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A Jigsaw Killer doll replica from the Saw movie franchise, sitting in a dingy bathroom
Photograph: Nicola Dowse

Escape rooms in Melbourne

These are some of Melbourne's best and most befuddling escape rooms – can you make it out in time?

Written by
Rose Johnstone
,
Nicola Dowse
&
Cassidy Knowlton
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We are truly living in the golden age of the escape room. It's hard to remember a time when there weren't super-fun puzzle rooms throughout Melbourne, but the first one only opened in 2014. Now there are virtual escape rooms and online escape rooms, along with the bricks-and-mortar kind. Each escape room revolves around a different theme – and they cater to all manner of phobias. Time Out took the challenge of visiting escape rooms all over Melbourne. Whether we got out in time is a different matter.

If you're still up for a challenge once you've riddled your way out, you could always head to a bar with a boardgame or try your hand at mini golf at Holey Moley

Bricks-and-mortar escape rooms

The Mystery Rooms
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  • Fitzroy

There's no guarantee of happily ever after

There are four rooms here at the Mystery Rooms, and the fourth, A Grimm Finale, is the culmination of the previous three. You are only allowed to book the fourth room once you've completed the others, and it's in the briefing for this one that we learn what the purpose of those quests was. In the previous quests, we picked up three precious objects, which will help us defeat the evil Snow Queen, the ultimate boss in A Grimm Finale. 

We start off in the Big Bad Wolves' headquarters, temporarily empty as the wolves have gone off to do some sort of evil mischief. There are fairytale objects galore – we spot things from the Three Little Pigs, the Princess and the Pea, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Princess and the Frog, Pinocchio, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Rapunzel and Cinderella.

There's a magic mirror on the wall, who will offer help if we get really and truly stuck. Symbols help us determine which clues go with which locks and puzzles (eg the picture of Pinocchio goes with the Pinocchio doll, and really pay attention to where all those frogs are). Often the clues and the puzzles are on opposite sides of the room, so we need to work together to call out what we're seeing. The room has three levels (a main level, an upstairs and a subterranean dwarf mine), and there's a clever communications device to help you talk to your teammates on a different level. 

The Mystery Rooms advises you to bring a warm top with you, and it's advice you should follow. If you escape the wolves' lair you'll end up in Narnia, which has been taken over by the Snow Queen. And, well, they don't call her the Snow Queen for nothing.  

Outcome: Success! (Well, technically we were one minute, 35 seconds over, but what's a few seconds between magical friends?)
Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Difficulty: 4/5
Fun: 5/5
Best quote: “What do I do with all these frogs?”
Our tip: Try all the buttons, doors and objects when you first get in – the whole room could be useful, and you need to know what you can open before you begin.

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  • South Yarra
  • price 2 of 4

Beware the screaming painting

Real talk: Its Nightmare is genuinely scary, so if you can’t make it through a horror movie without wetting yourself then we suggest trying another of Rush Escape Games' rooms. There are six at the South Yarra location, and themes span everything from regal mediaeval halls to superhero hangouts (a favourite for kids). There’s even a super tough room available that was so hard (it had a 5 per cent success rate) Rush had to modify it slightly.

But back to 60 minutes of puzzling, R15+ terror that is Its Nightmare, the escape room. Time Out's bravest decided to review. After being led down a dark, glowing red corridor, our intrepid escapees are informed that not only do many people receive bad news shortly after exiting this cursed room, but even the CCTV is said to cut out occasionally (though we had plenty of assistance when needed).

After making our way down an even darker hallway (with bonus creepy crawlies at our feet) we emerge into the set of a horror flick, complete with bloody handprints and possessed paintings. Genuine screams occurred more than once as we picked our way through the room’s puzzles and tried not to freak out when we had to pat down faceless, creepy child mannequins (anything for a clue).

The flow of each escape room varies at Rush. Its Nightmare is a more intuitive room where you enter with little instruction or direction – a choice that adds to the overall unsettling environs. Read all notes you find carefully for clues, and don’t be afraid to stick your hands into strange holes – if you want to escape alive, that is.

Outcome: Success!
Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 3/5
Difficulty: 3/5
Fun: 5/5
Best quote: “I like that room because of the aircon, but I don't want to be in there because I don't like all the screaming.”
Our tip: Double check everything, some clues are easy to overlook due to your sheer terror.

