Lena Headey's voice emanates from a floating head made up of hands, various flora, and the deep indigo expanse of the galaxy. "In this place, *you* are the namer of names," she says, her voice layered and warped so it sounds like a monstrous version of Cersei Lannister is admonishing a young man for his indecisiveness.
That young man is the protagonist of Annapurna Interactive's The Artful Escape: Francis Vendetti, a musical prodigy whose uncle is Johnson Vendetti, this universe's Bob Dylan. Francis can't get the specter of folk icon Johnson Vendetti out of his head, however, and it's bound to ruin his music career before it even starts. So, on the eve of his first show, he is jettisoned into the far reaches of space by a galaxy-hopping rock icon named Lightman (voiced by Carl Weathers) in the hopes he'll discover his own rockstar persona.
Release date: September 9
Platform(s): Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Beethoven and Dinosaur
Headey as a surreal head floating in the vacuum of space is far from the apex of trippiness in The Artful Escape, which is like a playable psychedelic rock movie from the '60s. If Jodorowsky actually made Dune, it'd feel a lot like this - galaxy brain takes about the true nature of the self, sci-fi guitar riffs that sound as if they're beamed down from UFOs, and trippy visuals like glowing fish with neon cities growing out of their backs and boats made of patchworked metal floating above sand dunes.
The Artful Escape looks and sounds better than any game I've played in a long while. Although it's billed as a platformer, the platforming is fairly simplistic and very easy to navigate. Players act as the conduit through which a beautiful story is told, casually navigating Francis through the side-scrolling world. It's light on the challenging gameplay, but oh so heavy metal. I suppose that's what happens when a former rockstar makes a video game, isn't it?
Have you ever considered becoming someone else entirely?
Francis Vendetti lives in the fictional town of Calypso, Colorado, which looks like a magical, impossible version of the western United States. Even though Calypso is meant to be the most grounded location in The Artful Escape, it's still quirky and surreal, with paper doll-esque characters strutting about multi-layered 2D settings, crossing in front of storefronts like Cafe Cliche and Maps of Imaginary Places. Calypso is clearly capturing the creative director (and former rockstar in question) Johnny Galvatron's fantastical view of America he mentions in our Artful Escape preview - it's a city nestled amongst the mountaintops, so impossibly adorable I wish I could retire there.
Francis is right at home in the folksy Calypso with his mop of curly brown hair, shearling-lined coat, and gangly gait that sends his limbs flopping about with every step he takes. After all, he's an up-and-coming folk musician - or he is? Francis may have the blood of a folk icon coursing through his veins, but after strolling through Calypso and ending up at his house, his bedroom reveals where his true love lies. His heart and mind reside in the psychedelic worlds of sci-fi novels, spaceships, and robots - he isn't the earthy, folksy kid singing about the toils of miners, but a galaxy-hopping superstar shredding a holographic guitar. But Francis isn't comfortable with the idea of taking his persona public, and thus is trapped in rockstar limbo.
Luckily, Francis gets a chance to step into Bowie's moon boots and out of his uncle's shadow thanks to a girl named Violetta. In very Ramona Flowers fashion, Violetta appears seemingly out of nowhere at the top of a mountain in Calypso and dryly asks Francis the most important question of his adolescent life (and one that speaks to us all): "have you ever considered becoming someone else entirely?" It's that question that cues up The Artful Escape title card and sparks the match that starts a fire in Francis' belly - a fire that nearly flickers out whenever he doubts himself along the way.
The self-doubt that plagues Francis will also speak to many of us. Those who have taken the road less traveled on their journey to self-identification know all too well the vice-like grip of anxiety that takes hold at the thought of disapproval from friends and family, or the fluttering of self-doubt butterflies that threaten to bring up your dinner when you venture out in a new look. Change is scary, and change in the face of what feels like a predetermined path is petrifying, but The Artful Escape makes the journey towards self-discovery downright beautiful.
Play the game
The Artful Escape is like a downhill snowboarding title meets a gentle platformer meets a rhythm game. You can choose dialogue options throughout the game, but they won't affect the plot in any discernible way. You also get to craft Francis' alter ego by choosing from a variety of fictional home planets, handcrafting your grandiose stage name, and customizing his outfit. I choose a naughty word I won't repeat here and decide Francis hails from Galaxram, a place where they brew milk that transports all consumers to a Manchester dance party in September 1987. My Francis has a two-tone mullet, fishnets, hotpants, and a fringed leather jacket - but your Francis may look more like Kurt Cobain. The choice is yours.
