Online game review: Pentargo Quarantine

http://pentargo.com
Format: Browser-based, ARG-esque
Price: US$2.50 per player
No time limit; we took about 1 hour 45 minutes, but other teams might take several hours

A confession: though online variations on escape rooms have been proliferating, I hadn’t played any before this, due to a lack of time/energy and a dislike for teleconferencing (required for gamemaster-enabled remote-playing of physical escape rooms). Pentargo Quarantine doesn’t require teleconferencing, though it does take time, as an experience that’s dense in both narrative and content.

While it does include some escape room-esque puzzles, and uses some tools more often associated with puzzle hunts, Pentargo Quarantine feels most like an alternate reality game, unfolding via a browser-based chat interface — with images, audio, and video adding experiential depth — and, well, the vast world of the internet.

This real-world immersive quality is the strongest point of the experience, with various cool tasks along the way. A couple of puzzles felt unsatisfying — however, a helpful hints-and-walkthrough page ensures that you won’t get stuck at any point.

With an extremely affordable price (some of it going to charity, too) for a lot of content and pretty unique gameplay, it’s worth spending time with Pentargo Quarantine.

Warnings: Set amid current events, the game makes reference to viruses, conspiracies, and dark themes that may be off-putting.

Full disclosure: Pentargo offered a free playthrough.

Escaping Tokyo, round three

Here’s a third post on Japanese-only games in Tokyo, following on from the previous two. I thought of creating a proper Escaping Tokyo page on which to reorganise my previously-posted thoughts, but that’s too much work for a very niche potential audience. 😐

Nazotomo Cafe Shinjuku

想い出列車となくした切符 [Japanese only]
765 seconds | no booking required | individual/team room 

This room felt similar to the first one I’d attempted a while back: a charming premise involving a disillusioned adult entering a child-like, dream-world sort of setting; an initial round of mini puzzles feeding into a meta; more complex puzzles later on. While I didn’t get particularly stuck for puzzle-reasons, I did run out of time at the second metapuzzle, out of four stages. I played this solo; perhaps a team of three or four people, reasonably fluent in Japanese, might be able to complete it. The success rate stood at around 25% when I visited.

takarush BLACK LABEL

Still by far my favourite provider of narrative-driven puzzle-type events in Japan. Possibly in the world, seeing how such events (very different from puzzle hunts!) don’t seem common outside Japan and Singapore.

MISSION RALLY Q No.3 宇宙からのタイムカプセル [Japanese only]
(as well as the prequel, MISSION RALLY Q No. 2)
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

These were the first and only takarush outings that I haven’t enjoyed, due to tedious first-round info-collection, somewhat simple kit components (to be fair, these were also the cheapest takarush games I’ve played), and a relative lack of narrative or dramatic frills. The TeNQ gallery at Tokyo Dome City is fairly cute in its own right, but unless you’re particularly interested in space or have time to kill in the area, it might not be worth going out of your way for this.

謎解き花小町~時をつなぐ不思議な電話~ [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This complex game really leans into its setting within Japan’s first and oldest amusement park, Hanayashiki, with a central time-travelling conceit enabled by smartphone messaging and an exciting surfeit of puzzle kit components. It’s perhaps the most narratively-dense nazotoki game I’ve played, down to an endgame that runs on pure in-game narrative logic rather than puzzle-logic. An engrossing and unique experience, but not to be attempted unless you’re very comfortable with written Japanese (and/or have a lot of time to spare to wade through text).

銀座木挽町 謎掛心中噺 [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

I enjoy games that serve as an introduction into some new area of knowledge. This kabuki-themed outing certainly delivers on that front, with early stages that require exploration of Kabukiza Theatre’s Kabukiza Gallery (which is well worth a visit anyway, with lots of cute hands-on exhibits), and a story that leans thoroughly and satisfyingly into the world of kabuki. I can’t say much about the endgame without spoiling it, except to say that it’s a shining example of the takarush style: clever, narratively-motivated, and able to send a real thrill of realisation down your spine. Strongly recommended!

Escaping London

Finally got around to reviewing the 10 rooms and games I played in London some weeks ago — including two that are among my all-time favourites. Here’s the page.

