London, Nov 2016
Celestial Chain has spectacular production values. Let’s be quite clear about that: the effects, stage craft and technology on display here are in a completely different league to most rooms, even more so than Time Run’s original room. Despite that, to my surprise I found I enjoyed it less than many much less ambitious rooms.
The game is immersive from the first, with your team greeted by a host who stays in role so thoroughly we found ourselves matching his Victorian speech patterns when replying to him. Speaking of which, the greeting will happen precisely at your allotted time – if you press the doorbell two minutes early, you will wait outside for those two minutes until the correct time. This is a policy followed by both Time Run rooms, and it does mean that you’re plunged into the experience from the moment you enter; but on the other hand, it also means you’re probably stuck for a while hanging around outside a closed door on a slightly dodgy London back street.
The structure of this game is innovative. (The structure was explained to us before the game started, so I’m not counting this as a spoiler, though I’ll keep the description on the vague side anyway.) Like their other room, it’s divided into several distinct parts, each with their own set of puzzles. Unlike their other room, each section has a fixed time limit, and when you hit that time limit, you have to abandon any remaining puzzles in that section and move onto the next bit.
When the host described this to us before the start of the game, it seemed like a brilliant idea. That way, everyone gets a full hour; if you fail badly, you’re not left feeling that you missed out on the end section of the room.
Maybe if we’d been smashing the puzzles I’d have thought it worked really well. But we weren’t, and the result was we kept having to abandon puzzles just at the point where we’d worked out what we were doing, but before we’d actually completed them. Which is a bit like sitting down starving to a delicious meal, only to have it taken away after the first few bites.
And the puzzles were varied, creative and well made. Several are much more physical than traditional escape room fare, and are quite skill-based, something like an advanced version of a Crystal Maze chamber. That’s a good thing, and hard to do well. And each section is highly distinctive, not just in the theming but also in the style of puzzles it contains.
There are a lot of puzzles, and some of them involve quite a few steps; and at every moment you’re up against a much tighter deadline than in a normal room. Perhaps for that reason, some sections have quite explicit signposting of what you need to do, or hinting from the (themed, nicely executed) clue system. That’s reasonable, since with limited time in each section each team has to hit the ground running. And having lots of puzzles should mean that it can provide a challenge even when a team is doing outstandingly well. But it took away from the joy of discovery that is one of the charms of a good escape room, and and a couple of points I felt like a slightly dim schoolchild being prodded towards the answer by the teacher.
The host made a point to try to set expectations at the outset, and clearly it’s intended that the vast majority of teams will only solve part of the puzzles. If we left feeling slightly deflated, perhaps that’s just arrogance on our part, thinking we’d do better. (We scored 5/12 if you’re interested, in a scoring system that will only make sense to people who’ve played the room.) But even allowing for that, the format made it intense and high-adrenaline, but also rushed and a bit superficial as far as engaging with the puzzles is concerned.
This is the longest review I’ve done for an escape room, and I imagine it’ll be a while before another room leaves me quite so conflicted. I simultaneously feel I need to justify rating it this low, and also this high. There’s so much that’s spectacular, from the impeccable character of the host to the gorgeous sets and effects, from the dynamism of the narrative to the thought and care that’s gone into creating the puzzles. If this were a room where we had to complete each section to progress, with perhaps a 90 minute time limit to do the lot, then I suspect I’d be putting it straight to the top of my list of favourite rooms. As it is, impressive doesn’t always mean enjoyable. With different expectations going in you may love it – I’ll be interested to hear how others find it. And love it or hate it, it’s still a spectacular, distinctive room that it’d be a shame to miss.
Many of the points in Toby’s review stand; this was a technically excellent room, with innovative puzzles, great decoration / production values. I enjoyed the fact that there were puzzles we couldn’t solve, particularly if they were very different. I wanted to rate the room really highly, BUT – and this is why I’ve only rated it a 3 – in my opinion an escape room is not just a theatre show; it’s an experience from the welcome through to departure. In this room, I felt like I was being pushed through a commercial process; like the owners had ploughed a lot of money into it, and as a result were pushing groups as tightly together as possible. Time Run are the only serious company where you’re made to wait outside, rather than warmly welcomed if you arrive early, maybe given a drink, chat to the staff. We then felt rushed through the room (the staff member briefing us said they were running late, possibly to be on theme but it exacerbated everything else), and as mentioned by Toby, it just didn’t feel like we had enough time to savour and explore the puzzles. At the end, as there was no waiting room, I felt a little bit like we were being booted out the back door so the next group can come through.
I would rate this room a 4.5 or 5 if they did two things:
- Make the game 90 minutes long
- Had a proper welcome / departure area with ‘normal’ staff
Until they do that, ironically, Time Run (Celestial Chain) doesn’t have enough time to be amongst my favourites.