The Artful Escape Review: Coming-of-Stage
A few weeks ago, I polled people on Twitter regarding Wes Anderson because I was wondering how they feel about the quirky director. Most respondents came down with positive opinions, but what I didn't say then was that the poll was intended to inform this review.
The Artful Escape feels a lot like a Wes Anderson movie. Its characters speak with a strangeness that, to them, is nothing but sincere. The jokes are dry and sometimes a bit highbrow. Everyone is dressed as if they're enrolled in prep school.
But this space rock-infused coming-of-age story does not merely seek to play off the director's signature style. It takes all of those quirks and throws them through a nebula of magnificent colors, characters, and heart, coming out the other side something new and memorable in its own right.
The Artful Escape Review: Coming-of-Stage
Francis Vendetti lives in Calypso, Colorado, a quiet town that holds perhaps just one notable characteristic: it was home to the late folk-rock hero, Johnson Vendetti, a character who is clearly meant to look and sound like Bob Dylan. Francis is propped up by the town as the second coming of their local legend, but the young man isn't so sure.
While musically gifted like his uncle, Francis is just about buckling under the pressure put on him by family, friends, and even strangers. Posters for his first gig more prominently feature a picture of his uncle, who is dead, than it does Francis, who is the headliner for the show.
For Francis, the expectations are monumental, and so on the eve of his big show, Francis tosses and turns until he finds his subconscious drifting off to a trippy sci-fi world full of rocking aliens, adoring fans, and the freedom for any young person to become who they want to be, not who they've been told to be.
While the game's almost papercraft visual style is immediately awesome, it's when Francis' mind travels to this extraterrestrial world that it really becomes mind-blowing. The Artful Escape is among the most visually striking games I've ever played — certainly earning the superlative in the category for 2021 at least.
In its 2D style, The Artful Escape ventures to numerous alien worlds, with no two locations ever displaying the same look, yet none are ever less than jaw-dropping. Aided by the way players can riff on Francis' guitar at will virtually always, awakening rowdy denizens and glowing flora alike, this is a game that will leave players with their mouths agape at the style of it all, but there's plenty of substance too.
Francis' adventure is a pretty traditional coming-of-age story. It's written by the writers with an apparent anxiousness, one determined not to let the story get lost in a whirlpool of colors and shapes. It's pretty clear early on where Francis' story will go, and yet I still loved every minute of it.
Featuring a cast of voice actors that includes some familiar names like Carl Weathers and Jason Schwartzman, this is an Annapurna joint through and through. The rookie studio Beethoven & Dinosaur is led by a former touring artist and space rocker, and the understanding of and love for that world shines through in every lyrical line delivered and every psychedelic scene unfolded.
The Artful Escape is a power fantasy, but not like those many other games give you. Armed only with a guitar, players will battle aliens in jam-bandy tournaments modeled after the electronic party game, Simon. In between, they'll jump, glide, and slide across alien architecture and vibrant exoplanet terrain alike.
In neither case does the game challenge players much at all. Messing up an instance of this "Simon Says" gameplay is forgiven right away as opponents simply replay their riffs until you play it back right. Fumbling a platforming section teleports you instantly to mere feet from where you were.
It's evident The Artful Escape is more of a mood piece than something designed to challenge most players, but because it's drenched in style and often pretty funny too, I didn't mind the lack of traditional gameplay too much.
Perhaps the easiest aspect of anything considered gameplay is also the best part, and that's choosing dialogue options. Everyone in The Artful Escape talks like a lyric book spilled onto the floor. Often silly, more often epic, Francis' choice of words is meant to instill in him the self-confidence and self-identity he was so sorely lacking in Calypso.
In this alien world, Francis is unshackled by the expectations that were eating away at him. As you piece together his "origin" story for all to hear across the cosmos, Francis will chant your hand-picked name and details like they're magical spells fending off dark spirits. On foreign planets among amorphous blobs of alien life, Francis is the electrifying showman he wants to be, and god damn, does it feel awesome to have a hand in his coming-of-stage tale.
While the game looked lovely on my Series X and is enhanced for the platform on day one, it did suffer one recurring issue that I expect is present on all platforms: occasionally a line of dialogue would be missing audio during a conversation. It wasn't a huge deal, but given how much I enjoyed the characters and story, it was jarring each time it happened.
The Artful Escape Review — The Bottom Line
- Remarkable visual style
- Funny, memorable characters
- A sweet story of self-confidence lost and found
- Occasionally missing audio during conversations
- Gameplay in any traditional sense is often hardly there
Though it's a relatively short and easy game, The Artful Escape is also a charming, witty spectacle from start to finish in its six or so hours of playtime. I loved Francis' story and the far-away lands he visits on his quest to believe in himself and write his own future.
I can foresee some players scoffing at the entire project for its particular brand of humor, but expect it will be adored by drama kids, garage rockers, and general outcasts all over. The Artful Escape plays like a psychedelic jam band and tells a story like someone spiked Wes Anderson's Darjeeling tea with a few drops of acid.
[Note: Annapurna Interactive provided the copy of The Artful Escape used for this review.]