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The Artful Escape Review: Be excellent to yourself

An inward Bill & Ted mixed with a wholesome version of Heavy Metal? Bliss.

My husband and I fired up Bill & Ted Face the Music on a whim back in August of last year. We were in the middle of lockdown and had lots of time on our hands; if nothing else, the sequel would kill some time while we sat on the couch, had a nice cold pint and waited for things to blow over.

My pint had long gone warm by the end of the film and things would not blow over any time soon. Reagardless, I forgot about drinking it as messy, happy tears streamed down my face. In short, Bill & Ted Face the Music was the most excellent, uplifting adventure we needed at the time; The Artful Escape is exactly the same, one year on and with little changing.

While the film dealt with literally world-altering events, the debut title from Melbourne’s own Beethoven & Dinosaur is far more personal. While he mightn’t feature in the game’s title any longer — this was first pitched as The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti back in 2016 — our hero is most certainly at the core of this narrative. Francis is a folk musician in the small town of Calypso, Colorado, where the town’s claim to fame is none other than his uncle, Bob Dylan-like megastar Johnson Vendetti. Francis is forever in the shadow of his kin, living in the same house and watching on as Calypso hosts a yearly festival in Johnson’s name.

As part of 20th anniversary festival celebrations, Francis receives his big break: the chance to headline on its closing night. The organiser of the gig has not-so-politely stressed that he’s only to play his uncle’s greatest hits, but Francis nonetheless prepares himself by working on new folk tunes of his own. This is where our tale opens, with a visibly dismayed Francis finding little to no inspiration in the process.

As he absentmindedly drifts away from folk tunes and into killer rock riffs about epic space adventures, it quickly hits him: he needs to become someone else entirely to get out of the orbit of Calypso and his uncle. Thus, Francis sets off creating “the most elaborate stage persona the world has ever seen!”

Through a mysterious, 90s sci-fi-inspired femme fatale named Violetta and her boss, an aging guitarist named Lightman, Francis breaks out of Calypso and into the Cosmic Extraordinary, a state beyond the beyond. It’s full of neon lights, indescribable beings and… other things I’d assume you’d see if you were on LSD.

I’m legitimately too much of a goody two-shoes to know, though would wager most locales past this point are best described as a kid-friendly Heavy Metal on acid (again, don’t take that as first-hand knowledge): wonderous, completely out of this world and utterly jaw-dropping. And for those parents out there, levels are completely devoid of boobies (unless the customisation system introduced around its midway point lets Francis reveal their own).

And yes, I did change the way in which I referred to Francis just then because at that point, I think it’s warranted. It’s a small thing in the middle of the game itself — not making a fuss over things, simply providing the player with the proper opportunity to make Francis their own — but it makes me deliriously happy.

It’s the small touches like that that really make The Artful Escape a heartwarming experience. There’s not a lot of skill involved in getting from start to finish — just some really failproof, simple platforming and a five-button guitar interface that equally is encouraging rather than judgemental — but that’s not the point. Far more than a walking simulator (though I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what genre this falls into), this is not only about Francis’ journey to find himself, but your journey to find your own Francis. It’s also a tight five or six hours to complete, and while that may seem to short for some, it’s the perfect length for someone like me. I’ll take this time to quickly point out it suffers from some noticable framerate drops upon occasion, but you’ll forget about them quickly afterward.

The same musical interface that fuels a couple “listen and repeat” sections also opens up at times to let you construct musical compositions of your own. I know how to read and play music, sure, but composing music was never a strong suit. Nonetheless, everything that I produced in these sections worked well with the proper soundtrack, and you can’t help but feel good about that.

Moreover, the feel-goods are heightened by wonderful performances from a star-studded cast including Carl Weathers, Jason Schwartzman, Lena Headley and Mark Strong. While these A-list Hollywood actors can’t be faulted, I was moreso impressed by Michael Johnston as Francis and Caroline Kinley as Violetta. Johnston in particular does an exemplary job of showing Francis’ transformation as the game progresses and should be commended for his work.

Ultimately, The Artful Escape is so stellar in terms of both character building and narrative that I decided not to show you any screenshots I took of my own journey because it’ll likely lessen your own. That is something I fiercely, FIERCELY want to protect.

I literally could not stop smiling as I played this game. It’s something I desperately needed as Facebook memories continually and unrelentlessly reminded me I haven’t been back to Canada to see my family for two whole years now. I finished this tale in a lockdown rut, but let me tell you that I was far deeper in that hole when I started. I attribute a returned sense of hope and optimism to this and Beethoven & Dinosaur.

This one’s a no-brainer; The Artful Escape is on Xbox Game Pass and you absolutely, positively have no reason to miss it if you’re a subscriber. If you’re not and you enjoy warm fuzzies, either get on board or buy it outright as you won’t be disappointed.

10 out of 10

The good

  • Charming, endearing and hopeful.
  • Compelling characters backed by an insanely talented voice cast.
  • A stellar mix of adventure, platforming and music.

The bad

  • Likely shorter than some would like.
  • The occasional framerate drop.

The Artful Escape was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox Series X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

The Artful Escape

9 September 2021
PC Xbox One | Series S & X

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About the author

Steve Wright

Steve's the owner of this very site and an active games journalist nearing twenty (TWENTY!?!) years. He's a Canadian-Australian gay gaming geek, ice hockey player and fan. Husband to Matt and cat dad to Wally and Quinn.