Madmen and Heroes Review

Madmen and Heroes is a subscription box company that offers two different kinds of experiences.  The Resystance is a historical themed box that teaches you about specific historical events.  The Craaaft is a supernatural themed box that teaches you about paranormal beliefs from around the world.  Each box starts with an explanation about the content and what you must do to complete the game.  There are a series of clues and puzzles that you must solve in order to complete your quest. 

I enjoyed the themes from this company.  I was able to try two Resystance boxes, the Underground Railroad and Women’s Suffrage.  I also tried one of the Craaaft boxes which was Preta Problem, a Buddhist themed box.  I genuinely learned some historical facts and lore.  There’s no better way to learn than from a fun game or story.  Unfortunately, I think the theming is about the only good virtue about the boxes. 

There is a limited story with each box.  It usually only consists of a rough idea of what’s going on historically or what your goals are.  The Preta Problem for example had nearly two pages of writing explaining what Pretas are and how you need to find each one in the temple to help them.  The information was repeated a lot and could be edited down to less than a page with clearer writing.  The Resystance makes it seem like there’s a time travel meta story going on, but they never really build on that.  The premise is similar to that of Escape the Crate, but that company builds on the meta story every box.  So far, the Resystance is just visiting places.  I have no idea what we are resisting or what’s going on. 

The puzzles are usually a mess. A good puzzle is one that provides you all the information you need but still provides a challenge.  Most of the puzzles in this box do not explain what they want you to do.  It sort of explains what you are looking for and then there’s random clues sprinkled throughout.  There’s just no clear direction for what to look for.  The hint page on the website is pretty good though.  They provide roughly 3 hints, a ‘how to solve’, and the solution for each puzzle.  Without looking at this page though, you might not even realize something is a clue.  The answers compilate to a single password which completes the story with an epilogue.  Getting this password can be tricky figuring out if there are spaces or capitalized letters or the order to put them in.  For me, I just didn’t find the puzzles to be enjoyable. 

The quality of the images and prints are really low.  Most of it looks like they downloaded from a small internet image and had it blown up a few sizes.  Most of the images are grainy and pixelated.  The puzzle elements are usually just tacked on like a clipart.  They are made on good quality paper too which is a striking contrast.  I’m not sure why they spend time printing poor images on quality paper. 

Each box comes with a few trinkets.  The Resystance boxes come with random things that seem useless in the game and in life.  This is typical though for these types of games and this one doesn’t stand out as being the worst offender.  The Craaaft actually has some really fun goodies.  For the Preta Problem I got a long strand of Buddhist prayer flags and a necklace of prayer beads.  They didn’t play into the game at all, but it went with the theme and I like them.   

Each box is $30 a month.  For that price, they do not come close to the quality and content that other companies provide.  At most I would consider these boxes to have a $20 value.  It’s not like they are in a big rush either considering they have a 12-month rotation for their boxes.  This means every June they send out the same June box as the previous year.  They have plenty of time to clean up their content and offer a finished product.

I really wanted to like these boxes because of the themes.  It was a great concept that was never completed.  Maybe I will give them another shot in the future if they fix their quality and revamp each box with a story and better images.  I think hiring a graphic designer would be a good move.  Never leave a mystery unsolved!

-J.C. Mystery Detective

Sleuth Kings Review

It was the end of a painfully long day when the light bulb flickered at my desk.  I wasn’t sure if it needed to be changed or if the electricity bill was past due.  Business wasn’t going well and if it continued like this any longer, I might have to pack up my business.  A knock at the opaque glass door where my name was painted startled me.  That’s when she walked in.  She was beautiful despite her red puffy eyes.  “Excuse me.  Are you the private investigator?” she asked.  End scene.  Whatever happened to the old detective stories?  Or a private investigator set in the classic noir style with lots of fedoras?  Well the practice is still alive and well with Sullivan King and the monthly subscription box Sleuth Kings.

Once a month you will receive a case file to help Sullivan King solve a mystery.  Usually a murder mystery but the stories vary.  Each file consists of roughly three pages of story and four clues that are in the form of puzzles.  Once you solve the mystery the story is concluded in a separate envelope titled Epilogue.  What really makes this box pop though is that you get to talk with Sullivan King himself during the investigation via email.  Sullivan and you will work through the clues together until the mystery is solved and the day is saved.  Except for whoever was murdered in the first place. 

