The soft glow of sparkly lavender lured me in from across the Microsoft booth, both soothing in its coolness and luxuriously plush; I was previously unaware of The Artful Escape, but after spending some time running around its acid-dream world, dealing with the issues of a space-suited wannabe rocker living in the shadow of his famous folk singer uncle, it has quickly risen up my list of wants. Actually, I kind of just want to live inside its gorgeous world, basking in the moonlight and wailing out electric guitar riffs.
Having absolutely no context for the scenario taking place on screen when I first picked up the controller, and without any developer rep to guide me (yet), my initial impression of the alien-like setting and futuristic space traveler appearance of the main character had me assuming The Artful Escape was some kind of atmospheric trip across the galaxy, and in a way it kind of is. After being approached by one of the developers from Beethoven and Dinosaur (who must have been drawn to the continuous flow of odd and awed facial reactions I was surely having in response to the weirdness taking place), it was explained to me that the hero is a young man in search of his musical identity. The passing of his famous relative has placed upon him expectations that he will carry the torch, but unsure, he must first work things out in his own mind.
As for the fantastically bizarre sci-fi/fantasy setting? The developer responded with this explanation: you start the game as David Bowie, but you end as Ziggy Stardust. With some frame of reference now in place (and somehow it totally made sense after that), I resumed exploring the strange world, marveling at an epic mountain and ocean vistas in moments that were accented by swells in the mesmerizing score as if aware of the grandeur. I could have run in a straight line and watched the scenery roll by for a bit, but some light platforming kept me engaged in the moment. Though nothing challenging occurred in the demo, the jumps and double jumps felt decent enough to remind players that despite the more immersion/narrative-driven style, The Artful Escape is still a game.
Also driving this home was some light puzzle solving that curiously enough involved rocking guitar chords. At one point I was told to whip out my axe and press the button on the controller that corresponded to the colors on screen. Both face and bumpers are used for this, each assigned to a different note, and after hitting the right sequence, a bridge of magical neon light was formed, allowing me to cross a previously unnavigable chasm. After speaking with some wispy, ethereal woman who asked me lots of questions about my goals in life (which prompts a variety of replies to choose from – always go for snark), I then happened upon a fluffy behemoth who looked like something straight from The Neverending Story. Instead of fighting this soft, huggable monstrosity, he instead had me engage in a game of Simon (look it up), with his multiple eyes serving as the color cues. It started out simple, with me playing my guitar to the casual patterns he expressed, but eventually things required a bit more paying attention to remember the exact sequence necessary. It was a fun interlude, and shows some definite potential for challenge down the road.
This light gameplay was pleasantly fun, but the real draw is the visual and sonic journey The Artful Escape takes you on. The strangeness never feels pretentious, but instead welcoming you into its warm embrace, and though I didn’t get to experience much of the story, the world has an entrancing quality, shimmering as if tiny crystals were embedded in every tactile surface. The hero is goofy and likable, and the unabashed love of classic rock style is endearing. Starting out as a former Kickstarter project titled The Artful Escape of Francis Vendretti, the game didn’t meet its funding goal but thank the Rock Gods it’s been picked up by Annapurna Interactive (who also published What Remains of Edith Finch). There’s no release date yet, but look for The Artful Escape on XBox One and Windows 10 hopefully sometime in the near Bowie-inspired future.