Curse of the Dark Raven – Escape Room LA’s Nostalgic Point-and-Click Escape Room
The following is a review for Escape Room LA’s Curse of the Dark Raven and contains mild spoilers around themes and mechanics.
“Flattery will get you nowhere!” booms the troll. Or, rather, our guide/Game Master in her best deep and raspy troll-voice. “Gold is required!” Unfortunately, we don’t have any gold. After a few more attempts to good cop/bad cop the troll into giving us what we want, and laughs at his stubbornness and ability to see right through our manipulations, we resign ourselves to going back to town to earn our gold the old-fashioned way – by solving puzzles at the tavern.
Back to Basics
Curse of the Dark Raven is a remote escape room from Escape Room LA Foregoing an actual room for a point-and-click style, guided RPG (role playing game), this 60-minute experience provides thematic and creative puzzles/brain-teasers, a campaign-style fantasy narrative, and a live guide/Game Master. The overall tone of the game is lighthearted, with participants occasionally having to chant a spell, hop on one foot, or scribble down notes about the townspeople in service of the narrative. Curse of the Dark Raven reads like a fairy tale and would be fun for a younger audience, or nostalgic for an older audience that is familiar with point-and-click video games or tabletop RPGs.
The Game Master in Curse of the Dark Raven moves the group through the experience, explaining the results of each of their choices, much like a Dungeon Master. The experience offers an unlimited number of clues without penalty and gives agency to the participants to explicitly direct action and exploration. The puzzles are less about the items in the room and more about using one’s brain to solve word puzzles, identify patterns, make connections, or decipher text. Ultimately, the puzzles are creative and provided enough of a challenge that our group had to band together to solve them; all felt on-theme and non-trivial to us. Curse of the Dark Raven is a fun bonding activity for a group of friends who enjoy brain-teasers and fantasy throwbacks. Expect some whimsy and don’t take yourself too seriously – this room is lighthearted, fun, and clever.
A Map-Based World
As mentioned above, this room is not like Hourglass Escapes’ Evil Dead 2, The Basement’s My Name is Jamie, or Logic Locks’ Amsterdam Catacombs, in which you are actually in a room; but rather, in Curse of the Dark Raven, you are placed within an art-styled book of fantasy and led by only the voice of the guide. In the first few minutes of the game, participants discover a map that allows them to navigate their in-game world, searching various locations for puzzles, narrative elements, or helpful characters. The locations are all the ones you’d expect in a fantasy RPG: the tavern, the old tower, the witch’s hut – there’s a pleasant familiarity to the map. The structure is simple but effective, and participants are given agency to explore as they please, naturally encountering roadblocks and retracing their steps as needed. The art is consistent across locations and feels like it’s lifted straight out of a children’s book of fairy tales.
A Band of Merry Adventurers
The narrative, as well, is straight out of a storybook fantasy. More whimsical than frightening, the “escape” feels like a tabletop RPG quest or a loose narrative puzzle game with a couple of moments of dialogue. Escape Room LA chooses not to try to transplant the narratives of their in-person rooms to a remote format, but rather to leverage the remote format to do a bit of lighthearted storytelling for a friend group to laugh at and challenge themselves with. Anyone who’s played click-through or tabletop RPGs will crack a smile at the pared-down but familiar format and tone. The game’s logic is pretty simple – the barkeep at the tavern gives the team what essentially amounts to a series of fetch quests, but in a way that still feels relevant to the game’s throwback inspiration. The imaginative and exploratory tone and pacing meant that our group was never really at a loss for where to go and what to do, but we did still get to put the pieces together on our own, brainstorming ways to save time and coming to consensus on strategies and solutions.
Magic and Brain-Teasers
The puzzles, like the narrative itself, are fairly straightforward and thematic. There were one or two puzzles that made us thankful we had a full team, but none that wouldn’t have been solvable by a single player in the allotted time with an unlimited clue system. There are thematic connections between the puzzles, and one or two of them do build upon each other, but in general they are fairly standalone and straightforward. Full room exploration is required, and your team won’t always have all the information needed to solve a given puzzle when you first encounter it, which adds a layer of strategy and complexity. The rooms are fairly user-friendly and easy to explore – everything of interest is clearly represented in plain sight on the room maps, and exploration proceeds fairly linearly. Even the standalone puzzles were creative, interesting, and required some amount of spatial reasoning or lateral thinking. This room would be a challenge for a younger audience or a group with no natural knack for puzzles, but for your average escape room group, it’ll be an easy win.
Inside the Quest
The game includes a handful of surface-level immersive elements that would be more suitable for a young-adult audience, but are still whimsical and entertaining. My friends clearly enjoyed watching me try to jump up and down on one foot while reading aloud from an on-screen spell book. Reading spells aloud and writing down notes and clues are low-stakes ways of actively engaging participants in the world while they’re seated at their laptop screens. The story is linear, but participants do have agency to make mistakes, try different strategies, and travel wherever they’d like within the map. In typical RPG fashion, there’s always a reason for what you can and can’t do, which preserves immersion. Choices generally converge later on, but there is certainly a fun strategy and team-building element in trying to optimize time and inventory.
Unlike Son of Sam or Evil Dead 2, the game doesn’t assign roles or characters to the participants. While assigning characters can be difficult to do successfully, this actually seems like the right format for it. The game’s fantasy setting could facilitate further nostalgia with references to common RPG character classes (bard, warrior, mage) and add in an extra layer of entertainment as certain characters may have special skills to aid in challenges. This could also naturally influence more dialogue options and give different players different skills and activities, upping the immersion factor and making sure everyone feels included.
Our Fearless Leader
Our group unanimously agreed that our guide, Terra, was the highlight of the experience. Dynamically doing dramatic voices for each character in the world as well as describing each scene and the outcomes of our choices and actions, she was always on hand to paint a picture of the world around us. Clearly a capable actress and a long-time RPG fan, the guide allows the game to do a lot with a little. She was able to subtly keep us on track and kept a strong “sense of adventure” attitude throughout the game. It was an absolute joy to hear her respond to us as an elderly bartender or a surly troll. The game is not going for intense drama or realism – the guide is basically a virtual Dungeon Master, and players with RPG experience will recognize the format immediately. There isn’t a huge focus here on character development as the narrative is pretty surface level, and the puzzles are the main attraction, but the little dialogue included is effective and delightfully silly. Using mainly click-throughs of visual art, our guide was able to create intimacy, immersion, and responsiveness.
The Spell Is Broken
Escape Room LA’s Curse of the Dark Raven is whimsical, fantastical, sometimes silly, but always fun and nostalgic. It panders to a very specific type of puzzle-oriented team, preferably with RPG experience. It’s certainly appropriate for children and young adults as an introduction to agency, puzzles, and the RPG genre. Our group had a lot of fun blowing off some steam together while engaging in the brain-teaser-type puzzles and the enjoyable interactions with our guide. Give this one a miss if you’re looking for a complex storyline, high-touch immersion, or a super-challenging or frightening escape room.
Curse of the Dark Raven is a linear point-and-click with a live guide and fun puzzles that focus on lateral thinking. With the addition of a bit more agency and narrative, this could be a truly brilliant variation on the at-home escape room theme that is emerging during quarantine. Straightforward, linear, and narratively simple, the current version of the experience is better suited for a younger or more casual audience. The main draw of the experience is the puzzles, reaction and feedback from the guide, and team-building, collaboration and bonding. We enjoyed jumping into a magical fantasy world and working together to solve puzzles, cast spells, and free a town from a never-ending night.
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