(I also played two English-speaker-friendly games in Taipei that I’ll have to review at some point, as well as the first takarush BLACK LABEL nazotoki (Japanese-only) that I wasn’t impressed by…)

Escaping Tokyo, again (and Hakone)

A recent trip to Japan gave me a chance to try more nazotoki events and SCRAP offerings — one of which apparently exists in San Francisco, in an English version localised for the US market.

SCRAP – Tokyo Metro

The Underground Mysteries 2018 [available in English]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

Having missed all previous runs of this game (this is the fifth run, with different puzzles each time), I was glad to finally have a chance to try it. I played with a friend who also knew both languages, allowing us to attempt both the English and Japanese versions. While the flow and puzzles are largely similar, the English version was significantly dumbed down at some points and omitted a couple of puzzles — if you can speak both languages, I’d strongly recommend the Japanese version.

As for the game itself: the early on-the-ground stage felt somewhat uninspired, with not much being made of each area’s distinctive identity. The experience soon improved, though, with better puzzles in store. My favourite escape/puzzle events are those with puzzles that have to be experienced offline, in the physical world. This one certainly delivered, with surprise real-world interactions and great use of various puzzle kit components. RECOMMENDED if you can forgive the less exciting early stages. Now I’m hoping to catch future runs, too.

SCRAP – Tokyo Mystery Circus

Projection Table Game vol. 2 – ある魔法図書館の奇妙な図鑑 [available in English]
60 minutes | booking required | individual/team game

Following the first Spellbound Supper game (still playable in Japanese at SCRAP’s Shimokitazawa outlet), SCRAP’s second projection table game continues to use the interactive video-projection-enabled format to great effect. Compared to its predecessor, this game plays out much more like, well, a game — less escape-room-style puzzle-solving, more figuring out what to do. Clever twists maintain a sense of freshness and surprise. The maximum team size has increased to six, and the endgame is (in my opinion) more forgiving than the previous game. I played this in Japanese since the English version wasn’t yet available; based on that experience, I’d say it’s HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, assuming the English version is similar.

SCRAP – Ajito of SCRAP, Shimokitazawa

アイドルは100万回死ぬ [Japanese only; English adaptation available in the US]
60 minutes | booking required | individual/team game

A revival of an old game (there’s already a sequel, which I regret not having had the time to play on this trip), this engaging and unique not-an-escape-game experience is comparable to SCRAP Asakusa’s Escape from Hunter X, in its use of time loops and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes — except it goes much further. The gameplay is far more complex and layered, and the use of the time loop mechanism is very clever and deliberate. The experience itself is just pure fun — cute and entertaining. Although our team succeeded, I feel that even teams which fail will have enjoyed themselves. I don’t know how well the puzzles and overall experience were localised for the US version, but based on the original Japanese one, I’d say it’s definitely HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

takarush BLACK LABEL

When it comes to play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kits, I feel that takarush BLACK LABEL beats SCRAP. Its thoughtful and cleverly-crafted games are generally more complex and engrossing, featuring ingenious hands-on components, lots of aha moments, and a rigorous focus on narrative.

星の王子さまと秘密の物語 [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

Running at the Little Prince Museum in Hakone, this game is patterned closely to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella; you don’t have to be a fan of The Little Prince to play it, but it certainly deepens the experience, particularly given the dramatic narrative developments. (I found myself genuinely a bit moved at certain moments.) The gameplay itself is fun, as you’ll have to make little discoveries amongst the museum exhibits. A sweet, clever, and satisfying game.

電脳九龍城怨念遊戯殺人事件 [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This is the sequel to the 香港九龍財宝殺人事件 nazotoki+murder mystery game, taking place in the same Anata no Warehouse arcade in Kawasaki. As a result of that, it suffers somewhat in that certain discoveries lack the same sense of surprise. The murder mystery component, while more complex in some ways, had a slightly head-scratching endgame mechanism. But perhaps the game only suffers in comparison to its excellent predecessor — taken on its own, it’s still an engrossing game that’s very much worth playing.