The email works by sending a message to Sullivan on the web page for that month’s mystery.  It’s all automated, but I like to write Sullivan messages as though I were really on the case with him.  I usually start with, “Hey Sully, what have you got for me on this case?”.  Once you send the initial message, all you have to do is reply to the emails without changing the email title so the computer knows where you are in the story.  If you need to talk about clue 1, you simply include “clue 1” in the body of the email and Sullivan will comment and help you out with that clue.  Once you have the solution, include “solution” in the body of the email and Sullivan will let you know what he found out.  The system works really well as long as you follow the directions on how to communicate.  The directions are told to you several times so you can’t miss them. 

The puzzles for the box range in style, puzzle type, and complexity.  The box starts with the four clues, but as you progress you will usually run into two or more puzzles that Sullivan will send you or that you’ll find by going to a website.  Some of the puzzles I understood right away and some of them I don’t think I would have ever solved.  There was one in the last box that I asked for all the hints and finally the solution and I still have no idea how they came to that conclusion.  It’s difficult to make brand new puzzles every month and sometimes I don’t think their puzzles work out as smoothly as they should.  For the most part though, the puzzles are always original and clever.  They are themed with the story and usually make sense with the story, in the sense that if everyone involved in a crime always wrote down encrypted clues to help you solve it. 

Inevitably with every puzzle box or book, you’re going to get stuck.  If you do all you need to do is email Sullivan King and he can help you out.  For each puzzle you will receive one hint and the solution.  The hint will explain to you roughly how you might solve the puzzle.  Usually the hint will make the solution obvious and you’ll just have to do the leg work to complete it.  Once you ask for the solution, Sullivan will solve it for you and discuss what to look at next.  If you want a lighter hint, the last of the printed pages is Sullivan’s initial take on each clue.  You can skip this page if you’re a pro and want to solve everything on your own.  This system is smooth until you get into the final puzzles that aren’t one of the initial clues.  A couple times I had to go through the motions of asking Sullivan to solve several puzzles that I already completed just so he can catch up to me and ask if I need a hint on the new puzzle. 

The stories are fairly simple making this more of a puzzle box.  You will hardly ever have to solve the mystery with deduction as the clues you gather will spell out “who dun it” for the most part.  There is an ongoing back story where Sullivan is looking for his missing father.  After you conclude the case, Sullivan continues to email you with updates on his search with additional puzzles and websites that continue the story.  You can even catch up to the story at any time without having to buy all the previous boxes. 

Similar boxes will sometimes include little trinkets or objects that are related to the story.  It’s rare in this box but they will include the occasional item if it’s needed to solve a puzzle.  I recently found a treasure and was rewarded with a tiny plastic treasure box and a penny, so that was exciting.  This box is more focused on the puzzles however and will take you around 2-3 hours to solve everything.  The trinkets in other boxes are highly over-rated and the Sleuth Kings give your money’s worth in good content. 

If you love puzzles and playing detective, this is the box for you.  Although the story doesn’t involve much deduction except when solving the puzzles, you’ll still get your monthly detective fix.  The unique email system makes this box a must try for me.  It seems like it could be a simple script but it adds so much excitement, especially as you’re waiting to see what Sullivan King found with your results.  They recently started a Rookie Detective subscription that is cheaper and should only take an hour to solve.  Or you can jump into Master Detective which has taken me 2-3 hours to solve.  You can even send them your address to get a free post card puzzle.  Good luck though because I have never solved that thing.  With that said, never leave a postcard puzzle unsolved!  Allright, I’ll give it another shot.

-J.C. Mystery Detective

The Birdcage Vs. The Room

Physical puzzles have been popular ever since the first caveman hid a berry under rock and baffled his friends and family. Where did it go? Ever since then puzzle boxes and hand held puzzles have gotten a little more complex. The newest additions to the genre are virtual games that you can play in your hand. This allows creators to make seemingly impossible objects come to life. Today I’m talking about two popular games that you can play on your smart phone or tablet; The Birdcage and The Room.

The Birdcage

First 10 levels are free, $0.99 for every additional 5 levels, 25 levels total, usually has a 50% off deal to buy the full game with all levels

Screenshot from the game The Birdcage.

The Birdcage is a virtual game where you have to solve a series of puzzles to find the key to the birdcage. All of the puzzles are designed into the framework of the birdcage itself. You will collect objects and manipulate mechanisms to find secret compartments and solve puzzles. Once you get the key you will release the bird inside who thanks you by magically flying out with sparkles and an empowering soundtrack.

