A Way Out is an interesting fusion of the narrative-driven, quick time event-heavy sort of gameplay that has seen its rise thanks to publishers/developers like Telltale Games shepherding these kinds of experiences into the mainstream gaming sphere, paired with the gritty crime and prison dramas that lit up the silver screen decades ago. Similar to Telltale style games, A Way Out is filled with story-altering choices and interesting (yet sometimes nuanced) input commands. However, the game sets itself apart with its unconditional loyalty to its source materials, as well as the visceral story it tells. All of this is told in a unique co-op perspective where you can always see what’s happening on your partner’s screen and vice-versa. Plus, if you choose to play online co-op, only one player has to own the game – which is a great perk that I’d like to see more developers adopting in the future.
A Breakout Story:
There is not an option to play A Way Out by yourself. The game has to be experienced with a second person. This gives it the ability to be really innovative with the way it tells its story. Players choose to go through the game as either Leo, a cheeky character who puts more faith in his fists than he does his mouth, or Vincent, a more collected fellow gifted as a wordsmith and a strategist. Both Leo and Vincent have reasons for being in prison (which you quickly discover) that revolve around an antagonist named Harvey. Each plan to exact revenge on Harvey for doing them wrong, which leads to a uneasy alliance. This relationship grows over the six to eight hours that it will take you to finish a single playthrough, and leads to a couple very notable scenes of comradery and conflict. Their ability to work as a team increases as the game progresses, much like the difficultly of the activities you do. As their trust for each other grows, so does their ability to pull off more extraordinary activities. This runs parallel with the co-op players growing more capable as teammates and becoming increasingly skilled in the game’s systems.
The tone of the game matches the styling of the various other media that it seems to reference. There are sections that feel almost directly ripped out of these media (say movies or television shows) in a way that makes it seem more like they are copying them instead of drawing inspiration from them. For example, the beginning portion of the game takes a lot of cues from Shawshank Redemption and lines in the game match lines in the movie in an almost verbatim fashion. I don’t believe this is an issue that should demerit the game in a large sense, but it is worth pointing out (for your consideration) if a game can be so similar to another form of media and call it an “inspiration” without it feeling like it’s more so just copycatting it. To get back to the original point, the game takes a story that fits really well in the setting that A Way Out has emulated, and this creates the perfect tone of game to tell this story. This is especially regarding the ending twist, which is the reason I would recommend this game so highly to anyone that enjoys these types of experiences.
A Way Out has a handful of cool co-op gaming innovations, but, in my opinion, the most genius detail is the way the screen is broken up during the game. The majority of the game is played splitscreen, so you will almost always see what is going on with your partner. However, the splitscreen ratio will change based on what activities are going on. If something important is happening on the other player’s screen, your screen will shrink down giving more focus to their events. In some cases, the thing happening on the other player’s screen is so important that your screen completely shrinks to put that event in the spotlight. There will even be occasions where an extra portion of the screen is split to show other events going on that have a direct affect on Leo and Vincent. The way the screen changes perspective to focus on key events is a unique idea that pays off well with the style of storytelling that Hazelight has incorporated.
Where the delivery of the story is strong in one area, it sadly lacks in another. Character animations tend to be stiff and unnatural outside of cutscenes. As quickly as story events can wrap you into the game, inhuman and rigid animation rigs can pull you out. This is is pretty common with games of this format, but it was a little disappointing considering all of the other ways that A Way Out pushes the limits of the co-op and action-adventure genres.
A Way Out of Complicated Co-op Gameplay:
Most of the action and inputs in A Way Out are simple character controls or button pressing minigames. It plays a lot like Telltale formula games, as I mentioned earlier, but is more creative with the type of actions that you must perform in order to emulate certain movements or activities that are being done by Leo or Vincent. Many of these instances require coordination between players to be pulled off properly. It is very apparent that Hazelight Studio’s main gameplay focus is on forcing players to cooperate without giving them time to form anything more than a bare-bone strategy. These are great in moments such as the prison escape early on where players have to climb up a narrow passage back-to-back (The Emperor’s New Groove style) while advancing their vertical movement in nearly perfect harmony. Each player must focus on the input minigame to climb up, but they cannot neglect to pay attention to the other player’s position. Else, you risk failing your cinematic escape. These moments further prove why this game needed to be co-op exclusive. If the game had the option to play with an AI ally then it would not have had the same impact, and I’m glad they decision was made to not include the option at all.
There are a lot of items scattered throughout the world that you can interact with. For the most part, they don’t do much to engulf you in the world, but they provide simple distractions while you wait for your partner to finish up their dialog with another character or finish a task. A fun addition is the handful of competitive games scattered through the world. You can challenge your buddy to a game of Connect Four or Horseshoe to take a break from the game. Luckily for me, the area that we had the hardest time progressing (due to a bug that ultimately required us to reload our previous checkpoint) had the game of Horseshoe set up so we could take a break from the puzzle-solving. A Way Out is packed with mini-games and you’ll enjoy your time with it if you’re up for partaking in minigames more than more traditional gameplay.
Even though A Way Out doesn’t innovate on the gameplay front (for the interactive drama genre), it has a wonderful story that is more touching that I expected it to be. To back that up, the cinematic presentation and inventive ways the story is presented to the player makes it a game that I’d recommend to most gamers. 2018 is jam-packed with huge and ambitious games, but I’d try to fit A Way Out into your busy gaming schedule.