At a gamescom where most publishers have opted to simply re-show the same demos they used for E3, Escape Plan is a breath of fresh air. It's a game that more or less came out of nowhere, popping up unexpectedly in the middle of Sony's press conference, making its trailer debut to the sounds of Hall of the Mountain King. And as it turns out, it may well be the most interesting title on the PlayStation Vita's impending release list.
Escape Plan is a monochrome puzzle-platformer in the tradition of Abe's Oddysee and, to a lesser extent, Limbo. It arrives courtesy of Fun Bits, the producers of Fat Princess, and like that game it's riddled with originality. Our heroes are Lil and Laarg, an appropriately-named pair of masked characters - one small and fragile-looking, the other hulking and paunchy - who must escape from what appears to be an industrial factory. The villain of the story wants to harvest the duo for their inky insides, and as a result the two must flee for their lives, evading all manner of evil-looking traps and machines in the process.
Gameplay is conducted entirely via touch controls, with both the Vita's main screen and rear pad being put to full use. A gentle swipe will set either character walking at a gentle trot, while a tap will bring them to a halt; if you're feeling cruel, you can just opt to abuse them via mean-spirited swipes and prods. As it goes, most things in Escape Plan will yield some form of rewarding reaction when you tap them. An old-fashioned radiator hisses a short burst of steam; a heavy metal door clanks. These are small pleasures, but they help to build the game's unique sense of being welcoming and tactile - even if almost everything in the environment is a potentially lethal threat.
In simple terms, puzzles revolve around timing, guiding the heroes' movements and clearing a path by triggering gadgets or moving harmful objects out of the way. However, this simple description fails to convey the creative dangers you'll encounter: giant hammers that swing down from the sky, crackling Tesla Coils, and blowpipe-toting midgets, to name three. Lil and Laarg start the game with large zeroes emblazoned on their fronts, and every time they come a cropper the number increases by one. Aside from being a timely reminder of your past failures, we're told that your total death count will have an effect on something else in terms of the long-term game, although the exact detail of this have yet to be revealed.
From the looks of things there will be plenty of in-game mechanics you'll need to master along your road to freedom. A quick up-down swipe will cause Laarg to butt-smash through weak floorboards, but if he's going to fall a long way you had better provide a soft landing - an old mattress, perhaps - otherwise he'll burst like a sack of gravy. Lil, meanwhile, can be inflated by using some sort of industrial pump, causing him (or perhaps her, I'm not sure) to puff up like a beach ball. At this point you can rotate our puffed-up protagonist with soft taps, and then squeeze him/her - by actually pinching the Vita - to produce a sort of high velocity fart. Gradually let off gas, and Lil will slowly start to sink; guff out the lot in one go and (s)he'll rocket across the room. Run out of air entirely, and you'll likely make an inky splat on the floor below.
There's something immediately gratifying about this tactile play, thanks largely to the fact that the controls feel simple and precise in equal measure. It doesn't hurt that the presentation is hugely endearing, either. Lil and Laarg are beautifully animated, with pale faces that recall Japanese kabuki masks, while their black-and-white prisons suggest a forgotten 50's sci-fi/horror flick. The soundtrack offers a mix of classical orchestral music and piano-led jazz, and every so often your actions are punctuated by mocking laughter and enthusiastic applause - the idea being that some of the game's minions are watching your efforts via CCTV.
It's weird stuff, but also hugely likeable. Escape Plan makes me want a Vita more than anything else I've seen for the platform thus far. There's no word on whether or not it's planned to be a launch title, but I certainly hope it is; as an early example of what Sony's new hardware can do, it's got serious potential.