Escaping Tokyo

[Note: See also this more recent post on Tokyo events/games]

I’ve decided to do this as a post instead of a page because Tokyo’s escape-and-puzzle scene seems particularly time-sensitive compared to many other markets. Not because there’s a high rate of room closures, but because the scene features a lot of limited-time-only events.

In Tokyo, I recently played nine escape-and-puzzle activities of one form or another; only four were permanent affairs (and two of those were in Japanese).

The two English-friendly permanent ones I played were, unsurprisingly, the well-regarded Escape from the Red Room and Escape from Hunter X rooms at SCRAP’s Asakusa outlet; more of them over on the general Escaping Elsewhere page.

The others span a wide range of styles. Here’s the breakdown:

SCRAP – Tokyo Mystery Circus

SCRAP’s Asakusa branch and Tokyo Mystery Circus are probably the go-to destinations for English-speaking escape room enthusiasts in Tokyo. The nice thing about Tokyo Mystery Circus is its variety of offerings, from room-based variants (a 10-minute escape, a 30-minute ‘stealth game’), to larger ‘hall’ games (mainly in Japanese but also including the exciting and English-speaker-friendly projection table series) to site-specific, play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kits.

Projection Table Game vol. 1 – Spellbound Supper [available in English]
60 minutes | booking required | individual/team game

This exciting and unique game is for groups of one to five; I managed to get a table to myself, as I was the only one playing in English during that session. The game starts off with somewhat usual SCRAP REG-style puzzles, but it soon becomes something entirely different, with interactive light projections used to clever effect throughout — it’s hard to say more without spoilers, but you’ll have to do all sorts of interesting things to progress. This volume seems to be ending soon, but a new one is on the way. A highlight of my trip, and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED as a must-play for any escape room fan in Tokyo.

A Mystery at Magic Academy Shinjuku [available in English]
no time limit | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This is a very beginner-friendly experience that, correspondingly, may not impress the experienced puzzler. You’ll have to walk the nearby streets of Shinjuku (a handy map is included, so no worries about navigation) to solve fairly tame puzzles; there’s one exciting real-world highlight and some clever moments, but nothing unmissable. There’s no time limit, but the estimated duration is 60 to 90 minutes; we finished it in just about an hour. RECOMMENDED for beginners, NOT RECOMMENDED for veterans.

Mystery Mail Box Global Edition [available in English]
no time limit | timeslot booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

I’m still not sure why timeslots are assigned for this game — to avoid crowding, I guess? This bilingual puzzle kit felt cleverer and more satisfying than the Magic Academy one; although it only took about 30 minutes, it was certainly enjoyable. RECOMMENDED and easy to fit into anyone’s schedule.

Nazotomo Cafe Shinjuku

I’d been intrigued by Nazotomo Cafe’s 765-second offerings since first reading about them years ago, so I decided to put my weak Japanese skills to the test and attempt some rooms solo at their Shinjuku branch. I didn’t do that well, but I’d still be interested in going back to try their other rooms if I get the chance. I’d previously hoped that they would be abstract and language-independent, but they’re quite the opposite — the two rooms I played relied significantly on an understanding of the language, and the staff said that most of their rooms are text-heavy.

おとな小学校 [Japanese only]
765 seconds | no booking required | individual/team room

This was a small but charming game, at least as far as I managed to play it; after a swift start, I failed due to completely misinterpreting a mid-stage puzzle (for puzzle reasons more than language reasons) and thus being unable to proceed. Well worth playing if you have a basic command of Japanese (the game relies mainly on hiragana); the success rate was ~20+% when I visited.

スピリチュアルレポーター殺人事件 [Japanese only]
765 seconds | no booking required | individual/team room 

This bite-size murder mystery was cute and clever; I managed to solve it, thanks in no small part to the interesting in-room guidance provided by video narration (which undoubtedly accounts for the room’s >70% success rate when I played).

takarush BLACK LABEL

I haven’t quite figured this out, but takarush seems to be a “Real Treasure Hunting” (リアル宝探し) outfit that offers limited-run escape/puzzle event kits, often in conjunction with various partners. Their BLACK LABEL series is for adults, which just seems to mean “more difficult” — and impressively so. Pre-set hints are available on each game’s website; it’s nice to have that option.

