Time Run: Celestial Chain

London, Nov 2016

Rated between 3 and 4 out of 5
Toby says:

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. 4 / 5
Sam adds:

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. 3 / 5
Eda rated this:3.5 / 5

6 thoughts on “Time Run: Celestial Chain

  1. Played last night, so can finally read your reviews!

    It’s an interesting game. I took along 14 players across 4 teams (3,3,4,4) and all teams did pretty well (minimum score 85 I think with, I’d guess, at least 9 items each). What surprised me was how hard people took not getting *everything*. Unsurprisingly, none of us completed every puzzle but I was surprised at how frustrated people were. They’re used to finishing every puzzle in a game and while it might take them a minute more or less, they get the satisfaction either way.

    I’ve played a few “non-binary win condition” games and I’m pretty used to unrealised potential. I actually really like it – pretty much everyone “wins” but there’s still a yardstick to measure yourself against and you get a full hour’s worth of value.

    It’d be interesting to see how first timers rate it – they don’t have the expectation of finishing every puzzle and will maybe see that as just fine. Time will tell!

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    1. Good work on the scores! I think you’re probably right that escape enthusiasts in particular may tend to expect to complete everything, and feel frustrated, where ‘normal’ people with different expectations react differently. Although I had a first-timer on my team, and she was just as frustrated about it.

      Milliion Dollar Heist springs to mind as another London ‘non-binary win condition’ game, and I thought that was fantastic. For me at least the biggest frustration in Celestial Chain wasn’t so much not completing everything but being interrupted midway through a puzzle, repeatedly.

      Some of my other regular teammates played it on a later occasion and *really* didn’t like it. They appear to have had a particularly unfortunate visit with multiple things going wrong, but they had two criticisms in particular that weren’t specific to their visit. Firstly, they failed something that they’d been told was life-or-death, but were ‘let off’ and told that they’d won the game overall, which to them came across as a patronising ‘everybody gets a prize’ result. (If you can’t lose, is it still a game, or should it be classed as interactive theatre?) Secondly, the booking schedule has teams starting every 15 minutes. With 12 minutes per area, that gives a narrow 3 minute window for reset, and a lot of simultaneous teams for game masters to monitor. Since they also had some fairly bad malfunctions & apparent GM inattention problems, they suspected the tight schedule of being to blame. I don’t know if that’s fair or not – I’d love to chat with the Time Run guys at some point and get some inside info.

      It does seem to be one where people can have wildly different experiences, with their expectations going in being a major factor in whether they enjoy it. All things considered, I’d tell enthusiasts to try it, but to expect something quite different to what they’re used to, and to approach it more as a series of Crystal Maze challenge rooms or an interactive theatre thing rather than an escape room.

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  2. Having had a quick chat with them afterwards, from what I could tell they do have one GM per player in theory although it can be a bit more fluid occasionally. But essentially the person that does your debrief should have been watching your entire game. I’d imagine things occasionally go wrong but I’m fairly sure the intent is one GM per team.

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    1. I did have a fairly long chat with one of the Time Run team the other evening, and I don’t believe that’s the case – by his description, while all teams and rooms are being observed at all times, the number of GMs is fewer than the number of teams.

      Re. the problems I’d heard about and mentioned on the comment above, it turns out their visit was on the very first day after the first major revision of the game, so I think that was the reason they had such problems.

      It’s a very ambitious game in a lot of ways, and it sounds quite demanding on the staff both for room resets and for overseeing teams. I’m fairly confident in saying that the timings allow very little room for error; that as a consequence they had more than their fair share of teething problems for the first month or two; that they’ve been trying hard to iron those out; and that they’ve broadly managed to do so. I do think it would be better for them to space teams out more to give them more leeway in the reset time, and also to increase the GM count, so that one GM follows each team through in the way you describe. But then both of those would have a commercial impact, and it’s easy for me to say they should do such-and-such; they’re the ones who have to make sure their business is successful.

      Having talked to quite a few people since I wrote my review, and having a little more information about how things work behind the scenes, I’d stick with the rating I gave it. My reservations were primarily to do with the style of the room, with fixed limits for each section, and it seems like that bothers some people quite a bit and others not at all. Plenty of teams will love the game, others will find it frustrating or disappointing – which is fine, it’s better to be amazing for some than average for everyone.

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  3. It’s funny because I thought I was the only one to give this room ~3 stars but it seems that you had the same type of view I had! I had been about 15 rooms in when I did it and while the production value was amazing, we felt unfulfilled, especially as most were first timers.

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    1. It definitely gets a variety of reactions, with some players frustrated and others thinking it’s the best thing ever. I think that’s partly due to actual differences in how the game experience goes and partly due to player expectations going in.

      I’ve got huge respect for the Time Run guys and what they do – even though I found CC frustrating (and my co-reviewer Sam even more so), it’s still high on my list of recommendations for London games to try. I just try to set expectations beforehand so as to increase the chances players enjoy it.

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