When Josef Fares gave his legendary rant at last year’s Game Awards, I knew I had to play A Way Out. I was already interested to see what the guy behind Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons did next, but Josef’s raw passion for his work was infectious. In every interview he’s done, he looks about one sales pitch short of going Super Saiyan, dripping enthusiastic sweat like a burger from Grill’d. The problem with passion is that it blinds people from their shortcomings, and A Way Out is a perfect example. While almost every scene is brilliantly realised, it feels like no one stopped to point out the weak writing, stiff animations or contemplate why this wasn’t just a movie. Filled with passion it may be, but it struggles to find its feet as a compelling game, which is a shame considering its core idea is so intriguing.
A Way Out is a two-player co-op game where both players see the same screen at all times. You play as Leo and Vincent, two convicts who try to escape prison and seek revenge on their mutual enemy, Harvey. Both characters are given a portion of the screen, even if you’re playing online, and this opens up some exciting opportunities. One scene may involve you chasing a guy through a construction site, with each character tagging in as the other gets blocked off. Another scene may have one player operating a crane as the other uses its moving cargo as cover. It’s a little jarring at first, but once you get used to it, you can start to enjoy the game with your buddy.
Before we delve into the game itself, I need to talk about who I played with. A Way Out doesn’t allow for any matchmaking online, so you’ll have to find a friend to play it with or not play the game at all. Depending who you play with, you’ll find the game enjoyable enough or a meandering series of events. I played with my bud Kyle, a cynical and often harshly critical guy who I’d trust with my life in a nuclear apocalypse. As you can imagine, he and I treated the game like an episode of MST3K, open for stabs at the story, characters and anything else we felt was lacking.
Right from the get-go, Kyle and I had issues with the writing. Because there’s such a tight, unwavering focus on the narrative, the writing is under immense pressure to be believable, grounded and just straight up good. Unfortunately, it is not. The writing is almost as bad as mine, if not the same. The only characters with any backstory behind them are Leo and Vincent, and even they feel barely fleshed out. Kyle didn’t realise it was the ‘70s until we found a newspaper talking about the Vietnam War a third of the way into the game. Nothing seems to hit home, and the story isn’t anything special either.
The most significant issue in A Way Out is that its story isn’t very compelling. Everything unfolds in such a straightforward manner that Kyle predicted every scene with alarming accuracy. The way everything is told isn’t all that fantastic either because the pacing and tone are all over the place. Every scene feels like a different mini-game, but it also feels like an 8-year old with too many ideas wanted to put everything into the game, regardless whether it fit or not. There are references to Old Boy and Scarface in there, but they feel more like rip-offs than cheeky homages. The story is far from an award-winning tale, and while I’d love to tell you more, I just can’t (see below). On the plus side, this manic skipping between story points doesn’t compromise the gameplay.
The passion I was talking about before has evidently gone into making the game play well. Every scene feels fleshed out, with mini-games and mechanics working as intended. In Leo’s neighbourhood, you can play baseball, basketball, darts and hunt down some guy’s wife, and all of it plays well. Kyle forced me to use a sheet trolley in a prison section because it felt so much like a real trolley that it weirded him out. I used the trolley, and it weirded me out. Game trolleys should not feel so real. The issue is that none of these things offers much depth to the game, which is a by-product of the game that it is.
Because of the cinematic nature of A Way Out, there’s not much depth to the mechanics. If I’m honest, the mini-games offer more depth than the core gameplay does. Compared to Connect 4, the QTEs and puzzles (that barely qualify as puzzles) don’t provide much to engage with. You go from one shallow mechanic to the next, and while the split-screen nature of the game gets used a little, it doesn’t add anything to the game 80% of the time. It feels like a movie that you’re occasionally pushing forward, but there’s no game to dig into. There is some solace in the game’s graphics, though even they don’t quite hit the mark.
The game looks pretty good considering it’s an indie effort, but my god, I want to shoot whoever did the facial animations. A running joke Kyle and I had was that no one had emotions in this game. The closest thing you see to a smile or any facial movement is the tiniest twitch of a mouth, so it always looks like everyone’s straight-faced for the entire game. It’s difficult to get drawn into the story when something as crucial as facial animations are so non-existent, but if you can look past it, there’s certainly some enjoyment to be found here.
A Way Out offers a well-made game with a functional but dull story. There’s certainly fun to be had, but depending on who you’re playing the game with, you might want to stick to Fortnite instead. There’s nothing particularly profound about the game, and the story doesn’t stand up to the immense pressure the game forces on it. If you’re looking for a 5-hour detour into cinematic gameplay with a buddy, I’d say try A Way Out, but don’t expect an Oscar-winning performance.
(One of the wishes of Josef Fares to any and all reviewers was not to discuss the story in great depth. This would give you, the reader, the chance to experience it without any bias getting in the way. The problem is that I have A LOT of feelings about the story and how it relates to the gameplay, so here’s what’s going to happen. A month from this article going up, I’m going to run a very special WWWTF where I’ll explain my thoughts. This should give anyone who wanted to play the game enough time to give it a go without me spoiling anything. Cool? Cool.)