Have you ever wondered what it would be like to star in a video game?
Pete and I had an experience last Thursday which helped us come close to discovering how it would feel to be a protagonist in a point-and-click. After being unable to use our tickets last month due to COVID-19, we finally made it to Phantom Peak a few days ago.
This event came onto my radar in June when I saw a post about it on Instagram. Clicking through to the official website, I found it was being advertised as a place where you could ‘explore the town and uncover its mysteries at your own pace for up to five hours in an immersive open-world adventure’. There was also a backstory explanation to add to the intrigue.
The Festival of Phantom Peak is in full swing and marks the first time the town has welcomed in outsiders like us. Back when it was called Phantom Deeps, it suffered a horrible fate when the mayor disappeared in a freak blimp accident which destroyed half of the Old Town. Thanks to Jonas and his company JONACO, refurbishment work has taken place and now the crash is little more than a memory.
Not everything is as it seems though. Head into what’s left of the Old Town and you’ll find shadows of the past and outcasts united under the banner of the Miramine Cooperative. These people claim that not everything in Phantom Peak is as pretty as JONACO wants to make it seem and there are conspiracies to be uncovered. Will you take the town at face value and enjoy your stay? Or will you dig deeper in search of the truth?
After the first 30 minutes, we found ourselves reacting to these conversations with just as many theatrics and exclamations as the actors.
Having only this description, we had no idea what to expect when we arrived at the venue in Canada Water in London last week. Doubts started to creep in when all we discovered was a sign on a metal fence and only a couple of groups ahead of us in the queue. After being shepherded into a small marquee which functioned as a waiting area, a member of staff pulled several of us around and said our adventure would begin as soon as we entered the non-remarkable wooden door in front of us.
Stepping through that gate was almost like being transported to another world. Small stores lined either side of a canal, enthusiastic inhabitants were waiting to greet us, and relaxing music played in the background. A town guide motioned for us to come over and explained how to access the JonAssist app to get started on our first ‘trail’. Opening the website and entering the password gave us three easy questions, and ‘The Plat-Man’ story was recommended to us based on the answers provided.
We had our first clue: head to JONACO HQ and speak to the Supervisor, telling him quietly that we were ‘Platyskeptics’. It was hard not to feel a little awkward about doing this initially but we soon realised it would be hard not to be infected by the energy of the actors. They manage to sweep you along in the plot and you get sucked into the experience. After the first 30 minutes, we found ourselves reacting to these conversations with just as many theatrics and exclamations as they were.
The trails have you wandering all over Phantom Peak. The venue isn’t as big as the map on the website makes it seem but it’s surprising how much walking you end up doing, and there are no stairs so everywhere is accessible by wheelchair. To quote Pete: ‘This must be what it feels like to be in a point-and-click, where you keep having to go back to areas you’ve already visited to talk to someone.’ It really did feel as though we were in an entirely different place for the five hours we were there.
You can ask any of the characters whenever you need a nudge in the right direction, which usually ends up in a funny (but helpful) conversation.
The town is split into a few distinct locations each with their own personality. There’s Canal Street with its parade of shops, where you can talk to their owners about the mystery you’re uncovering as well as buy souvenirs and play carnival games. Near the Gilded Lake, you can stop for a drink at the Canal Bar or pop into the Picture House for information. And in Phantom Deeps, you can hang out with the lowlifes in the Thirsty Frontier Saloon or dig up long-forgotten secrets in the bank-turned-archive.
Each trail consists of around ten puzzles. These could involve giving a character a secret message to see how they react, using the wonders of JONACO technology to read an electronic letter, watching a video on a Videomatic machine or keeping your eyes peeled for a code. None of them are difficult and the JonAssist app holds your hand all the way through. You can also ask any of the characters whenever you need a nudge in the right direction, which usually ends up in a funny (but helpful) conversation.
