Hidden Realms’ new show lacks polish but holds promise and potential
What I love about Fringe is how it gives creators and performers the chance to experiment and that’s what I ultimately liked about . It was an ambitious, two-hour piece that combined theatre, improv, and gaming, tied together via various world mythologies. At its close, one of the actors told us we were free to offer feedback, so that’s part of what I’ll do in this review.
But if you’re looking for a quick bite: Ascend is worth a shot if you’re looking for an interactive thing to do with your friends that’s not quite an escape room nor a scavenger hunt, but contains elements of both. It’s not completely polished and they’re not working with a massive budget, but there’s lots of potential and plenty to keep you occupied. And for $30/ticket (around the same price as an escape room), it’s not a bad deal if you’re willing to give it a chance.
As an audience member, you are a demigod — the result of a tryst between a mortal and a human. You’ve been summoned by a variety of ancient gods from various mythologies to help your parents in a forthcoming battle. The first thing you do upon arrival is check in with the amicable Oracle of Delphi, who has the calming demeanor of a concierge at a five-star hotel. The Oracle will tell you who your godly parent was and thus, which pantheon you belong to. (You will already know which pantheon is yours if you follow instructions and take the personality quiz that’s sent via email after purchasing tickets.) There are four pantheons total: Greek, Chinese, Mayan, and Egyptian. All of the characters you will meet belong to one of these mythologies, with the exception of the Norse god Loki. His pantheon is not represented at this celestial meeting, but he decides to show up anyhow, which is very Loki of him. It’s worth noting that, unlike Hollywood, Ascend did not white-wash its cast by having white actors play roles that should go to people of color. So, for those looking to support a diverse show, consider saving room for Ascend in your Fringe-ing.
Once you get your pantheons figured out, the Oracle will usher you into a new space where you’ll meet your godly parents and their friends. Unfortunately, you’re not here for a family reunion and there’s no BBQ. You’re here to train your hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, lest you die in the upcoming battle against a mysterious, chaotic force. To make matters worse, a revolution is brewing and it’s unclear which gods can be trusted. Some gods have seemingly gone missing while others have been acting strange.
That’s the mostly spoiler-free plot, and the rest will be revealed through various character interactions. There’s no roadmap for which gods you’re supposed to talk to, as all gods have quests, information, puzzles, or training for you, regardless of your pantheon. Some gods have puzzles, which you must complete in a certain amount of times. Other gods require you to complete multi-step quests. For example, a god might ask you to convince another god to do something. But the second god will only oblige if you can procure an object for them, which may require persuading a third god and so on. Every completed task will earn you points — which take the form of clear beads — and every point you earn will go towards your Pantheon’s overall score. The Pantheon who wins may have an advantage in the final battle. Throughout, the Oracle is the only neutral party and may offer insight or assistance if you get stuck.
I personally found this portion of Ascend to be pretty fun with a lot of interesting and varied things to do. It also felt like a lot of the performers excelled in the more improvisational roles. The structured dialogue that kicked off the show confined them to the lofty tropes of high fantasy, but here they really got to explore their individual characters. The only downside to this section of the game was bottlenecking around certain puzzles, quests, and characters. The audience almost felt too large for the game, but that might not have actually been the case. While most audience members came in groups, some guests came in pairs or alone. So while some puzzles were being explained to six or more people at a time, the single riders often slowed things down. Plus, solving a puzzle as a group meant every team member scored points at the same time, putting those players — and thus, their pantheons — at an advantage. So I would suggest bringing at least one person you want to play with, then teaming with a few others so that you can get through puzzles together and net points quickly.
It doesn’t really matter what you do during the game, but the more you engage, the more you’ll learn about the narrative. The game leads up to a highly interactive final battle, and the more you’ve managed to learn, the more sense it will make. What’s most interesting about the final act is that it feels like there are two possible endings. This is cool because oftentimes, the decisions we make as audience members have no impact on the narrative. In Ascend, it’s clear that our choices (and our in-game performances) absolutely matter.
Format-wise, Ascend is similar to a few other immersive experiences you might be familiar with. If you attended the Alita: Battle Angel experience, Ascend offers similar team-based challenges, but more in-game story. If you’ve done one of the large-format SCRAP escape games, Ascend has a similar structure, but with less pencil-and-paper work. There’s definitely an interest in this kind of game-theater hybrid, and there are a few things the creators of Ascend could do to get it to the next level. (Here’s that feedback part I mentioned.)
- They could add more theming to the beginning of the show. As it stands, guests wait in line to check in with the Oracle, then enter a common area once they have their pantheon’s badge. This area has no character interactions or world building whatsoever, but it certainly could if Ascend decides to stage the show again after Fringe.
- Instead of explaining the rules of the game during the show itself, they could send the rules out in advance. This would give guests the most possible time exploring the various quests, puzzles, and storylines. As it stands, the show has a slog of exposition before the game begins.
- While I appreciate the open format, it feels like putting people into teams might work best to avoid bottle-necking. Maybe one of the gods grabs the nearest six or so people (accounting for who came as a group/pair/alone, etc.) and starts them on a question together. Full disclosure: I might be feeling this way because one of the gods explained a quest to a man I didn’t know and me at the same time. We became a natural pair, but I decided to ditch him after his third sex joke about Artemis’s virginal maidens. Maybe if I’d fallen in more naturally with a different player or team, I wouldn’t have wished for a mechanic that intentionally put me on a team. However, this is the first one of these things I’ve played where I haven’t been defaulted onto a team, and it was a bit lonely.
The takeaway: Though not a highly polished show, this one’s worth a shot if you’ve got $30 to spend on a fun, puzzle/improv-based experiment. Build an adventurous, game-loving team and check it out!
Ascend: When Myths Fall, Heroes Rise runs through the end of June as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019. Tickets and more information are available here.
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