Xscaper Arts (Inception) and Xscaper Arts (General’s Tomb and SAW)

Xscaper Arts (Unionville)
50 Main Street, Side Entrance
Unionville, ON L3R 2G9
Cross Street: Kennedy Rd. and Carlton Rd.
Rooms: 4
Group Size: 4-6
Game Time: 45 minutes (and one 60 minute room)
Price: $25/person
Site: http://xscaper.com/
Phone number: 905-604-7066

Xscaper Arts (Scarborough)
25 Glen Watford Dr, Unit 17
Scarborough, ON, M1S 2B7
Cross Street: Kennedy Rd. and Carlton Rd.
Rooms: 4
Group Size: 3-8, 2-6
Game Time: 60
Price: $25/person
Site: http://xscaper.com/
Phone number: 647-557-1281

This review is going to be super long. Click away after reading the summary

Rooms visited: Inception at the Unionville location, The General’s Tomb and Saw at the Scarborough location
Theming: The theming at Inception and the Saw room were good! I don’t think I saw enough of the General’s Tomb to give an accurate assessment
Puzzle Design: Good at Inception. Poor at the other two.
Customer Service: Poor.
Would I go back? No. The Inception room at the Unionville location was fun, but I don’t forsee myself ever going back to either location anymore.

Some readers might have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot more positive reviews as of late. This isn’t because places have gotten better. We’ve overtaken the 40 mark (https://escapistto.wordpress.com/toronto-room-escapes-master-list/) and crappy places definitely outnumber the good. I’m still going to plenty of places that suck, but I’ve tried to prioritize the positive because I feel that giving recommendations of specific rooms I’ve really enjoyed is just that much more helpful to people looking for a place to try. Also, if I have good reason to expect a place is going to be bad, I’m going to just skip it! I don’t have an urge to pay money for a bad experience!

So with that in mind, I’ll start with the good. I’ve reviewed Xscaper Arts before (https://escapistto.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/xscaper-arts/), and I had a terrible experience last time. No question about it. I regularly correspond with the other Toronto reviewer (http://torontoescapegames.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/escape-the-christmas/) and he had pleasant experiences with their newest room (Inception) at the Unionville location, so I kept that in mind for the future.  I eventually got around to trying it and it was fun. It’s another split-team game. Its aptly named and themed after the Christopher Nolan movie Inception. The story is that one team is stuck unknowingly in a dreamstate, and the other team has to rescue them and then escape together. It even has references to the totems in the movie. I didn’t have many complaints about my experience and I really enjoyed the room. I would definitely recommend it, and it’s gone up on my Recommendations tab. Like a lot of businesses in that region, it’s guilty of putting in a lot of random (albeit cool) technology, but it didn’t feel obtrusive in this case. Some of the puzzles were interesting and unique and the number of puzzles matched the length of the game. One of my previous criticisms of the The Lab was its length. I eyeballed their wall of victors and a group finished the Lab in just under 15 minutes! You’ll get more of your money’s worth with the Inception room.  The Inception room is definitely the star of the Unionville Xscaper Arts location and is significantly more fun and better designed than their previous games.
My one complaint has two parts. We had an issue with the walkie-talkies (It’s not really a spoiler, but you communicate with the other half of the team with walkie talkies). The other side’s walkie-talkie had to be pressed at a certain angle and wouldn’t work if you pressed it normally. Now.. this isn’t actually a huge deal, because wear-and-tear is a natural part of the business. How the staff dealt with this is part two of my complaint. They didn’t do anything at all! I don’t even mean that they didn’t replace it (they didn’t, though), but they could hear our entire one-sided conversation on the walkie-talkie and see us on the video cameras, and chose not to mention anything! They later said that they wanted to see if we could figure it out, but what is there to figure out? It’s an unintended logistical problem in your game based on something breaking down.. it’s not a puzzle! This actually mirrors my first experience at the Cecil Hotel. There was a breakdown in technology, but they dealt with it in an infuriating manner.