This handholding will be too much for seasoned gamers. We’d have personally liked more challenge and only needed guidance when we failed to spot a picture in one of the buildings. It’s understandable why the difficulty level is kept relatively low though: the organisers are trying to cater for a wide range of puzzle-solving abilities and increasing it could result in a backlog of attendees trying to speak to characters. As it was, we hardly had to wait for anything and this made the experience flow naturally.
We also noticed that several sections were closed. For example, the windows were dark at Madame Mechanica’s store, the Theatre in the Old Town was shut, and a couple of food and drink sellers were unavailable. Based on this and the fact the organisers recently cancelled September weekday dates, I can only assume Phantom Peak isn’t as popular as they were hoping. On one hand this is a shame because it’s such a great experience – but we can’t complain on the other, as we had parts of the town to ourselves.
The actors are enthusiastic to chat to everyone, approach you if you look lost or as though you need a pointer, and were so good with the children there.
It’s worth noting that these closures and the light level of puzzle difficulty didn’t spoil our evening. This is thanks to the actors as they make the event what it is: it just wouldn’t be as excellent without them. They’re enthusiastic to chat to everyone, approach you if you look lost or as though you need a pointer, and were so good with the children there. They did seem to get tired towards the end of the night so their responses became shorter, but who can blame them after five hours of being in character?
Speaking of the actors, Phantom Peak’s residents are split in their views towards Jonas. Those in the Old Town show a high level of distrust and are frequently involved in trails about schemes to bring him into disrepute. Residents in the refurbished part of town seem more enamoured, with regular cries of ‘In Jonas we trust!’ and descriptions of how wonderful he is. Once you get them talking though, there’s all sorts of juicy secrets they can tell you about their benefactor. Maybe he’s not as saintly as he wants you to believe.
While all the actors were amazing, there are a few we’d like to give a shout-out too because we ended talking to them frequently! Sparks, the tour guide assistant, made us laugh during every conversation – particularly when he told us off for saying ‘rock hunt’ too quickly as there needed to be a pause between the words. Pocket, the mayoral candidate, was so enthusiastic and made sure everyone got involved. And Rattigan, the Picture House owner, stayed in character even when we threw her a few curve balls.
If all this investigating sounds like too much for you, there are plenty of opportunities for breaks. You can grab a drink or bite to eat from several spots around the venue (I can highly recommend the mango sorbet from Hackney Gelato). Time your stops right and you can join in with the Platyhook game at the Gilded Lake (think hook-a-duck but with platypuses). You can also take a short boat-ride through the Diamant Hollows to discover more about Jonas’s history and what a wonderfully perfect man he is.
Pete and I managed to get through a respectable seven trails in five fours and would have attempted more if the venue hadn’t been closing.
The town guide at the beginning of the evening told us there were 16 trails in total and that we’d be able to finish four or five if we took it slowly. Pete and I managed to get through a respectable seven in five fours and would have attempted more if the venue hadn’t been closing (and if our feet weren’t aching so much). At the end of each trail, the main character in the story furtively hands you a Phantom-Peak-themed playing card so you can keep track the mysteries you’ve successfully uncovered.
This did lead us to ponder during our journey home: what would have been the outcome if we’d managed to complete all 16? Would some overarching secret have been revealed? Imagine if you finally got your opportunity to meet Jonas and decide whether to join him or confront him about his sneaky misdeeds. While the adventure gamer in me loves to think about such an ending, I’m not sure there would have been one. But I’d definitely be up for making another trip if there was a conclusion after the trails.
If you’re able to make it to London and spots are still available, make sure you visit Phantom Peak. I can’t recommend it highly enough: it’s our favourite experience this year so far, and fans of adventure games and escape rooms will love it if they’re happy with a lower level of challenge. It’s worth pointing our here that tickets are £34 each and there are no concessions. It’s a reasonable price when you consider everything involved in such an event but could turn expensive when visiting as a family.
I’ll wrap up this post with one of Pete’s rhymes: ‘Eight or nine out of ten, would definitely Phantom Peak again.”