The Artful Escape feels like a cosmic mix that combines Bill and Ted, through its adoration of rock and roll, with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an entertaining romp of a man who ventures out on a journey of self-discovery to find out who he wants to be, rather than simply who everyone expects him to be. It’s a wildly imaginative, psychedelic trip across the macrocosm.
With a meaningful message at its centre, The Artful Escape stands out as the indie sleeper hit of the year.
For all intents and purposes, Francis Vendetti is the Walter Mitty of this adventure. On the eve of his first big folk performance, on the anniversary of his late uncle Johnson Vendetti’s magnum opus ‘Pines’, Francis begins to contemplate the shadow he’s living in and whether there might be something more out there. After an enigmatic Ramona Flowers-type, Violetta, overhears Francis exercising his true passion through a cliffside guitar solo overlooking the hometown that expects so much of him, she says he’ll find meaning at Lightman’s.
Of course, it’s that evening that Francis discovers Lightman to be an old, wise guitar god of considerable reverence whose exploits throughout the expanse are known far and wide. With his opening act on the outer, Lightman hand chooses Francis to be his opening act, and the pair set off on an adventure that can only be described as delightful. The Artful Escape regards the persona-driven rock industry and the art of guitar playing with such warmth, it’s really a love letter to music as much as it is an exercise in self-discovery for Francis.
As a narrative-driven adventure, The Artful Escape is a straightforward romp through all creation. As Francis, you run left-to-right through exotic, insanely creative slivers of the galaxy—known in-game as the Cosmic Extraordinary—playing the guitar while your surroundings come alive to the jam. It’s not at all challenging and even the largest chasms Francis faces are no match for his midair rocker strum that prolongs his air-time. Francis spends a lot of time dreaming up this identity for himself, and through a number of choices sprinkled throughout, you’re able to shape much of that back-story he retreats in the name of escapism. It’s all about the incredible small details, like throwaway claims by Francis he flew a ship made of champagne flutes, The Artful Escape’s writing is so lyrical and well-considered. There’s also a wry sense of humour that reminds me of Oxenfree, a similar example of juvenile dialogue done well with all of its ironies.
Throughout his journey, Francis encounters several larger-than-life hurdles, in the form of lumbering behemoths and celestial entities, and he’s forced to rouse them into favour through his fancy fretting. Like a round of Simon, these encounters rely on sequence memorisation, though there’s no real consequence for flubbing a note, nor are they challenging to begin with. Though Francis’ holographic set lays out the five notes he’s got at his disposal through a visualiser, the same layout is incorporated into the designs of these beings. It’s a super cool example of the mechanics informing the art design, and it looks great.
The Artful Escape is, without a doubt, one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. Before I rave, it’s worth noting I’ve never taken this many screenshots playing a game before. It’s so striking and arresting, I averaged over ten an hour comfortably.
With a focus on powerful colours, absurd sci-fi settings, and sweeping, expansive vistas, The Artful Escape is an achingly beautiful game. Never did I imagine that a game about a goofy teenage boy’s introspective odyssey would look as good as this. Particular standouts include a quaint, super-exclusive jazz club Francis plays at, and of course racing a Warp Turtle—its purpose is exactly as it sounds—against a perturbed fashionista. Not since Ori and the Will of the Wisps have I been so profoundly taken aback by a game’s art direction to the point it moved me. I swear it’s what I imagine Steve Vai probably sees on the inside of his eyelids. Despite the overwhelming and busy visuals at times, The Artful Escape seems super well-optimised for console and holds frames very well. Only once did I experience an instance where Francis got bogged in the geometry and refused to budge, aside from that it was a faultless four hours.
Rounding out the game’s stellar presentation are a bunch of really fun performances from all of the stars involved. Michael Johnston, as Francis, nailed the rise from timid-to-typhoon, while Caroline Kinley, on debut, serves as the perfect, derisive motivational foil for his adventure. Like I mentioned earlier, The Artful Escape so gleefully pays homage to the guitar business that it’s note-perfect.
There’s an understated symphonic score that serves as the canvas for Francis’ wailing holographic guitar as every harmonised crescendo crashed in with the epic fervour of Brian May or Tom Scholz. I was constantly a mess of goosebumps and, despite the real lack of replay value, I did find myself returning to these big dueling solos because they were so grand.
The Artful Escape, aided by its ultra-accessible mechanics, is more of a visual journey. As an escape into Francis’ preoccupation, it does make sense for there to be no real challenge. He’s intentionally a Gary Stu in the story he’s weaving for himself and, because of the simplicity, The Artful Escape disarms the player with incomparable visuals, a terrific soundtrack, and a focus on themes like public image and the overlap of fantasy and reality.
It’s not interactively demanding and variety is scarce, but at around four hours, it’s an afternoon well spent to vitalise the body and soul.
As a guitar-shredding odyssey throughout a stunning cosmos, The Artful Escape delivers on its name tenfold. It is a short tale and I'm in no hurry to book a return trip to the Cosmic Extraordinary, but it remains an unforgettable journey thanks to superb art direction, an uplifting story, and stirring guitar solos by cliffside.
A tight, entertaining adventure of self-discovery across the cosmos