Come on a journey
The word journey feels like such an appropriate one when discussing The Artful Escape. Not only is the game itself centered around the journey of its protagonist Francis Vendetti, but those who checked out my preview of the game will know the development of it has also been quite a journey.
But this is an interesting game to review. Why? Because it’s less a “traditional” video game and more of an experience. It’s something you take in, like a breath of fresh air and for me, that’s exactly what The Artful Escape is. It was such a refreshing change from everything else out there. As I get older I seek out these more chill experiences, especially ones that focus on the audio and visual aspects of them.
This is a narrative-driven experience, almost an interactive story if you will. You’re Francis Vendetti from Calypso Colorado where your dead uncle Johnson Vendetti is a folk music legend. Such a legend that the weight of expectation on you is immense. Making your way through the town of Calypso and speaking to its inhabitants, you get a feel for the history of the place and the legacy which your uncle Johnson left behind. Those who have played titles like Oxenfree may notice a similarity in the way dialogue is delivered between characters with quirky speech bubbles. There are dialogue options, but unlike something like Mass Effect, they don’t have any effect on the story and are simply there to deliver the narrative and progress the story along. But Francis isn’t even sure if he is a folk singer. It’s just what’s expected of him and on the eve of his debut gig, he has somewhat of an existential crisis. This leads to an epiphany, one where he decides to become someone else entirely and to quote Francis, “…create the most elaborate stage persona the world has ever seen”.
Which is where the journey really begins. While I want to avoid any spoilers or give too much of the story away, Francis is visited by an alien that takes him on a cosmic journey to discover the musician he was born to be and create a stage persona that allows him to come out from under the shadow of his famous uncle.
My immediate reaction when starting The Artful Escape was….wow! This is one of, if not the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen. Even more pronounced for me as someone who has watched this game evolve over its development and seen just what a stark improvement it has become on something that was already visually striking.
Those who read my Ori and the Will of the Wisps review will remember how I felt the need to constantly take screenshots due to how beautiful that game was. The Artful Escape took that to another level. This game is jaw-dropping. It’s just so incredible to simply look at. While it’s obviously an artistic showpiece, upon closer inspection you’ll notice it is also rock solid technically. From the beautifully implemented physical-based rendering to the expert use of screen space reflections, every centimeter of the screen is crafted in a way that will leave you unable to look away and wanting to see so much more.
The animation is reminiscent of marionette puppetry and every scene/area/world within the game is not only visually unique but designed in such a way that makes each one feel lived in like they each have their own history independent of the story happening in front of you. This is an incredible feat to accomplish in a 2D game and speaks volumes about the artistry on show here, both from a design and technical perspective. I really hope this game is recognized at least for its visual prowess come awards season.
As I covered in my preview, the director of the game Johnny Galvatron is also a musician. He toured the world prior to starting development of the game with his band the Galvatrons. So what would a game about a musical journey be without a fantastic score to go with it?
Unfortunately, as I’m not a musician myself like my podcast co-host Jon “Sikamikanico” Clarke, or our Flew The Co-op streamer Justin “Blast the Bass” O’Brien, I probably can’t truly appreciate various guitar riffs, synth sounds, and just general musical feast being fed to me. All I can do as a layman is say it all sounds incredible. The music all fits perfectly and the way the player’s guitar riffs are blended into the music of the level you’re on is expertly executed and something that may go unappreciated for many.
But it’s not just the music that really shines here, the voice acting is also top-notch. Annapurna reached into their kit bag and managed to snag some incredible voice talent for the game. Actors like Lena Headey, Mark Strong, Jason Schwartzman, and even the indelible Carl Weathers lend their voice talent to the game and deliver performances that really help sell you on the world and its history as well as the relationships between the characters.
Oh yeah, it’s a game too!
As I alluded to earlier, this was an interesting game to review because this isn’t your traditional game. Yes, it has platforming elements. Yes, it has music-based memory match game boss battles, but there are no fail states. There are no “enemies” to speak of. You’re not killing anything or trying to achieve a high score. Hell, even if you miss a beat in a boss battle you hear a Guitar Hero-like awkward chord and the boss will simply repeat the sequence you need to remember. Because it’s about the experience, the journey you’re taking.
But it’s so refreshing. It’s such a zen-like experience to just hold “Hold X to shred” and simply traverse the gorgeous worlds, interacting with the environment around you through the language of music. To watch lights shine, flowers bloom and animals respond to your chords as you run, jump or slide your way through the levels is such a relaxing and enjoyable experience. So much so that the only thing I could complain about is that the game breaks me away from that experience more than I’d like.
If I could somehow strip out all the narrative elements of the game, all the boss battles, and simply have nothing but sliding through the worlds riffing on my guitar I would. It’s that enjoyable you will simply want it to continue.
The way the entire package comes together creates something truly unique and enjoyable. For some, it may start a tad slow as it sets up the story and history, but once it gets going it doesn’t break you from the experience often. But I can’t stress enough how visuals, audio, and gameplay come together in such a way where the game will take you on a psychedelic ride through the universe that will leave you simply wanting to continue traversing the living environments shredding your guitar.
Choose your own identity
The Artful Escape takes its focus on identity even further by letting you choose the rock persona you want Francis to take on. There’s a point in the story where you’re given the opportunity to use a character editor to completely customise Francis into the rock god that suits your personal style and even name your new persona. You will then take this look through the rest of the game which further helps immerse you in the story.
I know I sound like a broken record here, but I can’t say enough how refreshing The Artful Escape is. In a sea of third-person open-world collect-a-thons, first-person shooters, and free-to-play action games, it’s nice to be able to just rock out and chill to something that doesn’t require lightning reflexes or demand intense attention from you. But at the same time, it immerses you and draws your attention anyway through a perfect mix of art, music, and narrative.
It doesn’t ask for an unreasonable amount of your time or your money but is also on Game Pass so there’s no reason not to try it out. Even if only to create some incredible wallpapers for your Xbox or PC. Oh, and something that I’ve bemoaned in most recent Xbox titles that isn’t an issue here is…achievement artwork! Yes, The Artful Escape actually has decent achievement artwork for those wanting to spruce up their dashboards.
If an interactive story (or point and click adventure if you will?) that mixes in platforming and colour match game elements doesn’t necessarily sound up your alley as a gaming experience, then I still implore you to do yourself a favour and still give The Artful Escape a chance to take you on its journey and soak up the experience that it is for it’s visual and aural splendour.