Found Among The Stars

HIGH Gorgeous aesthetics, a wonderful sense of synaesthesia.

LOW This was so close to being an amazing lowkey trans narrative.

WTF …There’s a kneeslide button?

The game industry has long held “playable movie” as a sort of pie-in-the-sky standard that many have been shooting for in one fashion or another. It’s a poor idea for a thousand different reasons, but after playing The Artful Escape it seems clear that the goal was simply wrong on its most basic level – they shouldn’t have been trying to make movies at all when they could have been making playable music videos.

The Artful Escape tells the story of young guitar player Francis Vendetti. Our hero wants to wail on his axe and belt out sci-fi paeans to the stars, but he’s grown up in the shadow of a world-famous folk musician uncle. He’s being crushed under the weight of everyone’s expectations until extraterrestrial visitors arrive to offer him a different path.

Coming from developers Beethoven & Dinosaur, this 2D musical narrative is, to me, the perfect interactive music video.

Technical mastery isn’t necessary for most of the experience – and I don’t say this as criticism. Moving Francis around limited environments and just clicking on things to get flavor text or to start a brief chat is enough to get things rolling in the early sections.

I won’t go into specifics about story beats since The Artful Escape is a short piece that is exactly as long as it needs to be (and not a moment longer!) but what I will say is that the lion’s share of the experience consists of opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, turning up the volume, and joining Francis as he runs, jumps and strums his way through a dozen psychedelic environments while his narrative of self-affirmation and confidence unrolls.  

Much like the non-musical sections, there’s not much technical skill required to make the music happen – and again, this is not a criticism. The Artful Escape isn’t about getting players to platform with pixel-perfect accuracy or mastering a blistering series of rapid-fire notes – it’s about immersing them in an overwhelming display of sound and visuals that successfully delivers intense energy and drive.

Francis will jump, slide and play his guitar (all single-button actions) through alien cities, across limitless deserts and among unknowable stars while sweeping tracks loop and dive. It’s quite difficult for words to capture the feeling of moving at speed while the riffs are flying and the screen is filled with glowing clouds, Lovecraftian herbivores and impossible architecture, but it was fantastic to be able to sit back and watch it all scroll by, each new vista more fantastical than the last, and every moment accompanied by electric audio powering the journey.

Every so often Francis will arrive at a test, of sorts – a gatekeeper or an entity who must be impressed with his prowess, and every one of them shares distinct facial features that mirror the buttons on a controller. At this point, The Artful Escape engages in a bit of Simon Says. The alien’s face will flash a series of notes, and Francis must respond in kind.  

These bits are brief, and in truth, none of them are demanding. However, I will say that there was a bit of mental disconnect for me when it came to the left shoulder button. Since it’s not clustered with the others, I had a ridiculously hard time coordinating it, and it was the only note I couldn’t nail with regularity. In such case, The Artful Escape is forgiving. There’s no penalty or failure condition, the notes simply repeat and give Francis another chance. The developers clearly understand the value of unbroken progression in a sensory experience like this, and they’re here to deliver it.

When Francis played his final set and the credits started rolling, I was quite glad to have played The Artful Escape. It is very clearly Its Own Thing, and not only is that thing pretty awesome, it’s just one more example that videogames are able to deliver a huge array of experiences that are all worthwhile in their own way. I love that Beethoven & Dinosaur brought their vision to my screen, and if nothing else, maybe this rock-fueled journey through the stars will get developers off of movies and on to music videos for a while.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur and published by Annapurna Interactive. It is currently available on PC and XB. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains Alcohol Reference, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Use of Tobacco. The official description reads as follows: This is a narrative adventure game in which players follow the story of Francis Vendetti as he embarks on a journey to find a stage persona. From a 2D side-scrolling perspective, players explore city streets, interact with characters, and traverse platform levels to advance the narrative. The game depicts some customizable outfits that are somewhat revealing (e.g., garter-belt lingerie, fishnets). Some characters are seen smoking cigarettes, and alcohol is referenced in the dialogue (e.g., “Think this place used to be a…possible hub of underage drinking”; “liquor license”; “champagne”). The word “bastard” appears in dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled and the music sections offer full visual cues onscreen – it would be entirely possible to play this game without being able to hear the music. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Brad Gallaway
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