I cannot resist a 2D puzzle-platformer. If I imagine a scenario in which I see out my gaming days playing only one type of game, the 2D puzzle-platformer is it. For me a good example of the genre is the perfect marriage of the kind of pure skill-based gameplay so common in the heyday of arcade gaming, and the progression and exploration so prevalent in modern games. Escape Plan then, didn’t need to do much to impress me. So why am I so ambivalent about it?
One reason is that Escape plan is a platformer in only the broadest sense of the word. It has many of the trappings of platformers; your task is to guide the two protagonists (Lil and Laarg) through the lair of the villainous Bakuki, to freedom. In order to escape, you need to traverse an increasingly tricky series of traps and…platforms. Where it diverges from classic puzzle-platformers is in the controls. There is no jump button; in fact, there are no buttons at all. The game is almost entirely touch controlled – both front and back touchscreen. The player has very little direct control over the characters – most of the challenge is in manipulating the environment to create a path by which Lil and Laarg can escape. To this extent Escape Plan cannot rely on the well-established mechanics of traditional platformers, and needs to impress in other ways.
What absolutely does impress is the presentation, so much so that for the first half hour of the game I was completely beglamoured. Developer Fun Bits has succeeded in giving the game a unique art style which retains a cartoon charm despite being rendered in a steely black and white. This is nicely complemented by a Looney Tunes-esque score (even the underused theremin makes a welcome appearance). I found the overall aesthetic so appealing that for a while it disguised the game’s weaknesses.
After the initial 30 minutes however, the cracks begin to appear. It is at this point that it becomes apparent that for the most part Escape Plan is a mediocre puzzler. The puzzles lie much less in working out what to do, as this is usually obvious, than in managing to do it. The combination of front and back touch is so unwieldy, and the timing required so exacting, that at times it feels more like spinning plates than playing a game. No fun. It makes for some very frustrating levels, and to compound this if you die a few times a prompt will appear suggesting that you skip the level. Note to developers: include this if you must, but if I decide not to skip ahead, DO NOT ASK ME AGAIN.
What is most disappointing here is that the game occasionally offers glimpses of what it could have been. Some of the levels really gave me pause to stop and think about how to progress. These points were never about manual dexterity – once I knew what to do they were quite straightforward – but they were puzzles in the purest sense, and they were excellent. Unfortunately these moments were rare. I hope they occur more frequently in the recently announced free DLC.
Escape Plan is not particularly successful either as a platformer or a puzzler. To be fair it was never meant to be a platformer in the traditional sense, but I feel like having more direct control over the characters would have improved the experience. Alternatively, some better puzzle design would have made for a much improved game without the need to make wholesale changes to the mechanics. The puzzles that were designed to be head-scratchers rather than finger-strainers were very good. It’s a shame really, because there is a lot to love about the game, especially in the presentation. I really wanted to love the whole package, but I just couldn’t quite do it.