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At last there’s a new Guitar Hero game, only this one doesn’t require you to dust off the pile of plastic peripherals you’ve long since stashed on a shelf in your garage. A musical voyage of personal discovery for its axe-wielding star, Francis Vendetti, The Artful Escape is a story-driven platforming adventure that weaves in light rhythm game mechanics as you blaze fiery riffs through cosmic rifts across the universe and back again. Inspired intergalactic environments, a charmingly quirky cast, and some sparklingly grandiose guitarwork propel The Artful Escape into what becomes a genuinely magical mystery tour.
Although it features numerous beasts from other worlds to confront along the way, the major villain in The Artful Escape takes the form of a demon that I found far more relatable than any evil alien threat; Francis’ own sense of self doubt. With the shadow of his successful folk singing uncle looming large over his nascent musical career, Francis struggles with the stress of trying to be something he’s not as he prepares to make his onstage debut at a musical festival in his hometown of Calypso, Colorado. He isn’t turned on by the humdrum of the humble strum; for him, the best tonic is a freshly shredded pentatonic. The sense of catharsis is palpable as you ‘press X to shred a sci-fi guitar odyssey’ during The Artful Escape’s opening moments and rip some hot licks on a hilltop that make the Rocky Mountains rock even harder.
From there, it felt as though I’d been whisked away into the pleasantly peculiar inside of a Wes Anderson film, albeit one with substantially more aliens. The Artful Escape doesn’t just feature the striking lateral camera tracking shots and delightfully deadpan line delivery from the likes of The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Darjeeling Limited, it also features a wonderfully offbeat Jason Schwartzman-style character… who just happens to be voiced by Jason Schwartzman. It’s his character of Zomm, effectively a floating brain in a jar from outer space, who visits Francis in the middle of the night, equips him with a holographic guitar and matching Tron jumpsuit, and sends him on his first interplanetary steps toward his transformation from awkward coffee shop shoegazer to Ziggy Stardust-like musical trailblazer.
Over the course of the ensuing four-hour rock opera I met an assortment of fantastically flamboyant interstellar beings, from a likeably carefree cosmic entity voiced by Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, to an extraterrestrial jazz club owner who only speaks in saxophone. My favourite of them all was Francis’ musical mentor, Lightman, a cross between Chuck Berry and Doc Brown who’s voiced with real verve by ‘80s action star Carl Weathers. The perpetually baffled but always endearingly enthused performance of Francis himself, voiced by Teen Wolf’s Michael Johnston, served as the perfect foil to the contrasting eccentricities of each oddball character I encountered.
Despite no shortage of hilarious dialogue options, Francis isn’t on an intergalactic journey just to chat, and indeed outside of a couple of key hub areas The Artful Escape mostly lets his fingers do the talking. A dedicated shred button allows him to solo away as you stroll through each alien world, performing mid-air split kicks and triumphant knee-slides with enough youthful exuberance to make Angus Young seem positively Angus Ancient. Francis’ ongoing fretboard frenzy is buoyed by shimmering sci-fi synths and driving drum beats that keep The Artful Escape’s soundtrack at a persistent level of air-punching ‘80s arena rock euphoria.
Annapurna Interactive Showcase 2021 Screenshots – The Artful Escape
There’s no real gameplay advantage to any of this six-string showboating, since you can quietly saunter your way through each simple platforming section if you’d prefer and not get penalised, but to do so would be to completely ignore what makes The Artful Escape so special; it’s a platformer that emphasises performance over precision. Francis’ electric guitar playing literally lights up the world around him, illuminating every neon street light he duckwalks past and awakening alien fauna that pulse to the music like they’re some kind of organic graphic equalizers. Impressive audio trickery means that even if you stop playing for a moment, Francis’ shredding remains perfectly in sync with the underlying soundtrack when you pick it back up, which helps maintain a seamlessness to the ongoing spectacle.
I found myself in a near-constant state of bliss, whether I was taking an on-rails boat ride through a day-glo diorama like some sort of widdly-widdly Willy Wonka, or being chased by an airship along the top of a psychedelic cityscape seemingly ripped straight from The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. In The Artful Escape, each new world’s a stage and every level is a laser-powered light show, and there wasn’t a single wailing wander that I took through it all that didn’t make my jaw drop and my face melt as though I’d just taken a quick gander inside the Ark of the Covenant.
Admittedly, The Artful Escape’s gameplay isn’t given the same amount of development as Francis’ evolving onstage persona or the ever-changing pyrotechnics around him. Often, you have to indulge in call-and-response musical duels with certain characters, turning back-and-forths with giant, interdimensional moth monsters into a game of Simon Shreds. But these rhythm-based mini-games, which require the memorisation of sequences built around five different button presses, don’t really scale in complexity from the opening tutorial to the spectacular final performance. Their simple nature certainly keeps the whole thing flowing, but while The Artful Escape’s dazzling musical showdowns look and sound unique, they also feel a bit samey.
But for the most part, I was too busy enjoying the sweetly picked notes to start picking nits, and I was content to just course along the surging waves of boundless hypercoloured creativity without really caring about the absence of any traditional increase in challenge. At one stop along the journey, Francis finds himself in an alien recording studio with a producer named Stargordon, who offers to provide a more “mountainous” reverb on the guitar track. At that point, all the walls fall off and the studio is rocket-propelled into the air above an alpine expanse where every note you play is accompanied by beams of light blasted out of the mouths of a marching herd of dinosaur skeletons. It’s as breathtaking as it is totally bonkers, and it was just one of many sequences in The Artful Escape that left me feeling completely giddy.
That’s in addition to the many smaller details, from the shops in Calypso that have in-joke names like ‘Plant & Page: Exotic Flora and Books’ to the volume sliders in the audio menu that each go to 11. The creators of The Artful Escape have a reverence for rock and roll, and it’s evident in almost every facet of the experience.