There's no question in my mind that some developer somewhere will make a really great game like Escape Plan for the PlayStation Vita somewhere down the road. That is, after all, inevitably what tends to happen with launch games that display a great deal of promise, but either lack the depth, mechanics, or both to truly be considered a success. Such is the case with Escape Plan, an artfully rendered, if mechanically unfocused puzzler from Fun Bits Interactive. There are some neat ideas of how to effectively use the various touch screens of the Vita, and the art is gorgeous enough to make the game an able showpiece for what the system can do visually. There just isn't quite enough to the game beyond that to make up for some of its more irritating aspects.
The premise places you in control of Lil and Laarg, two black and white creatures of wildly disparate girth who find themselves trapped in an elaborate industrial prison, headed up by a generically evil jerk who cackles a lot and apparently watches a decent amount of 30 Rock. Why he has imprisoned you is less important than how you'll go about escaping his clutches. At various points in the game, you'll control Lil and Laarg separately, or find yourself pushing them through levels as a team. In any event, you'll be controlling them solely via the touch screen.
This is both Escape Plan's cleverest notion and its greatest source of distress. The touch-focused controls give it the vibe of an iOS game blown up perhaps a bit beyond what it can handle, though it also makes for a puzzle-solving experience that is unlike the bulk of the Vita's launch lineup. You move the twosome by swiping across the screen in the direction you want them to go. Of course, each stage is littered with pitfalls that could easily kill the easily violable pair, ranging from simple spike traps to elaborately designed mixes of electricity and smashing devices. As far as deadly prisons go, this one would rank highly in the guidebook.
In order to navigate these pitfalls, you'll need to touch and swipe the screen in a variety of ways, sometimes in extremely rapid succession. If, for instance, you see a series of unextended platforms in front of you, using the rear touch pad to push each one out will provide a temporary bridge--emphasis on temporary. Many of Escape Plan's puzzles require crackerjack timing that can be a tad flustering, especially when you're forced to tap, pinch, and swipe both screens in rather intense combinations.
This is especially flustering when you're forced to mix screen-tilting into the equation as well. Lil has the ability to hook himself up to various air tanks and blow himself up into a balloon, which then lets him float around obstacles as you tilt the screen to-and-fro. The problem is that to get him down, you have to squeeze him to let air out. The precision of which direction you're squeezing him, and how hard is not quite what it ought to be. It's one of those mechanics that seems like a no-brainer on paper, but it's just not precise enough in execution to avoid frequent, accidental death.
And therein lies the one fatal flaw of Escape Plan. It's not that the controls are bad or unresponsive, it's that it asks for a bit more precision than is really reasonable given the number of different things it often asks you to do. Trying to ensure you're touching the exact right part of the rear pad, while trying to squeeze and pinch the characters on the top touch screen, while maybe even keeping one finger on a hole in a pipe pumping out deadly smoke is a gameplay high wire act that I sincerely doubt too many players are going to be willing to endure.
The good news (or bad news, depending on how you look at it) is that Escape Plan doesn't last much beyond its welcome. It's a relatively short game that actually does a pretty good job of pacing out its more difficult bits with easier challenges sandwiched in between. There's a flow to the game that prevents you from getting too frustrated, and if you really, truly hate a puzzle, you actually have the option to skip over it to get to the next stage, should you just want to progress with the story.
The idea is that maybe, someday in the future, you'll want to come back to Escape Plan and try all those puzzles again. In this regard, Fun Bits has bought in wholesale to the iOS methodology of relying on players' desire for achieving ever-higher scores on repeat play-throughs in order to try and prop itself up as a $15 value. To be fair, there are some legitimately great puzzles in Escape Plan that I did decide to go back and play through a few times to try and up my ranking. Unfortunately, the one serious issue here is that the score factors in the number of gestures you use in a given stage, and it registers every minor tap or accidental swipe against the screen as a gesture. This means you essentially have to keep your fingers entirely off of either screen if you want to avoid accidental gesture-tallying, which, as you may imagine, is a tad ludicrous, given how most people grip handhelds.
Still, while Escape Plan is a bit ramshackle in places, it's generally a fun enough game that is certainly a pleasure to look at. The game's black-and-white visual aesthetic is beautifully rendered, and the art style is just quirky enough to make its random spurts of gory cartoon violence seem completely reasonable in context. This is clearly a game that Fun Bits spent a lot of time crafting the look and feel of. It's just a shame they didn't spend a bit more time ironing out the mechanics.