The Artful Escape Review – See You, Space Cowboy

    Title: The Artful Escape
    Developer: Beethoven and Dinosaur
    Release Date: 9/9/2021
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
    Genre: Music, Platformer, Adventure

The Artful Escape, the most recent title from indie publisher Annapurna Interactive, is a distinct experience from top to bottom. If you threw The Wizard of Oz and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure into a blender with a tab of acid, you’d get something like this game, which is a simultaneous boon and flaw.

You play as Francis Vendetti, a young man from a small mountain town with heavy expectations set on his shoulders. The town of Calypso is notable for one thing, or rather person – Francis’ late uncle, Johnson Vendetti. He was an absolute folk music legend, and the celebration of his landmark album’s twentieth anniversary, “Pines,” is the following night, when Francis will be making his own musical debut. Everyone in town clearly expects him to become a folk music prodigy just like his uncle, to the point where Francis himself seems to be trying to internalize that pressure and force himself into the role.

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But the pressing concern is that he can’t fake his way into being passionate about folk music when what inspires him might be out in the unknown reaches of the universe. Sci-fi posters and models litter his room, and he only seems himself when he’s not trying to be his uncle Johnson…and the night before his big show, one such interplanetary individual comes to visit him and spirits him away on the multi-dimensional tour of a lifetime.

The world of The Artful Escape is, once you’ve left terra firma, an insane and gorgeous place full of peculiar creatures that obsess over the power of rock and roll spectacle. The player will journey through three different planets on their tour through the stars, and each one looks unique from one another. The environments themselves respond to Francis’ guitar-shredding, and the jaw-droppingly epic score adds triumph to how an artist can come to really find themselves despite how other people see them.

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Also notable (and heavily featured in the marketing for this title) is the all-star cast, most notably Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzmann, and Carl Weathers, who deliver stellar (heh) performances. Aside from Weathers (whose character was at least somewhat designed to resemble him), the actors blend into their roles with enough finesse that you might not have even identified them if they weren’t so clearly named in the trailers and introduction sequence, which is commendable direction considering said marketing.

You may have noticed, however, that I’m four hundred words into this review and have yet to say much of anything about the gameplay, which is, unfortunately, my greatest sticking point. In practice, The Artful Escape is a straightforward side-scrolling platformer that is occasionally broken up by musical sequences that look much cooler than it feels to play them since they’re really just games of Simon Says. Each performance consists of giving you notes in a specific order and repeating that order with whatever rhythm you want. This idea is meant to incorporate the theme of player choice, since by the end, your version of Francis will be based on the choices you made in creating his alter ego – but the outcomes don’t take it particularly far and it leaves this aspect of the game feeling rather shallow.

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A better-implemented decision for this aspect of the gameplay would have been to incorporate an original concept album into this title and have the player actually play the songs in said album. Instead, the only method by which the musical sequences build on each other is simply that each is a bigger visual spectacle than the last, to the point of getting absurdly huge in the final one. Some are played over chase sequences, some are played in dark caves, some are on laser-light-show stages, but none are challenging or feel unique. Once you see the music controls pop up, you know exactly what you’re going to get every time.

My most pervasive feeling about this title hit me in the first few minutes, though, and it never went away. At the beginning of this review, the two comparisons I made to The Wizard of Oz and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure had a major commonality: they are both movies, not video games, and The Artful Escape feels like a movie. The narrative structure, the simplistic gameplay, the celebrity voice actors…all of these choices made it difficult to proclaim that this game is really a game. You make a series of decisions that don’t actually impact the narrative, and you play through long platforming sequences in environments that are both beautiful and heavily padded. There are very, very few ways to fail in this title, and none of them will set you back by more than a few seconds of playtime.

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I wanted to come away from The Artful Escape feeling inspired and changed, with a story to really mull over. I came into this four-to-five-hour experience with expectations set by early gameplay, and while some of them were met, I don’t know that it does enough to really justify its choice of medium. It has got more than enough in terms of eye candy and audio bliss, but I can’t confidently say that any of the other pieces manage to come together in this space oddity.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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