But okay! Whatever. As I’ve written before, I don’t care much about customer service (unless it starts affecting the game). The room itself was good, and they opened up the new location (two days ago now) in Scarborough. I actually live in the Scarborough area so I wanted to check it out. I mean if they had more rooms like Inception, I’d be ecstatic. In the post-game chat with the staff after finishing Inception, a staff member had excitedly told us about the new location, and that rooms were on par/better than the Inception room. So yesterday afternoon, I went ahead and booked the General’s Tomb.

I’m going to preface this part by linking the other reviewer’s very recent review of this place (http://torontoescapegames.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/xscaper-arts-scarborough/). He had a good time there and gave it top marks. My experience doesn’t negate his, or vice versa, so give it a read. A bigger picture of what the room is like or what your experience might be can only help in deciding whether you should go.

So we get our standard intro spiel and in we go into the General’s Tomb. There was indication that there were 8 or 9 rooms to the game (definitely a record), but unfortunately we didn’t get to see most of it. We reached a certain room in the game and got stuck. What had happened was apparently that we altered something in particular and there’s no real way to reset to the original position without help from the staff. In my opinion, this is a huge design flaw.  This game was of a very linear design, but there’s no indication that one puzzle should be worked on before another. Absolutely none. So inevitably at this point, I imagine at least half of groups might fail arbritrarily because they start working on the wrong problem. In fact, I could make a very strong case that it’s essentially designed such that you will naturally mess with this, so that 50% is probably going to be bumped up significantly (if you end up going to the General’s Tomb, send me an email afterwards and we can talk).
But back to the story! There’s no way I can know my team and I are working on a puzzle that’s impossible to solve, so we inevitably use a hint. I don’t know if the particular staff member is to blame, or if it’s more a general management directive (refer to the walkie talkie situation above), but getting this hint was somehow more frustrating and difficult than any puzzle I’ve done in recent memory. Hilariously (or not), the first hint we got was “Look at the symbols in the room.” Now this is obviously super helpful because I walked into the room with my eyes closed and kept them shut, but I’m greedy, so I press on, questioning him for more information. This goes on for 30 minutes. At some point I asked him to just come into the room, because I’m utterly perplexed, that at this establishment, somehow using a hint doesn’t get me any further – its somehow confusing my team and I even more. He doesn’t come in, I don’t even know if he replied to the request. Fast forward ahead a little, and apparently the staff has come to the realization that they are talking about a future puzzle. A player has no way of knowing this, and no indication that its a task for later in this linear game. They definitely could have easily seen this was the case if they heeded my request and just came into the room to give the hint instead of trying to be as cryptic as possible. I don’t know if anyone else has felt this particular pain, but being stuck on a particular puzzle for 30 minutes is emotionally draining. Anyways, we press on!
So with the answer to the puzzle we didnt know we were stuck on, we moved onto the next puzzle (which we had been working on, but didnt know that we couldn’t solve). We solved the trick, but it didn’t work. We had previously confirmed half of our solution and it definitely matched what we expected, BUT IT DIDN’T WORK! So screw it, we brute force it. Hey, it’s only 81 combinations, and if we can get past this area without talking to the staff anymore, all the better. Nope. None of it works. So I’m sitting in the corner, crying and rocking in the fetal position, when the staff announces we have 5 minutes left. I tell him over the walkie-talkie, you know what, we don’t need it, I give up, just come into the room. Several staff eventually come in and we ask for the solution. One staff member (not the one that’s been ‘assisting’ us) explains the solution in general terms, and it matches our idea of what needed to be done. He says that this mechanism is definitely working. They’ve tested it over 20 times! So I ask him to just show me the answer. He solves the puzzle the same way we did, and comes to the same answer. He asks another staff member in Cantonese for the answer sheet, and it says the same thing. It doesn’t work! Hilariously (again, or not), it ends up working just as we’re about to leave.
At this point I’m actually a bit upset. It’s not just because part of the game is broken, because it happens (although it really shouldn’t on your second day of being open). If you’ve read the previous review I’ve written of Xscaper Arts (https://escapistto.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/xscaper-arts/), this EXACT experience has happened before (with a different staff member this time though). Some electronic mechanism didn’t work. The staff end up dealing with it in a terrible way. They let players get incredibly frustrated. I ask them to come in to show me that it works – it doesn’t. I don’t even really get why no one came in, considering that there was several staff on hand, but only my group at the facility at the time. What are the ODDS I would have such specifically similar sequence of events? Mind boggling.

