Your best self exists in the space between your current self and the person you want to be. The Artful Escape is a psychedelic adventure game with rhythm elements, exploring this very idea. It’s visually stunning, surprising, and downright delightful. But, with a few exceptions, The Artful Escape is more fun to look at than it is to play. I enjoyed the spectacle of it all but found myself wanting more from the mechanics it has.
Setting the Stage
Living in the shadow of his folk superstar uncle, Francis Vendetti’s debut is a mere celebration of his uncle’s legacy. Even on the poster advertising the event, Johnson Vendetti eclipses the teenage Francis. But from the jump, we get a glimpse of who Francis wants to be: a rock musician. And when a mysterious woman named Violetta approaches him at the beginning of the adventure, she immediately recognizes this disconnect and invites him to a place called Lightman’s.
The Artful Escape starts off with a simplistic but satisfying exploration of your hometown as you question its inhabitants over the location of Lightman’s. It’s a great way to show what Johnson Vendetti’s legacy means to people and the importance of the upcoming festival in his honor. I felt the pressure of living up to this legacy and, in turn, felt Francis’ frustrations.
Engaging with the world on this level created a lovely calm and the curiosity created by the mysterious Lightman’s no one seems to have heard of incentivized me to chat with everyone to see what they knew about it.
This feeling continued even as I walked around my house into the otherworldly twist that awaited me that night.
After essentially being selected to gig with Lightman, one of the most iconic musicians across the galaxy, you’re introduced to the core elements that drive The Artful Escape’s action. Jumping and gliding between gaps across a variety of environmental platforms to reach the end of a given level and playing a rhythm game for key story moments. Your guitar plays a role in both, with the glide accompanying a long strum and the rhythm game unsurprisingly being the music you play.
Other than that you have the option to strum at will as you walk across these worlds with aspects of the environment coming to life as a result: from street lights turning on to creatures and objects reacting or appearing to your tunes.
Outside of these main actions you also get to make some dialogue choices that decorate the story rather than impact it. It’s a Mad Libs situation where your decision will change things like where you say you’re from but where you’re from has no perceivable bearing on the story, at least from what I could tell in my playthrough.
If there’s something The Artful Escape excels at though it’s art direction by a mile. It’s a visual delight that surprises at every moment. In many ways, The Artful Escape feels like The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine: bizarre, playful, and fresh. I want to hang up every still from this game on the wall of my bedroom above my own keyboard to be reminded of the power and wonder that resides in the act of making music. There’s something really beautiful about that implication but unfortunately, The Artful Escape has more flash than substance.
Throughout the story, you learn about Violetta’s talent and how her light show carries these musical performances. In the same vein, the visuals carry The Artful Escape.
You exist like a paper doll tossed into a fully-fledged world but it’s not one you can fully engage with. Everything in The Artful Escape is teeming with life but you feel more like a passive observer of it all and not an active participant despite your main character status.
Showmanship vs. Skill
The Artful Escape makes for a great theme park ride, one with visual awes rather than exhilarating thrills, but the moments of engagement just aren’t that engaging. The platforming is so easy it may as well be non-existent. It feels like it’s only there to give you something to do so you don’t fall asleep at the wheel.
To be clear, platforming doesn’t have to be brutal to be fun. In The Artful Escape, the lack of dynamics within the platforming is what kills this mechanic for me. You’re mostly going directly left to right with just a few moments of verticality.
The closest the platforming gets to changing are the moments where you slide down a landscape or suddenly go into slow motion. These moments are fun and refreshing at first but they’re done so many times that even these grow tired. First and second times? Awesome. But by the 5th and 8th time it becomes clear that there are no other level design ideas to offer.
Occasionally, platforms contribute to the music or offer a bounce and this helps add some variety but it’s not enough to be compelling. Again, the levels are all stunning to look at but the bones of them are boring. The beauty of it all is so overwhelming it’s almost enough to distract from the level design. Almost. But not quite.
It took arriving at a character creator, about halfway through the game, to shake me back into a state of attentive investment but that high wasn’t enough to carry me through the story. What was so well done about that moment was it gave me something interesting to do that also tied directly into the story that was unfolding. It wasn’t just cosmetic; it was world-building.
For a game about music the music is just… fine. Not bad but so safe it all blends together for me. No single musical moment stands out to me while I feel the opposite when it comes to the visuals which feel incredibly memorable.
The Artful Escape is a fantastic music video with an ultimately forgettable OST. Though strategic instrumental swells give you a momentary sense that you’re hearing something grandiose it never culminates in anything significant.
One of the most active parts of The Artful Escape is the rhythm game component which often serves as the climax to any given level. Visually these are integrated well as the required button inputs are displayed on multi-eyed creatures which makes the world feel incredibly cohesive. If you mess up you can simply try again so failure doesn’t have a consequence nor is there a scoring system involved.
The rhythm game is serviceable but not spectacular.
Across the Universe
There are some really incredible personalities sprinkled across these dimensions including one moment that genuinely made me laugh out loud. The Artful Escape is at its best narratively when it leans into the ridiculousness of this cosmic trip, being humorous and playful.
Without giving too much away the plot is extremely predictable and the only turn the story does take is resolved so quickly it barely feels worth introducing.
I played on Xbox Series X and experienced a few framerate dips throughout the game but not enough to impede my time with The Artful Escape, though this does give me some concern for how it may perform on less powerful hardware. I also had a few times where the voice acting would cut out. I expect a patch may take care of this but it’s something to keep in mind.
Despite being about 4hrs long, The Artful Escape gets repetitive in more ways than one. I enjoyed my time overall but the thrill came from what I was seeing more so than what I was doing and in a medium as active as video games, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The beauty is just enough to make it a worthwhile adventure but don’t expect any steak with this sizzle.