A Way Out review: EA’s prison escape drama never quite breaks free from the rails

Price when reviewed

Sofa-based multiplayer games have gone out of fashion in recent years. So have games where the story can be played with friends. A Way Out – the prison break adventure from the makers of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – looks to right both these wrongs, but it’s probably best to explore what it doesn’t achieve first.

It’s not a hard game, nor is it really an action game. It barely feels like a game at all, at times, playing more like one of Telltale Games’ interactive stories, only without the illusion of choice.[gallery:1]

That will feel like enough reason to pass, for some, but for all its deficiencies, A Way Out offers a great deal of charm along the way – and somehow playing a story-based game with a friend makes it the kind of memorable shared gaming experience than even the likes of Left 4 Dead or Overcooked can’t match.

First off, the game can’t be played on your own, and that feels like the right call. It’s online or split-screen co-op play only, and if you choose the latter, the screen divides dynamically in relation to the importance of what’s going on. It does this in a way which isn’t too distracting, but it’s not perfect – when you’re both talking to different characters, for example, the game mutes whoever started their conversation last, leaving the muted player reading half a screen’s worth of captions to keep up with their own share of the story.

I want to break free[gallery:2]

Pre-release footage made A Way Out seem all about the prison break: covert messages, tools being shared and schemes hatched along the way. In fact, the prison section is actually over rather quickly, but while that may seem like a bad thing, it’s only when you escape the confines of the jail that things – appropriately – open up. The lead up to the big escape isn’t half as exciting as it sounds, with the game telling you exactly what to do and when: this isn’t The Escapists, and frankly escaping the awkward prison dialogue was probably more of an incentive for breaking out than the daily beatings (my character was called “New Fish” no fewer than four times in the first scene. Four.)

So if you don’t actively plan an escape, what do you do? In true Telltale style, you play along with the story as it’s written. That means button mashing in time to on-screen prompts for fights, finding the item/person you need and pushing a button, or some very limited stealth sections where you evade the detection of some willfully underqualified guards. Occasionally the game will have you teaming up to do something: one player may have to talk to someone to make them look away while the other nips past, for example, but there’s no self-congratulatory pat on the back for figuring it out. The game literally tells you to do it. If you fail, don’t worry: just try again until you get it right.[gallery:3]

In other words, it’s like Quantic Dream remade Heavy Rain to have just the one possible outcome. And the results are kind of entertaining, but not the gripping, action-packed gaming experience that early footage suggested it would be. The good news is that once you’re out of the prison, things get a fair bit more lively, with entertaining action sequences (who doesn’t love a car chase?) interspersed with opportunities to explore a wider area at your own pace. And while it doesn’t improve upon the hackneyed idea of PG prison dialogue much, it can at least raise a chuckle – just see what happens if both you and your partner decide to sit on a playground spring rocker at the same time.

Just the two of us

There are a couple of reasons why I still think A Way Out is worth your time, but little shared discoveries like that really reach the nub of it for me. This is the very essence of playing a game together. With a good friend by your side, everything is more entertaining, from your own stupid jokes spicing up the dialogue to setting minigame high scores for the other player to knock down. Discovering things together is also joyful: there’s one scene where the game offers a very basic version of Guitar Hero where you can make “beautiful” music together with a banjo and a piano. These little details make an awful lot of difference when the gameplay often comes down to pressing buttons and rotating analogue sticks at the same time and makes the game a lot more than the sum of its parts.[gallery:4]

The second big attraction is the price. EA has sensibly decided not to charge the standard £45 for the release on Xbox One or PlayStation 4, picking a far more reasonable £25. Right now on Amazon, Prime members can pre-order it for £20. Bearing in mind that only one player needs a disk to play, that’s better value than seeing a somewhat predictable prison drama at the cinema, in any case.

With a mediocre cinema trip, you can look forward to picking it apart with friends afterwards. With A Way Out that life-affirming ritual can take place up to and including the moment when the end credits roll – and it’s all the better for it. It may not be the game that I was expecting, but I for one hope it inspires a whole new subgenre to spring up.

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