The staff that we’re talking to offers an additional hour in the General’s Tomb. This was a very nice gesture. I don’t want to sound like an unappreciative jerk, but at this point I had been stuck in this particular room in this theme for maybe 45-50 minutes (that could have been 5 minutes if someone just came into the room), so I just flat out said no. He offered that we do another room, and I left it to the other members of my group. I honestly wanted to cut our losses for the night because it seemed likely that the General’s Tomb was their ‘best’ room. If you dont’ have a good time at the best room, it’s just unlikely you’ll have a better time at another room. We end up doing the Saw room. At this point, I already realize that my heart’s not really in it. I’m much more biased to seeing flaws over whatever they do correctly. I’m already nearing 2000 words for this review, so I’ll wrap this up with an attempt at being objective about things I liked and didn’t like.

Pros:
Unique Puzzles- I liked that they had several unique puzzles. They had one or two I have only seen at a few other places. If I had fresh eyes going into the Saw room, I’m sure I would have appreciated the puzzles more.

Cons:
Lack of Prompts – I don’t think a game needs to be spelled out for a player (this is puzzle 1, this will be the next puzzle, etc),  but prompts are important for rooms with a linear design. If there’s no indicator, players can just work on the wrong puzzle forever. This is especially the case if you are grouping puzzles that are similar or themed (eg. in an imaginary colour themed room, 3 puzzles are based off of the order of the rainbow – which do you do first?)

Multiple inputs – Again, with a lack of prompts, where would you input a 5 digit code if you had multiple places to put in the number? This becomes particularly troublesome when electronic safes are thrown into the mix. They lock up in increasing intervals if you put in incorrect answers.

Irreversibility of Puzzles – As stated before, its a problem that if you alter the state of objects, and their original configuration was very important. Escape games (in general) require a lot of searching and the inspection of found items. I’ve seen irreversible puzzles before, but they’re generally labelled as such.

Customer service – It’s just conjecture, but I think it’s possible that management trains the staff in a certain way (eg. they are told to give hints in a certain manner). They seemed almost ‘stingy’ on helping you. It doesn’t seem to be malicious, as far as I can tell. They also like to give the hints over the walkie-talkies, whereas several other places actually have staff come into the room with you. There are definitely good reasons for doing that, but clearly seeing a group’s progress on video camera is insufficient if its possible hints are given about the wrong puzzle.

Arbritrary puzzles – Puzzles should have unique and singular solutions. I really dislike puzzles where when you find out the solution, your immediate reaction is “Well okay, but couldn’t it just as easily have been ____?”

Ambience – You could definitely tell what the Saw room was going for, but it was missing the very signature saw theme song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3KN_bLjzpM) . The tune is very recognizable. The Saw franchise uses it several times per movie and its great at building tension!

Fun – This is a much broader field, but I think win-or-lose, players should have fun at an establishment. I’m sure several other factors fed into this one. There have been several places where I’ve lost, but I could say “Dang, that was pretty cool.”

The manager/owner from the Unionville location showed up at a certain point. The last time I had given him feedback, it did not go so well, and I was tired and hungry so off we went to eat at Magic Noodle.

TL;DR I had fun at the Inception room, but not in the other rooms.

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2 comments

  1. We tried The Lab yesterday against all better judgement and we were also disappointed. For some reason I thought that Inception required more than 4 people and that’s why I didn’t book it. The Lab in my opinion had potential and would be much better if we had more than one flashlight. Having only one flash light for four people meant that you couldn’t explore the room on your own and everyone was just huddled together without providing any real help. Radios were also poorly managed and it was extremely difficult to hear hints. The good thing was that they kept just giving us hints as opposed only one that they promised. They kept asking if we needed more help and were offering suggestions. All in all, it could have been better but it wasn’t.

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    1. I emailed them that exact feedback 4 months ago! I didn’t think logistical difficulty was fun. I also think rooms requiring a lot of staff intervention might be indicative of a design problem, but at least they recognize that they want to avoid players getting incredibly frustrated.

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