Escape Plan, the premiere title of Fun Bits Interactive, is a budget downloadable title for the PlayStation Vita that was produced by Chris Millar, who some may remember as the producer of the PS3 downloadable title Fat Princess. While its quirky style of humour was well received, the lacking single player left a lot of people wanting more. Luckily, Escape Plan retains the quirky humour, albeit in a different style, that Millar managed with Fat Princess, but also manages to be an extremely strong single player puzzle game, one that may usher in a new genre of touch-based puzzlers on the PlayStation Vita.
The story is presented through captioned still images, offering up your first look at the unique graphical style. The first few images include a plea from the narrator for the player’s help, a call which, of course, you will answer. This is where you take control for the first time, guiding one of the protagonists, Lil, through a series of small simplistic rooms to start with. This is the game’s way of introducing both story and control style at the same time: your objective is to ensure that Lil – and Laarg, who you will meet later – manage to navigate their way through the death-trap filled rooms of the prison that Bakuki, the game’s villain, has trapped them in. As far as motivation goes, that’s really all you’re given. It’s no Pulitzer Prize winner, but it’s nice to see that Fun Bits understands that, in a puzzle game, story is really secondary to the puzzles themselves. They don’t overburden you with characterization when a simple presentation of your ultimate goal works just as well. Fun Bits went for simplicity here, and largely succeed, although it has to be said that there are times when the why of it all will pop into the player’s head: why are Lil and Laarg in this prison? Why is Bakuki trying to kill them? The absence of this extra dimension to the story doesn’t take away from gameplay at all, so it never feels like a huge oversight, but the characters manage to be so endearing that you can’t help but wonder about how they wound up in the position they’re in.
For the most part, though, the thin framing won’t ever stand out, since it’s not just Lil and Laarg who are the stars here: this is a puzzle game, so the puzzles must keep the player involved as much as the story would in an RPG, or the firefights in a shooter. In this, Escape Plan excels, and it’s largely due to the hardware the game has to play with. Solving puzzles generally requires a combination of swipes, taps, and touches on the front and rear screens, as well as the occasional need for tilting. The gestures needed are never grand: swipes and taps only need to be quick and light, and the game registers tilts that are very slight. This subtlety of control helps keep the player immersed in gameplay, and also ensures that the question that plagues all handheld games, (will I look silly playing this in public?) is a resolute no. Front touches and tilts both register very nicely. The rear screen, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite so successfully.
It seems that an inherent problem with the rear screen is that it is difficult to judge exactly where the touches on the rear screen are going to register in the game, as you’re not looking at exactly where you need to touch, and you can also involuntarily brush the rear screen while simply holding the Vita. This isn’t going to be a major problem in all cases, but in Escape Plan, you’re awarded a star rating (out of three) at the end of each puzzle, based both on completion time , and how many gestures you used. The inexactness of the rear screen here means that three stars is a little harder than it should be at times. Not only that, but many of the puzzles require an element of timing, and tapping on the rear screen only to have it not register where you intended it to will undoubtedly be the cause of an otherwise avoidable death now and then. This is somewhat balanced out, however, by the inexplicable simplicity of a few of the puzzles, even later on. Some of these puzzles require nothing more than sending Lil or Laarg across a room, with only a single obstacle to avoid. It’s an odd juxtaposition to the puzzles that are intricately designed, requiring careful thought and timing. These puzzles are where the game really shines, and where the hardware truly feels necessary, so while oftentimes breaks are not unwelcome, they seem to be counterproductive to the game’s ultimate purpose: both offering a challenging puzzle game, and showcasing the Vita’s capabilities.
This showcasing of what the Vita can do comes across most clearly in the graphical style: Escape Plan forgoes colour, choosing instead a monochromatic colour scheme that couples extremely well with the game’s quirky (albeit rather bleak) sense of humour. It’s a rare thing for a game to be coloured black and white, and given the quality of the Vita’s screen, one would think a huge array of colours would be more impressive, but perhaps it is exactly this expectation that makes the black-and-white of Escape Plan so pleasing. The musical score, an array of classical pieces, many of which will sound familiar to anyone with a knowledge of that musical style, helps round out the presentation, which follows the theme the rest of the game adheres to quite well: simple, but satisfying.
Escape Plan is a solid puzzle game that makes a minor stumble in a couple of areas but is nevertheless an extremely strong entry in the PlayStation Vita’s software catalog. The simplistic controls and graphical presentation give extra weight to the game’s puzzles, and the dark humour gives an extra element of enjoyment. Though the problems with the rear screen may offer some frustration, it’s completely possible to get past, and in no way takes away from the work of art that is Escape Plan.
+Intuitive use of the PlayStation Vita
+Quirky, dark sense of humour
-Some puzzles are overly simplistic
-Characters could have been a little more fleshed out
-Rear screen can be problematic at times
Escape Plan was purchased for the PlayStation Vita through the PlayStation Network for $14.99. It was played to completion in roughly 6 hours. There are currently no plans to bring this title to other platforms.