“To strum a folk ballad about the toil of a miner’s life, hold X.” So begins The Artful Escape, a side-scrolling adventure with a pinch of mild platforming. A few minutes later, another command pops up: “To shred a sci-fi guitar odyssey, hold X.” And there you have it: the plot, the appeal, and the perils of this strumming-of-age tale. The hero is Francis Vendetti, a young musician whose uncle, Johnson Vendetti, was a folk legend—his album “Pines” adorns the pause screen. With his black sunglasses; his harmonica, fixed within a neck brace; and his dark tangle of hair, like a mound of chocolate Mr. Whippy, he is clearly modelled after a young Bob Dylan. Francis has a lot to live up to, then, and he is due to play a gig celebrating the anniversary of “Pines.” But there is a problem, brought on by a simple twist of fate. As someone points out, “You dress like a drifter but you sound like a space opera.” In other words, Francis is going electric.
This is not a bad premise, the steel-strung airiness of the older generation, both solid and beyond reach, versus the plugged-in anxiety of youth. It is a subject that Dylan himself dug into with relish. The trouble with The Artful Escape is ease. It wants to mine the depths and difficulties of finding—of synthesising—your own artistic voice, but it doesn’t show us the toil. We just hold X. In fairness, we do get quite a show; a guitar materialises in Francis’s hands, and he erupts into, well, into “Eruption”—the solo by Eddie Van Halen, which made it sound as though his guitar were soliloquising as fretfully as Hamlet—or, at least, into an “Eruption”-style sound, like an anxious orgasm, all flit and flail as the notes come together.
The story begins in Calypso, Colorado, our hero’s hometown, and I was sad when it blasted free of the place, and, indeed, of the planet. Not that Calypso is entirely of this Earth. It appears to be forged in the ruins of a Roman colosseum—vertiginous, ringed with brick, its piazzas packed with eager spectators. As we explore, early on, we catch the names of shops: “Maps of Imaginary Countries,” “Café Cliché,” “Shoes Your Own Adventure.” And if you squint, you notice that everyone in town is wearing glasses; it’s the sort of detail that draws the dreaminess of life into sharp focus, while the edges of reality blur. It seems perfectly natural that Johnson Vendetti’s music should ring faintly and crisply through the streets, as permanently fresh as the mountain air. It seems somewhat less natural that, the night before the gig, an alien should descend on Calypso and recruit Francis on a star-spangled tour. “We’re going on a ride across the dilated pupils of the cosmos,” he is told.
From there, we caper across a string of far-out vistas, sliding down pink ribbons of light and cruising, aboard a wooden ship, above the baked wastes of a desert. There isn’t much to the platforming; you slide down slopes, jump over gaps, and jam with your guitar, causing the scenery to wake and luminesce. You can hit a power chord, which delays Francis’s descent back to the ground: a lovely touch, as if sufficiently amped passion were enough to fillip one’s flight from earthly concern—the main thrust of the narrative, struck with a single leg-splaying animation. Each world concludes with a minigame where you match the tune plucked out by a creature of superquirky design—six-winged space moths, a shrimplike crustacean with a laser show beaming from its back.
This is all very well and good, and it befits the mission that Francis sets for himself—“I’ve decided to create the most elaborate stage persona the world has ever seen”—but the lack of challenge in The Artful Escape, not just in its play but in its emotional texture, somewhat shreds the odyssey. “It’s supposed to be hard, making serious stuff,” Francis says. “If it comes easy… I feel like I’m not trying hard enough.” I couldn’t agree more, and the spangling of stars—among them Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Strong, and Carl Weathers—does little to convince us of serious stuff. It turns out that Francis merely needs a persona through which to channel his innate gift; like David Bowie, he summons a quicksilver style, reboots himself with a stardusted backstory, and zooms home to Calypso ready to electrify the folk-hungry fray. Dylan tried the same thing, and it didn’t come easy. At the end of The Artful Escape, all I could think of were the words he fired back at a heckler, angered by the electricity in the air: I don’t believe you.
Developer: Beethoven & Dinosaur
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Available on: Xbox Series X / S [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC, Mobile
Release Date: September 9, 2021