Outside the room
A long, long time ago I played a game called Lance of Longinus by Time Run. It remained, up until recently, the gold standard of escape rooms. Even now, almost two years later, it’s still one of the very best I’ve played, so I was beyond excited when its sequel, Celestial Chain, was announced. I tried my best not to read any reviews and I bided my time waiting for the designer to say the game was ready. I knew the game was different and was provoking controversy but beyond that, I knew very little at all.
As with Lance of Longinus, you have to arrive precisely at your start time – not too late, not too early – so be prepared to gather somewhere else first and then head over. Once inside, it’s a little more comfortable, though, and they’ve opted for briefing teams individually, which was something that I think they got wrong in their previous outing. And what a briefing! They mix an ad libbing actor host, a slide show with live commentary from the actor to explain the story and then a final video before entering the arena. To get the most out of the experience right from the start, I highly recommend throwing yourself into the intro and asking about some of the artefacts on display.
A rogue goddess, once imprisoned, has broken free of The Celestial Chain. Gather the artefacts you need to bind her, once again: or risk the end of the world as we know it.
Inside the room
OK. I’m going to try very hard not to keep comparing Celestial Chain to its predecessor at Time Run, but my first emotion on entering the game proper was disappointment. Lance of Longinus was an epic game with a huge, beautiful set that felt very different to pretty much all the other escape rooms I’ve experienced. Celestial Chain has a much smaller, grittier feel and, if you were to compare production values, you’d find it a little lacking – there are most definitely some rough edges around the game. That’s not to say that it’s not beautiful in its own right, and I suspect that, were I to consult floor plans, it’s actually slightly larger than its older sibling.
Now, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory but there are certain elements of the game that you’re told about during the briefing that make it much easier to review. If you’re not comfortable with finding out about those, then I’d recommend skipping straight to the Verdict section and continuing there. You have been warned.
OK? Ready? Great. So, the thing you’ll hear during your briefing is that you’re travelling through time but can only stay in each time zone for a fixed period. Each zone has a different setting, and during your travels you’ll have to find a number of different artefacts – at least three of each type. That has a huge impact on the game because it effectively turns the experience into a series of “mini” escape games where you have to leave after a relatively short period. If you’re incredibly quick in one period, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get extra time to burn elsewhere like you might in conventional escape rooms. It also means that sometimes you may (almost certainly will) be forced to continue your journey without having completed all the puzzles in front of you. That led to a huge amount of frustration for some of my fellow players.
That “mini” game, always rushing forwards, collecting tokens vibe, made it feel like they’d really been influenced (in a good way) by the Crystal Maze. Talking of influences, there’s one part of the experience that was clearly influenced by another (non-escape) game that many readers of this blog will be big fans of (hint: it’s the part where you’re collecting the Furium artefacts).
The puzzles were varied and interesting throughout the game, and it felt like there were enough even for a team of five people. They delighted in physical interactions and the game felt very much a hands-on experience. A couple of mild skill puzzles were a nice addition to offset some reasonably tough communications and mental challenges, and several of the games required or promoted the involvement of multiple players. It wasn’t all great, though: a couple of the puzzles felt weak to me and consequently left us feeling a bit negative as we continued to the next room. One in particular was out and out filler, which I really don’t expect from Time Run.
The finale was interesting. It felt to me like it was going to be pure theatre to end the game, and I mentally relaxed to let it wash over me. It turned out that it was still very much part of the game, though, and so we went from calm and collected to headless chickens as we rushed round to complete our mission. That was made overly difficult in my opinion by a room that had too little lighting. It did mean that we were kept stressed right to the last second, with us finally completing the final step just before the clock hit zero.
Celestial Chain should take you the full hour and, even if you do everything perfectly, you’re unlikely to ever be left idle for more than a couple of minutes in total across the whole experience. Instead of an escape time, there’s a scorecard to represent how well you did. In terms of the normal scoreboard, we got 100/100, which represented the full 2400 years of sending the goddess back to her chains. In reality, there are two additional artefacts in each zone, bringing your potential total up to 128 points. Our team of three finished with 118, missing two artefacts. That was the best score at the time, but it has since been beaten by another team of three.
This was an absolutely amazing game. It’s hard to do a fair comparison against other escape rooms because it’s so very different (which, from my point of view, is a good thing). It was always likely to appeal to me because I love games with non-binary win conditions (where there’s not a straight win/loss outcome) and I also love immersive theatre.
It’s an odd sort of game because you’re highly unlikely to “win” but you can’t really lose either. Perfectionists are likely to find that difficult to get their head round, and enthusiasts in particular will be used to feeling like they’ve completed every puzzle in a game, which is highly unlikely here. For me, though, I much prefer to get the full hour in the room and a scorecard that represents how well we did than using the time to represent that. That’s doubly true in a premium experience like this one because you’ve paid a lot of money for that hour.
It wasn’t quite as epic as the original Lance of Longinus but it still looks very, very good against almost any other game. It’s incredibly difficult while being (more or less) fair and, although there were moments of frustration within the room, they were more than made up for elsewhere. When I look back on the game, it feels like it wasn’t just designed but architected – the careful flow, puzzle parallelisation and gradation of puzzles made me feel like they’d really thought hard about giving a good experience to all players.
At the time of writing, if you want to play the “best” game in London then, as far as I’m concerned, you need to choose between this and the other Time Run game. If you want something that’s epic, that blows you away with its set, then head to Lance of Longinus. On the other hand, if you want to challenge yourself while still being in beautiful environments, then Celestial Chain should be right up your street. Just be warned: if you’re a completer finisher, you’re likely to leave a little frustrated…
If you’re enthusiasts, I recommend taking four people along for the best possible experience, while five should work well for beginners.
We ate in Martello Hall – an excellent bar/pizza restaurant round the corner. Casual dining and plenty of space made it perfect for our group of 14 who had to head off in threes and fours. I can highly recommend the Rock Star Margherita.
Detailed Room Ratings
Full disclosure: We weren’t charged for these tickets. That doesn’t influence the review – you can read more on the About page.
I finally did it last night with a team of 5 (all but one did Lance) and we absolutely loved it! Of course, not being able to finish something is going to frustrate even the most patient of us but I thought it was beautiful, clever, different and really really fun. I’m sad they won’t be opening a new one anytime soon, I wish I could forget and go back to do Lance again (which we didn’t manage the first time around, though it was my second escape room). Could we somehow make an union of escapist and only let escape rooms that hit Time Run standard go public? Joking of course, we always need the creative, original scruffy ones made with little to no money to get here 🙂
I think I’m back to being an addict now, next payday! 🙂
Shame you’ll be waiting till next payday as Loop by Clockwork Dog will have closed before then. It’s a fun game – great for three players.
Glad you enjoyed Celestial Chain! Personally, I think you should only be allowed to run an escape room if you’ve proved you’re an enthusiast. Beyond that, I accept the quality will vary. I just want the people to care!
Is this still running i thought it shut in august
It was due to shut in August because the location was being redeveloped by the landlord. That’s been postponed a couple of times and it’s now booking until at least the end of March. It’s really not clear that it will last much longer though – flats are a pretty lucrative alternative to escape rooms 🙁