Some years ago, French games Software house Delphine redefined the idiom of the platform game with the near legendary Flashback. Eschewing the trend for Italian plumbers, blue hedgehogs and high speed gameplay, Flashback put you in charge of a man stranded on an alien world. Flashback was the game that introduced the world to the narrative platform game, in which thought is more important than reactions and the nature of the challenges presented to the player change to suit the development of the storyline.
The platform genre has since developed along a rather different path. Delphine’ Fade to Black, a de facto sequel to Flashback, lead the way into the kind of 3D adventure which has reached its apex – in terms of popularity at least – in Tomb Raider.
The history of computer gaming has left it to two Hungarian friends, Akos Diviansky and Tama Kozak, to bring the 2D platform puzzler into the last years of the 20th Century. The good news for lovers of those great games of the past is that they have done it with an impressive degree of craft.
The first thing that you will notice about OnEscapee is the intro sequence, an impressively atmospheric, Bladerunneresque piece. All too often intro sequences are nothing more than a short, irrelevant animation that you won’t want to see twice; not in the case of OnEscapee. OnEscapee turned up in the same month as Final Odyssey.
The latter has an abysmal rendered intro sequence quite at odds with the well executed cartoony graphics and rather excellent game which follows, while OnEscapee’s intro sequence is a superb prologue to the narrative of the game. Like the in-game graphics, the intro is mostly hand-drawn. It is stylised, very film noirish in execution. An unusual touch, a theme tune with vocals, adds moodness.
The plot is certainly very cliched – alien visitors abduct the hero for reasons unknown, he struggles and the flyer they are in crashes. He survives, but must now escape his mysterious alien enemy.
The direction, however, is superb. The cut scenes, the clever effects and the dark soundtrack foreshadow the game beautifully – stylistically so similar to the experience of the game that it all segues into the first screen seamlessly.
Although the plot has strong overtones of Flashback and the character animation is almost identical, the gameplay actually has rather more in common with Flashback’s predecessor, Another World. Delphine’s earlier offering was less of a platform game. It was not entirely successful for the simple reason that the more varied gameplay style meant each level used a lot more memory compared to the more homogenous gameplay of Flashback, and as a result it was far too short.
In the era of CD-ROM entertainment, storage capacity is really no concern. As you play OnEscapee you find all the standard moves complemented with a lot of dynamically interactive extras.
It would spoil the plot to give away too much about these extras, but to illustrate the way the gameplay flows, I’m going to give a way a bit. Unless you are desperate to play through the whole game without help, skip the box entitled "In the beginning", I’m only going to reveal enough to get you through the first couple of minutes of play.
Getting the puzzles in any adventure game right is an incredible balancing act – make everything too intuitive and the game is too easy, make it too obscure and the game is unrewardingly hard. The reason why the Monkey Island games, or Flashback/Another World are respected to this day, is that they did this so well – but everything is flawed.
Anyone who’s played one of these games can probably remember one puzzle they spent hours on, only to discover the solution was something so irrational there seemed to be no reason to try it. It would be a worrying thing if you didn’t get stuck in OnEscapee, otherwise you’d fly through the game far too easily.
Indeed on one or two occasions while playing OnEscapee I did get stuck, and no doubt anyone else playing it would find the same, if perhaps in different places. I suppose only time and the opinions of thousands of players will decide for sure whether Team Invictus have achieved this well enough to elevate OnEscapee to the level of the other games mentioned, but to my own debatable logic the balance was extremely good if not quite classic.
As I got into the logic of the game, and made my way past the first few levels, I worried that there wouldn't be enough of the game to last. Luckily, as the game progresses it also gets more complex. The first level has only a handful of screens, the epic cit level has something like a hundred. You may think the game is passing too quickly, but look at your watch and you could find that you’ve become a little more immersed in the atmosphere than you thought.
Like all games of this type, I’m sure that once you have finished playing you’ll be a little disappointed that there isn’t more, but even when you know exactly how to solve the game it should take a few hours to work your way through.
Certainly I spent more time playing this than is usually spent on a game being reviewed, but even with save positions handily provided I’m left with areas unexplored and bad guys as yet undefeated I’m sure I will be back to finish this game in my spare time! A small scattering of logic games help the game last, but are something I remain ambivalent about. I imagine getting stuck on one for too long would be very annoying.
