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The Artful Escape review: musical odyssey is a one hit wonder

Rad Shred Redemption

They call me the Slippery Matthew Castle. Or at least they do aboard the Cosmic Lung, an intergalactic concert hall overseen by a brainstem in a cloak voiced by Jason Schwartzman. Impressively, this is one of the more rote happenings in The Artful Escape, a quest that also takes in astral highways, rock-powered butterflies and - steel yourself - a passive aggressive skiffle group. Its creator, the fabulously named Johnny Galvatron, describes it as what would happen if David Bowie had gone on a literal space trip to become Ziggy Stardust, and that seems about right.

I don’t quite have the pizazz of a Bowie. The persona that emerges through my dialogue options and sartorial choices is more of a Marty McFly: a guitar-shredding virtuoso decked in a Buddy Holly outfit. The game only took me two and a half hours to beat, but you could spend considerably longer perusing the costume creator that pops up halfway through. Likewise, picking a suitable rockstar descriptor at the outset of the quest: it tickles me that voice actor, Michael Johnston, had to bellow loads of these, selling the “Hello Wembley!” energy of every last one.

So, yes: I’m the Slippery Matthew Castle. Sounds more rhythm and blues to me, but proves surprisingly apt, given how much of the game is spent sliding down ramps while wailing on a guitar. The Artful Escape is a narrative platformer, a halfway house between Kentucky Route Zero and Limbo, although much lighter on its feet than the former, and with none of the peril of the latter. You run and jump through vistas torn from prog rock album covers, animating them with your music. What holes there are mainly exist to let you hover over with a gravity-defying guitar lick.

It’s not really about the challenge - I failed maybe three jumps in the whole thing - but luxuriating in the sensory muchness of the thing. Visually it’s like gambolling through Roger Dean’s Yes or Asia covers, but blended with concert stagecraft that sees pyrotechnics and lightshows burst from local flora and fauna. When I came back to take screenshots I saw that, individually, the pieces are rough in places, but the effect of being in the zone with it, with every piece of the universe lighting up on cue, is regularly spectacular.

The music is always spectacular, owing to technical wizardry that harmonises your shredding with the backing track so it fits every time you press the button or key (it recommends a pad). To be honest, I held it pretty much the whole time; the platforming’s basic enough to not require finger gymnastics and I love how your solos just run and run. The Slippery Matthew Castle really sounds lost in the euphoria of his own virtuosity; it would be rude to interrupt it. You’ll want to crank it up loud, too; thank you to my neighbours for going on holiday during this review.

"The music is always spectacular, owing to technical wizardry that harmonises your shredding with the backing track."

It does raise the question of whether there could be a version of The Artful Escape which is more of a rhythm game, and makes you work harder for that audio result. As it is anyone can play and hear the game at its best. An awesome ride, but it does mean you’ve heard everything it has to offer in a couple of hours. What I love about rhythm games is finding the flow state and hearing that mastery manifest in a better sounding game. It’s one of my favourite kinds of learning curves and without it I’m not sure I’ll return to The Artful Escape.

It does hint at something more interesting in a couple of self-contained vehicle sections - if a giant turtle counts as a vehicle - where the single shred button opens up to a five note input and you can freely jam. In these brief flights the game becomes more about an improvised musicality, weirdly reminiscent of Nintendo’s Wii Music of all things. It’s just you finding your own rhythm and tapping out a tune, while that clever audio trickery ensures it doesn’t become a meaningless cacophony. In these moments The Artful Escape resembles a musical toy and I’d love more of that.

I’m less enamoured by the call-and-response jam sessions, where you again get the five notes to play as you sing back tunes honked by fantastical creatures. I guess in the parlance of platforming games they’re boss battles, but if you can remember the order of four cues, you’ll waltz through. Compared to the momentum and build of the regular journeys these are a lot flatter, and I certainly didn’t buy into them as the high risk concerts pitched by your companions. That the tale ends with one of these scenes means it doesn’t quite reach the crescendo I hoped it would.

That’s a rare dud note in a story that otherwise barrels along with comic energy. I love the universe the game establishes in such a short time. Francis Vendetti, the artist latterly known as The Slippery Matthew Castle, is stuck in the shadow of a Dylan-esque folk legend, until invited on a “ride across the dilated pupils of the cosmos” by Carl Weathers. There are ups and downs, betrayals and alliances. At one point there is a chat show hosted by an unusually goofy Mark Strong. The use of ‘celebrities’ in short, comic turns is really well judged throughout, with Galvatron himself putting in a daft cameo that had me barking with laughter.

It's a very rare example of a game that aims for Douglas Adams-style silliness and gets away with it. The Adamsian non sequitur proves fatally unfunny in most hands, but the speed with which The Artful Escape whips through the galaxy allows the team to pull it off.

So: a funny spectacle that doesn’t have the staying power beyond the length of your average concert (plus several encores). I wish there was more reason to return to this world once the applause dies down - I could see myself firing it up for a nostalgic listen down the line - but it’s fun while it lasts. The perfect Game Pass game, then, or a slightly more indulgent treat at £17. A recommend, but not a full recommend. Too ambiguous? Ha, the Slippery Matthew Castle strikes again.

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