A Way Out Review
A satisfying co-op adventure, even in the face of hammy writing
The arrival of A Way Out has been a long time coming. After working with Starbreeze Studios on the acclaimed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, director Josef Fares chose to branch out on his own for his follow-up project. One new studio, Hazelight, and almost five years later, Fares and company have finally dropped their latest endeavor. Following-up a freshman success is always difficult, but the out-spoken Swede has certainly not been lacking in confidence.
As with Fares’ last creation, A Way Out is a tale of two individuals coming together for a shared goal. Unlike Brothers, though, Vincent and Leo lack the familial bond that Naiee and Naia had. Instead, the two are a pair of convicts, who differ in not only personality, but also criminality. Leo was framed for the murder of his dealer, as well as for the theft of the lucrative Black Orlov gemstone. Vincent was also framed, but the former banker is on the hook for the death of his brother instead. While the two may differ in many ways, they do share a pair of common goals. The first is to escape from prison, and the second is to take-down the man, Harvey, who is responsible for both of their troubles.
For a guy who famously said “F the Oscars,” Fares sure does love his Hollywood clichés. A Way Out is chock full of them, from the mismatched partners angle to the fractured home life for each of them. There’s not anything inherently wrong this approach, and these story beats are probably necessary for such a tale. However, the writing itself just isn’t up to the level it needs to be. The dialogue sounds clunky, and the eventual bond Leo and Vincent form lacks the strength it should have. It doesn’t help that it seems like more attention was paid to Leo than Vincent. Leo is the wild card of the two, so perhaps he was just easier to write for. So, while Leo has a solid arc, Vincent’s persona never really develops outside of broad moments. Even his big emotional scene lacks the punch it should have had. For where the story ends up going, maybe that makes sense, but it makes the ending of the game land with a thud rather than a bang.
Trying to classify exactly what genre A Way Out falls into is a tricky proposition. The best way to describe it would be to just classify it as a “co-op” game, but the title frequently moves between genres. Over the course of six or so hours, it shifts from puzzler to stealth adventure to cover-based shooter, with other genres spread in-between as well. The great thing about this is that the game is always keeping you on your toes. You never really know what’s going to come up next. I never once felt bored during my time playing it, even when it was something as simple as exploring the prison yards.
What really makes the gameplay of A Way Out shine, though, is its heavily hyped co-op structure. Almost everything the title asks you to do requires both players in some capacity. One segment has you working together to steal a tool from the prison, while another has the two distracting a concerned older couple. Playing through these segments was a blast, particularly with someone joining in on the fun on the couch next to me. It’s also fun online, don’t get me wrong, but having someone physically alongside you definitely felt like the way to go. It’s not just the direct co-op moments that are great either. The few times Vincent and Leo have to split up are handled in such a fascinating and cool way. The camera constantly switches between the two, but not in a way that felt hard to follow. In fact, my favorite part of the game, a madcap hospital escape, constantly shifts between the pair as they separately work their way out. It’s a unique spin on just what a co-operative game can entail.
While the set pieces are all there, the execution sometimes falters. I may not have been bored during the cover-shooting segments that come up later in the game, but I didn’t particularly enjoy them. The shooting feels clunky, and the rampant murdering felt very out of place in relation to the general mood of the game. It doesn’t help that the controls sometimes don’t work in the way you want them to. Occasional button presses didn’t register, which lead to a handful of unnecessary deaths, and the cover system is kind of crap. It’s not always a guarantee you’ll stick to a surface and you can imagine how annoying that can be when you’re trying to be sneaky.
For a lower-priced title, A Way Out doesn’t look or sound low budget. Graphically, it’s not as awe-inspiring as some other current-gen titles, but it has a unique look to it. It’s realistic looking in parts, but there’s enough creative flair that it has a style all of its own. Leo and Vincent may not be the most original characters, but they at least look interesting. There are also some great looking environments for you to take in, particularly the woods immediately after the pair burst out of jail. The 1970’s setting was also an inspired choice from Hazelight Studios.
I’ve already mentioned my issues with the writing in this game, but the cast does the best it can with the dialogue. Eri Krogh (Vincent) and Fares Fares (Leo) are able to get embody their characters' personalities successfully, even in the face of lacking development. Additional support from Andrea Deck and Jessica Calmhede, as the duo’s significant others, give at least some emotional heft to the story. The soundtrack doesn’t stand out particularly, but it doesn’t feel intrusive and knows when to not interfere in any plot developments.
A Way Out is far from perfect, but it is a unique experience. The co-op gameplay shines bright, and sets a new standard for what can be possible in the genre. It’s a memorable adventure that I hope other developers borrow from going forward. That said, for as enjoyable as the game is, it’s difficult to look past the lackluster storytelling and control issues. There’s a good story buried somewhere in here, but with painful dialogue, poor character development and dull twists, it’s hard to care about whether Leo and Vince make it out alive. Coming off the emotional high of Brothers, it’s disappointing that Josef Fares’ follow-up project botches the one thing that made his debut so memorable.