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  • Brunswick

The Crumbling Prince Part 1 (yes, there's a part 2) room is set in a beautiful Japanese garden. There's a cherry tree in full blossom in the corner, and a real waterfall burbles gently into the stream that bisects the room. The centre of one wall is dominated by a humanoid figure with glowing eyes in a robe – this is the titular Prince. He's very interactive, answering and asking questions. He's an ally – kind of. 

But he's not the only one in the room. Each of us is given a vulpine mask to wear in the room, and these contain secrets of their own. The Mask of the Lost and Mask of the Wild have headphones inside, and voices direct these players towards certain puzzles and provide warnings and information. The Mask of the Moon and Mask of the Sun contain special lights to help discover secret messages and markings hidden throughout the room. The player wearing the Mask of the Lost is given the most information, but be warned – the voices might be helpful, but it's important not to let the Prince know that you can hear them. The Prince himself has very keen hearing and eyesight, and he gets jealous and pouty if he doesn't know what you're doing. Keeping the Prince on side while appeasing the voices in your mask can be a tall order.

Outcome: Success!

Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 3/5
Difficulty: 3/5
Fun: 4/5
Best quote: “Hang on, I can't hear you, the voices in my head are talking to me.”
Our tip: If you get stuck, just ask the Prince for help. He's full of useful info and on your side. Maybe.

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  • South Melbourne

Dive deep into a war veteran's fractured mind

There are three different rooms to be done at this venue, and we are trying our luck at Fractured: Remember Me. Players are trapped inside the mind of Robert, a World War II veteran who has suffered from PTSD and is in a coma. The object of the game is to make connections between his memories, wake him up and reconnect him with his family. 

We are initially brought into a small room with white walls and little adornment. A plinth in the middle contains a sepia-toned photo album and a one-sentence instruction on a piece of paper. On one wall is an old-fashioned radio, another contains a military jacket, hat and canteen, and a spooky video projection plays on the main wall.  

That's about it, but the deceptively simple room holds some pretty cool secrets and a very impressive reveal. It's a race against the clock (70 minutes), but more than that, it feels like a race against Robert's potential death. It somehow feels like a very personal story, and we are emotionally invested in bringing Robert out of his coma and reuniting him with his loved ones.  

Outcome: Success! But, dear reader, we must confess. We cheated just an eensy bit. Four different puzzles delivered four different numbers for a lock, and we got three of them and their order. Rather than do the last puzzle (which was multistage and was eating into our time), we locked in the three numbers we knew and used trial and error to find out the last number. Our deception was immediately noticed – the walkie talkie we had for hints crackled to life, and our host said, "Um, how did you get that open?" We do not condone cheating. But we're just saying, it can be done. 
Atmosphere: 4/5
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Difficulty: 4/5
Fun:  5/5
Best quote: “God, old-timey people are super creepy.”
Our tip: Pay attention to the audio as it plays. It adds to the story but will also help you solve your puzzles.

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  • Brunswick

We hope you've got a strong stomach

First things first: despite the name, you will not die if you fail to escape in time at Escape or Die. Though Evan Raif, the creator and head of Escape or Die, says people have definitely called up asking just that. And having worked our way through the escape room, the great storytelling means that there are definitely moments where you feel like your life is in peril.

Escape or Die pitches itself as a little different to your average escape room, but the core concept is the same. Your team enters a room and you have a set amount of time to escape from said room by solving puzzles. Where Escape or Die differs is in how it’s more story-based, and your ability to follow the story plays a big role in your success. 

The premise of the room is that you and your mates are new employees at a haunted house, and you’ve just started your first day of work. What first appears as a delightfully hammy attraction, however, soon becomes increasingly sinister as you realise all is not right with the haunted house’s staff. There are quite a few video interludes between puzzles (think of them like cutscenes in a video game), which really do place you right in the narrative, thanks to some clever techniques featuring recorded audio and video. The videos are varied too, switching from advertisements to found footage to quirky (yet disturbing) animations. 

Escape or Die doesn’t have the hardest puzzles we’ve encountered, but they are creative and require a healthy dose of lateral thinking – and some teamwork – to solve. Again, you’ll be rewarded for paying attention to tiny details and for not disregarding items at face value. We loved the fact that while the game starts out pretty normal and unthreatening, by the time you enter the second room there’s absolutely no time for chit chat as you race to escape from what might be the goriest escape room we’ve tried. At times we had to remind ourselves: “It’s only a game, it’s not real, it’s only a game.”

