The Artful Escape is a psychedelic, cosmic rock opera

Even the smallest video game can take a long time to produce. Games are complex beasts at every level and developers can spend years toiling away bringing an artistic vision to life. Just look at The Artful Escape.

First debuted at E3 2017, The Artful Escape felt like it was poised to be the next major release for publisher Annapurna Interactive. The musical indie got a full demo and a colorful trailer at the show, though no release date. In fact, the teaser ended with a message that makes more sense four years later: “Coming when it’s damn ready.”

Well, it’s damn ready. The Artful Escape is finally hitting Xbox consoles and PC on September 9. At a preview event prior to Annapurna’s digital showcase, designer Johnny Galvatron reintroduced the long-awaited game and gave a close look at how the cosmic rockstar adventure works.

Rock on

The Artful Escape is a narrative adventure about an aspiring rockstar named Francis Vendetti. The demo begins with the game’s hero sitting on a bench with an acoustic-electric guitar. A button prompt asks players to start plucking out a folk tune, but Francis’ heart isn’t in it. Instead, he walks up to the edge of a cliff, cranks the volume, and starts shredding out a hair metal solo.

That kicks off a self-discovery story as Francis tries to discover his own rock-and-roll identity, rather than following in someone else’s footsteps.

Francis stands by a bench in The Artful Escape.

That narrative arc appears to be at the heart of the game design itself, which goes in some truly unexpected directions. The game is best described as a 2D platformer where Francis runs and jumps around environments while riffing. The serene realism of the opening scene quickly takes a turn into the psychedelic, though. Later parts of the demo show Francis running through unearthly planets and interacting with alien NPCs.

The few gameplay snippets I saw were entirely unpredictable. One section has Francis interacting with a being named Lightman, the captain of an Austrian opera house that’s been turned into a ship that traverses the multiverse. It’s a Grateful Dead t-shirt come to life. While there’s clear visual inspiration here from rock legends like David Bowie, The Artful Escape charts its own course with creative visuals that aid Francis on his internal journey.

The gameplay itself is still a little hard to grasp as a viewer. Francis is shown running through a 2D environment while pressing X to riff. It’s not immediately clear if players have control over the music or if there’s a set soundtrack that plays when pressing a button. The interactions look like they’re more in line with story-driven games like Oxenfree, rather than a rhythm game like Guitar Hero.

Francis plays guitar on a cosmic stage in The Artful Escape.

As is becoming more customary for Annapurna games in recent years, the game has a stacked voice cast of A-list talent. The list includes Jason Schwartzman, Mark Strong, and Carl Weathers, just to name a few. That feels like the biggest thing that’s changed since we first saw the game in 2017. At the time, Annapurna was just spreading its wings into the video game space. Since then, it’s become an attractive publisher for celebrities. Actors like Queen Latifah and Bryce Dallas Howard appear in some of its most recently published titles. The Artful Escape is certainly getting the most out of the partnership in 2021.

One of the main focuses of the demo session was the game’s customization. Players can travel to a changing room later in the game, which allows them to fully customize their rockstar. It’s a surprisingly robust creator tool that allows players to tweak everything down to their guitar style. There’s even a practice stage where players can see their persona in action.

Considering how long it’s been since it was first announced, it’s great to see The Artful Escape so close to release. The snippet I saw promises a hypnotic rock opera filled with trippy visuals and monster riffs. It’s looking like a perfect rock-and-roll fantasy for players who don’t want to go through the hassle of, you know, becoming a rockstar.

The Artful Escape launches on September 9 for PC, Xbox, One, and Xbox Series X/S. It will be available on Xbox Game Pass.

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