RATING: 2 Keys RESULT: Win REMAINING: 1:22
An archive is a place where pages upon pages of documents are stored. Well, we checked off that box.
As the steam rises from the sewer grates throughout New York City, it’s easy to forget that beneath this busy city lay an eerily-quiet underground labyrinth. The sewer system serves as a subterranean passageway that connects one part of the city to another, and is the center of many stories and urban legends. From the resident mole people to mutant reptiles to oversized alligators, there are many accounts of what truly lies beneath.
Over the past two years, there have been a slew of disappearances surrounding Central Park, the lungs of the city. Rumors of an underground Archive of some sort, believed to be the headquarters of the notorious Tillman family, are beginning to turn from myth to reality. Many urban explorers have searched these underground waterways with hopes of one day discovering the secrets that can only be heard as echoes in the darkness.
Recently, a group of explorers that went in search of the rumored Tillman Archive went missing. Their last communications, along with their last known coordinates that pinged from their phones, made their way to the urban explorers forums. 40.7982°N; 73.9525°W. The NYPD has issued warnings around the city that access to any of these underground passages is strictly prohibited, and that all trespassers will be arrested immediately.
While the police continue conducting their own investigations, a network of urban explorers who are determined to dig into the truth is quietly compiling their own research to uncover this hidden lair. Although urban exploration is a team venture, being the first team to locate the Archive and reveal its mysteries will be able to stake claim to victory. Be warned, however, because no one knows what truly lurks in the confines of this underground labyrinth. Be brave, but also be quick. These entrances only stay dry for 90 minutes, before the waters fill the chambers, leading to a watery grave.
Do you dare to follow these coordinates and be the first group of urban explorers to make it out with the deepest, darkest secrets of the Tillman Family? Do you dare to face the unknown and expose these secrets, with the ultimate risk of being trapped underground and becoming part of the secret that might be buried forever?
As you can see, the story behind The Archive is long at best, and perhaps a bit too drawn-out at worst. And as such, it perfectly sets the tone for a game that quickly overstays its welcome – crossing from storyworld to tedium in far less time than would-be urban explorers are given for its extended play time.
The story of The Archive – like much of this game’s experience – could be interesting enough with a bit of polish and a whole lot of fine-tuning. You’re a group of urban explorers searching for a long hidden chamber believed to be full of secrets and mysteries. That’s really all that needs to be conveyed to start players off on an adventure.
But therein lies the true art of storytelling: understanding how to keep that story exciting and compelling. It’s like putting too many Christmas decorations in your living room; there’s a certain point where that crosses a line of “festive” to “tacky.” Filling your story with superfluous details that are meaningless to no one but the person who wrote them is not engaging; it’s self-serving. It quickly takes a story from compelling to tedious. It’s not details; it’s details for details’ sake. And unfortunately for those would-be urban explorers, that’s all that awaits them in these sewers.
Painting a narrative picture of a team of urban explorers venturing into the sewers probably conjures a very distinct setting in your mind. A rounded underground pipeline full of grunge and grime, leading somehow into a hidden ornate compound full of relics, artifacts, secrets and records. Perhaps this is one of those “never judge a book by its (mental) cover” situations.
The Archive begins in space that is far less a sewer and far more what feels like some sort of small boiler room. Brick-textured walls line the very flat, very rectangular room – its equally flat ceiling is surprisingly nothing more than the drop panel tiles that came with the venue. A tunnel leading out of the would-be sewer feels entirely unfinished, with no scenic dressing or theatrical lighting to create an aura of the mysterious exploration this whole thing is supposed to be about. Beyond it, a small broom-closet-like space acts as a control room for the sewer lines.
From there, we discover the archive itself, and immediately get the sense that perhaps the Tillman family were not actually party to the level of grandeur that their lengthy story would lead us to believe. The room, at its core, feels somewhat like the type of office space you may expect to find in a general “Sherlock Holmes” themed game. A small sofa, a few chairs, a bookshelf with assorted knick knacks – none of which feel particularly valuable or historical – and a spiral staircase to a small loft area that holds secrets important to The Archive’s finale.
Have you ever been in a game where, rather than spend the budget to have scenic go from floor to ceiling, a line is simply drawn around the room with everything above it painted black? “Pay no attention to anything in the black space!” But what if that spiral staircase breaks out of the established “show area” and actually enters “the space that you should just pretend isn’t there?” Here’s the thing – there’s no real scenic fabrication to be found within this third room; the walls are simply painted a neutral color. And given that neutral color paint costs the same as black paint, why would you simply not just have “the scene” go all the way to the (drop panel) ceiling?