Outcome: Success!
Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Difficulty: 3/5
Fun: 5/5
Best quote: "I think he just blew his eye out... and presumably his brain."
Our tip: Pay special attention to the story – even when things get a little hairy. Doing so might just save your skin.

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  • Flemington

Try the OG

When Melbourne’s first escape room opened back in 2014, it sent an electric current of rumour through the city. What even is an escape room, we asked – and are they all situated in granny flats in the back of someone’s mum’s garden?

This one sure is. Intrigue builds to slight unease when we rock up to a house in suburban Flemington, but sure enough, we’re greeted by puzzle-master and psychologist Owen Spear.

He leads us through his mum’s home and all the way to the bottom of her garden. He explains that, together with his girlfriend Ali Cheetham (also a doctor of psychology), he converted the space into an escape room after falling in love with the concept on a trip to Budapest. Handing us one walkie-talkie, he gestures to the door, wishes us luck and reassures us that he’ll be watching us “the whole time”.

The room is pitch black and eerie cello-driven music rises from an unknown source. Torchlight captures glimpses of our surroundings: a dusty book; a feather-filled birdcage; a locked trunk.

A crinkled letter sits on an antique table. It’s a message from our uncle, who has left us a series of clues that we’ll need to solve in order to return to reality.

The clues are nowhere, and everywhere. Nothing looks out of place, but hidden within objects and paintings are clues that lead us deeper into the mystery. Like children we’re soon completely lost in the story, pacing excitedly, talking in whispers, barely aware of the time that is slipping away. The puzzles are intricate and challenging, but there’s nothing that can’t be solved with persistence and logical thinking (plus one or two prompts over the walkie-talkie). The experience doesn’t rely on shock tactics or complex mathematics: at its core, Escape Room is grounded in a deep curiosity about human behaviour. When we finally do escape, we emerge grasping each other by the arm and squinting into the sunlight. Owen congratulates us and receives our stunned faces with a knowing look. He’s seen this reaction before, and we're sure he'll see it many times again.

Outcome: Success!
Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Difficulty: 3/5
Fun:  5/5
Best quote: “There’s no way this code will work oh my God it works.”
Our tip: When you find something that doesn’t seem to fit with anything else, don’t despair; it’ll come in handy later. Unless, of course, it’s a red herring…

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  • South Melbourne

A mother lode of intrigue

Months after creating Melbourne's first escape room in Flemington in 2014, Owen Spear and Ali Cheetham opened a second one inside a converted factory in South Melbourne. The couple meets us out on the street, then leads us down a dark corridor. We stop at an unassuming door, grasping torches and a walkie-talkie. Deep breath – here we go again.

The door clicks shut behind us and instantly we’re transported to the control station of an old mine. Low, yellow light picks up a typed note sitting on a desk, warning us that there’s been a blockage inside the mine: our mates could be inside. We must locate the source of the fault – or else. At times our three-person team ponders puzzles alone, but at others, we’re huddled over a rock, a jar, a map, waiting for that moment when the answer comes to one, two or all three of us at once. We encounter audio-based clues, physical challenges and strange symbols. Eventually, it all comes down to a final code that we’ll need to save the mine. With sweaty palms, we punch in the numbers for the third time… and we’ve done it! We’re safe, and our puppet masters enter the room with smiles on their faces. These guys have as much fun watching us as we do solving their puzzles. 

Outcome: Success!
Atmosphere: 4/5
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Difficulty: 4/5
Fun: 4/5
Best quote: “These rocks are trying to speak to me.”
Our tip: Look outside the box. Look outside the room. Look… outside.

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  • Hawthorn

A gory escape room not for the faint-hearted

Saw, arguably, is the original escape game. Heck, the film franchise’s Jigsaw Killer even infamously says “I want to play a game”. So it makes perfect sense that Rush Escape Game drew inspiration from the classic horror film to create an escape room for its second venue. 

Hacksaw is the first escape room built at Rush Escape Game’s second venue in Hawthorn (the original Rush is still open for business in South Yarra). As with the movie it’s inspired by, you’ll start Hacksaw chained up and will have to solve some very creative riddles if you want to escape alive (don’t worry, for legal reasons all guests do escape alive). 

The set design in Hacksaw is genuinely creepy and true to the feeling of the films, with the whole room built by hand. The escape room takes place inside a shed decked out to resemble a dingy bathroom complete with a shower and toilet (which, as we’re gently reminded, does not work, so please pee beforehand). Steel yourself if you’re irked by dirt, blood, needles, dead bodies or small spaces, as the room pulls no punches in creating its eerie atmosphere. 

