Escape Plan Hands-On Preview -- Another Stylish and Quirky Platformer This Way Co...Splat!By Sinan Kubba - Posted Aug 19, 2011
It’s easy to get bogged down with how a game looks, especially when you consider that 95.424 percent of our first impressions of a game are based on how many polygons we can see during the first five seconds, or so I’m told. When people saw the monochrome art style of Escape Plan when the PlayStation Vita puzzle game was announced at Tuesday’s Sony press conference, some shook their heads at yet another small developer using black and white again, treating it like it’s the new brown. Others probably had the exact opposite reaction but for the same reasons. Both groups were wrong, though, and here’s why.
Escape Plan isn’t just a black-and-white game. The art style is both richer and funnier than that, as one might expect of a game being produced by the same guy who produced Fat Princess. The two protagonists, Lil and Laarg, are almost soullessly dumpy with their bone white faces poking through their clingy black leotards. Lil moves with shoulders shrugged and head down, arms close to dragging on the floor. Laarg, meanwhile, waddles around so slowly I wonder if he’s truly awake. The pair reminds me of the masked spirit No Face from the Miyazaki film Spirited Away and his awkward demeanor, but mixed with the classic fat-guy-thin-guy slapstick of Laurel and Hardy.
It’s in the game’s humor that the art style really shines. In one level, for example, Laarg must crash through the wooden floor beneath him and land on a mattress in the room below. Doing so in the right spot will take a small black sheep down with him. At first, I thought the sheep would play some part in the puzzle, but once I crashed down and guided Laarg to the exit I realized the sheep was just sitting there, all waiting for Godot and being a sheep. It’s amusingly surreal, although the funnier yet has been the way Lil dies by tripping over a tiny brick as showcased in the press conference trailer.
In practice all you have to do to complete that puzzle is push the brick into the background by tapping on it on the touch screen. It’s a hilariously simple way to avoid such a ludicrous way of dying, but on a first playthrough, not many are going to think a tiny little brick to be a potential death trap, even if Escape Plan is all about avoiding the plethora of opportunities to die.
Moving and manipulating Lil and Laarg through the environment is primarily done through the touch screen, and even in this very early build, it’s dead easy to make the controls work. Swiping across the characters moves them in the intended direction, while tapping on them makes them stop dead. I can also swipe vertically through Laarg when he’s on fragile floorboards to make him crash through them. Also, certain things in the environment can be dragged and pushed around and in some cases picked, while the touch screen and back-touch lets me push things back into the background and out into the foreground respectively, much like they do in LittleBigPlanet.
The seven to eight puzzles I saw offered a nice mix of lateral thinking and skill. In one thinking-based puzzle, I need to lure a baddie called a minion to his doom to clear the path for Laarg. I can grab his attention by tapping on the screen to make some noise. This makes him investigate the noise eventually, and so I can lead him onto a conveniently placed bit of dangerous-looking electrical wiring on the floor. Once he’s frazzled and out of the way, this leaves the space for me to push out a mattress over the hazard and make it safe for Laarg to negotiate at his waddling leisure.
Another puzzle involves a room with two lamps held from the ceiling which have surged with electricity, creating two straight lines of death-dealing lightning for Lil to avoid. Tapping on a lamp makes it swing on a small rail so that it and the line of lightning being shot from it move in a U-shape towards the back of the room a few steps forward or backward in. The idea is to move Lil across while avoiding the lightning by timing the swings of the lamp to circle around and miss the leotard-clad hero, and it requires a touch of skilful timing on top of some brainpower.
One or two of the puzzles I saw showed off how the game uses some of the other tech features of Vita. One I saw, which was shown a bit of in the Sony trailer, involved a gas canister for Lil to use. Tapping on it made Lil suck on the canister and suddenly fill up with helium like a giant balloon. Lil floated up through a hole in the ceiling into a new room, but to get to the exit I had to tilt the Vita to the right to make Lil float along through another hole in the right-hand wall. If I wanted to propel the inflated Lil a bit quicker, I could pinch him using the touch screen and back touch, getting the balloon to "fart" his way across as the screen – that’s the dev’s choice of word, not mine.
It’s with the more skill-based stuff that I have some concern with Escape Plan, mainly because of the camera. Zooming in and out using iOS-like pinch-and-unpinch touches is easy enough but a little slow and cumbersome. I’d like to see in the harder levels situations in which both Lil and Laarg have to be looked after at the same time, since with the camera as it is currently, it might prove too awkward to keep an eye on both characters to ensure their safe passage. The devs assure us the camera won’t be so close come the game’s final release – whenever that is – and I’m sure they have the same concerns in mind as I do.
I’d also loved to have found out more about the story; some of the visual clues about the area like the rundown nature of the walls, what looked a bit like hospital bed, and the stick numbers carved out on the wall suggested something of a mix between a mental hospital and a prison, but it’s clear that there’s something deeper going on there. The representatives from developer Fun Bits were about as tight-lipped on further details as you can get, which tells you more than anything that Escape Plan is very much a work in progress. What I’ve seen here at the very least suggests a Vita game with an attractive art style and a good sense of humor, and the potential to use those and the Vita technology for some strong puzzle play. For now, we have to wait until Escape Plan can escape the tight clutches of its developers.