The reason that I gravitate towards indie video games so much these days is that you never really know what to expect. The amount of experimentation and artistry coming from these smaller teams is something rarely seen from larger game publishers, and as someone who has been playing games for going on 40 years, I’m really looking to experience something different. With The Artful Escape, the newest release from publisher Annapurna Interactive and new developer Beethoven and Dinosaur, I can add ‘psychedelic musical adventure of self discovery across the far universe” to the list of one of a kind experiences.
The game tells the story of Francis Vendetti, a teenager from the small town of Calypso, Colorado who is living in the shadow of his deceased uncle, legendary folk singer Johnson Vendetti. Each year the town holds a celebration to honor their hometown hero, and this year Francis is making his debut performance as a folk artist to close out the festival. But his own big debut seems to be more more about his uncle than himself, with the posters for the show promoting “Johnson Vendetti’s nephew” and featuring a large image of the folk legend and a tiny picture of Francis in the corner. As the show draws nearer, Francis struggles with whether or not following in his uncle’s footsteps is something that he truly wants to do? Or is he just becoming the person that everyone expects him to be? He finds himself fantasizing about blazing guitar solos, and a chance encounter with a young woman named Violetta will set the two of them off on an interstellar journey to discover the performer that Francis is truly destined to be.
I can honestly say that The Artful Escape is unlike any other video game that I’ve experienced before. The tone and style of the game lands somewhere in between David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and a Wes Anderson film. As you set off on your epic adventure you’ll visit a floating opera house known as the Cosmic Lung and meet it’s inhabitants, the captain of the ship and legendary musician known as Lightman, and his first mate who just so happens to be a floating brain in a jar. Over the course of the 3-4 hour game you’ll meet all sorts of bizarre and fascinating characters, and the game features quite the impressive cast of actors to voice them.
Francis and Violetta are voiced by Michael Johnston (Teen Wolf) and Caroline Kinley (Love is Blue, Love is Yellow) and the supporting cast is packed with familiar names like Carl Weathers, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Strong, and Lena Headey. It’s an impressive gathering of talent and they each do a great job of bringing this eclectic ensemble to life.
From a visual perspective, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that The Artful Escape is one of the most interesting video games I’ve seen in several years. The 2D world has something of a paper doll aesthetic to it, with the town of Calypso looking like something out of a beautiful pop up book, but it’s when you venture off into space that the style and flair of the game gets cranked up to eleven. From the snow capped Heliotromms to the bustling Glimmer City where a style code is strictly enforced, each area is unique and a feast for the eyes. They’re filled with colorful flora and outlandish wildlife with a style that is a little bit Yellow Submarine, a little bit retro sci-fi, and a whole lot of “I think I may have dropped too much acid”. Seriously… my days of smoking weed are many years behind me, but this game seems like it would be an amazing trip with a little… pharmaceutical accompaniments.
At it’s core the game is a 2D sidescroller. You run, jump, and slide your way through each of the vibrant worlds. You can also hold down the X button at any time to lay down some sick guitar licks as you go, and it’s these impromptu jam sessions that really make the world come alive. As you play, the sound of your guitar will interact with the environment around you. Flowers will bloom, darkened lights will come to life, and creatures will jump out of their hiding places. It’s as if you’re painting with a musical paint brush that fills in the world around you. It would be nice if you had a little more control over what was being played in these moments instead of merely holding down a button, but the effect is stunning nonetheless.
There are also moments when you’ll need to play for certain prominent cosmic beings to get to where you’re going, and these musical performances play out like a game of Simon Says. Using three of the face buttons as well as the LB and RB shoulder buttons you’ll mimic the patterns that light up somewhere on the creatures to create these epic rock “battles”. Again, they’re relatively simple and not terribly difficult, but that’s okay, The Artful Escape is less about giving you a challenge or tricky puzzles to solve, and more about taking you by the hand and leading you on a mind blowing roller coaster ride of wailing rock and pyrotechnics.
One of the coolest features is the amount of customization that you can put into Francis’s characters. As he travels the universe, Francis will come across occasions in which you the player can help him to discover the rock persona that he was destined to be. You can give a name to his on stage alter ego, help to create a wild and crazy back story for him, and even design the perfect rock god outfit for your performances. While you don’t have a lot of creative say in the musical segments of the game, I thought it was great that you’re allowed to shape this hard rocking counterpart how you see fit.
The Artful Escape doesn’t score big points as a compelling gameplay experience, but as an interactive musical and visual extravaganza it’s practically unrivaled. And while much of what makes the game outstanding is it’s artistic wonder, there’s also a big heart to the story. A young man trying to come to terms with who he truly is, or more importantly, who he isn’t, is touching and sweet. And it’s filled with likeable and memorable characters to meet along the way. If you’re like me and you like to celebrate gaming experiences that step out of the norm and give players unique and unforgettable adventures, this is absolutely a must play. And if you feel so inclined, light up when you head out on your voyage.