney - Intruders Review (Sydney)

Hi all

In October 2023, my usual team of 4 returned to Mission Sydney to check out their latest room, Intruders.  They kindly invited us to return some months before, but it took us that long to sort ourselves out (as this was certainly not a room that we could bring our daughters to).

Intruders was the only Mission Sydney game to date that I hadn’t yet played.  In fact, our second ever game way back in September 2014 was Mission Sydney's Vampire Castle.  You can see my review of that room,  here (and the room is still available to play today).

Some 226 rooms later, Intruders was our 228th escape room. The summary of the room from their website is as follows:

A hospital outside a town was mysteriously abandoned a few years ago and the local council has ordered the hospital to be demolished in the early hours of this morning. There have been reports of alarms sounding at night from inside the hospital and the initial investigation team disappeared for an unknown reason.  You have heard that a YouTube director who investigates paranormal activities has organised an urban exploration before the hospital is demolished. For your own personal reasons, you asked if you could join as part of his film crew.  You only have 90 minutes to sneak into the hospital to discover why the hospital was abandoned before the demolition crew arrives.

Here is what I thought of Intruders (apologies if it’s a case of TLDR…):

·        Intruders was genuinely fantastic.  Before we started, our game master said that she really hoped that we would like the room, but noted that it was different to a typical escape room. And she was right – Intruders is not your typical escape room.  There are probably only half a dozen traditional style escape room puzzles in Intruders, but that’s not the main drawcard here;

·        Intruders is described as “escape room theatre”, which is exactly what it is.  Some of my favourite experiences over the past 9 years have been immersive theatre experiences set in an escape room (or adjacent) world, such as Monroe & Associates (a superb spy-themed experience set in a caravan) and Art Heist (a brilliant art heist-themed room set in an art gallery).  But these were temporary, pop-up offerings only. Whilst a few permanent escape rooms have included a game master NPC actor inside the space, I wouldn’t describe any of those as true immersive theatre;

·        I am genuinely happy to confirm that with Intruders, Sydney-siders have a permanent immersive theatre offering.  The experience begins standing outside of an abandoned hospital. You are part of a YouTube crew looking to get some footage of some paranormal activities going on inside the hospital;

·        our YouTube director was “George”, a young up and coming director with high hopes for his future career (which hadn’t quite taken off yet).  George’s performance throughout was brilliant – he ensured that all 4 of us were engaged and involved, pushed us all at different times out of our comfort zone, cracked jokes, made weird music references and gave us nudges in the right direction where needed (without spoiling anything at all).  Immersive theatre experiences like these are only as good as the actor that players get to interact with and George was as good as they come;

·        the theming throughout this experience was of the incredibly high quality that we have come to expect from Mission Sydney rooms.  Despite being in an escape room on George Street, we felt like we were really inching our way through an abandoned hospital in the middle of nowhere.  Lighting and cool strobe effects, music, and other audio were used to really ramp up the level of immersion;

·        a question I suspect many of you are asking is well, just how scary is Intruders?  At the time of writing this review, I have played probably 10 or so scary rooms around the country (and some in LA).  Usually in scary rooms I am the member of my team who is pushed into dark corridors or cupboards, etc because it doesn’t usually phase me to any great extent.  I enjoy jump scares too, so they don’t normally bother me too much.  However, I was f*%&ing horrified in Intruders;

·        after having thought about it for almost a week after playing, I think there are a number of elements that resulted in me being petrified.  Intruders f*&@s with your mind – it’s not just a matter of there being 100 jump scares, but it’s more of an art of selecting when to scare you.  The room design is also incredibly clever – by assigning players different roles, players are then forced to perform certain tasks that they need to do (so there is no avoiding getting involved).  As far as room flow goes, there are also clever moments where players are funnelled into certain spaces which require them to be brave.  You would also think that having George with you the whole time might make you feel a little safer, but you would be wrong;

·        I have never been so scared in an escape room, period. I have also never sworn at an actor as much as I did in Intruders – George was great, but I lost count of the things I called him by the end of the experience ;-)

·        as with all immersive experiences I have played before, the greatest fun for me is derived from making actors break character.  I consider it my personal challenge.  I am pleased to report that on at least 2 occasions, I secured a decent laugh from George :-)

Intruders is pretty expensive compared to some other rooms, but please take my word for it when I say it is 100% worth the money.  Not only is it a 90 minute experience, part of the fee includes paying for multiple live actors.  If you don't want to take my word for it - check out Mission Sydney's reviews (particularly of Intruders) on TripAdvisor - so many 5 star reviews and for good reason.

This room, as well as Mission Sydney's various other rooms, shows just how far they have come over the past 9 years since their Vampire Castle room. Despite being well known for their high tech and visually spectacular rooms, Mission Sydney do not just make the same type of room – their rooms are really quite different and varied.  This is certainly the case with Intruders, given that it is much more of an immersive theatre experience than it is an escape room.  It was so good, I wish I could go back and play it again (but honestIy, I’m too f(#*ing scared to).

After the experience, my daughters asked my wife what we thought of Intruders.  Her response was “your father almost pooped his pants”.  Truer words were never uttered.

Where:                        Mission Sydney (George St)

Duration:                    90 minutes

Themes:                      8

Cost:                           $87 per person (assuming team of 4)

Overall Rating:           Brilliantly immersive and horrifyingly scary

More details:    


Escape Hilo - Jungle Mystery Review (Hawaii)

Hi all

While on our Hawaii holiday in July 2023, we also checked out the Big Island of Hawaii for a week.  We found ourselves at Hilo on the 4th of July and managed to get a last minute booking to check out Escape Hilo’s room called Jungle Mystery.  I had done some research ahead of our trip and had read a little about Escape Hilo, but I never received a response to my Facebook message so I had assumed that they might not have survived the pandemic. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw their sign and after calling the owner, we made our booking.

We were our team of usual 4 adults, together with our 2 daughters. Jungle Mystery was our 227th escape room to date.  The summary of the room from their website is as follows:

Recover a lost family heirloom before your time expires. You have 60 minutes to solve your way out!

Before we played the room, we chatted with Ryan, the owner of Escape Hilo for a while. He explained that we could either play with hints, or without hints, the latter making us eligible for the leader board. After some discussions amongst the team, we decided to play without hints (which meant that no matter how stuck we might become, no hints were coming our way).

Here is what I thought of Jungle Mystery:

·        I would describe the theming as being pretty ‘gen 1’ quality – think astroturf and simple painted walls, which were fine but not at quite the same level that we see at most escape rooms these days;

·        the props were all good quality and made sense for the storyline;

·        there were a number of puzzles that our daughters were able to join in on, which was really nice.  Speaking of puzzles, they were quite varied and some were pretty challenging.  There was also some hunt and seek fun, which the girls in particular enjoyed;

·        there was a nice amount of tech used in Jungle Mystery – it was all well concealed and assisted with lifting the level of immersion; and

·        the experience was definitely family friendly – there were no dark elements or jump scares of any kind.

Our team really enjoyed Jungle Mystery.  We were all kept busy during our escape and adults and kids alike had plenty to do to escape.  I am glad to report that we made the right call in playing the ‘no hints’ version, as we didn’t need any.  We also found out we escaped in the second best time of any team that had ever played Jungle Mystery (by only a few seconds).  Ryan also told us that the team ahead of us had to play the room twice to get that time…

Where:                       Escape Hilo (Big Island, Hawaii)

Duration:                    60 minutes

Themes:                      1

Cost:                           $35USD per person

Overall Rating:           A fun, family-friendly adventure

More details: