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November 26, 2017

Escapade Games: Zoe (Fullerton, CA)

I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost

Being in the Los Angeles area the week before Halloween, Zoe sounded simply too good to pass up, so we went to see if it lived up to all the hype. Escapade Games' Zoe is an epic, satisfying mashup of themes pulled from throughout the pantheon of horror cinema. From their site:

"There is one scene in your mind that is busily following you. It has initially appeared in your dreams, the scene of an abandoned house, but it has started chasing you during the daytime. This house seems to be calling for you, it attracts you with an unknown force...What’s wrong with it? Is there anyone living there?Does he or she need help? You cannot survive it any longer, it’s driving you crazy...You start surfing and accidently [sic] you find the needed location…You reach the place. You open the door and...become trapped. You have only one hour to escape until your personality starts to change."

Puzzles, Technology & Set Design

The puzzles in Zoe aren't overly difficult, but the haunted house surroundings ramp up the challenge significantly. On their own, most are rather bland, ranging from combination locks, ordered objects with RFIDs, and the like. The variety and environment are great, though, and while you'll have likely seen many of the puzzles featured in Zoe before, each is well implemented and seems to be well maintained. We experienced what appeared to be a slight breakdown at one point, but were able to muddle through well enough.

Zoe's production value is what really makes the experience. The set design is great, and genuinely feels like Zoe's house. After entering from a generic strip-mall-style glass storefront, you are genuinely transported into the room's universe. The immersion is top notch. While much of the experience is admittedly centered on jump scares, it wasn't so heavy handed as to become routine or expected. The room keeps you on your toes, and you're never quite sure if one of the actors will be around a corner waiting for you or ready to chase you down a hallway when you leave a room. Also, the actors and set technology are expertly integrated, and provide a seamless experience that avoids any feeling of being contrived or gimmicky. Still, while some backtracking does occur, the set is otherwise quite linear, and could have used more linear puzzles than such a heavy reliance on induced hysteria to pass the time.

Memorable Moments 

Pretty much every interaction with the actors sticks with you. In our playthrough, Zoe especially was well played. The actors aren't afraid to get close and personal with you and when Zoe would appear she was always incredibly clingy and creepy. Escape roomer beware: this is not a room for the faint of heart or those uncomfortable with being touched.

Room For Improvement

There is one point during Zoe during which one member of the party is required to complete a task while the rest wait. I'm left with mixed feelings about how this was done. On the one hand, it was great to see the volunteer rewarded with exposure to additional content that no one else was privileged to see, but at the same time that means that other paying members of the group were blocked out from part of the experience, however brief. I think there could be more done here to include the entire party in this leg of the adventure, but as the brave soul that was thrust ventured out into the dark alone, I hesitate to belabor this small criticism.

The only major area that needs improvement is the smell. Oh god... the smell. One specific room smells like absolute death. It smells something like a liquefied cocktail of dead skunk and sulfur. I understand that they want to go for the gross effect here, but it's too much. The smell just proves distracting, and in some cases almost dangerous. Some of our group got off with just an eye water, but the ones particularly affected came close to throwing up. This has got to go, and was the one significant blemish on an otherwise enjoyable time. [Update: It seems this smell may have now been removed from the game.]

Overall Thoughts

I wish I could say that Zoe is equal parts escape room and haunted house, but the truth is that the scales are tipped heavily towards the latter. For the puzzle purists out there, this room will be a disappointment. The puzzles are aggressively average but focusing solely on that misses the point: the puzzle difficulty is perfectly scaled for the environmental handicaps–from dim lighting to the constant threat of attack–for all the puzzles to feel challenging and even fresh.

What Zoe lacks in originality and intrinsic difficulty, it makes up in production value. While each of the carefully crafted set pieces in the room tend to turn out more nostalgic than novel, the experience proves to be greater than the sum of its often blatantly bootlegged parts. The characters and environment are an anachronistic orgy of horror lore, and the puzzles will be familiar to all but the most novice of escape roomers, but their pairing into the larger narrative somehow works incredibly well.

  • Set design: Excellent. It genuinely feels like a haunted house, not a rented office building.
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Price: $35/person
  • Number of players: 2-6
  • Duration:60 minutes
  • Overall Rating:★★★★½
See their website here: https://escapadegames.us

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