Billed as “Europe’s largest and most technically complex immersive experience”, Variant 31 was due to launch in April but was delayed – and then the opening for the press was postponed for just over two weeks to extend its preview period.
It’s now providing an adrenaline-fuelled immersive horror shoot-’em-up adventure across multi-level buildings, allegedly spanning 35 floors and more than 42,000 sq ft, although it felt more like two large buildings of seven floors each, plus a basement.
But either way, it’s big: there are loads of rooms, many the size of a large cupboard, some with cryptic messages in, some empty, all dimly lit. It’s easy to get lost. There’s smoke, multi-coloured lighting and a challenge element.
The “technically complex” reason for the delay is about the actual technology involved. We are armed with wristbands that allow us to collect points, tapping them like an Oyster card on scanners in rooms. We wear tactical vests, with a pistol and discs that change colour – red means we are ‘dead’ and lose all our points. Amber means we have 90 seconds to find a ‘healing station’ that will turn our discs green again. It’s as close to being in a video game as you can get.
The story: A serum was developed by a crazy scientist many decades ago that reanimates people after they die and turns them into hallucinating fighting machines (so: zombies).
We’re told to split up, but sticking in pairs worked best – one to stave off the zombies while the other searched the rooms. After discovering a message on a wall and then being told it was a red herring, I got the impression that puzzle elements had been dropped. The original announcement for the show also promised four bars, parkour, aerial acrobatics and a nightclub – but I didn’t find them.
Big Dreamer Productions, the transatlantic company behind the show, has the motto: “You’ll never feel so alive as when you are scared to death” and it delivered, with hundreds of lurching zombies screaming and running at you from the dark corners of every room; it’s terrifying.
Safeguarding is well done: in-story CCTV in each corner, actor-stewards on every floor and an explicit warning not to touch the actors.
A tiny core team of about seven non-zombie performers leads the action, offering information about rooms to explore and amping up the sense of fear and impending doom – but if you’re expecting lots of missions and puzzles, forget it.
Zombie games are everywhere now and Variant 31 isn’t doing anything new on that front, but it was fun and the scale was impressive – the 90 minutes flew by in a heart-pounding haze of frantic zombie-shooting.