From David Bowie to Miley Cyrus, musicians often use alter egos to experiment with a new sound or thematic idea. Behind the mask of a new personality, artists can express themselves in new ways and create music that resonates with a different audience. In The Artful Escape, you will go on a journey of self-discovery and what it means to be yourself unconditionally. In the debut game from developer Beethoven & Dinosaur, you can experience what it is like to go from local folk hero to galactic superstar with the help of some friends and some truly amazing guitar riffs.
The Artful Escape is also the newest release from Annapurna Interactive, a publisher known for its character and narrative-focused titles. Unfortunately, 2021 has not been their greatest year. While Maquette and Last Stop were interesting games about love and the supernatural, neither captivated a large audience. Last month, the publisher released the highly anticipated 12 Minutes, which quickly became the center of controversy despite its phenomenal cast and premise. I am excited to say that The Artful Escape is the strongest release from the publisher this year and a truly unique adventure.
Story – Shine on, You Crazy Diamond
The small town of Calypso is known for one thing: the music of local folk hero Johnson Vendetti. After releasing his popular album Pines in the 1970s, Vendetti became an international star and helped put his hometown on the map. Bob Dylan clearly inspires both the look and sound of Johnson, and the game never shies away from the resemblance. Unfortunately, Johnson and his brother lost their lives in a horrible car accident, leaving their town and loved ones in shambles.
Many years after the accident, we meet Francis Vendetti. He has aspired to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become the next great folk hero for most of his life. The only issue is, Francis doesn’t want to write folk music. In the opening moments of the game, we watch as he struggles to write a song about the life of a miner. After a few attempts, he finally turns on an amp and plays a cathartic guitar solo into the wind.
Francis is secretly a guitar virtuoso, with skills on par with a young David Gilmour. After growing up in his Uncle’s shadow, Francis feels like it is his duty to continue the legacy, despite wanting something else for himself. After meeting a strange woman named Violetta on the eve of his debut set, he decides that it is time to create an alter ego who can forge their own story and sound.
Everything is sounding pretty normal so far, right? Around this time, an alien named Zomm appears and invites Francis to be the opening act for Lightman, an intergalactic rockstar. Francis suddenly finds himself in the Cosmic Extraordinary and must prove himself to extraterrestrial beings to return home before his show while also discovering his greater self.
A Catchy Tune
The Artful Escape is more of a musical journey than an actual game. Fortunately, the developers have crafted an engaging and often mind-blowing story. During my four-hour playthrough, I never once thought that it was meandering. Every piece of dialogue advances the narrative and helps develop the characters in clever ways. The writing is both funny and introspective, a combination that can be difficult to pull off.
What really helps elevate the story beyond its impressive writing is its stellar cast of performers. Jason Schwartzman voices Zomm the alien and sounds like he is having a blast while doing so. Lena Heady and Mark Strong let loose as a couple of extraterrestrial beings, but one performance stood out above the rest. Carl Weathers voices Lightman, the cosmic rock star who needs Francis to become his opening act. Weathers adds lightness and darkness to the narrative with his performance, as his character will often joke around potentially dark topics.
Overall, the combination of great writing, good jokes, and phenomenal voice acting consistently kept me hooked while playing The Artful Escape. The story is engaging and flows so naturally that it was hard to put the controller down. Most importantly, the game is able to tell the universal tale of discovering oneself within an adventure that is truly out of this world.
Gameplay – Simon Says “Shred”
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said The Artful Escape was more of a journey than an actual game? That’s because the gameplay throughout is relatively simple, and it rarely challenges the player. As Francis, you will move from the left side of the screen to the right, with a jump button. Unlike a Super Mario title, though, most platforms are easy to reach, and if you do miss, you respawn almost immediately in the spot before your demise. Once he is in space, he can double jump and play his guitar for an extra boost if needed.
Throughout the journey, you will come across cosmic beings that will test your guitar skills to see if you have what it takes. These sequences happen often and will require the player to play a good old-fashioned game of “Simon.” Buttons representing the shoulder and face buttons on a controller will appear on the screen, and you must memorize patterns and play them back. Similar to the platforming, these sequences are relatively easy, and messing up doesn’t have consequences. I wish the developers had chosen a rhythm game similar to the one in Night in the Woods instead, but I almost always enjoyed any time I got to play on the guitar.
One final aspect of the gameplay is non-essential but possibly my favorite mechanic in a game this year. When running around an alien planet at almost any point, you can use a dedicated “Shred” button to wail out insane solos. There is no requirement to do so, but I never wanted to let go of that button.
Graphics & Audio – Magical Mystery Tour
The graphics and animation throughout The Artful Escape were often dream-like and calming to look at. Colors pop out of the screen, and almost every scene feels like it should be a psychedelic album cover. The abstract character designs helped elevate the overall hypnotic experience. The only part of the game where I noticed any slowdown was during an escape sequence in the City of Glimmer. The title works best when it flows nicely, so having an awful framerate during this section disengaged me from the scenario entirely.
The Artful Escape is a game about becoming a musician and how powerful music can be as a medium. The soundtrack throughout the adventure is fantastic, from the opening folk track from Johnson Vendetti’s Pines all the way to the credits. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen a live concert since 2019, but it felt great having headphones on during this journey and soaking in every note I could. Playing this game felt like I was in a non-stop rock opera from a different dimension, and for a while, I never wanted it to stop.
The Artful Escape was reviewed on the PC.