Welcome to the Cosmic Extraordinary
Sometimes the people around you build a box that they want to put you in, which they say you belong in because it's who you're supposed to be. Sometimes (most of the time) they're wrong, and it's up to you to pave your own way forward to be who you truly are. This is the central message behind the narrative of The Artful Escape, a 2D platformer from Australian developer Beethoven & Dinosaur, published by Annapurna Interactive. It's a story about the pressure of people expecting you to fulfill the legacy of a legend who came before. How well does it portray this feeling? Honestly I'd say it does it very well.
In The Artful Escape, the player controls Francis Vendetti, a teenager living in the small town of Calypso, Colorado. Francis is a folk musician, or at least that’s what the entire town wants him to be. This is because his uncle, Johnson Vendetti, was a legend in the folk music scene, and everybody seems to want Francis to be nothing but Johnson Vendetti 2. The problem is that Francis has no real passion for folk music; he is more interested in sick guitar licks for rock operas in space, but he lives in fear of what people will say if he doesn’t conform to what they want. One night, right before his first concert as an upcoming folk artist, Francis is approached by a cosmic rock artist named Lightman who wants to recruit him as the supporting act for his three show tour. Largely against his will, Francis is thrown into the psychedelic Cosmic Extraordinary, eventually landing on Lightman’s ship, the Cosmic Lung, and being beamed from one end of the universe to the other, developing a new stage persona and discovering what kind of music he actually wants to play.
While The Artful Escape is a master class in visual and audio design, unfortunately the gameplay is rather shallow. Pressing B will have Francis jump, and he can gain a small amount of extra air time by pressing Y to shred on his guitar. Holding Y in most areas will cause Francis to pull out his guitar and start playing, something that dynamically lines up with the area’s default music and can also cause background elements to light up or become active, but this mechanic otherwise does nothing. Pressing X while in the air will cause Francis to slam his guitar to the ground, which is used to activate various things within the environment such as holographic stages. These are very standard mechanics, but there’s never really a reason for the player to master them. There are absolutely no challenges to be found in Artful Escape’s platforming: every jump in the game is trivial and even if you somehow miss a jump, there are no consequences as it simply respawns you right before the gap. What’s there feels responsive and fluid, but those looking for any kind of difficulty or excitement in the platforming are not going to find it here.
The other half of gameplay in Artful Escape is more in line with its musical theming. Occasionally the player will find themselves in a musical performance, which operates similarly to a Simon Says mechanic. Different notes can be played by pressing the Y, X, A, L, and R buttons, and certain creatures or people will play notes that display either on a bit of holographic UI or in some instances a part of their body arranged like the UI. The player must copy the notes exactly, though there is once again no consequences for failing outside of having to start that particular chain of notes again. Unlike your usual repeat-after-me mechanic that requires you to wait until the sample is done playing, you can start playing right as the other character begins. For the most part these sections work well, but every once in a while I did find that it felt as though it was skipping some of my inputs for seemingly no reason. The lack of consequences makes this not too much of an issue, but I still found it annoying when it occurred.
Overall, The Artful Escape is a standout in terms of visual and sound design, with a story that feels relatable even if you yourself don’t have a famous folk-singing uncle. With a runtime of only about three hours it’s a brief experience, but those hoping to find a challenge to overcome will be disappointed in the shallow gameplay it has to offer. Francis’s story is memorable and powerful, and the environments he shreds through are truly a sight to behold. People who enjoy the aesthetics of artists like the late David Bowie should absolutely give this game a look, especially if they also happen to be musicians themselves. You might learn a bit about what you actually want for yourself in life and become inspired to visit a Cosmic Extraordinary of your own.