Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith
Remember when Edmonton only had one live action escape room and it was a novelty? Since I wrote my original review of Breakout Edmonton in October 2014, our city’s puzzle-peddling entrepreneurs have been bombarding us with new and exciting ways to test our escape room skills.
Other than Breakout and Key Quest in the west end, we now have Edmonton Escape, GTFO, and Smartypantz (all downtown), along with Escape City and The Room on the south side. That makes seven in total—I’ve tried six rooms at three locations and I’ve yet to escape from a single goddamned one of them.
What keeps me going back? What intrigued me from the beginning? The first room I ever tried (and of which I can now describe in great detail since it no longer exists) was The Awakening at Breakout Edmonton. Prop-wise, now that I have something to compare it to, it was fairly simple and far from elaborate. Puzzle-wise, it was perfect. The experience began in a small, sandy-floored room. There were printed patterns on the walls along with a large framed maze, pieces of burlap sack strewn around, and cards with a random assortment of letters.
It took us a while to figure out the theme of this room (logical patterns) but, once we got it, we made significant progress. What I liked about The Awakening was its linearity—you solved a puzzle, which led to a clue for the next puzzle, which you needed to solve to get a key, and so on. It was also a surprise when we opened up a pitch black secret hallway during the game, at which point we realized that “escape room” was a loose title. There are sometimes more than one room (depending on the company) and each team should consider that as a possibility so they don’t waste time in one area.
Escape rooms have the ability to make you feel like a complete idiot for not noticing something mind-blowingly simple. For example, our pitch black hallway revealed a message under the black light that said “the answer is right in front of you.” After puzzling over that for some minutes, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable about four people being jammed into a tight, dark space, my friend quietly walked to the other end of the hallway and pushed at the walled dead end. It opened. Simple.
Since my first foray into escape rooms, I’ve tried two different rooms at Edmonton Escape, both of which didn’t particularly impress me, and one at Smartypantz, which did.
Founded in Vancouver, Smartypantz advertises themselves as escape rooms with “movie set quality themes.” The company now has locations in Vancouver and Edmonton, with another location opening this year in Calgary. Unlike Breakout and Edmonton Escape, Smartypantz rooms each feature a host: actors that are in character for the theme of the room and who give you an introduction to the room’s setting. They stay in contact through a walkie-talkie radio throughout the escape experience and will be the ones to provide the standard two hints if needed.
The hosts themselves are over-the-top—but delightfully so. Their presence, along with the stunning quality of the rooms (they weren’t joking), made this a unique experience. My first foray into a Smartypantz escape was with the Morning Never Comes room. Unlike some rooms, there aren’t a whole lot of items to interact with—many things are glued down, which is a pretty clear indication that they aren’t a part of the game. Each and every escape room in the city is geared towards the use of brains over brawn. Each proprietor of each location will take care to give you the liability spiel before you even begin (i.e. no peeling up carpets, no forcing things open, no climbing into the ceiling).
The set was lush and richly decorated, with windows that appeared to look out onto a dark forest and that featured the occasional thunder clap and lightning flash to set the mood. Some escape rooms are huge (and undoubtedly disappointing when they don’t have enough furniture to fill them convincingly)—this one was petite but well-stocked. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with too many items, you can’t help but feel a sense of hope that this might be it. This might be the time you actually manage to escape. This is your time.
It wasn’t. The puzzles weren’t outlandishly difficult—in fact, I think their rooms have a higher success rate than both Breakout and Edmonton Escape, with approximately 20-50% of teams reaching completion—but we didn’t quite make it this time (albeit we did come close).
Unfortunately, the problem with trying so many different escape rooms from so many different business owners is that you’re never quite sure of the level of difficulty you’ll encounter—what could be considered “medium” difficulty for one location might constitute “easy” at another. Past experience can give a false sense of how to approach puzzles (i.e. “That’s much too easy, so it can’t be right”). Sometimes, it really is that easy.
The actor hosts, the rich set designs, and the linear logicality of the puzzles are all crucial to giving Smartypantz an edge over the competition in the current climate of Edmonton escape rooms. It’s an exciting experience, having to rely purely on your own intelligence, and Smartypantz delivers one of the best iterations of a live action escape I’ve seen in the city so far. Definitely worth a try—if only to hear the owner politely request you refrain from forming a human pyramid in the room (hint: the answer is never in the ceiling).
Visit the Smartypantz website.
View all Smartypantz rooms.
Cover image courtesy of Smartypantz.