Black and white: the cardinal colours, the alpha and the omega, nothingness and everything incarnate, an absence of light and absolutely nothing but light. Also, quite possibly the most painfully overused theme in the entire Indie gaming scene. Yes, we get it Mr Pretentious Video Game, you’re so artistic and nonconformist, well done! Gold star! But if there’s one positive thing I can say for sure about Escape Plan for the PlayStation Vita, it’s that somehow it finds a way for my cold cynical heart to appreciate the whole grey-scale concept again. I guess that’s because it’s not *just* black an white on display here, it’s the numerous dynamic shades that exist between the two. The game fills every inch of the Vita’s spiffy high-res screen with grubby looking gradients and smooth shadows that, combined with some clever perspective tricks, give it an almost 3D level of depth that even high budget games that use the full color spectrum (i.e brown and dark brown) struggle to achieve.
The actual storyline of Escape Plan is vague at best. Lil and Laarg, our two oppositely proportioned protagonist are trapped in some creepy slaughterhouse/insane asylum/laboratory mash-up owned by the evil Bakuki, who is attempting to……to……. do something nasty to them? Yes, even after completing the whole game, that’s really my entire understanding of the narrative. But whatever, your job is to make sure they somehow get out of this Saw-like nightmare alive by using gestures on the touch screen to coerce these fine fellows towards each level’s exit. Of course it’s not quite that simple, because just about every object between them and salvation has some sort of nefarious designs on the poor guys. Even something as innocuous as a stray brick is enough to result in someone’s soggy innards splattered across the walls in a fairly gruesome (if not slightly slapstick) fashion.
But our little chums needn’t fear, gimmicky motion controls to the rescue! Poisonous gasses leaking out a broken pipe? Plug up the gap with your finger! A helium filled Lil floating towards a wall of rusty nails? Tilt the Vita to veer him away from danger! Laarg confronted with a fatal drop? Well, first you scare the sheep into position, then you distract the guard by taping on the wall……then….uh…. Ok so not all of the solutions are quite so straight forward, but you get the idea. For the most part the gestures required a fairly intuitive; stroke diagonally across the screen for movement, stroke downward to make Laarg do a butt stomp, tap objects to move them out of the way, that kinda stuff. It might sound a little simple, but it can give you a really satisfying sense of agency in the game world, like you’re some kind of friendly poltergeist clearing a safe path.
Most of the 78 or so puzzle rooms can be completed in a matter of seconds once you’ve figured out where all he hazards are, making it a perfect companion for the on the move gaming that the Vita’s supposedly all about. That said, most of the early stages are mind-numbingly simplistic, and it’s not until about the 30% progress mark that things really start picking up the pace. It’s totally worth trudging through those early bits though; the later sections really start pushing your reaction times and logical reasoning, making them pretty gratifying to solve. But in all honesty, morbid curiosity was my biggest motivator in Escape Plan. You see, this is possibly the most goddamn creepy game I’ve played since the terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Seriously, just about everything in this game is hideous and unsettling in the best possible way! Our beloved heroes for instance, are best described poorly constructed sacks of bodily fluids prone to exploding in a gory mess at the slightest provocation. Something that’s made even more grim by the giant death counters branded onto their chests that show how many times they’ve died under your “care”. If that wasn’t bad enough, they both “speak” via bouts of disgusting moans and squeals which still make me feel a little bit ill when I think about it. Oh, and bare in mind all this is all this nastiness is going on to the tune of classical riffs and sitcom-esque laughter tracks that paint the starkest possible contrast imaginable. But do you know what makes the whole thing even more disturbing? As a duo, Lil and Laarg are kinda…….uh…..adorable? I guess? Man, this game……
Now, for the rest of this article I’m going to refer to the Vita’s godforsaken rear touch panel as the Bum Tickler™ as there’s no “official” silly name for it just yet. On paper the Bum Tickler™ is quite possibly the worst idea ever. In practice? It’s only………*almost* the worst idea ever. There’s a few clever uses for it here and there, such as pushing background objects into the foreground and what not. But problems start arising when it comes to getting your score at the end of each level, which is partly dependant on how few times you “gesture” on either one of the touch screens. Now, think for a moment about how one actually holds a Vita. You know, with half your fingers spread across the Bum Tickler™ and probably wriggling around little every now and then? So yeah, don’t expect to see a decent rating very often unless you have itsy bitsy hands or a staggering level of self control. Ugh, and don’t even get me started on the puzzles that require you to use the damn thing with any level of precision. Developer dudes, we don’t have eyes in our palms ok? There’s no way for us to see what’s going on back there!
The game’s other big stumbling block is the dreaded replay value, scourge of puzzle games since time immemorial. Once you’ve solved those 78 puzzles – which’ll likely take less than 3 hours – then that’s it, ya done with Escape Plan! Yes there’s trophies and the customary hidden collectibles, but in terms of actual bona fide content, you’ve seen all there is to see. And while I realise that launch games on any new system tend to be a little on the pricey side, I still can help feeling that the £10 price tag is perhaps a little bit of a stretch for such a brief experience.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little out of left field though. Although it might not be the most cost affective title in the Vita’s launch lineup, its showcase of the touch screen functionality and deranged tone without out a doubt make it the most interesting one by far. But perhaps more importantly, it sets the bar for Indie games on Sony’s new platform fairly high right from the get-to. Fledgling Vita indies take note: for now at least, this is the one to beat!
Fun Bits Interactive’s Escape Plan is available for £10 on the PlayStation Vita via the PlayStation Network Vita store.
Grey-scale graphics look great.
Beautifully unsettling atmosphere.
(Mostly) good use of touch controls.
Puzzles are short and sweet.
Early stages too easy.
Rear touch panel poorly implemented.
Little replay value.