The Artful Escape review

By Luke Albigés,
Even after completing it, I'm not entirely sure what The Artful Escape is. Ostensibly, it's one of those video game things we have nowadays — I mean, you can press a button to make the little man on the screen jump, so that kinda checks out — but it just doesn't feel like a video game. I don't even mean that in a critical way, either. It's more that it's an experience that transcends the medium, using its most basic framework as a stage to host a kaleidoscopic prog rock tour for the soul. Despite the simplicity of what passes for gameplay, The Artful Escape is a colourful and unforgettable adventure that had me grinning from ear to ear from start to finish. It's closer to being a zoetrope made out of acid and Rush b-sides than a traditional video game, sure, but I think that's part of what makes it so special.

The Artful Escape

The Artful Escape tells the tale of young Francis Vendetti, an aspiring guitarist desperate to break out of the shadow of his uncle, Johnson Vendetti — a famous folk musician who recently passed away, leaving all eyes in their sleepy home town to fall on Francis to continue Johnson's folk legacy. But Francis doesn't want to play folk music. Francis wants to rock. Francis wants to blow minds and change lives with his soaring solos, to channel the furthest reaches of the cosmos through an axe and an amp, to musically explore not just the unknown but the unknowable. The kid dreams big... perhaps too big for a quiet mountain town teenager, and so the quest to develop the greatest rock persona ever and become a living legend begins.

And what a quest it is. The search for inspiration for his alter ego leads Francis across the cosmic expanse, taking in some truly jaw-dropping sights along the way. You see the kinds of curious vistas which, if you saw them on an album cover, would serve as a fair indicator that the shortest track would likely clock in at around eleven minutes long. You meet crazy characters who look like they were assembled from crafts day paper doll offcuts by someone who was absolutely tripping balls. You hear... oh, the things you'll hear. The Artful Escape's soundtrack is generally quite chilled and otherworldly, but that's offset wonderfully by the fact that Francis can whip out a holographic guitar pretty much at will and start shredding. That wasn't the music you were hearing before — it was just the backing track, and you can drop in and out of the mix as you see fit as you run through these wonderfully weird landscapes and just jam along with the world. It's almost entirely for flavour and serves little, if any, actual gameplay purpose, but you'll want to do it anyway, whether through generally harmonising with the dulcet tones of the universe itself or by making your mark on the multiverse by punctuating it with riff-powered poses, raucous power slides, and high-flying wails. Or maybe that should be high-flying whales. Or even high-flying Wales. Honestly, there's no telling what you'll see or hear next in an adventure this out there.

the artful escape release date

I mentioned earlier that The Artful Escape doesn't feel much like a traditional video game, and that's deserving of a little elaboration as to what you actually do. Interaction comes in several flavours: simple platforming, dialogue choices, and musical interludes. In the case of platforming, I don't use the term 'simple' there lightly. There's next to no pushback from the game or challenge, no real hazards to avoid or fail state to worry about, no collectibles to go out of your way for (save for a couple of quick achievement-based distractions). Instead, it's more about just travelling through and drinking in these utterly insane landscapes at your own pace, jamming along as you see fit to see what impact your mastery of the fretboard might have on your surroundings. And that side of things is glorious. Whether you're awakening abstract aliens or kickstarting a cultural revolution, holding X to shred is something that just feels good, even though it practically serves no mechanical purpose here — a rare thing for a game to be able to pull off. As for dialogue, things are usually kept quite simple and there's not a whole lot in the way of branching. What is cool, though, is how you get to shape your version of both aspects of Francis, down to eventually naming your persona and settling on its backstory. All the stuff you decide on is raised and referenced as the game goes on, too, which helps sell the idea that you're actually assembling this alter ego for Francis.

In terms of musical gameplay, most of this takes the form of short call-and-response sequences and in keeping with the rest of the game, they're really forgiving. While Simon-esque sections like this often require speed and accuracy, The Artful Escape taps into its jazzy prog roots to encourage taking liberties with timings as you strum out your answer, although you do still need to play the right notes in the right order. This can get slightly fiddly later on with some of the multi-button chords, but since you can't fail, you'll find your fretting eventually. Occasionally these pop up as quick trigger segments to conjure bridges or otherwise create a way to progress, but their main use is during longer jam set pieces where you strut your stuff to impress key story characters, and these are all suitably impressive. And suitably weird. And suitably awesome. In addition, there are a few rare sequences where the game just lets you freestyle using the same five-button input system. Limiting it to just a five-note scale here makes sense in order to make it so that anyone can play along without hitting a bum note. Still, as someone with a musical background, I'd have loved to see a more advanced system using more buttons and modifier triggers to really let creative folks go nuts, kinda like with the ocarina in some 3D Zelda games or — and this is a proper deep cut, so buckle up — Big Band's Satchmo Solo super in Skullgirls.

The Artful Escape

Presentation has come on in leaps and bounds since The Artful Escape was first announced some six years ago, and the final product looks and sounds fantastic. The strange paper model-esque characters sit way better against the abstract dreamscapes than any kind of realistic models ever would, and they're another part of the game's unique feel — it's got that early animation stop motion vibe to it, and it just makes the whole thing even trippier. Environments too are stunning, with a sense of depth and activity far beyond what you may expect from what is effectively a 2D world. The nature of the game just lends itself to variety on this front, too. Dense alien jungles, a space-hopping jazz lounge, serene beach worlds, towering cityscapes, even a literal dream theater... it's a crazy ride. The voice cast adds an extra layer of sheen to the game too, which it kinda needed when actual gameplay is so simple. Performances are generally great, although there are a few odd (well, odder than usual) deliveries — replacing custom character names with a quick Bill & Ted-style guitar lick seems like it might have been rather tricky to flow into natural conversation, for instance.

But what about the achievements? Well, you'll unlock the majority naturally over the course of a normal playthrough, and there's a handy chapter select option in case you should miss any of the others. Which, if you don't look at the list first, you absolutely would — I'd never have just sat idle for three minutes during a jam session, for instance, and there are a handful of others that can be missed, too. 'How'd you get up there?' is similarly devious as it's another secret achievement for something you almost certainly wouldn't do unless you knew the game wanted you to, but like Snowman and Light It Up, it doesn't take long once you know where to go. Either way, it's an easy completion and a quick one — all the more reason to crank The Artful Escape to 11, right?

the artful escape release date


Summary

A cosmic rock voyage of self-discovery that doesn't folk about, The Artful Escape is a truly unique experience and a feast for the senses. Those looking for a challenge or who are deathly allergic to guitars will probably want to look elsewhere for their next game. But given what an unusual and aesthetically captivating experience it is — and the fact that it's right there on Game Pass — it couldn't be easier for me to recommend. It'll likely prove a little too strange for some people's tastes, but if you don't enjoy it, it's still a quick (and hopefully at least interesting) 1,000G boost in five hours or so from a game you likely won't remember playing this time next year. But if you do end up enjoying it, and I think a lot of folks will, there's a very real chance it could end up being five hours you'll never forget.
8 / 10
* Luke spent around seven hours jamming with Francis, unlocking all twelve achievements by the end of the set. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.