RATING: 3 Keys RESULT: Win REMAINING: 4:29
All of our friends are dead. At least there’s carnival games.
You haven’t set foot in Bayou High since graduation, but this carnival-themed reunion sounded fun. Though it is a little strange they’re holding the event on the old Boudreau property at the edge of the swamp, where decades ago several students died in a barn fire. And it is odd that all the carnival workers are mysteriously absent, with the exception of your reunion host who keeps nervously glancing at that creepy old chest…
Without question, Midnight on the Bayou’s strongest suit is its story. Red Lantern Escape Rooms does a truly fantastic job of crafting a storyworld that is unique, compelling, and believable. It’s just the right amount of spooky without being scary. The supernatural flavor adds a certain mystique that instantly immerses players, casting them into the story as characters who may or may not have been there that faithful night that several of our classmates met their fiery end. Simply put, if we were to rate a game solely based on its storyworld alone, Midnight on the Bayou would be hard-pressed to *not* get a 5 Key score.
We start with a greeting from our party host, a would-be magician who will be overseeing this evenings festivities with us. Truth be told, having this character adds very little to the overall experience, and at some points, it actually detracted from it. We’re huge fans of having actors in a game if they’re used well – but the proper way to use an actor should never see his extent often be to scold you “don’t touch this” or “don’t pull on that.” We felt at times as if he was more a stern private school teacher ready to swat us with a ruler than a party host.
That not withstanding, our host did start off strong, dropping us into a mysterious supernatural world from our past. We quickly learned that our role is not to enjoy the party, but rather to free the lingering spirits of those lost here on the Boudreau property many years ago. Throughout our time at the reunion, we’d find ourselves taking steps to release each trapped soul, providing a truly satisfying storyworld payoff for character. Freeing them all before midnight provides our own storyworld climax that so few games attempt to achieve.
Midnight on the Bayou exists within a massive 1,000 square foot environment, wherein Red Lantern Escape Rooms does their best to make use of every corner. Although scenically it may feel a bit light on budget, it’s more than effective to create the mood sought by its storyworld.
Those of you who seek multiple room experiences may be disappointed to learn that even with such a large amount of space, Midnight on the Bayou essentially exists within a single room. However, the truth is with so much area to move around, we never felt as though we ran out of things to explore.
Red Lantern Escape Rooms was clearly inspired by Disney’s iconic Blue Bayou Restaurant from Pirates of the Caribbean fame – creating a space as closely inspired to it as budget will allow. Fans of the ride will no doubt draw their own judgments – and being one myself, I at times found myself wishing that they went for a unique setting so as to avoid comparison’s to what was achieved by Disney’s considerably more massive budget (even 50+ years ago.)
Let’s start with the positives – Red Lantern Escape Room put solid effort into keeping the puzzles connected to the wonderful storyworld they created for Midnight on the Bayou, and for the most part, they really did all feel like organic activities we might partake in under the oh-so-important guise of “if it were real.” As we mentioned in the Story section, each character essentially has their own puzzle track – and each track could be tackled at any time. That makes this game one that could be a satisfying challenge for larger groups, ensuring every single participant has something to work on.
On the other side of the coin, the first negative is one of the worst for me – there were many moments throughout the game that we had no clue how to proceed. Now, to be clear – I’m not talking about any given puzzle, or needing a clue to find the solution; To the contrary, one of our biggest points of contention was needing to be pointed to where the next puzzle *is* several times. It just wasn’t at all clear what we should be working on. For a player, there’s nothing more frustrating than walking in circles around a room not knowing what they should be solving towards. That, unfortunately, is something we experienced on more than one occasion within Midnight on the Bayou.
One exceptionally frustrating moment came when we finally asked for a clue, as we just had no idea what we should be working on next. Our magical host offered instead to read my fortune through his tarot cards – tarot cards, mind you, which were at all times up to this point on his physical person. It was then that we realized the reason (in this case) that we could not proceed was that he was holding a vital item we needed in order to direct us to the next solution, meaning, had we not asked for that hint to initiate it, we literally would have been unable to proceed. Now, I’m all for show moments and story-driven interactions – but the only one who should be able to dictate a player’s pace in a game is the player. Obviously, we cannot speak to whether or not this is normal practice in Midnight on the Bayou, or if it was altered as a means of throttling our experienced team to get more time in the game. All I can say for certain is that it happened to us without question, and that’s simply never a good way to run a game.
Red Lantern Escape Rooms left us with a very hot and cold feeling. Throughout our experience within Midnight on the Bayou, the parts that we liked, we really liked, while the parts that we disliked, we REALLY disliked. As a designer, that type of inconsistency is very frustrating to me, because it’s hard to not look at it and say “you obviously understand how to do something cool – look! You just did it right there!” Sometimes it’s easier to accept an all-out bad game than it is one that is such a mixed bag, because at least with the bad one, you can justify it as “the venue is just in over their head.” Clearly though, Red Lantern Escape Rooms has both the ability and the potential to create something cool.
One area Midnight on the Bayou shines (beyond the aforementioned story, which we’ve already raved about at length) is ensuring there is something for every member of the group to be working on at a given time. While it’s no secret that I’ll never be a fan of playing a game in a large group – we must give credit where credit is due in this case and stress that for once, it’s entirely possible, and to a certain degree, may have been beneficial. One massive point of contention I’ll always have with larger group games is there is just never enough for every single member of the party to have something to work on and keep engaged. Midnight on the Bayou, with it’s multiple different unrelated puzzle tracks – each of which are several layers deep guarantees that bigger parties can divide and conquer without leaving anyone on the sidelines. Honestly, with as much as there is to do in this game, our team of five (out of the room’s twelve person capacity) may have stood much less of a chance at winning had we not had so many experienced players in our group.
Let’s touch back on the actor situation as well. As we mentioned above, and many times before, we’re huge fans of actors in a room if that actor is used properly. Beyond our little faux pas of withholding necessary pieces of an active puzzle, a vital note that would greatly improve the theatrical immersion here is that in no case in any game or interactive attraction should the actor himself be the star of the show. The guest is the star of the show. That’s what makes it immersive. We felt, at times, quite the opposite in Midnight on the Bayou, as though our actor host was trying to cast himself the spotlight. That just never works when you’ve cast your guests in an active role of the story.
Not withstanding its flaws, Red Lantern Escape Games does do many things right – and with polish could be something really neat. But without it, I suspect others will have similar confused reactions in the parking lot afterward, where we all sort of stared at each other and said “wait, so, did we like that or not?”
Perhaps that’s a mystery we’ll solve at our next Possum High Reunion!
Venue: Red Lantern Escape Rooms
Location: Brea, California
Number of Games: 1
GAME SPECIFIC INFORMATION:
Duration: 60 minutes
Capacity: 12 people
Group Type: Public / You may be paired with strangers.
Cost: $32 per person (Monday – Thursday) or $35 per person (Friday – Sunday), with a four person minimum.
We thank Red Lantern Escape Rooms for inviting us to play this game. Although complimentary admission was generously provided, that in no way impacts the opinion included within this review.