We’ve touched on this already, but The Archive’s biggest fault infects its puzzles worse than any plague brought on by its squeak toy rats. Nearly every step is so superfluously wordy, full of so much reading that seconds tick by feeling like hours.
In the sewer, we find a journal from a character I cannot even remember the name of. More on that later. Several puzzles connect to that journal, of course, but the unfortunate truth is that in order to solve them, each require reading multiple full pages of inane details that do nothing to further the plot of the story attempting to be told – but worse, muddle it to the point of leaving us not interested in even hearing how it ends.
Another puzzle trades in pages of reading for an equally tedious, lengthy string of symbols would-be urban explorers are left to translate using the world’s tiniest decoder wheel. And how do you get those symbols, you probably weren’t wondering? Why, using a blacklight to locate them on the walls, of course.
Because escape room.
And with each new door opened or new crate unlocked, more and more full pages of text sit waiting to be read. Whether you want to or not. It’s never a fun feeling to open a box and just start handing off the contents to everyone else in your group because the experience has left your patience so shot that you’re just mentally done.
The real interesting story of The Archive is how little we enjoyed our experience – because truth be told, we walked in expecting to absolutely love it. We’ve long been fans of Dare 2 Escape as a brand, and over the years have been able to get to know the team of owners behind it and even call them our friends. Genuine friends who we speak to on a regular basis, in fact. Why am I telling you this? It’s simple, really.
After playing The Archive, we attempted on four occasions (one prior, three after) in the month that would follow to arrange a time to meet in person to share our feedback. To be clear, this is something we’d do for any venue – not just one we happen to also be friends with. Upon learning that we did not like the game, all of our attempts to offer the reasons why went unanswered. It’s difficult to read that story in any way other than “we aren’t interested in your opinion unless you enjoyed the game.”
We briefly gave thought to “perhaps we just don’t review it” because truthfully, it bothered me on a personal level to post something that might hurt a venue we generally do support. But after a bit of thought and discussing it with the entire EA team, as well as with some industry peers, we all unanimously agree that not reporting a negative experience simply because we like the people behind it is not only a disservice to our readers but it is a conflict of interest that directly compromises our integrity as reviewers.
The simple fact is this – four of us played this game, and of those four, the ranges of experience wildly varied. 500, 150, 6 and 4. The opinion of each member of the team was consistent. Four of us walked into The Archive, and four of us walked out frustrated to the point of actually feeling angry – and to be clear, we won the game. We cannot overlook a game so tedious that it resulted in all four of us with such widely ranging levels of experience being angry by the time it was done (or long before it was done.)
A large part of that stems from the massive amounts of reading that so many of the game’s puzzle steps require. It was dry, boring and uninteresting. But at its core, the bigger issue is its 90 minute time limit. This is not a 90 minute game. This is a 60 minute game so unpolished that what results is an experience that just runs far longer than it ever was intended to, and worse, its extended run time does nothing to benefit the over-arcing story. Here’s the thing – and we touched on this in the puzzles section; Having now played all four of Dare 2 Escape’s games, each of which are intended to tell the flowing story of the Tillman family, I still could not name a single one of the characters. Not one. I couldn’t tell you anything about them – beyond the fact that their last name is “Tillman.” I couldn’t tell you their traits or their histories, their nuances or even which ones are good guys and which ones are bad guys. That’s not a compelling story. That’s just pages upon pages of superfluous facts – and they all come to a head in The Archive.
It’s so unfortunate that our experience in The Archive would lead to an uncomfortable situation between friends – but our role as a trusted review site cannot be compromised or swayed by what we think of a person. We do not rate people; we rate their product, and sadly in the case of The Archive, that product just was not something we enjoyed. Naturally we continue to support the venue’s other games – and you should too. The Asylum, The Dig and The RingMaster remain great games that stand out in the Orlando market.
And yes, we recognize the irony in having a longer than usual review about a game marred by far too much reading.
Venue: Dare 2 Escape
Location: Kissimmee, Florida
Number of Games: 4
GAME SPECIFIC INFORMATION:
Duration: 90 minutes
Capacity: 8 people
Group Type: Public / You may be paired with strangers.
Cost: $36 per person
We thank Dare 2 Escape for inviting us to play this game. Although complimentary admission was generously provided, that in no way impacts the opinion included within this review.