Some games make their bones on the back of clever gameplay mechanics and learning curves to push competitive types to their limits. Others rely on style and presentation. The Artful Escape certainly falls into the latter category, offering standard adventure game fare set against the backdrop of retina-burning neon dreamscapes. Its story and themes are well-trodden material, but top-notch direction helps to keep the journey engaging, even when the moment-to-moment gameplay is anything but.
Standing in the shadows of giants
The Artful Escape has a simple setup: Francis Vendetti is a young fellow who happens to be the nephew of a world-famous folk musician and is struggling with the choice to be himself or what he thinks everyone else thinks he should be. Francis grew up in a small Colorado town with his parents and his father was the brother of Johnson Vendetti, a folk hero who bears more than a passing resemblance to Bob Dylan.
The town is hustling and bustling for the upcoming weekend that marks the anniversary of Johnson Vendetti’s most-loved album. As a cap to the celebrations, Francis is scheduled to perform a live show for the town, causing lots of anxiety for the young Vendetti. He meets a girl in the forest the day before the show who helps him question what he’s doing with his life. She mentions a place called Lightman’s that Francis should look for.
Later that night, Francis is awakened by a knock at his door. The knock came from an intra-dimensional being who gives him an electric space guitar. As Francis prances around town in the darkness, the notes from the guitar bring the city to life and, at the end of the block, illuminates a previously unoccupied warehouse building as Lightman’s. Francis then meets Lightman (voiced by Carl Weathers) and is given a quick story about playing gigs for intra-dimensional audiences.
Francis follows Lightman into the vast expanse of the Cosmic Extraordinary, the backdrop for the majority of The Artful Escape’s proceedings. Each taking its design cues from the blacklight posters at a Spencer Gifts shop in 1989, these alien worlds are a feast for the eyes — if your eyes have a soft spot for airbrushed t-shirt art from a flea market.
Francis must navigate simple platforming sections, Simon-eqsue pattern matching for music battles, and a buffet of otherworldly creatures in order to find a way back to his simple Colorado life. There’s nothing that can’t be handled with a few guitar licks. Francis also begins shaping the narrative for his new backstory by choosing a new name and home turf.
The visual presentation is clearly the star of The Artful Escape. The artists here clearly had the permission to run wild and the results on-screen speak for themselves. While the side-scrolling action seems rather simple, lots of the latest graphical effects are put to solid use here, including depth of field and screen-space reflections. Things pop easily on a 4K HDR display, which is the recommended way to take this trip in. I did notice an ever-present stutter that happened while playing on my PC that didn’t seem to be affected by graphical settings or resolution. It was very annoying, but not enough to keep the game from being completed.
On the audio side of things, you’ll find lots to like here if you live for the dulcet tones of overdriven guitars drenched in delay. Think early 80’s Steve Vai or Brian May for a decent idea of what’s in store. From a technical standpoint, I had issues getting any audio at all from the game until I learned that it would not output anything unless my PC sound device was set to 16-bit and 44.1 kHz. I also felt like there was a noticeable delay for guitar note input. It made things sound weird, but the game did not seem to care for keeping inputs married to the rhythm of the music, so it is probably not a huge deal.
Looking for an encore?
While The Artful Escape does a strong job with its presentation and sense of style, it still suffers the same drawbacks as most adventure games, particularly with the boring-at-best game mechanics. The celebrity voice cast does well enough, though I only recognized Weathers during my time in the game. The trip here isn’t long, though it does manage to be memorable thanks to its relentless desire to look like a Liz Frank-emblazoned Trapper Keeper. Depending on the drugs you keep handy, this could be the ticket. 6/10 space slug discos
This review is based on the PC Windows Store release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. The Artful Escape will launch on September 9 for Steam, Windows Store, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.
The Artful Escape
- Lush, bright environments
- Interesting creature design
- Carl Weathers
- Still relies on tired adventure tropes
- Rhythm seemingly matters not to this music game
- Stuttering on Windows Store version
- Issues with some PC sound setups