One of the coolest ideas in Resident Evil 7 is an “escape the room” section from the first expansion. Your protagonist has to solve a long string of puzzles to get out of a bedroom, while trying not to tip off the woman who locked you there in the first place. So a real-life escape room based on the Resident Evil franchise, which launched last year in Los Angeles, is a perfect fit. While it was originally launched as a promotional for Resident Evil 7, the experience recently reopened it to the public, this time in New York. When Capcom offered me a chance to try it out, I grabbed my colleague Ross Miller and went to a late-night puzzle session.
The Resident Evil Escape Experience, as it’s called, follows general escape room conventions. A group of six people (in this case me, Ross, and four strangers) enter a room full of locks, keys, hidden codes, and physical puzzles. From the moment you step inside, you get 45 minutes to solve all these puzzles and get out. What’s unique, of course, is that it takes place in a beloved fictional universe with its own mythos and history — and that a lot of that mythos is very, very creepy. Weirdly, though, this turns out to be the experience’s biggest weakness.
A cool mythos, an anticlimactic setup
The Resident Evil escape room isn’t based on Resident Evil 7, but it’s not really telling a new story, either. Instead, it uses an oddly anticlimactic framing device: you and your teammates are entering an Umbrella Corporation training sim that looks like different rooms from various games, designed to test your teamwork skills.
This helps justify the arbitrary puzzles, as well as the Umbrella Corporation assistant who whispers hints if your group gets stuck. But it also sucks out a lot of the tension. Compared to the life-or-death situations in the games, there are low fictional stakes for failing, and no sense that you’re uncovering a larger narrative in an organic environment. The Resident Evil lore elements feel designed to be comfortably familiar, not evocative. Hey, remember Jill Valentine? Here’s her badge! Obviously, all room escape and adventure game scenarios are inherently unreal, but I’d be more than willing to suspend disbelief for a more exciting setup.
None of this spoils the intrinsic fun of getting through some clever and compelling puzzles, and getting to know your teammates in a limited way. For our group, this usually meant a few words as we each fixated on a random set of objects, sometimes to the visible frustration of our guardian. But in brief moments, the clues would bring us all together, and the feeling of putting everything in place to crack a safe code or door lock was beautiful. The experience seems geared toward helping people succeed, and apparently, all but one of the groups that day had made it out. Even so, the timing was satisfyingly tight: we earned the photo above by a mere 35 seconds. It’s not quite the reward I wanted — I was hoping to get ambushed by at least one monster — but it’s one I’ll gladly take.
Given the $40 ticket price of the Resident Evil escape room, it’s strange to try something that’s so clearly a promotional tie-in, to the point of showing a Resident Evil 7 trailer at the end. It’s an odd counterpoint to the journey my fellow writer Bryan Bishop took deep into the world of escape rooms, where people discover a punk musician’s sinister organ harvesting plot or even take on their own fictional identities. An escape room’s “story” is everything that you and your fellow puzzle-solvers do over the course of getting out (or failing to), and we certainly created that. But we could have gotten so much more.
The Resident Evil Escape Experience is running through April 2nd in New York. It’s part of a six-city tour that also includes San Francisco, Boston, Portland, Austin, and Chicago.