A Way Out
PlayStation 4 version
A frustratingly inconsistent co-op adventure.
* A unique co-op experience that emphasizes communication and teamwork
Lots of gameplay variety within the campaign
Lets you play the entire game with a friend with only one copy purchased
* Past the first third, inconsistent level design and game mechanics
Mediocre writing and voice acting. The game strains for an emotional climax that isn't earned.
Overly cartoonish visuals and bland sound design.
The Bottom Line
A Way Out, the debut title from Swedish developer Hazelight Studios, led by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons director Josef Fares, is a 1970’s-set crime thriller designed as an exclusive co-operative experience. There’s no single player mode or computer AI to help you here, this split-screen adventure requires a friend from beginning to end. In a rare occurrence, the game only requires that one person own the game in order to play it, and I applaud EA and Hazelight for allowing A Way Out to be more accessible than it otherwise would have been.
The title follows two men behind bars: Leo, who has been in prison for some time, and new recruit Vincent, who has been convicted of murder charges. After the pair get to know each other, the two plot a perilous escape from prison: first to visit their wives and children, and second to get revenge on Harvey, a man in possession of a rare diamond that both men have past connections with.
As you would expect from a buddy adventure, this pair of escapees have distinctly contrasting worldviews and approaches to various situations. Leo is more violent and direct, while Vincent generally prefers a quieter, more subtle approach. There will be several times when the two debate different approaches to the problems in front of them, and both players will need to communicate and agree on what to do before continuing. This also gives the game a bit of replay value as you can take different approaches during each playthrough, although the overall story will remain relatively unchanged.
The initial section involving the prison escape is easily A Way Out’s strongest section. The puzzles may be basic, but you feel quite clever for figuring them out, even if there are some times when your actions would be blindingly suspicious to even the most amateur prison guards. There’s a satisfying rhythm to each scene as you see each part of the plan come together and learn to coordinate your actions. One section where the pair need to chisel out of their cells while avoiding the watchful eye of passing guards is particularly tense, as one player must keep lookout while the other furiously taps to dig behind their thin prison walls. Communication, timing, and luck are all necessary to survive each moment of this section. It’s a good thing that playing on my PS5 made this surprisingly easy since the DualSense controller happens to have a built-in speaker and microphone.
Once that initial breakout is complete, however, the experience varies wildly in terms of quality. What started as a subtle yet tense thriller is at some points an unbearably low-key family drama complete with optional minigames and side activities, and at others a bombastic, Uncharted-on-a-budget action spectacle, with moments of slow-motion and tons of explosion. A game that had started out so surely and cleverly suddenly has trouble finding a consistent tone and sticking with it over the course of its 6-hour runtime. You clearly can’t fault the campaign’s variety, but the game feels as if it was pin-balling between boring and exciting extremes. A key example of this is during the buildup to a late emotional scene, we had the option of engaging in a game of balancing on wheelchairs, comically falling over and laughing like kids.
The game stumbles especially hard at the end, which not only has a twist reminiscent of a '80s arcade classic, but executes it in a manner that feels tedious and completely unnecessary. A Way Out wants to earn an emotional ending, but the weak writing and mediocre vocal performances prevented me from embracing Vincent and Leo’s story in the way the developers had intended.
Most of the game is presented in a vertical split-screen format whether you’re playing online or with someone sitting next to you. The view will often shift to emphasize certain aspects that one character might be doing over another. Some sequences take place in a horizontal split-screen view to give the player a better sense of their surroundings. A later action scene, which depicts the two characters escaping a location via completely different paths, shifts the view entirely between the two characters, as the camera moves through vents and shifts perspectives in a seamless, unbroken take.
Graphically, A Way Out isn’t likely to give most AAA games pause - this is an indie effort through and through. Character models have weirdly cartoonish proportions and animations which make taking the story seriously a bit difficult at times. Lighting is entirely baked, shadows are a bit non-existent, and while there are the occasional beautiful or unique environments, most of them are generic and uninteresting. I suppose the slightly-dated look of the graphics was meant to facilitate a consistently smooth gameplay experience on consoles despite the split-screen format, although one sequence in particular still has framerate issues. There were also at least two instances where our game got disconnected from the servers. The game’s checkpoint system is surprisingly generous, so we didn’t lose a ton of progress, but it really shouldn’t have happened regardless.
Despite the game’s cinematic tone, nothing about the game feels particularly memorable in terms of its sound design. The only neat twist is how the game manipulates the volume when key moments are taking place within one side of the screen. Nothing about the soundtrack feels particularly 1970’s, and there aren’t even any licensed tracks to emphasize the period.
A Way Out offers a unique, and occasionally brilliant co-op experience, but there are just as many aspects of it that are disappointing. It fells like Hazelight had a really nifty idea for a game yet were unable to truly follow it through. All of its best ideas are in the opening section, and their attempts to be more emotional and bombastic fall apart due to lacking storytelling and shallow gameplay mechanics. Josef Fares may come from a film background, yet there’s nothing Oscar-worthy about the hackneyed b-movie that plays out in front of you. The only reason you’d care is getting to play through this with a friend, which made it a lot more interesting than it otherwise would have been.
by krisko6 (813) on April 22nd, 2021