There's a Guitarman, waiting in the sky.
I had a miserable doctor’s appointment the day David Bowie died. I watched tributes to his legacy on the news before getting ready to go, ruminating on the loss. He told me that there is simply no point in being anything but unequivocally yourself, and seeing as his band, The Spiders From Mars, are from my hometown, who am I to think I’m too backwater to follow his example? Then, I put on a pair of suede platform boots with striking gold heels to do and get my blood taken, because that man told me I could.
That same, unapologetic, larger-than-life energy emanates from The Artful Escape, the offering of independent studio Beethoven & Dinosaur and published by Annapurna Interactive. Not often am I compelled to sit down and write a load of words immediately after finishing a game, but sometimes, things align so perfectly that the thing you want to say just, falls out of your fingers, like the solo in the middle of an epic rock anthem.
Francis Vendetti, young musician from Calypso, California, is living in the shadow of his uncle, Johnson Vendetti, a world famous folk legend. Despite his best efforts, Francis isn’t vibing with folk music under the intense pressure of everyone around him, so decides to create a stage persona. In the process, he finds himself the star of his very own interstellar space rock opera.
It’s deceptive at first, this narrative-driven has you mooching around your hometown, bantering with locals that have known you since you were *gestures* yay-high about the good old days, and tourists that are in town to celebrate the anniversary of one of your dead uncle’s records. Francis is due to play his first gig as part of the festivities, and the nephew of the big Johnson Vendetti has some roomy clogs to fill.
Before you know it, you’re lurched into the actual cosmos with the new found power to light up your surroundings by shredding guitar solos. You’re met with a new musical icon and captain of a space theatre, known as Lightman, his snarky but admirable engineer Violetta (actually a lightwoman) and a Ziltoid-esque bunch of tentacles in a helmet.
Across the four-hour playtime, Francis (or whatever ludicrous alias you choose to give him) will shred his way across planets, battling snooty jazz monsters, breaking dress codes, and bedazzling the beyond with your newfound talent. All the while, you’re taking steps to figure out who you want to be, shaking off the expectations that your hometown has stapled onto you, and having a goddamn excellent time.
The gameplay is relatively simple, you’re running through an environment, pressing X to shred and wake up the dormant environment around you. The boss battles at the end of each level are a light version of Simon Says – you follow a pattern of simple button presses to play along with whatever cosmic calamity you’re entertaining/bargaining with. The battles aren’t particularly long or complex, but when every button press adds to a sequence of ear-shattering, epic staccato, it’s the coolest thing in the world.
The most important part of recreating yourself is a killer aesthetic, as noted in the opening paragraph. The Artful Escape knows this, and provides you with a neat wardrobe level, brimming with an unreasonably robust range of character customisation options considering how short the game is. True to form, you don’t just open a wardrobe and pick some shit, even this small part of the game is a brilliant nugget of discovery, almost serving as a waypoint in your journey. Becoming a whole new person isn’t always as simple as throwing on a cool coat, but it’ll give you an idea of where you’re heading.
The Artful escape exudes imagination in a way I rarely see in video games. Every single level, despite its linear, two-dimensional appearance, is brimming with vibrance. The skulls of dead creatures burst into life, strobe lights emanating from their dusty eye sockets as you widdle on by. Flora and fauna bursts into life, animals howl in time with your playing, and your presence is truly ethereal wherever you go.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that The Artful Escape filled me with a brand of euphoria I rarely get from a video game. Yeah, games are cool, they’re fun, they’re sometimes emotive. What made it better is that I knew *nothing* about the game before heading in; my prompt to even look at it was because of the name of its director, Johnny Galvatron. A fitting name, after the iconic proprietor of soaring through space and fucking shit up.
With no expectations in mind, the sheer joy I felt upon realising that “press X to shred” would literally make gorgeous levels come to life with the wails of an electric axe is unrivaled. It’s simple, but it’s truly magic. The sheer cosmic grandeur spilling out of every aspect of The Artful Escape’s design, from its environments to its wacky characters, has been crafted with such passion and enthusiasm that it’d be incredibly hard to hate, even if you’re some kind of freak that doesn’t like guitars.
It’s not your job to give people what they want, it’s to give them something they couldn’t even begin to imagine, and that’s a mantra I’ll think about every time I put on the boots.