UPDATE: Phantom Peak operates seasonally, with new storylines and sets being added as it evolves. This review was originally written when the experience first launched in 2022. We returned in March 2023 for the launch of the “Platypus Parade”, and have added some of our updated thoughts below.
Want to know more about how Phantom Peak was created, and how to build an open-world experience of your own? Read this piece from Nick Moran, the experience’s Director, on how story is the key to building an open-world experience.
We’re really interested in the idea of the “experience mash-up”: when an experience defies easy categorisation, taking elements of different experience sectors to create something that’s perhaps a new concept altogether, or at least difficult to pin down.
Think Meow Wolf’s immersive art-meets-theatre style experiences that confound expectations, or Wake The Tiger’s combination of “experiential art gallery, interactive theme park and detailed film set” in the “world’s first amazement park”. When these elements come together, are they greater than the sum of their parts – or just an almighty mess?
It’s with this in mind that we approached Phantom Peak: the new “immersive steampunk experience” from Nick Moran, the brains behind the escape-room adventures at Time Run and the at-home entertainment experience Spectre & Vox.
Phantom Peak combines theme park, escape room, dining and immersive theatre elements to create a miniature Western town in a rather unprepossessing part of London’s Surrey Quays, overseen by the jovial JONACO oil company. However, everything is not as it seems, with several mystery trails to complete and an overarching story about the untimely death of the town’s mayor in a blimp crash, the smouldering remains of which can be found in the cavernous depths of the Old Town.
Upon entry, guests are asked to access a town guide through their smartphones, where they can answer questions to be assigned a mystery to solve. There are currently 16 missions to choose from, with plans to expand to over 50, completed by following clues, decoding hidden messages, and most importantly, interacting with the cast of 25 townspeople to uncover vital information.
There’s also fairground-style games, bars and food outlets, shops, and even a boat ride to keep you busy. So does it all come together? The WXO’s Editor, Olivia Squire, went along to launch night to find out.
What’s good about the experience?
- Far and away the most impressive part of Phantom Peak is the actors who keep the plot moving. Unlike traditional escape rooms, rather than interacting with a set or objects the mystery largely unfolds based on your interactions with characters around the town. As well as reacting to the set cues, these characters were fantastic at improvising and building individual connections with guests. I had one memorable off-script conversation about the definition of hell, and another character would call back to our earlier chat throughout the experience, even when we weren’t directly interacting. It was seriously impressive to do this at scale, with several groups of different ages, interests and levels of engagement wandering around.
- They really succeeded in building a world and sense of story that was hilarious and creepy at the same time. I loved the hidden cues and messages in games, machines and props around town.
- The use of humour was unexpectedly clever – an “employee aptitude test” that asked me if I’d rather die from being crushed by a blimp or blushed by a crimp, for example, or a robot doctor gleefully warning me of the cyber uprising.
- I loved that you really could choose your own experience and level of engagement, with different pathways laid out for families and groups of friends, for example. If I wanted to race through several quests, I could – but there were also lots of opportunities for breaks where I could play games, have a drink next to the Venetian waterway, or just enjoy the scenery. I didn’t feel any sense of friction with other groups other than occasionally having to wait to speak to a character.
- It was just generally really great fun!
What could be improved?
- There was a bit of a lack of a climax or pay-off, both on a micro and macro level. The individual quests were really engaging, but didn’t seem to link to each other and when you completed one, all that happened is that you received a playing card that had no further function. What if these could have been used to unlock new quests, areas or characters? Or give you an elevated status in the town? Or unlocked bonus online content?
- They did such a great job of seeding the grand mystery of the town, it was a shame it was never resolved. A closing piece of collective action, like Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk do so well, bringing together some of the key characters would have given us a reason to stick around to the end, rather than the sense of excitement slowly draining away. I wondered if they could have punctuated the whole evening with small moments of theatre – maybe a pistol duel, or a rogue employee being dragged into jail – to make it feel more theatrical and less theme park.
UPDATE: on a second visit we saw a “Closing Ceremony” take place at the end of the night – a nifty way to get people to leave and also to wrap up the storyline. It might not have all made sense, but within the surreal environs of Phantom Peak this hardly mattered, and conga-ing through the town and out the door meant we ended on a high. It also occurred to me that the lack of a “grand resolution” was more like life, and gave another reason to keep returning.
- Compared to many immersive theatre productions, the set felt a little lo-fi and shallow – particularly in the Old Town there wasn’t much to interact with and some of the elements overpromised and underdelivered, such as the “thrilling boat ride” which transpired to be a short raft through a dark tunnel.
UPDATE: the boat ride has been removed and been replaced with another semi-secret area that works much more effectively. The scale and detail of the sets has also expanded, particularly in the Old Town, where there’s now plenty of interactive elements/delivery mechanisms including Jonavision boxes and a radio station.
- The reliance on a smartphone to navigate your way through quests might have left some people feeling left out or lagging behind in larger groups, especially compared to the team effort that most escape rooms deliver. There are no charging stations, so come prepared.
- I didn’t understand why the food and beverage offering was so disconnected from the rest of the world – veggie and vegan tacos, pies and gelato didn’t scream Western town, and none of the food or bar vendors were in character or dress. It felt like a missed opportunity to add depth to the story.
UPDATE: while the food offering still isn’t particularly themed, the vendors are now in character and participated in the trails on several points, as well as improvising with us while we had our drinks made.
What elements do you like so much you’d like to use them in your work?
- I thought where Phantom Peak was most successful and impressive was in its ability to create an open sandbox where large numbers of people could feel like they were having their own unique experience simultaneously, as well as being open to improvisation and change.
UPDATE: having returned a few months down the line, it’s also seriously impressive seeing how the experience evolves and expands with each season. I didn’t feel like I was repeating the same experience, but going through something new and still leaving with plenty to come back and discover.
Tickets to Phantom Peak are available to book now.