A gaming convention's show floor is always an unusual place to first play something new. The constant feeling of eyes on you, all too aware that you’re taking a long time to get used to the button prompts. Often, you don't get long enough to get a real feel for a game and are left wondering what they’re trying to say. When I visited the Annapurna booth at PAX East this year and put on headphones at the booth signed The Artful Escape, it took me roughly ten seconds to fall completely in love with it (and, for disclosure's sake, ten seconds after I finished playing to buy a The Artful Escape pin badge.)
The Artful Escape is the first game from developers Beethoven and Dinosaur and follows a musical prodigy - Francis Vendetti - preparing for his first live performance, all the while unsure about what form his on-stage persona will take. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the game feels so incredibly sure of itself. The art style, music, movement, and dialogue are unique and just cool. Trailers suggest the game starts in the ‘real world,’ but in the demo I played, I was dropped straight into a bright, side-scrolling pop-up book of neon psychedelia. A floating woman called Violets appears to ask me my first impressions of the surroundings, and all three of your optional responses are poetic, bordering on nonsensical. I chose to tell her “There's a voice on the wind. A tenor. Singing about something beautiful but lost.” At one point I had the choice of telling the floating woman that at my first performance, I was going to die on stage or "Arrive late. Leave early. Steal glassware” which is what my Francis Vendetti opted for.
Then you have to perform a variety of guitar shreds and moves. The neon apparition of a guitar appears when you press Y, and during a knee slide by holding B (there are more buttons to play guitar than there are to do anything else.) You can also combine these moves with a jump, which shows off the marionette style movement of Francis, limbs flailing as you nail the perfect guitar solo.
If there is an enemy in The Artful Escape, I never met it. Strange monsters appeared throughout my short run of the game, but none seemed to pose a threat, and all seemed thoroughly entertained by my musical prowess. And I don’t blame them. The music itself is anthemic, with heavy drum hits complimenting your sporadic pounding of the electric guitar. The world itself is triggered by your playing, and on one occasion I ran through an initially lifeless part of the world that illuminated as Francis struck each chord.
The levels supposedly help to form Francis’ final stage persona, from his backstory to his face paint, and I can’t wait to see how customizable this can be. Taking the headphones off on the show floor made me realize how much of a trance the game had me in. The world of Francis Vendetti was luminous, flamboyant, and an all-round joy to spend time in.
The Artful Escape is due for release on Xbox and Apple Arcade some time in 2020.