The platforming elements in The Artful Escape are the main focus for much of the game, and they're incredibly forgiving. If you fall off a ledge you're immediately brought back to a point very close to where you just met your demise. And meeting your demise is actually rather difficult, as the platforming itself is very simple: slide down slopes like a downhill snowboarding game, double jump to clear larger gaps, press "X" to perform a flourish while playing the guitar to propel you slightly further.
The Artful Escape is not about conquering the platforming, but moving forward with relative ease through a gamespace that reacts to your movements. If you choose to hold down "X" while Francis bobs his way through an area (which I do almost the entire time), he'll freestyle guitar riffs that transform the environment in ways that will leave your jaw hanging. A psychedelic sci-fi riff conjures a neon green light bridge out of thin air, a funky chord awakens dormant aliens that look like Lovecraftian crabs, an epic gap jump sends lasers emanating forth from the ground as both you and Francis simultaneously whoop with glee. The Artful Escape is like conducting a psychedelic alien orchestra set to acid rock.
Speaking of acid rock, there are rhythm minigames throughout, and while they're certainly not difficult, the creativity in which they're folded into the game is unmatched. You're told at the start of the game that The Artful Escape is best enjoyed with a gamepad (read: controller), and that's definitely true. The left and right bumpers, "X", "Y", and "B" buttons on my Xbox controller are used in the rhythm parts, and they're mapped onto the faces of the larger "boss" characters you'll encounter throughout your journey. You'll quickly pick up on what buttons to press as they light upon the face of a cosmic being blocking your way to a booking agent known as Star Gordon. And even if you mess up a rhythm bit, you'll only be subjected to a quick, disapproving shake of a cosmically improbable head before you're given the beat again, so it's impossible to fail. If only life were that easy.
The Artful Escape is as much an experience as it is a game, with developers Beethoven and Dinosaur offering up consistently striking visuals and incredible audio. The visuals will frequently stun you, and their connection to that incredible audio makes them even more powerful. I use 'incredible audio' an umbrella term, under which is nestled original music composed by Galvatron and Josh Abrahams, superior voice acting, and sound mixing that is brilliantly tied to your movement.
The voice acting cast is impressive, with Hollywood stars Headey (Game of Thrones), Jason Schwartzmann (Moonrise Kingdom), Mark Strong (Kingsman), and Carl Weathers (The Mandalorian) lending their voices to the fray. The A-list actors certainly bring their A-game, with Headey leaning into a commanding posh British accent, Schwartzmann doing his best groovy '70s man, Strong coming off perfectly unhinged, and Weathers playing an aging rock god with all the misdirected confidence of an aging rock god. But the two main characters, Francis and Violetta, are voiced to perfection by newcomers Michael Johnston and Caroline Kinley, who ground the world in human emotion. Then there are the random NPC voices that will startle you into laughter, like the heavy metal screams of a side character known only as Calvagio.
It's clear that Johnny Galvatron is a man who has spent a lot of time donning over-ear headphones and getting lost in soundscapes, because The Artful Escape is like a four-hour sound bath. After Francis is shot into the cosmic extraordinary, he makes his way to what will be his hub in the world beyond worlds: The Cosmic Lung. There he walks through a gathering of vibrant colored aliens bobbing to a beat, and you hear the familiar sounds of a party, but as soon as you cross the threshold into the next room the audio opens up and sounds like you're in a gigantic opera hall - because you are. A stolen European opera hall sits at the center of the Cosmic Lung, and the cacophonous sound of music bouncing off the high ceiling is almost as striking as what you hear when you double back through the room via a catwalk and hear everything from higher up. The almost obsessive attention to spatial audio is really impressive, and a testament to just how much Galvatron values sound.
Though The Artful Escape starts with a beautiful folk tune, it leaves the acoustic guitar behind rather quickly, swapping it out for a sci-fi electric guitar reminiscent of Queen's work on the Flash Gordon soundtrack. You can choose to shred pretty much anywhere in the cosmic extraordinary and it always sounds perfect - whether you're riffing against a gentle piano or going back-and-forth with a creature that speaks in jazz trumpet.
Francis' talent makes for effortless, powerful guitar playing that looks as awesome as it sounds, as the creatures and foliage of the cosmic extraordinary will harmonize with your shredding, changing colors or flickering lights as they respond to your call. The Artful Escape offers up an entrancing psychedelic world that is somehow still half-dormant, waiting for a few chords to help burst it open at the seams in explosions of colors and lasers. It is beautifully surreal and as close as I've ever gotten to taking hallucinogens because I have anxiety and avoid them like the plague.
The Artful Escape feels like the first game to truly capture the sheer transformative power of music, and it is an absolutely joyous ride from folksy start to electric finish.
Reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.