Feb 29, 2012

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Escape Plan Review

Escape Plan Review

At $15, this quirky PSN-only title seemed like a worthwhile gamble; after all, I’m a big fan of puzzle games, including indie darling Machinarium (which Escape Plan reminds me of in some ways), so I laid down my $15, downloaded, loaded it up, and got playing. After playing through the entire game, I can say Fun Bits Interactive have created a title that’s enormously fun, creative, and satisfying at its best, but that is also plagued by control issues that cause more frustration than the game may be worth.

Escape Plan is a simple game – you play as Lil (and later, his companion, Laarg), two blob-like creatures with arms and legs and white face masks, who are trying to escape from this prison/factory controlled by the evil Bakuki. Your escape involves moving through a series of rooms filled with various hazards, such as electric plates, sharp fan blades, dangerous drops, poisonous gas, and Bakuki’s minions who will shoot you on sight. The controls are almost entirely touch-based, although you do use the analog sticks to control the camera, with the left stick zooming in and out and the right panning, and occasionally, you’ll utilize the tilt controls to maneuver Lil and Laarg (you can also use the shoulder buttons to switch between them, if you find that easier than tapping their character portraits).

The game is very hands-off: it’ll occasionally give you hints, but for the most part, you’ll have to figure things out for yourself–no tutorial here. While this method of trial-and-error isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is disappointing that the game “penalizes” you for not innately knowing how to do everything (even basic things), since the amount of deaths for each character is blazoned on their chest for all to see, the number cumulative through the entire game.  Whether it’s one death or 100 (the latter of which is marked with a skull and crossbones), you won’t forget how many times you died trying to solve each puzzle.

In theory, the controls are simple: swipe to direct Lil or Laarg to start walking, and tap to make them stop. Tap on interactive items (such as coffee stations), and they’ll interact with that item. Tapping on the front screen will generally push items “inwardly,” while tapping on the back screen does the reverse. You can also interact with NPCs (such as friendly sheep or hostile minions) by tapping on the back screen, and perform other motions such as turning a fan blade or stopping up a gap in a pipe with your finger on the front screen. Lil and Laarg also each have their unique abilities; for example, only Lil can dash, and only Laarg is strong enough to break through barriers. So some puzzles will force you to carefully switch between them in order to progress to the exit.

This is all well and good, but whereas a great puzzle game should cause frustration due to the challenge of the puzzles themselves, Escape Plan is all to often frustrating due to the controls.  While Fun Bits Interactive have come up with some truly ingenious elements (my favorite being blocking pipes with your finger), and some puzzles really shine, utilizing all the unique control inputs of the Vita in a way that makes you stop and think, “Wow, this couldn’t be on any other device,” this is more of the occasional “Eureka” moment rather than a feeling that persists through the entire experience.

For example, most of the challenge of Escape Plan‘s puzzles comes not from any struggle to work out the solution, but rather from simply figuring out how you’re going to hold your Vita in order to be able to do what’s necessary, control-wise, to get Lil and Laarg to the exit. For example, one puzzle might require you to use both the front and rear screens at once (such as to make Lil dash), also use each screen individually, and manipulate the camera with the analog sticks, all in a short time frame and all while somehow holding your Vita. It might not sound so bad on paper, but when Lil dies because you couldn’t move your hand from the touch screen to the analog stick to move the camera, with time enough to slide on the touch screen, and not because you didn’t know how to proceed, things can get frustrating. These hand-cramping controls can also cause added frustration when your touch inputs fail to respond or respond incorrectly. I know I died multiple times on one of the later levels, for example, because it required quick tapping of the back and front screens, and often my taps would be misinterpreted, causing Lil to fall to his death. While I do appreciate that the developers included a visual aid to show where your taps are on the screen (white for front, black for back), dying unnecessarily got a little old after a while, especially on some of the more taxing puzzles.

Worse, even if you could overlook these control issues–the awkwardness, lack of precision, and inaccuracy–you’d still find yourself frustrated. Why? Because the game grades you for each room, giving you one to three stars based on your performance, including how long it took you to complete the level and how many gestures you used. This might not seem like a big deal, but when your time is extended unjustly because your swipes aren’t being registered and Lil is standing there like a dummy, or, worse, when your final gesture count is falsely inflated because holding the Vita registered on the back touch screen, your love for Escape Plan may wane.

Don’t get me wrong, though–there is plenty to like about this little puzzler. For example, the art design and music is fantastic, reminiscent of silent films. The entire game is in beautiful black and white, with little still cinematics peppered throughout to progress the story. The stages are backgrounded by various familiar classical tunes, and about halfway through the game there’s even an intermission, in which various minions dance around to a sample from the William Tell Overture. Also, whenever you kill a minion, you’ll get canned laughter, which adds to the charm of the game. The final credits are also excellent, rolling through several tunes from a song from the 20s to a remix of Stand By Me and everything in between. During the credits, you even have the ability to move Lil and Laarg (in their respective bubbles) around the screen, pushing them through one final exit once the credits complete, leaving you with a final story screen perhaps suggesting a sequel (Bakuki’s revenge?).

The game’s easy pick-up-and play nature, in which you can play it in bite-sized chunks, is not only ideal for a portable title, but also may ameliorate some of the frustration. Fun Bits Interactive also made the excellent design decision of allowing you to skip any puzzle you might get stuck on, so unlike some puzzle games, you won’t be forever locked out of the rest of the game if you find yourself unable to proceed through a particular room. You can also go back and replay any room you’ve already passed through, whether it’s to try to improve your score or finally solve a previously skipped puzzle. The game also has collectibles: Portal-esque warning signs hidden throughout the game for you to find. With four areas, each with two sections and several rooms, you’ll actually have a fairly meaty amount of puzzles to work through, especially considering the $15 price. More so, despite the frustrations I’ve mentioned earlier, I did find many of the puzzles gave me that “just one more try” feeling, especially when I didn’t get a perfect three stars, making me want to go back and tackle those levels again until I succeed. Add trophies into the loop, and you can definitely get your money’s worth.

Escape Plan was a game I really wanted to love, and there were times that I did. When everything worked great, or when I discovered another clever use of the Vita’s controls that couldn’t have worked on any other platform, I did. Sadly, as I’ve made very clear, the biggest problem with Escape Plan is that too many puzzles require precise controls, and the control scheme doesn’t support that. As a result, many puzzles are frustrating and difficult not because of the innate challenge of the room itself, but because you must wrestle with the controls instead. This is not the sign of a good game, and the fact that it happens frequently really keeps Escape Plan from being an excellent, must-own title, despite all its charms.

Escape Plan
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 02/14/12
Developer: Fun Bits Interactive
Publisher: SCEA
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
MSRP: $14.99