A Way Out Review: Escaping Prison With a Friend Has Never Been More Fun, or Consequence-Free
A Way Out is a completely different experience to anything that I have played in recent memory. A cooperative and multiplayer-only prison break romp, it leans heavily upon its narrative and story-driven experience. The game is a unique opportunity to enjoy some cleverly designed scenarios based on teamwork and communication. However, A Way Out can also feel slightly restricting and akin to an on-rails rollercoaster ride -- fun in its own right but with little actual agency to its overall experience as you’re locked in and taken along for the journey.
Like Prison Break, but with more sideburns
The first thing you’ll notice when starting up the game is that it cannot be played past the main menu solo; you’ll have to buddy up either with a friend or stranger locally or online. Both players then get to select from two distinct personalities, Leo, who’s the more hot-headed, impulsive, and reckless character of the two, and Vincent, who’s deemed the more rational, thoughtful, and calculating personality. The story of A Way Out focuses most of its time exploring these characters and their backstories, starting with both men having been imprisoned for differing crimes. The game then takes you through a series of short chapters, ranging from the aforementioned prison escape to evading the authorities and getting a good old tale of revenge on the ones that have wronged them.
There’s a real intrigue to the story and the protagonists, as they initially demonstrate the usual tropes of mistrust, and we see how their relationship and reliance on each other develops over the course of the story as they aid each other in increasingly danger-defying and adrenaline-fueled scenarios. Cutscenes are frequent and well done, while other dialogue and backstory is dished out appropriately throughout your time controlling the characters, though some transitions between story arcs could definitely have used slightly more development or plot tightening, with some glaring gaps that pop up in the narrative. The early and middle sections are the most interesting and engaging, as you discover the pair's motivations and how they came to the point of needing to bust out of jail. The mid to late game can suffer somewhat as it becomes bogged down in the usual and predictable revenge tale, but it recovers magnificently with its ending, which is gut-wrenching, emotional, and full of real strife within both of the players.
Mirroring teamwork and cohesion
This strife is also reflected in the gameplay, which mirrors the stages of the story incredibly well. Throughout your time playing, the game will provide each player with half, some, or none of the screen, depending on the importance of your interactions and current role; however, you can always see your buddy's screen as well, so you're never removed from the action and their important scenes. Communication and teamwork are essential throughout your entire time with the game, giving it the feel that it simply wouldn't have been the same without a co-op partner, which is impressively unique and rare to find in most large-budget games. Early on, your interactions are limited, confined to small areas to walk around in and interact with NPCs, with the occasional brawl or QTE-based fight scene playing out. Over time, though, the co-op mechanics become much more intricate and intense. Whether you’re having to watch your partner’s back as they’re unhinging their cell room toilet while guards patrol the hallway, climbing back-to-back up a steep shaft and syncing your button prompts for risk of falling, or taking separate roles in a car chase as one rollicks through the countryside and the other barrels off shots at the ensuing police, each interaction is unique, creating a bond both between Leo and Vincent but also between you and your fellow player.
One of my favorite moments during A Way Out was a section where our protagonists had to work in tandem to control a small rowing boat, flicking to each side and failing miserably at avoiding the rocks the game clearly wanted us to avoid. It proved to be inadvertently hilarious as I yelled and begged my co-op partner to stop rowing the wrong way or sending us careening into yet another obstacle. We reached the end of the hell ride, and my stomach was physically aching from the laughter, which is rare for so many serious and stony-faced video games nowadays.
Strapped in for the ride, ready or not
Unfortunately, this also starts to highlight some of the issues inherent in A Way Out’s design. There are extremely prominent and urgent points in the overall story which lose their urgency and importance when you can mess around with your co-op partner. For example, in one scene while supposedly on the run, we spent 20+ minutes playing horseshoes (I won, with a record score of 23!), and in another, we played 3 games of Connect 4 when the story was urging us onto an essential time-sensitive plot point. These distractions, while engrossing and enjoyable gameplay-wise, create a conflict in the game’s overall narrative and tone which can distract from your investment in the characters and the overall plot.
Moreover, as you start to hit the mid and late game, you begin to realize that many of the mini areas you can “explore” are completely linear, with limited or very little actual interaction you can engage with. One particular instance had me and my co-op partner actually skipping talking to some NPCs since the dialogue offered nothing to the experience and the activities we could engage with were simply artificial distractions, and while getting to explore an area can aid with world-building, it felt far too restricted and unnecessary, and we both found it reduced our up-to-then unfettered enjoyment of the game. Lastly, the later sections of the experience tend to descend into the mindless shooting gallery category of a generic third-person shooter, with clunky mechanics -- the dodge roll is hilariously bad to use -- and a lack of any real weight to the four weapons you can select from. We both found these chapters the least engaging or interesting, though the ones that precede and follow them more than make up for the lull.
A well-oiled, beautifully realized concept
Despite these minor flaws, though, it must be mentioned that A Way Out ran incredibly well throughout the entire journey we undertook with it. Both my co-op partner and I have serviceable internet connections, with neither of us experiencing even one instance of lag, despite playing the entirety of the content through online co-op. We didn’t suffer any technical issues or crashes, though at points the graphics, particularly on background NPCs or assets during dialogue, could be extremely low-resolution, more than enough to be noticeable, drawing our laughter and our awareness in equal measures. It definitely isn’t enough to break or hinder the experience, but it may pull you out of your immersion in its world. Graphically, A Way Out is largely excellent, with some lovely vistas and quiet moments punctuated with some brilliant lighting work. Don’t expect huge production quality or something up to the standard of a blockbuster triple-A title, though.
A co-op game like no other
A Way Out is a truly fantastic piece of entertainment that is easy to recommend to anyone who has even a fleeting interest in its story or setting, even more so if you have a friend or someone to share the experience with. We truly noticed a bond develop between Leo and Vincent as the game progressed, along with our own shared memories or favorite moments (hitting a home run in the baseball mini-game is always awesome!). While the fully co-op story and gameplay are absolutely one-of-a-kind, the actual gameplay loop and interaction are far from unique, and while the story and tone can sometimes conflict with its gameplay elements, A Way Out is an engaging tale that is worthy of your time. At 6-7 hours in length, it’s one of the best ways you can spend a Saturday afternoon, cracking up as you slam your boat into the river edge, or recoiling as they beat your dart score for the third time.