London, Feb 2020
In the early years, as escape rooms spread throughout the U.K., one London venue quickly gained an international reputation for production values that were streets ahead of anywhere else, as well as a variety of then unheard of innovations such as a briefing performed in costume and in character. That venue was of course Time Run, who eventually closed due to the loss of their lease, but returned in a new location having scored the massive coup of an official licence for a Sherlock game – not Conan Doyle but the modern day Cumberbatch TV series.
With such a pedigree it might seem odd that I didn’t rush to play this game; but it was clearly a highly ambitious concept both in terms of the game itself and the logistics of running it, and I didn’t want to play before it had settled in. Additionally, early reports were wildly variable, with some players hating it and others being blown away with admiration.
Those mourning the loss of Time Run should take heart – The Game Is Now follows the format of their previous games in many ways, and shares many of its qualities; in particular with Lance of Longinus rather than the more experimental format of Celestial Chain. This naturally begins with the pre-game briefing. While our host was not quite as relentlessly in character as the Time Run greeters I remember, it’s designed to make the briefing and team photo an integrated part of the experience. (This is what it means when it describes itself as a 100 minute experience – the central game is the normal hour in length.) This being an official tie-in, fans can expect some familiar faces appearing via pre-recorded audio and video. Personally I might have traded that for a larger role from the hosts, swapping celebrity cachet for more interactivity, but I’m probably in a minority there.
This is a tough game both in terms of quantity of content and its difficulty. At the end we received a score sheet with an assessment of how well we’d done, and although we’d almost completely maxed that out, we had still finished with less than five minutes left. These days it is possible to book as a team of two, if no-one else joins your slot (slots remain open for public booking until there are at least four players), but completing it with a smaller group would be a substantial challenge.
As for the actual game content: it’s excellent. Everything is of course custom built to a very high standard. Different parts of the game are distinctive in both decor and style of gameplay, building up in both difficulty and energy level. Puzzles are solid as well as often clever and original, and are designed to make you feel like Sherlock – making observations, drawing inferences. There’s a huge array of technology under the covers, so it’s not so surprising that some early players reported problems with things not working; but as you’d hope, by this point it seems to be running smoothly. (We did hit one thing that appeared to be a technical failure, but I think that was actually our misunderstanding of how the equipment worked – my remaining criticism there is that our gamemaster didn’t appear to make any attempt to correct our belief that it had broken until the post-game debrief.)
The large scale of the installation has advantages and disadvantages. Your immersive introduction may be somewhat compromised by the presence of other teams, being prepped for the same game by a host playing much the same role as the one looking after your group. (The booking confirmation warned that with fewer than four we might be combined with other players, but the company has elsewhere stated that they no longer combine groups in that way. You may still overlap with other teams during the pre-game sections.) Enthusiasts used to small venues and personal attention from owners may find that off-putting. On the other hand, the cocktail bar is a genuinely pleasant place to decompress after the game, and comes with an assortment of mini challenges and additional puzzle games you can book in for.
The escape room industry is incomparably more sophisticated now than it was in 2015, and enthusiasts have a wealth of fantastic games to choose from. It’s not reasonable to expect The Game Is Now to be the sort of revolutionary leap that Time Run’s original game was. Compared objectively, as if the three Time Run games had all been built at the same time, The Game Is Now is probably their best yet, for sophistication and slickness of puzzles, for hitting the right balance between providing a considerable challenge and also a sense of satisfaction. At the same time, it’s unlikely to wow enthusiasts in the way Longinus did in 2015 – not for any fault of its own, but simply due to the vastly improved standards of competition.
If you want something that will be what Time Run was when it opened five years ago, you’re likely to be disappointed. But if you want something that follows the now-legendary Time Run format, with the same quality and high production values – or if you just want an impressive escape room based around the Sherlock TV series – then this game fits the bill.