A Way Out – Review

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Co-op tends to be a tacked on feature in most games. A way to experience the main campaign with a friend without really basing the gameplay around it. In A Way out, swedish movie director Josef Fares takes a creative new approach. Co-op is mandatory. The game cannot be played alone. This allows the game to be designed with co-op in mind, and it pulls it off. Whether it’s online or split-screen, you will have an experience that feels fresh and inventive.

When the game begins you are in prison. One of the players takes on the role of Vincent, a bearded, gruff man who just arrived. The other plays as Leo, a jewel thief who’s been in for a little while longer. Eventually your paths converge and, as the title hints at, you co-operate to find a way out of there.

I played the game with my girlfriend, sharing the same screen. The old school way. Depending on what happens your screen might shrink to allow more fidelity on your partner’s side, or it may increase to highlight something that happens on your end. And while the game is by no means beautiful, the graphics are functional and seems made with this in mind. You go from set-piece to set-piece, usually with a goal that needs you to work together. Sometimes you get separated and one player has to distract the guards while the other sneaks around in a restricted area, or something happens and you have to escape to safety. Tension is high through and through. And when shit hits the fan and things start happening rapidly, the way the game throws you between players makes for a rare kind of adrenaline rush. You’re cheering each other on, yelling for help with your heart about to burst out of your throat. Even though it is never really that hard it feels like the stakes are high because you are responsible for the other player’s wellbeing..

Making you care

Because of the time spent with the characters and the relationship between them, I quickly started caring about them. I wanted them to succeed, which made each tense section even more so due to the fear of one of us getting caught. While the ramifications for failing is negligible, the pacing immerses you in the story to such a degree that it feels like failure would be a catastrophe.

The writing is stellar through and through, and while I personally found Leo the better acted character, Vincent’s voice work is passable most of the time. The story is not anything to write home about, just your typical jailbreak story, but the cinematic approach makes it feel like you’re playing out an episode of Prison Break. The prison is intimidating with its many nooks and crannies, the small scale of the areas only serves to make the complex seem bigger. The one criticism I could throw at the writing is that the game is rather short, and thus the twists and turns tend to come at you at such a rapid pace that you never really have time to breathe, especially in the later parts.

I really liked the interactions between Leo and Vincent. They are different enough to allow their personalities to shine through, with Leo being the loose cannon and Vincent the more calm and collected of the two. They banter inbetween themselves, often making both me and my girlfriend chuckle out loud. And when you least expect it the story gets serious and pulls that of to an equal degree of success.

A rare moment of respite in an otherwise frantically paced plot.

Coasting through doesn’t have to be a bad thing

A Way Out isn’t a hard game. Most people that play games should be able to go through it without failing more than once or twice. Yet I never saw this as something bad. The hard thing about making a good co-op experience is that the gameplay has to be able to cater to different skill levels. If one player is a die-hard gamer and one is more casual, making the game too hard can quickly make the casual player frustrated and not want to keep playing. While it can go both ways, I find that veering on the easier side is generally better (I have terrible flashbacks of trying to get my friends to play through Cuphead with me).

A Way Out does this perfectly. You’re never confused about what to do, and when something explosive happens it is always intuitive enough to make you understand where to go and what buttons to press. The camera and level design is the hero in this regard. It tends to guide your view in such a way that it doesn’t point out what you should do, just nudges you in the right direction. It might hold at a door for a split second, or a tool you need can be found at the tool bench where you expect it to be. The puzzles are solvable with general knowledge of the world, not by some magical game logic.

With that said, the game does leave something to be desired when it comes to mechanics. Action sequences tend to feel kind of janky. Animations vary between perfectly acceptable in the slower sections and lacking weight in the fast-paced ones. While this never really detracts from the experience in a big way it does remind you of the smaller budget and can rip you out of the immersion.

The screens switch position depending on what happens in the game.

Brown is back

Remember the Xbox era when every game seemed to be tinted in a kind of brown-gray hue? I do. A Way Out reminds me of that time. The graphics aren’t bad, but they tend to lack color in parts, and when they do have color it looks kind of washed out. It’s like they pasted textures from this generation to a color palette of that of two generations back. And yes, you can attribute this to the setting of the game lending itself to this. It might even be realistic. Just don’t expect the kind of vibrant colors you might be used to from other games this generation.

At the same time, this isn’t a game where the graphics have to be top notch. The visual design does what it needs to. If you want to be diplomatic you could even argue that the blandness makes it easier to play split-screen since you’re not constantly distracted by color explosions on your partner’s side of the screen.

Did someone say brown?

A sad and beautiful thing

I had a great time with this game, enough to make me thirst for more like it. The truth is that it is one of a kind. There aren’t any co-op experiences similar to it. So when the credits rolled and me and my girlfriend concluded that we would like to try out more things like this, we were disheartened by the lack of options. It is understandable, in a way. There might not be much economical incentive to make a game such as this, requiring two players at all times and with little replayability. But I really hope it will pave the way for more creative approaches to story-driven co-operative experiences.

I will have to put my hopes to Josef Fares’s new game It Takes Two, a co-op only platformer set to release 26th of march this year. He’s been on a roll these last few years, beginning with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in 2013. We need more games that try to break the mold. The gaming world seems divided between big AAA-releases that can’t afford to take risks and indie games that tend to focus more on gameplay than story. I for one fully believe that this way of mixing the kind of story-telling from movies with the strengths of the game medium can create truly unique experiences.

8

A short but immensely entertaining co-op experience that will leave you hungering for more.

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