Melbourne Escapes: Circus @ Time Is Key

A circus master was looking for new acts to replace the recently departed magician, sharpshooter, clown, and strongman. We agreed to an audition – but would we regret joining this Circus?

General Details

Time is Key, 2–4 Alexander Avenue, Dandenong
90 minutes
2-6 players allowed
Difficulty unlisted

How We Played

2 September 2017
2 players
Hints: 1
Approx 48 minutes

The Experience

Circus is scary. I’m not talking one or two jump scares. I’m not talking moody lighting or creepy music and sound effects. I’m talking fear-for-your-life levels of terror. We played Time is Key’s other room, Bradshaw Manor (review on its way), purportedly the scariest escape room in Melbourne, and we both felt it didn’t hold a candle to Circus.

This isn’t inherently a problem, but it did hurt the experience for one of us. See, we didn’t know Circus was going to be a scary room. I have been to other rooms that start innocuous before introducing a scary twist, but in those rooms the “scares” amount to little more than an eerie ambience.

Circus is more than that.

As such, I think it is extremely important that participants know in advance what they are signing up for. Though Bradshaw Manor is clearly identified as a scary room on Time is Key’s website, Circus is not. There are hints early on that “something is not right” but I can guarantee the finale goes further than you think it will.

I may seem to be belaboring the point, and perhaps I am, but this room had a profound effect on us, and it was not a good one. It left one of us emotionally distraught with a heightened sensitivity to many of the later rooms we attempted. More warning about what to expect is really required here, and perhaps even the option to tone things down – a possibility since the eerie music and lighting at the end were more than adequate for narrative purposes. In fact, I got the impression that the room is normally not as scary as it was for us, and that evening sessions have certain things added to make it scarier. Perhaps a daytime session would have suited us better (we originally planned to do it in the day, but were too late with the booking).

The shame of it is, this was otherwise one of our favourite rooms in Melbourne. The set design is superb, the narrative expertly interwoven into the puzzles. The room’s attention to detail is immaculate. And, though I just complained about the room’s scariness, my only real complaint is the lack of warning about how much the intensity ramps up. The scares demonstrated a mastery of sound effects, timing and atmosphere. One issue, however, is sound bleed between Circus and Bradshaw Manor. There are some very loud effects in the latter that we could hear easily in Circus. Given the rooms are built in an open warehouse space, I don’t have any real solution for this. It is not overly obtrusive (though the other team playing parallel to us was not that loud except for the occasional scream) but you will definitely hear things from the other room as you play.

Puzzle Design

Circus offers some ingenious puzzles that buy into the logic of misdirection, spectacle and madness that characterizes the circus. The narrative leads you through a series of linear challenges brilliantly themed around certain acts, making it ideal for smaller teams (though you may want to bring a few extra people for emotional support…) The puzzles gradually reveal a central mystery, and puzzle and narrative are deeply interrelated, which is fantastic.

The tasks themselves are all immensely enjoyable, making use of clever tricks to constantly confound your expectations. One puzzle might be a little controversial for many enthusiasts, but we loved the way it was implemented. Circus’ puzzles have a pleasing physicality, with lots of stuff to maneuver and play with.

I did have a small issue with the final puzzle, however. As you may already have guessed, Circus ramps up the tension in the final moments. The puzzle filling these moments has a bit of a trick to it, and unfortunately that trick has the potential to bring things to a crashing halt. This is bad for a team like ours, where at that stage one of us was having a major anxiety attack, but for other teams it could have the opposite effect of sucking the tension out of the moment and making it drag. This was more a problem with the timing of the puzzle than with the puzzle itself, as I find that simple process puzzles work best in these kinds of moments. What with everything else happening at that time it was easy to miss the puzzle’s trick. This probably wouldn’t have been such an issue without the more intense components of Circus’ final moments, so perhaps daytime sessions won’t have the same problems.

The Bottom Line

Circus is a phenomenal room. It ties narrative and puzzle design together expertly to create an immersive experience. Everything from the sound and lighting to the props has been thoughtfully placed and included. However, this is not a room for everyone. Publicity material for Circus is not, in my view, sufficiently open about how extreme the experience is. In particular, it should be made clear that there are differences to the game in nighttime sessions compared with daytime ones to give players more flexibility about how they wish to play. My experience at a nighttime session was extremely confronting, with a very real and immediate feeling of danger that goes beyond ordinary jump scares. Though there isn’t any real danger, it is a very realistic simulation, so you should seriously consider whether this is an appropriate room for your team.

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