We completed Escape Rooms Cardiff’s original 3 rooms (Sherlock, Heist and Tomb) very early on, so when we heard they were expanding (into what used to be a Costa below) we were excited! I’m putting these two rooms together, as we did them reasonably close to each other, and had similar experiences.
Z: The room is very well done – they’ve done a really good job with the set decoration, particularly given it’s not the largest footprint. They were obviously very clever in picking which theme would work well with the space they had. However, there was an element of the room which affected me, to the extent I felt unable to continue once we had got to that point, around halfway through. Technically, we ran out of time for this room, but the GM added another 5 minutes (as we were so close) and remedied the issue for me.
Oculus: Again, the set here is very well done, and a perfect balance between normal, but with things that are slightly off. There were a few bits I thought were unnecessary and/or confusing, but similarly, there were parts which caught me by surprise, and I love it when that happens! There were 5 of us, and we were stepping on each other’s toes a little, but not too much.
Z – As previously mentioned, I managed around half of this game before I felt I couldn’t continue. For that first half, we were actually lost pretty quickly – at one point we didn’t even know what puzzles we had to solve, let alone finding the solutions! The hint system in both of these is a screen system (yay!), but I am fairly sure the GM wasn’t watching, as we didn’t receive many hints, and when we did they were usually for things we’d already done/found.
We also found we used certain things more than once, and the use of technology in places hampered the flow. There were some interesting ideas, but for the most part, I didn’t find the puzzles particularly fun, and we found them frustrating and confusing rather than fun challenges.
Oculus – This room flowed better than Z – we weren’t stumped as long here, and for the most part we either had a puzzle or a solution most of the time. We probably were stumped for longer than in other rooms, but it wasn’t too bad. There were more unique puzzles here, which were perfectly suited to the theme. The only issues we had were, again, with technology.
Outside the room
There was a real difference just walking into the venue – they’ve done it up so it looks very slick, with a screening room for the briefs, which makes things a little different. However, I do miss that human element – both times it felt very clinically when we arrived – we are asked for our names, handed an iPad to fill in and left alone. As this happened both times, with different employees, I don’t think I can put this down to an inattentive staff member.
Likewise, when we came out of the rooms we felt very rushed to leave. For Z, where I had almost the worst escape room experience ever (the worst was City Mazes), it was apparent the GM didn’t particularly care. We enjoy talking to our GMs after the game, but he was really uninterested in our opinions, didn’t appear to have even watched our game (I’m fairly certain he didn’t, as I would have expected him to remedy my issue earlier), and physically opened the door to the venue guide us out.
After Oculus, the GM was a little more chatty, and there was another GM who was also excited about how we played (I can’t remember why though!). This was a far better customer experience, but we still felt pressured to leave after having our photo taken.
Now, I’m not an idiot – I know escape rooms are still businesses, and they need to get through one customer to get to another (much like a restaurant). I’m just making the point here that I far prefer rooms where the GMs are genuinely invested in your game, willing/eager to discuss the game with you afterwards, and talk about other experiences you’ve had. I know that’s not always possible, but for this company, it is very obvious just from the venue that you’re straight in and straight out – very different from what it was like before.
There are 3 steps into the venue, but the briefing area is all flat. You then need to walk down a flight of stairs to get to these rooms, and through a narrow corridor, so there is no way they are wheelchair accessible. Oculus does have somewhere to sit (a rather comfy armchair), but Z does not. There are some smaller spaces in both rooms, but the general room for each is reasonably sized, although we found Oculus started to get quite warm.
I believe Z has added sound effects since we were there, and although they don’t mention an age limit I wouldn’t take someone below 13. It is a well-lit room, and it was easy to read text on a page. There is a screen that has flashing images – they were fairly fast, so would highly recommend contacting the company if this is something which could affect you.
We found Oculus had very distracting overhead music, which was both loud and disconcerting. We did ask them to turn it down at one point, and I wish we had done this sooner and asked them to turn it down further. The room is not the lightest, but you are able to comfortably read some text. Imagine a living room with a couple of floor lamps and you should get the idea. There is also a section where there is a dark room, like your bedroom at night if you leave the hall light on and the door open. However, you do not necessarily need to go into this room if you don’t want to.
Was it worth the money?
For Z I believe we paid £20pp for a team of 4, and for Oculus I believe it was £19pp for a team of 5 – it was paid for by a teammate, so I’m not certain!
Looking at the experience as a whole, Z definitely wasn’t worth the money – and I technically did it for free! We found the customer service sub-par, the flow of the room annoying, and I was literally stood in a corner for around 20 minutes before deciding to hit the panic button and get out. If you’re a fan of horror, or at least aren’t squeamish, you’d probably enjoy it more. However, for me I hated it.
Conversely, I thought Oculus was done a lot better – customer service, flow and theme were all a lot better. As my only major issue with this room was the noise, I would say it was worth the money.
It is important to point out these are based on my personal experiences. The rest of my team were fine in Z, and continued to attempt to solve the room, whilst trying their best to comfort me and find some way for me to participate. My criticism isn’t of the thing that caused me the issue, as it fits well with the theme and is very well done, but with how it was handled. I would have expected the GM to note that I was as far away as I could get from the source, and physically unable to continue playing, and remedy the situation sooner.
TL ; DR
Z: Pros – Theming, hint system, price (to a certain extent) | Cons – Customer service, puzzles (both flow, variety and issues), price (to a certain extent)
Oculus: Pros – Theming, puzzles (particularly the way the majority fitted the theme exactly), Price, hint system | Cons – Technology, Noise, Heat