Having come from a musical household, I related to the premise of The Artful Escape.You’re expected to play one thing, but music isn’t simply passed down through generations. You’ve got to find your own voice in this world, and mine was a lot louder and angrier than my dad’s brass band roots.
My journey was similar to the one the main character, Francis Vendetti, takes in The Artful Escape, a passion project from the musician-turned-developer, Johnny Galvatron, and his team at Beethoven and Dinosaur. But of course, I didn’t take a psychedelic journey through the cosmos of my own imagination to get there.
Throw this creativity into the melting pot and add an all-star cast including Michael Johnston, Lena Headey and Carl Weathers, and you’ve got a fascinating little gem of a game. Does it leave you in a state of euphoria, or will it get booed off the stage? Let’s find out.
The Artful Escape tells the story of Francis and the struggle with his Uncle’s folk legacy. He feels expected to pick up an acoustic guitar and fill the generic worn boots of the previous Vendetti’s musical legacy. But really, he feels out of place and so begins his cosmic journey with a glowing electric battle axe, an outfit, and backstory of your choosing, to discover his on-stage persona.
Beyond the fascinating premise, the emotional hook of the plot attaches itself to you through great performances from the cast. Michael Johnston nails Francis’ shift from an awkwardly introverted folk singer to a rock god with teenage vulnerabilities; Caroline Kinley kills it as the oh-so-cool Violetta; and Carl Weathers puts in an incredible performance as a key character (who I won’t spoil here).
And the list goes on. Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman and Mark Strong are fantastic as well, bringing a breadth of diverse voices to this already visually mixed landscape. That said, the dialogue is occasionally baffling and the choices can seem strange to anyone not in touch with niche moments in music culture.
But the narrative eventually builds a tantalizing tapestry that is easy for anyone who dealt with the teenage angst of feeling like they didn’t belong.
Lucy in the sky with developers
At its best, The Artful Escape masters the turmoil of fighting your inner Bob Dylan to be Ziggy Stardust. The world explodes into color as you evolve into this role — ripping a face-melting guitar solo as you run through a stunning sci-fi vista of fantastical creatures that illuminates life with every note you play.
When everything hits the right note in these moments, it’s a euphoric experience. Many of them are all-encompassing, as you get lost in the aural and visual feast exploding around you. Nothing you play this year will feel quite like it. The problem is that it eventually starts to feel one-note.
This wears the sheen off toward the end, which is no better summed up than by my partner shouting through from the other room to “please stop wailing on that ruddy guitar.” Performing a solo as you run is optional, but it is the only way to illuminate everything around you, and as it loops, it can start to feel like a grind.
There needs to be more variety to the experience types, not just to the visual style of each level. Think of this problem like your favorite album. It’s probably a banger because the artist flexes its creative muscles across a host of song types, from lively to laid back, upbeat to dark. If they just focussed on one of these for an hour, you’d get bored.
Just like in music, games can’t just rely on one note.
A trip gone bad
Above the repetition, though, is one big problem. No matter how stylistically new and invigorating this game feels, its flair doesn’t cover for what is a short and repetitive experience of lacking gameplay.
The 2D platforming sections offer no challenge beyond a few jumps and finding a character to talk to, as the lack of difficulty makes the later levels feel like a dull trip from point A to point B with a nice coat of paint.
As for the music-making moments, remembering button combinations is the name of the game — no beat to follow, no variations whatsoever.
In spite of the visual intrigue caused by the buttons forming a part of each monster, the lack of gameplay variation is the biggest disappointment.
And while I’ve come to terms with the notion that I may never get rhythm gaming greatness like the PS2 classic Gitaroo Man in the modern day, at least some form of competition would have made The Artful Escape feel more engaging throughout the couple of hours.
It’s a shame because its lofty creative ambitions aren’t matched by the gameplay. As a result, you’re pulled out of this fascinating world.
The Artful Escape is one of the most unique games you can play this year for better and for worse.
It is wildly creative, consisting of a brilliantly bonkers world that looks good and sounds incredible, which helps effectively tell a psychedelic rock opera story with the relatable plot of a teenager trying to find themself through music and crawl out from under their parents’ expectations.
But the experience is here today and gone tomorrow — a short two to three-hour playthrough with no challenge beyond a simplistic platformer and an occasional game of Simon Says. And even though the wailing guitar solos are beautiful at first, the sheer repetition can get long in the tooth.
This is a fun addition to Game Pass, but I’d wait for a sale before trying it out.