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I'm paraphrasing, and no doubt underselling the pertinence of the moment in the process, but there's an exchange in The Artful Escape that perfectly encapsulates the experience of playing this unprecedented debut jam from the impeccably named Australian studio Beethoven & Dinosaur (founded by the equally righteously monikered Johnny Galvatron). Our protagonist Francis Vendetti, aka The Slippery Diver (your cosmic-rock alter ego may vary), is told by his at-the-time mentor-cum-idol-cum-total-stranger-cum-spacefaring-rockstar Lightman what it means to be an artist. Y'see, an artist's job isn't to give people what they want - it's to give them something they couldn't even begin to imagine.
It sounds better coming from Lightman, inimitably voiced as he is here by Carl Weathers, star of Predator, Happy Gilmore, The Mandalorian, and muscly armed memes, but it's the point that matters: The Artful Escape is like nothing I ever imagined a video game being, and nothing like anything I'd ever have expected from its publishers, the incomparable Annapurna Interactive.
Watch the release date trailer for The Artful Escape, below...
Now, that's a label with a varied stable, covering titles like Outer Wilds, I Am Dead, If Found..., The Pathless, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and so many more (IMO, it's the greatest games publisher in the world right now). But nothing Annapurna has put its name to before has filled me with the same awe, the same amazement, the same unfettered joy, as this bittersweetly brief but stunningly realised culmination of six years' worth of planning, fundraising and development, bound together by imagination so blazing it could outshine the sun. The Artful Escape is transportive in the extreme, the truest gaming escapism writ large across the stars and wearing a feather boa shot through with moonbeams.
And It's surprisingly simple, too, largely a case of running from left to right and succeeding in some elementary platforming. Run, leap, slide on your knees and smash on down like a goddamn superhero. Except, that is, for when it's asking you to shred, to wail, to let rip on six electric strings of galaxy-crossing cacophony, because Francis is a guitarist y'see, and The Artful Escape puts his noggin-blasting noodling and fret-whipping finger-rolling centre stage for some rhythm-action battle-of-the-band-style face-offs with some disgustingly brilliant gigantic alien things. These extraterrestrial designs pulse and gloop, slurp and slither, and just occasionally absolutely scream like the collective roster of Deathwish Inc suffering the worst kind of next-morning ring-sting. (Seriously, Calvagio, get some lozenges before you do yourself a mischief.)
It's not exactly Guitar Hero, with its five musical inputs and little room for freestyling riffage outside of the note-matching 'boss battles'. But as you're peaking a crescendo over an otherworldly vista that put your jaw on the floor four full minutes earlier, you'll swear this is what it means to be a golden god of axe-swinging magnificence headlining a rock-opera beamed directly from the heavens and into your sparking synapses. There are sights here that go way beyond the limitations of small teams and modest development budgets; there are sights here like those that are painted across the insides of your eyelids as you crash out from necking rainbow-coloured candies in an Akihabara arcade and wake up in a karaoke booth where the only music available has Roger Dean cover art and whispers to you between the notes, like: come away, further away, further still, until you can't see what you were before.
Which is apt, given that beneath the surface of bedazzling art and sumptuous sounds - your press-X-to-wail contributions, available most of the time (and you'll want to wail, trust), always sync with the mellifluous ambient backing music - The Artful Escape is, indeed, a voyage that goes well beyond your average gap year funded by that auntie you never saw but she died so off we go.
Francis is a resident of Calypso, a small town in an otherwise unremarkable corner of America famous only because of the exploits of his late uncle, a folk singer clearly modelled after Bob Dylan. The town has swelled with tourists due to a festival based around one of said singer's multi-million-selling albums, and Francis has been given his first-ever gig to close the event. No pressure - he's bricking it, obviously. Yet, Francis isn't his uncle, despite the hopes of his fellow townsfolk. He thought he was, even modelled himself after him. But a few epiphanies later and he's certain: folk music isn't his forte, not when there's a sci-fi wonderland of musical otherness out there, just one alien visitation away from being realised. Take the risk, step over the line where to fail is to kiss death itself full on the face (paraphrasing again, there, sorry Mr Galvatron), and see how much greener the nebulas on the other side are.
In around four hours, you'll reinvent Francis (no need to be a Slippery anything, you call those shots) and come to some conclusions that hanging around in Calypso was keeping him from. You'll dance with space caterpillars and ride on the back of a turtle that swims through dimensions; you'll jam out jazz licks with a creature who only speaks in sax and carve through skeletal titans on a disco hovercraft. Every five minutes in The Artful Escape, some new and incredible thing happens. It's insatiable with its appetite for throwing the most breathtaking scenes onto your TV screen, to the extent where I'm confident no game of this style has ever looked this good.
You'll meet, well, not god exactly, but someone who's seen her at least, who wears the universe in her hair and is voiced by Game of Thrones' Lena Headey. You'll make up a dizzyingly delirious backstory for your reinvented self in the company of an alien talk show host played by Mark Strong. Jason Schwartzman is here too, which can't not give The Artful Escape an air of the Wes Andersons - but that's a good thing, promise, as never does this game lose its way amid its non sequiturs and surreal juxtapositions (though, sure, it has those). It plays wild but it plays straight, always showing you the way forward even as the worlds around you spin out into technicolour dreamscapes.
In a year of genuinely terrific indie games, including Lake, Death's Door, Chicory and more we're not allowed to talk about just yet (but please, do watch these pages), The Artful Escape has made me smile like nothing else. I can still feel the beaming grin on my face as I type these words. It's the one game in 2021 that I really couldn't put down as the clock ticked past midnight and I knew I had to get my head down, the one game where I knew what was coming next would be unmissable. It's the one game where I felt like I was playing something else, even as it adhered to certain gameplay conventions - and that feeling comes from its spirit, its personality, the drive of the artist behind it. An artist who quite evidently didn't do what they did here to fulfil expectations, but to shatter them into a million crystals - each facet reflecting a vision quite unlike anything you'll see, hear or play in this year, or any other.
And just as Lightman says: no arguing with the rating, kid...
Pros: fantastic imagination in every scene, touching and relatable story despite the otherworldly environments, soundtrack slaps, visuals are incredible, acting is spot on, some excellent puns, Press X To Shred
Cons: it's short (but hey, it's on Game Pass), some people will want more freedom in their pressing X to shred
For fans of: Oxenfree, Headlander, Guitar Hero, Night In The Woods, Super Mario Galaxy
The Artful Escape is out now for Xbox One (version tested), Xbox Series X/S, Apple Arcade and PC. Game played on Game Pass. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Annapurna Interactive, Beethoven & Dinosaur
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