香港九龍財宝殺人事件  [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This was probably my favourite escape/puzzle experience in Tokyo (and one of my favourite ever?). Held in collaboration with the famous Kindaichi manga series and the Instagram-worthy Anata no Warehouse arcade in Kawasaki, this site-specific, part-puzzle-solving, part-murder mystery extravaganza unfolded over some three hours (for us, anyway). No advance booking is required; you turn up, purchase a puzzle kit, then explore the warehouse to solve puzzles and receive new parts of the mystery. It’s hard to say more without giving away spoilers, but this had some of the cleverest puzzle-piece-reusing and most chill-inducing aha moments of anything I’ve ever played. A must-play if you know Japanese; the run was recently extended until July 1. [edit: A sequel is now being staged through 12 May 2019!]

古書店まんせい堂奇譚  [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit 

This was an extremely text-heavy experience, which is why we ended up requiring some three hours (and several hints) to solve it, instead of the estimated two hours. Although it had fewer site-specific elements and far fewer dramatic reveals than the other takarush event, the reuse of puzzle kit elements was similarly masterful — to the extent that I probably appreciated it more for the cleverness of its construction than anything else. Worth playing if you are reasonably fluent in Japanese and appreciate puzzle construction.

Costs and closures

The start of a new year offers a good excuse to take a look at the escape room industry in Singapore. Maybe it’s just leftover pessimism from 2016, but things don’t look great…

Unravel’s closure

In late 2014, we lost the gem of Singapore’s escape room scene, Phantom Joker; in mid-2015, the struggling Mystery Escape closed down (perhaps before news of its Nomis Piy-designed rooms had a chance to turn its fortunes around); last year, we lost Unravel, a great escape room outfit with local-themed rooms.

It’s always a shame to lose lovingly-crafted rooms run by true enthusiasts. High rents probably contributed to Phantom Joker’s closure, while Mystery Escape just never really made a name for itself, but given Unravel’s decent online presence and its location in a minor mall, I have to say that I didn’t see its closure coming. Which also raises the question: are more closures in store?

Signs of struggle?

I take it as a bad sign when an established escape room company goes back to Groupon or starts offering hefty discounts. Worryingly, several companies are starting their 2017 on that note. There have also been several branch closures, some of them done more quietly (Lockdown) than others (BreakOut).

Could it be that the escape room craze has died down? Perhaps the true enthusiasts have played all the rooms there are, and the casual players have satisfied their curiosity without getting hooked…

The danger of TripAdvisor

And then there are other pressures. Besides high rentals (which may have forced one or two branch closures), there’s the old problem of shoddy outfits siphoning away business from more deserving rooms. I’m talking, of course, about U Escape. It is currently ranked #4 in its category on TripAdvisor, ahead of some much better escape room companies.

What can be done? Perhaps I’m part of the problem, in that I haven’t left them a bad review to warn away potential customers (if an escape room company has many rooms, then I try not to leave a TripAdvisor review on the basis of a single room — and for obvious reasons I haven’t wanted to try a second U Escape room).

I have no conclusion

But perhaps U Escape is also an easy scapegoat. Maybe the market is just proving too tough; or maybe it has always been tough, and for the past few years, escape room companies were running half on optimism alone.

Then again, there might be reasons to be optimistic. Existing companies are staying busy. Xcape’s Funtasy and Haunted rooms are good additions to the escape room landscape, and the continued expansion suggests that they’re not doing too badly. The Escape Artist opened a new branch with some very extensive rooms at Sentosa Gateway. We have BreakOut’s new rooms, LOST SG is finally changing out one of theirs, and even Escape Hunt showed that it can improve.

I still suspect that we will see at least one closure in 2017, and I fear that — as with Phantom Joker and Unravel — it will be the closure of an escape room company that deserved to survive. What can be done? I go back to what I’ve always believed in, I guess: if you enjoy escape rooms and want them to survive, then help them do so. Give the company a good review on Facebook, and — crucially — on TripAdvisor. Tell your friends. Spam your Facebook feed. Suggest it to HR the next time they’re planning some team building exercise. If you’ve never even tried to get someone else to play an escape room, then there’s no use mourning when your favourite company closes down.