The Artful Escape is really a musical narrative adventure game authored by Annapurna Interactive and developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur. Annapurna is known for publishing narrative-focused and more experimental titles for example What Remains of Edith Finch as well as Outer Wilds respectively. This game marks the debut for Beethoven & Dinosaur and seems to live up to the legacy that Annapurna has generated to date.
Small Town Boy
The Artful Escape puts players into the shoes of the young guitar player named Francis Vendetti. Francis seems destined to live in the big shadow of his uncle Johnson Vendetti that has be a folk music legend of sorts. As the story opens, Francis finds himself not able to shake a nagging feeling because he struggles to strum several bars of folk music. It’s clear that Francis prefer to play some sick space opera rock jams but has been instructed to instead cover his uncle’s folk songs in the upcoming festival in the honor. The day before the festival, after being suitably beaten down and discouraged by the other townsfolk, Francis attempts to get some rest but is awoken by an odd sound outside. After investigating, he meets the literally out-of-this-world creature Zomm who whisks him away with an intergalactic jam session. Francis is given newer and more effective threads, a holographic guitar, and is now having to play support to have an epic-level guitarist named Lightman. Needless to say, things come on weird, real fast.
The Artful Escape is primarily narrative-driven so the story is its meat and potatoes. It’s clear from the start you will find multiple themes the developers want to have fun with, only one which it truly wants to clarify. From feeling insufficient when comparing himself to his uncle to gaining enough courage to experience for an entire galaxy, it’s clear the game is focused on freedom of expression. This freedom is slowly unveiled with the narrative as multiple characters often ask “Where are you going?” to which Francis often replies with a concrete answer once the question is more metaphysical in nature. This theme is further driven home having a surprising concentrate on player freedom.
While the narrative is fairly linear, there are parts hanging around where players can go to town by evolving Francis throughout his journey for example giving him a stage persona or customizing his look. Happens persona was particularly interesting as when it’s introduced, it seems like the game is attempting to obtain players to mislead lead them to punishment. However, once the segment ended, it’s less about punishment and more about finding out who Francis wants to become than becoming what the people around him say he should become. It’s an excellent refreshing message and the game handles its execution wonderfully.
While the story is incredibly strong and there are some tear-jerking moments, it’s elevated further by mostly excellent voice acting. The Artful Escape as a whole seems to be aiming for the feel of those classic 80s movies such as The Last Starfighter. These movies often portray a protagonist who isn't living up to their full potential that has an otherworldly force whisk them on an adventure that teaches some important life lessons. As such the voice acting hits super well at some points but other lines feel straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The voice cast is pretty star-studded too with Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) and Carl Weathers (The Mandalorian) both voicing pivotal roles.
Intergalactic Guitar Riffs
Unfortunately, the gameplay isn't near as polished as the story. The sport is broken into multiple chapters and each involves Francis making his way through platforming levels broken up by encounters with new far-out beings. While the alien interactions are fantastic, the platforming areas (especially early on), leave a lot to be desired. Over these platforming sections, players can move right or left, jump, double jump, and strum your guitar by holding down the X button (on the controller). Some levels manage to make holding down the strum button feel rewarding as Francis plays an epic guitar riff and also the environment around him involves life. An early example is within Francis’ hometown of Calypso immediately after the encounter with Zomm where strumming wraps the town in Christmas lights and shoots fireworks constantly.
However, when Francis begins exploring new planets, they’re less fun and also the platforming sections feel overly drawn out by comparison. If the strum isn’t held down, nothing actually happens. Players can still continue through the level however the base music is lackluster having a simple percussion beat without anyone's knowledge. So, players are encouraged by the game to carry the button over what could be a few seconds to some minute of nothing happening hoping experiencing the sights and sounds. While novel, this appears a lot more like padding time versus adding actual value for the player. Of note, this problem is rectified in later chapters but may turn off some players in early stages because of their tedium.
The boring strumming aside, there are also much better applications for the guitar that weren’t used as heavily as they could have been. Included in performances, Francis partcipates in what is essentially a game title of Simon with whatever obstacle he’s currently looking to get past. Each obstacle includes a group of five areas organically added to them that align using the face and shoulder buttons from the controller. For example, if facing a huge bear, its eyes, mouth, and ears would align using the controller buttons then when it “roars” players hit the button corresponding with it. This was a extremely fun aspect and later became a bit complicated with multiple buttons (chords) being held at the same time and the speed of actions increasing.
While the problem does scale, staying with the theme of freedom expression, so long as players hit the correct notes in the correct order, they are able to get it done as quickly or as slowly as they want. This can lead to some great sounding back and forth and helps make the game more accessible as well. Now, there isn't any death state so if Francis falls off a level or fails at a performance, players can begin over right where they were. As the story may be the main draw, this decision doesn’t seem to take away from the overall enjoyment.
An Acid Trip in Game Form
The visuals and sound in this game are a literal trip. Beings who speak in smooth jazz, gigantic space butterflies who Should be entertained, and creatures who shake their hips to a beat that just they can hear are just a few of the striking and bizarre sights throughout The Artful Escape. Whilst not directly referenced, it’s clear inspiration was sucked from plenty of 80s movies, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, musicians throughout, as well as album cover art. Outside of the unique character designs, the polish applied to the presentation is apparent and present and works oh so well. There are times where characters appear a bit gnarly, particularly if centered on the stiffer than expected animations, but you will find for more times where players come in awe from the light show being placed on in front of them.
It’s a game about rock and roll and thankfully no punches were pulled in that regard. During performances and while traversing through each level, pyrotechnics, fireworks, laser flashing lights, glowing flora, etc will excite the eyes and tickle the brain. Combined with the aforementioned psychedelic creatures and amazing sound is a universe that Bill and Ted would fit right at home in. Speaking of sound, there are several real tasty licks in here. There doesn’t appear to be any licensed music but what was on display was a lot more than sufficient to obtain the heart pumping and the head nodding.
The Artful Escape provides a strong narrative adventure focused on self-discovery, identity, and expression that musicians, artists, and merely about you can now find something to relate to. While the experience stumbles a little due to some dull platforming areas, the groovy universe Beethoven & Dinosaur have crafted is a that players should take time to fully explore.