Things I love:

The first 10 levels are free to play giving you the opportunity to try it out before paying for the full version. They start from very easy and progressively get harder as you advance in the levels. It never gets super difficult and overall the puzzles are relatively easy. This makes the game more relaxing as you can methodical solve puzzles without too much frustration. Like playing a Sudoku or crossword puzzle, you’re still using your brain but in a calm fashion to help you unwind.

You can play in two modes: normal or AR. The AR is pretty awesome. You will set up the birdcage virtually in the middle of your room. You can adjust the position and height before getting started. Once setup is complete, you will walk around the cage and play the game as if it was actually in your home. It’s all through the screen of your phone or tablet of course but it’s pretty impressive. Unfortunately I’m lazy and mostly play in normal mode. In normal mode you simply control the camera with your fingers to move the birdcage around.

Things that can use improvement:

This is something that all virtual escape room and puzzle games suffer from but The Birdcage isn’t too bad. When a puzzle relies on you hitting an exact pixel in the screen or is so well hidden there’s no way a normal human could see it. You end having to click the screen a million times either because you know something is there but it’s not responding or you’re just completely lost and desperately looking for something to work. The Birdcage is actually pretty descent in this regard but it still happens occasionally. Overall The Birdcage is well lit and simple to manipulate.

The hints aren’t really hints and simply highlight exactly what you should be doing next. It’s a “physical” puzzle so it’s not like they could describe what to do in a riddle. Just be aware that clicking the hint button means you’ll see the solution.

The Room

$0.99 for full version, free to try

Screenshot from the game The Room.

At this point The Room is now seven years old and can be downloaded as The Room Pocket for smart phones. The first level is free to try and then you will pay for the remainder of the game like most apps. You begin in a room with a large table that seems to have several hidden compartments, artifacts, and mechanisms. Once you find your first clue you progressively work through the puzzles into this ever growing enigma. The puzzles and amount of mechanisms hidden within seem endless.

Things I love:

If this thing was made into a real physical object, it would be the single greatest puzzle table of all time. Just when you think you are getting close to solving the whole thing another mechanism is triggered and a whole new section mechanically grows out of it. Almost everything seems like it could be made into a real table if there was any genius mechanics out there willing to try it.

This game is significantly harder than The Birdcage. The puzzles are fairly complex and you must find all the pieces to a puzzle before you can move on. This game is a lot closer to an escape room experience with the sequential nature of opening locks and doors and collecting items for the next puzzle.

There’s a fun eyepiece that you wear to find hidden symbols and messages. This is similar to using a black light to find invisible ink. Anytime you think you are stuck you can put on the eyepiece and there’s usually something that was hidden. This adds an extra layer to the experience but also means you have to remember the eyepiece when you get stuck.

Things that could use improvement:

When it comes to having to click everywhere on the screen, this game suffers a lot. It’s very dark and so finding hidden compartments and small scratches or indicators that something is movable can be challenging. It isn’t worse than most escape room games I’ve played so don’t be discouraged into thinking it’s flawed.

Because the puzzles are sequential it can be very challenging to figure out what is supposed to happen next. There’s a three part hint system that knows where you are based on your progress. The hints start off by telling you where to look and get more specific as you progress. There’s also a time limit so you can’t just look at all the hints at once. The hint system is actually a huge help but there’s so much to look at that it can be a bit overwhelming to figure out the next step.

There are some puzzles that require that you look through the eyepiece and change your perspective to create a symbol. The puzzles themselves aren’t bad but it takes away from what I said about how it could be a real physical puzzle. How would the table know that now I can see this specific symbol and open a drawer? I just want this table to exist in real life.

Overall both games are engaging and addictive. Once downloaded onto your device, neither game will require an internet connection to play. I felt like The Birdcage went by too fast only to realize I had been playing for a couple of hours. The Room gets more and more exciting as you progress and the table becomes more intricate. I think The Birdcage wins for being a very relaxing game that you can unwind with. It would also be great for kids and you can watch them run around in circles to solve the game in AR mode. The Room easily wins if you’re looking for a challenge. The theme is fantastic and it’s one of the best escape room type of games out there. Both games have sequels so the adventure doesn’t have to end once you excitedly blast through the first. Never leave a birdcage locked or a room unsolved!

-J.C. Mystery Detective