OnEscapee is an impressively well produced title. Even the CD icon impressed me, a nice NewIcon of the Logo with a drop shadow, lovely with transparency on. The siple but useful text file is present in a huge range of languages – this is the first game I have come across with instructions in Farsi – and is present in HTML web format also. HTML pages are likely to be the multimedia replacement for Amigaguide documents in the next generation of Workbench, so congratulations to Sadeness getting in on the act quickly and well.
The big congratulations should be saved for Team Invictus, for the representational detail that has gone into OnEscapee. Playing the game is quite an experience. The graphical design of the game is simply superb, and the music beautifully integrated and totally atmospheric. The game is packed with clever graphical tricks, not just animated background detail, but things which interact with the player, such reflection of the main character in the rippling surface of the water level. Cut sequences appear throughout the game and do their job well, the innumerable death sequences making a particular impression on this reviewer. Trying all the different way of dying to see all those darkly humorous death scenes is almost a game of its own.
A menu screen allows you use a slightly faster frame rate if you have an accelerator, and allows you to load and save game positions at any time. The save game file contains a screen grab of the point at which you stopped, a nice touch that removes the old problem of remembering why on earth you called one save position Squid3 and the other GOB. There is support for joystick keyboard and CD32 pad, and a screenmode selector to allow running the game on VGA only monitors.
Currently an AGA equipped Amiga is necessary, but Sadeness have told us they will provide a free upgrade patch for graphics card users in the near future, along with another patch which tweaks the character control method a little. Personally I liked the way the controls were configured, but apparently some of the feedback from the demo requested an alternative.
Technically OnEscapee impresses the way a good demo can, catching you by surprise with a little graphical trick or clever effect. In purely game terms, it is a little flawed. The control is not quite as responsive as it could be, and positioning can on one or two occasions be pretty finicky. Once or twice I had to repeat my actions several times to get something done, but the only time this really stood out was when I rather embarrassingly failed to dodge a falling pile of rubble about 20 times in a row because of something I hadn’t twigged about the controls.
Once you have learned the peculiarities of the control method, this will fade to a minor niggle – you will anticipate the slightly sluggish reaction to jump, for instance, and not end up at the bottom of a chasm so often.
I seem to remember Flashback suffered from this problem too. One saving grace is that the game can be saved at any time, and you can restart quickly right in the thick of where you last died, so you can have another whank at the problem straight away.
I have to say I am very pleased to see a game which plays so much to the Amiga’s strengths. Going for the 2D hand drawn look, Team Invictus have produced something that looks bloody good without having to worry about the horsepower of the CPU. If you find the game a little jerky, it is most likely because your CD-ROM drive is a little slow.
I have to confess that the artwork in imperfect, and more noticeably so just because it is hand drawn. It is after all a lot easier to animate a render than it is to animate 2D artwork. The backdrops are all gorgeous, but some of the anatomy worries me. I am perhaps over sensitive to this having spent rather a lot of time learning to draw figures myself, but the character is not always correctly proportioned.
On the other hand the highly acclaimed rendered cut scenes in Tomb Raider display a shockingly poor grasp of kinetics and a very feeble grasp of human physiognomy – and I’m not just talking bra size.
If the raw draughtsmanship is merely very good, the audiovisual production overall is excellent. I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. OnEscapee is a real experience. It isn’t what we are used to, following a rather more sophisticated aesthetic than the average game, more Luc Besson than Lara Croft. I guess some people will be turned off by that, but personally I love it.
OnEscapee is a game which you can load up and show to anyone used to Playstation, Nintendo or PC games without them wondering what you are on. Even if it is not their cup of tea, they are likely to be intrigued. OnEscapee is perhaps more suited to the epithet flawed masterpiece than instant classic, but those flaws aren’t big. The game style is a bit behind the times, but a format well deserving of resurrection.
If you like action/adventure you are almost certainly going to find OnEscapee an excellent purchase. If like myself you thought that Another World and Flashback were superb then you’ve wasted far too much time reading this review and you should be on the phone ordering your copy right now. █