Teamwork is key to solving the puzzles, but for the average escape room player, we would suggest a max of four people so that everyone can feel involved. Rush also informs us that the gory escape room is also popular with couples looking for an alternative date idea. Nothing brings you closer than trauma, after all. There’s a smidge of math involved too, so keep that in mind when deciding who to play with. 

Outcome: Success!
Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Difficulty: 3/5
Fun: 5/5
Best quote: “Have you checked under the dead body?”
Our tip: Don’t forget about clues at the start – you may need them again later.

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  • South Melbourne
  • price 2 of 4

Try not to scream...

If you’re not a fan of horror movies, then you might want to steer clear of the ‘Leaper’ escape room at Woodbury in South Melbourne. If you are a fan of horror movies, then you might still want to consider whether you really want to take your enthusiasm to the next, immersive level.

‘Leaper’ is the fourth in Woodbury’s series of rooms, and the highest on their ‘Difficulty’ and ‘Fear’ scales (their other rooms span the wild west, abandoned toys and island mysteries). Buoyed by recent escape successes, our team decided to take it on. After all, the concept is brilliant: we’re detectives in the future who can ‘leap’ into the minds of criminals using experimental crime-fighting technology. The only problem is, if we don’t get in and out in 60 minutes, we could stay trapped in his mind forever.

Filled with nervous tension, the four of us are blindfolded and led, sweaty palm to palm, into the room. The timer begins, the blindfolds come off, and we realise that we’ve been separated into teams of two. We’re locked in separate rooms, and in the gulf between the rooms is a (mannequin) woman bound to a chair. For a moment, we feel as helpless as she looks. Quickly, it dawns on us that to be reunited, we’re going to have to solve puzzles by yelling verbal instructions to each other. Once we find our way out and into the next room, we realise that things are only going to get scarier.

It’s one thing to fill a space with creepy props and fake blood; it’s another to create genuine, heart-stopping tension. ‘Leaper’ packs plenty of horror movie freak-out moments (always when you least expect them), and cleverly saves some of the biggest reveals until last. Challenges are surprising and varied and more plot unfolds as minutes melt away. Some particularly fiendish puzzles mean that we’re left scratching our heads for a bit too long – and when our time is up, we’re informed that no one has successfully escaped the room in time. Still, as far as escape rooms go, ‘Leaper’ is the biggest adrenaline rush we’ve had yet. Try it, if you dare.

Outcome: Failed
Atmosphere: 4/5
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Difficulty: 5/5
Fun: 4/5
Best quote: “I don’t want to get trapped in his evil mind forever!”
Our tip: Communication is key at the beginning – you won’t get far without finding a way to contact your lost teammates.

Escape Hunt Melbourne
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  • Melbourne

Not your average trip to the museum

There are now so many similarly named escape room venues in Melbourne that these days, what really sets them apart is the creativity of their themed rooms.

So imagine our excitement to discover Escape Hunt: one branch of a huge global company that changes up its four rooms every nine months on average. In the majority of rooms, willing captors are cast as detectives, hired to solve everything from the thief of a secret beer recipe (‘Secrets of the Brewery’) to the murder of our colleagues (‘Law and Disorder’).

This time around, we decide to go for ‘Odditorium’ – an experience set in a spooky museum. In the comfortable waiting room, our friendly hosts informs us that our four-person team has been hired to find out why employees of the Odditorium have been mysteriously disappearing. The current curator Oliver has begun acting strangely; how long will it be until he vanishes?

We step into the small, dimly lit space, and begin to let our eyes adjust to our surroundings. We’re surrounded by bookshelves, with shelf after shelf filled with statues, books and other oddities. So far, so normal (if a little bit creepy). It’s only until ten minutes later that we realise that this room is just the beginning of a much larger journey.

As consummate puzzle-masters, Escape Hunt know how to weave a devious plot through the entire experience. Slowly, the mystery of the Odditorium unfolds, and it’s much darker than we imagined. As we venture deep into the occult, there’s a thrilling feeling that anything could happen – not to mention a genuine sense of growing uneasiness. The farther we go, the more often we need to ask for clues through our walkie-talkie; the combination of visual, logical and mathematical puzzles means that we’re constantly on our toes. Unfortunately, a major prop in the centre of the final room turns out to be a red herring; not intentionally, but because the game-makers have shifted things around, and it’s no longer part of the game. It’s the one disappointing point to an otherwise devilishly difficult escape room that is full of surprises. When the Odditorium changes guise and a new room opens, we’ll be there.

