Just played this game (from developer Beethoven & Dinosaur and Annapurna, available on Steam and Game Pass) basically in one sitting.
The Artful Escape is a bit better spectacle than it is a game, but what a spectacle! I don’t think I’ve seen a game with as bold and coherent a visual identity since Trine (omg, that was 12 years ago). It owes as much to 70s prog rock album covers as No Man’s Sky, but brings a lot more imagination to the proceedings. The color knob is turned up to 11. The parallax-scrolling backgrounds go off into infinity. Outer space is not an empty void, but a chest packed with baroque toys.
The game is also more thematically cohesive than most. The whole first level clearly tees up the protagonist’s central struggle, and the rest of the game never takes its eye off that ball: He’s the nephew of a Dylanesque folk musician, roped into performing for the big memorial concert… but clearly his muse is elsewhere. On the cosmic journey that follows, multiple aspects of forging an artistic identity are explored–the pressures of legacy, impostor syndrome, the fickleness of public opinion. It’s the perfect combination of large and small: A boundless cosmic setting used to explore a singular personal situation. Abd unlike a lot of “meaningful” indie games, Artful Escape never attempts to be more profound than it is capable of.
So does it matter that for most of the game you’re just doing a sidescroll run to the right? In the most elaborate sequences, you’re running and jumping and, if you feel like it, holding down a button to wheedle on your guitar, which evokes some extra cosmetic flair in the world around you. If you miss a jump, you quickly respawn a few paces back. You slide down steep hills because, well, sliding while wailing on your flying V looks rad. You could call it a platformer, but it’s almost closer to a walking simulator for all the challenge it presents.
The musical sequences are similarly simple. If you’re like me and you bemoan the fact that most rhythm games are glorified versions of Simon, Artful Escape is definitely not going to bring you any solace. The best that can be said is that the sound and music design makes your scripted button presses feel like they could shake a stadium’s walls. And the back-and-forth between you and each Simonesque bandleader you encounter is not forced into a rigid lockstep. You can start mimicking the other as their sequence is still playing out, and you can play it back in whatever rhythmic timing you feel like. To the game’s credit, this somehow ends up sounding virtuosic instead of rudimentary.
So while the challenge level is meager enough to prevent your button-mashing ability from affecting the game’s outcome, there are nevertheless a number of critical choices that have a lasting effect. You get to name your glam-rock persona, and hear the name echoed by others (sort of, via a creative method) for the rest of the story, as well as invent an alien biography for your personal Ziggy Stardust. Midway through you get to dress your Ziggy using a large array of wild hair and clothing options. These choices feel a lot more important than your skill at double-jumping–and rightfully so, since they all have to do with the game’s central theme of identity.
I could break the game down further–talk about the lively vocal performances by recognizable talent like the great Carl Weathers, or the pleasant depart-and-return structure that smartly enhances the cosmic sweep of the game instead of constraining it. Or the pitch-perfect gonzo language used to describe the game’s sci-fi rock-opera universe… But none of it will make as much of an impression as the images that will caress your retinas as you play. Layers and layers of space-clouds. Airships, space cruisers, and warp turtles. Giant chromosquitos dive-bombing the dunes of a wasteland planet. Weird aliens galore.
If calling a game an “experience” is a trigger-word for you, signaling shallow gameplay and indulgent cutscenes, then maybe The Artful Escape isn’t for you. But if a unique experience is exactly what you go to gaming for, then go ahead and soak this one up. You’re subscribed to Game Pass (right?) so you have nothing to lose!