Music is not always just about the music; it’s about the persona, the fireworks, or the lifestyle as well as the actual tunes. David Bowie understood this with his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. The Artful Escape is like a gamified version of Bowie finding his inner Stardust and is appropriately otherworldly and enrapturing, even if it is light on the “gamified” part.
Francis Vendetti has a lot on his shoulders. He’s the nephew of a local small town musical legend, a Bob Dylan-like character named Johnson Vendetti, and is going to celebrate his famous uncle by playing his first ever live gig. But it’s not right. The folksy guitar twangs sound off. It’s just not him. So, after some nerves and throwing vinyl on the record player, he goes on a search for “him” and that search rockets him into the void of space with a jellyfish alien in a cape and a funky, rock prodigy that can light up galaxies with his celestial jamming.
While an admittedly ridiculous setup, it has an undeniable heart at its core. Francis’ real process of self-examination and the pressures of having a destiny forced upon him are grounded and human struggles and the game takes enough time setting them up without overexplaining everything. Francis is also a likable character to be alongside mostly because of Michael Johnston’s incredible portrayal that almost always perfectly expresses the most fitting tone for the moment, be it melancholy, joy, or confidence. Francis’ range of emotions and relatable problems make him a solid protagonist worth caring about and make his well-written arc all the more intriguing.
But there’s also the space-faring part of The Artful Escape and is where the wackier elements come into play. There are flying turtles, a whole host of unique life forms, concerts in space, closets that are as big as a mall, and more and missions that see players venture to places called The Cosmic Lung and GlimmerDimm. The color palette gives these places their exotic nature as its saturated array of hues is almost always a vibrant display of its distinct art style. Its array of locales further reinforce its weirder side since nothing about it can be mistaken for Earth.
The game also floats abstract and nonsensical concepts with such confidence that it’s difficult to not just roll with them, something that can almost solely be attributed to Carl Weathers’ Lightman. While human in his own interesting ways, he beautifully sells these bizarre ideas with a laid-back panache and style that woos the player into buying the strange stuff he is selling. It doesn’t make sense, but the way in which he says it makes it seem as natural as arithmetic. The other parts of the star-studded cast are also shockingly good and don’t distract from the overall game — mostly due to its well-written and often witty script — but Weathers’ role is especially noteworthy, given its quality and importance in the story.
The Artful Escape takes an intimate look into self-doubt and the journey into finding one’s true nature and bathes it in a glossy coat of extraterrestrial glitz and glamor. And while that juxtaposition might seem incompatible, they both work together harmoniously. The game’s ability to use its odd setup as a somewhat metaphorical or exaggerated way to deal with certain stresses is wonderfully done, as fantastically realizing down-to-earth issues is a thoughtful way to liven them up. And, in turn, adding these down-to-earth issues to a fantastical plot keeps it from getting too spacey and hard to relate to.
Its narrative is the bulk of the experience and given the quality of its gameplay, it’s also easily the best part, too. The Artful Escape is hard to define as a game because there’s not much there, mechanically. Players can run from left to right like a platformer, but there aren’t any tricky jumps nor does it require any finesse. Playing guitar makes the level bounce and come to life and is an apt analogy for the game as it looks pretty and sounds fantastic, but it’s all only using a button or two, max.
The rhythmic parts are slightly more entertaining yet are still underwhelming. It will often task players with matching button inputs like some sort of guitar-based Simon Says. There are times where it comes together and climaxes with a duet of rewarding matching guitar riffs, but it never evolves past the straightforward bout of Simon Says from the intro. The Artful Escape moves along at a steady clip because of its simplistic gameplay that’s hard to fail, but players don’t have to earn the fantasy of becoming an intergalactic rockstar on the sticks, erasing some of the thrill that sort of stature should come with.
As its title implies, The Artful Escape is, indeed, an artful escape from the reality of most games. The vibrant visuals and larger-than-life story with its share of personal elements coalesce with its innate, performance-driven musicality to create an electric experience. However, it comes at the cost of its gameplay, which is boring at worst and merely passable at best. Such an imbalance undersells its message a bit as its mechanics can’t match its narrative ambitions, but those narrative ambitions are tuned well enough to drown out its mechanical flat notes.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the game succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.
Disclosure: The Artful Escape review code provided by the publisher. The game was reviewed on PC.
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