Outcome: Success!
Atmosphere: 5/5
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Difficulty: 4/5
Fun:  4/5
Best quote: “These dolls are going to haunt my nightmares.”
Our tip: There’s a lot to get done if you want to make it out before time is up. Sometimes, you’ll need to split up and work on several puzzles at a time.

Online escape rooms

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  • Weird & Wonderful

Funlab, the team behind Holey Moley, Archie Brother Cirque Electriq and B. Lucky and Sons, has pivoted to offer entertainment online. You and your friends can now enjoy formerly in-person-only events like trivia, escape rooms and something which the crew is calling the "funlympics". The company is offering two virtual escape rooms – the swashbuckling Pirate Island and the enchanting Magic School. Each room is perfect for isolated teams of six to ten, with each participant joining the virtual room individually via Zoom. As with most escape rooms, a gamemaster will be present if you need assistance as your team solves puzzles together online. There's no official advice to dress up for the game, but heck, we'd certainly recommend it. 

Using photospheres, multimedia and the latest web technology, Next Level Escape have adapted one of their physical escape rooms so you can now play it online, and sci-fi fans are going to love this one. It puts you in charge of figuring out what happened to Agent Fox, a top-ranking agent of the Future Directions Bureau. He was sent back on a crucial mission in the 21st century to preserve the integrity of the timeline, but has subsequently gone missing. He’s literally nowhere in time now, and the Bureau suspects skulduggery. Which means it’s down to you to figure out what happened, restore him to the timeline and save the future. No biggie. Next Level Escape have expertly captured the feel of the original game with all its ingenious puzzles, clues, locks and secrets. You can play on your own, or assemble a team of friends to tackle the room together via vid chat. And unlike many of these challenges, you can take as long as you like to dig in deep to the narrative. You are time cops, after all.

You can purchase a code for one device for $15, or a $50 code that nets you a voucher for the same amount to be used at Next Level Escape’s premises after the lockdown, thereby doubling your money. Sign up here.  

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Bad Altitude probably belongs more in the category of story-based online videogames than actual escape rooms. But let's not quibble. The setup is this: you are with some number of friends, either clustered together around one computer screen, using different screens in the same room or in different locations and linked via Google Hangouts, Zoom or any other video chat platform of your choosing. If you're in the same physical space, we suggest clustering around the largest screen you have and nominating one member of your team drive the action. Your mission is to solve problems aboard a commercial flight, from overly sensitive passengers to lost luggage to, as you might expect, landing the whole damn plane. There is no human on the other end in real-time, but several different cartoon characters help or hinder you on your quest. Your primary contact is the flight attendant on board, a very friendly but slightly inept Welshman named Rhys. 

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The Aussie online purveyor of escape rooms offers a variety of themed experiences you can tackle with your friends, fam or colleagues. Solve challenges together over video chat or gather your housemates around the computer for some stimulating puzzles, excitement and off-beat fun. Experios has got you covered with options for two to six players and different levels of difficulty to choose from.

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You’ve just seen a spectacular show at the Sydney Opera House. As you’re filing out of the auditorium with the throng of other audience members, you spot a door with a sparkling stained glass window. It's ajar, revealing a glimpse of a room that would not usually be accessible to the public. You can’t help yourself: compelled by curiosity, you enter – and the door swiftly closes behind you. You’re trapped. Next to a baby grand piano you spot an old-timey telephone. Suddenly, it starts ringing madly. Want to know what happens next? Well, you don’t need to physically head for the white sails of Sydney's (and let's be honest, the world's) most iconic building to find out. While auditoriums have sat empty during lockdown restrictions, the Sydney Opera House team got busy developing a virtual escape room designed to transport you into the hidden labyrinth of backstage rooms underneath the venue – without you ever leaving your home. The Trials of Wisdom is a free online game that engages your problem-solving skills to solve riddles and puzzles in order to free yourself. Taking inspiration from Mozart’s fantastical opera The Magic Flute, this game has plenty of hidden Easter eggs to tickle the interests of classical music aficionados and theatrical fanatics, but prior knowledge is not a prerequisite to give these puzzles a crack, which involve decoding ballerinas’ dance positions and deciphering meaning from the ramblings of a frustrated orchestra player.

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