The Artful Escape Review
“The role of the artist is not to give the audience what it wants. It’s to show the audience things they never even dreamed were possible.” I’m paraphrasing a bit of dialogue from The Artful Escape, a new game from developer Beethoven and Dinosaur, and although the story centers on a young musician trying to find his creative voice, I suspect that this little credo was the inspiration behind the game itself. The Artful Escape is indeed a surprising and entirely welcome change from the vast legion of copycat games that feel more like marketing exercises than the byproducts of creativity and passion.
Although versions of The Artful Escape have been making the rounds of indie game showcases for several years, I was unaware of this title until I played it, so I was quite taken aback by its premise, art design, and music. Structurally, The Artful Escape is a 2.5D side-scrolling adventure/music and rhythm game with some platforming elements. More than anything, though, it’s a parable about finding one’s honest self, whether or not that involves being a creator or performer.
The story begins in Calypso, Colorado, on the eve of a concert by young folk musician Francis Vendetti. Vendetti is under the oppressive musical shadow of his late uncle Johnson Vendetti, who was a towering, Bob Dylanesque figure in the world of acoustic folk music. The entire town, in fact, stakes its small claim to fame on being Johnson’s birthplace, and Francis is expected to do nothing more than ape his uncle’s style and hits for the locals and tourists. Francis chafes against this, because deep down he wants to be a flamboyant, shredding guitar hero and not a folkie. He meets a young woman named Violetta, who both encourages him to play whatever he wants, mocks him, and entices him to meet her at a club in town that he’s never heard of.
This is all just a preamble to the core of The Artful Escape, which takes place in an entirely different dimension of space and time after Francis is transported by an alien to the Cosmic Extraordinary, a sort of intergalactic concert hall music club. There he reunites with Violetta, who serves both as an ally and antagonist of sorts, and he meets Lightman, a Hendrix-like guitarist who is legendary across the universe. In an effort to return to his home in time for the concert, Francis — now looking more like Ziggy Stardust than Ed Sheeran — must travel to several worlds in order to perform a final show with the Glimmergon, a godlike alien with musical superpowers.
This Is Your Brain On Music
If all this sounds like trippy psychedelic nonsense, that feeling is reinforced by the game’s art style, which looks like the marriage of 1960s Peter Max posters, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, David Bowie at his most cosmic and Stanley Kubrick at his most transcendental. Weird and intensely colorful come to mind, but it all looks really lovely and imaginative, too. I’m not sure chemical enhancement is needed to appreciate the way the game looks. It’s already baked in. There are some beautiful, subtle effects in the mundane world of Calypso as well, with light shining through the windows at night suggesting life within.
Where The Artful Escape really shines is in its musical elements, which are central to not just the story, but the mechanics of its gameplay as well. Francis uses his guitar to play continuous riffs as he moves through the world, and his playing essentially brings the worlds to life, adding light and movement to the environment and awakening the creatures that live there. The soundtrack is a brilliant mixture of simple moving chord patterns that harmonically sync with Francis’ guitar-shredding, so the player always feels like he or she is creating the score in real-time. Even for a musician who understands the technique this is an inspiring use of music in a game. While the music is synth heavy, it includes orchestral samples as well.
Francis also uses his guitar playing to “battle” various end-level bosses by engaging in a version of the old Simon music pattern game. Using the five shoulder and face buttons on the controller, Francis both imitates and plays simultaneously with the bosses, creating sometimes epic musical sequences. If there’s a downside — and I’m not sure there is — it’s that there is literally no fail state, and that the player can simply repeat the patterns endlessly until they are correct. There are also some very rewarding sections of the game when the player can use the controller to improvise freely against the background score.
Bad To The Bone
Before we discuss what else The Artful Escape does really well, we have to address where it stumbles, and there are a couple of stubbed toes on this journey. To start with, the game’s middle act is heavy on platforming, and unfortunately, it isn’t great. In fact, it’s frustratingly bad and imprecise and kills what had been several hours of forward momentum. Second, while the music game battles are fresh, and there is some enjoyable variety in the musical styles for each encounter, the mechanic as a whole doesn’t evolve much at all throughout the game. Sure, the climatic concert is a little longer and literally a flashy fireworks-enhanced blowout, but aside from that, there is curiously little attention paid to the way great music has an emotional arc, and an ebb and flow. The music, by game creator Johnny Megatron (who fronted the Australian New Wave/Prog Rock band The Megatrons in the 1980s) is excellent in general. Lastly, some of the environmental exploration/side-scrolling sections through the worlds just go on a little too long. Those negatives aside, what we’re left with is an emotionally rich and resonant game, well written and acted by a cast of professionals.
The Artful Escape is by turns psychedelic, moving, exultant, and lovely. The central metaphor of a young performer bringing fantastic new worlds into existence through the art of music is a powerful one, and while the theme of a struggling musician finding his authentic voice while paying homage to the past might not be a new one, it’s certainly new to videogames. The Artful Escape only missteps when it tries too hard to be a game, ironic given the story’s premise of search for authenticity. Aside from that, The Artful Escape is a surprising and joyous exploration of the power of collaboration, the struggle for identity, and the mind-blowing, life-altering sound of the very loud galactic symphony.
***Xbox Series X key provided by the publisher for review***
Fantastic integration of music and gameplay
Colorful, psychedelic art
Awkward platforming mechanics
Music game mechanic lacks variety
Story has some narrative stumbles