When I first heard rumours back in 2010 about the various patents filed by Sony for the highly anticipated ‘PSP 2’, I was intrigued by the inclusion a rear touchpad that was capable of driving the device’s UI.
In retrospect, it was surprising that such an ingenious solution had not been brought to market sooner. I speculated on all the benefits that such an interface could have on the end user’s experience. Being able to scroll, swipe, pinch and pan without covering any of the screen seemed revolutionary. When I finally got my hands on the PS Vita, I could see the potential immediately.
The only gesture that doesn’t work in practice is the ‘tap’. Without a visible cursor, tapping is an interaction which is difficult to pull off blind with any kind of precision.
Enter Escape Plan; A beautiful game that is inherently flawed based on the above principle. Aesthetically, this title looks and sounds like a Tim Burton animated feature that’s been given the Pixar treatment. Our two androgynous protagonists, Lil and Laarg, are likable – if rather limited - and the monotone visuals are complimented by some well-known classical scores.
Gameplay relies almost completely on touch, with the exception of the right analog stick - which controls the camera - and the in-built accelerometer. The main function for the rear touchpad is to push platforms and pistons out of the walls, which is where the control scheme fails. It soon becomes very difficult to manipulate the characters and other objects using the front screen, while timing precision taps using the rear pad. All too often, you will miss your intended target, condemning Lil or Laarg to a rather messy (and flatulent) death.
Trying to hold the device steady while you’re using every available digit to tap, squeeze and spin your way to victory can also become problematic, especially when you have to shift the camera manually. I nearly dropped the unit on several occasions, prompting Tourette-like outbursts that caused some concern amongst family/friends/complete strangers.
Unlike Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, where constantly failing and restarting happens instantly, Escape Plan can become infuriating because you feel as if you’re fighting the game’s fundamental shortcomings. The reload times are only a few seconds, but in the context of a portable experience, it can seem like an eternity.
And while it was never too taxing to deduce the most appropriate escape route, I often found myself trapped in relatively simple rooms, progressing only through a mixture of perseverance and blind luck. The scoring system (a three-star meter) is not very intuitive either, marking you on the time and number of gestures taken. This means that accidental brushes against both pads can severely hamper your aggregate score.
Play through time for Escape Plan was just over three hours. I finished the story whilst trapped on a rather unpleasant commute (I hereby apologise to my fellow travellers for my behaviour). This probably brought me closer to the plight of the two protagonists, but in the end I was left unimpressed by the overall experience of a game which sadly never fully realises its potential.
At £9.99 Escape Plan may well be overpriced when compared to its counterparts on other mobile platforms. However, it is evident from the menu screen that a multiplayer component will be implemented in the near future, which may add some much needed replay value.
The developer, Fun Bits Interactive, certainly had a tough assignment; to produce an original launch IP that exhibits all of the PS Vita’s marketable features, yet retains the everyman appeal of today’s mobile classics. In this respect, it has fulfilled its remit.
Ultimately, however, it has produced a title that surpasses the standard bearers on the technical front, but lacks the charm and playability of the more established franchises.