A unique split screen co-op game with lofty ambitions and clunky details.
When A Way Out was revealed at E3 2017, it seemed like a fresh new co-op experience. Director Josef Fares, who also worked on the critically acclaimed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, promised to return audiences to the old-school experience of couch co-op games. Fares hoped to bring gamers the joy of being able to react to a game together, and though A Way Out ultimately delivered on that promise of a shared experience, the game itself is packed with unfortunate flaws.
Set in America in the 1970s, the story follows two inmates, Leo and Vincent, as they plot their escape from prison in order to take down the gangster who got them both wrongfully convicted.
In the character selection screen, Vincent is presented as stoic and level-headed – the foil to Leo’s personality as a brash-tempered joker. My co-op partner and I were expecting some witty banter to ensue between these two contrasting characters, but instead the dialogue was painfully awkward at worst, and forced at best. The most obvious attempt at humour between the two was a running gag concerning Leo’s fear of heights, which fell flat most of the time. There were also flashforward moments where Leo and Vincent would reflect on events that had transpired in the game, in an attempt to establish the massive journey the two men had taken so far. However, the dry voice acting and awkward dialogue left us feeling disconnected from our respective characters and their situations.
Since the story couldn’t be smoothed out by Leo and Vincent’s camaraderie, it had to be viewed with a more critical eye, and frankly the plot couldn’t support itself. Leo and Vincent are the only characters who receive any significant development – the rest are one-dimensional tropes and devices in order to carry the plot. The played out tropes of “left behind wife” and “abandoned son” left us feeling cold, any potentially interesting characters were dismissed after one conversation, and the Big Bad was hardly ever on screen. It was difficult to root for our characters when we felt almost nothing towards their plight.
The game started out promisingly in the beginning, with some of the best moments coming from inside the prison. The split screen mechanic is instantly something that drew us in, and it led to some great co op moments. There was real tension when we had to work together in order to stealthily evade the prison guards. Vincent desperately trying to distract a nurse while Leo smuggles a tool from the infirmary, or Leo calling out approaching guards while Vincent frantically unscrews a toilet from his cell wall; those were the moments where A Way Out‘s gameplay truly shone.
The split screen was wielded masterfully from a cinematic perspective as well, with one side of the screen being enlarged for either Leo or Vincent in order to give them their own important moments, or the two sides being merged whenever the two men met up. There were some truly beautiful moments that were definitely aided by the creative possibilities that the split-screen allowed.
There were an array of interesting characters available to talk to, and, if given a chance, certain inmates could have provided valuable character development for our main two. Having recurring acquaintances in prison could have added more flavour to the world as well, and wouldn’t force them to later rely on Leo and Vincent’s bland families as the only supporting cast. Unfortunately, the game didn’t stick with its initial style, and things became messy after escaping prison.
The gameplay began to feel like the developer was spinning a roulette wheel each time, shoehorning random missions into the story. Sticking to one gameplay genre and letting us improve at the mechanics would have been far preferable to what we instead received, which was a strange cocktail of everything: from spear fishing, to white water rafting, to a car chase. Each new gameplay element felt half-baked because of this, as there was never enough time to explore each new mechanic.
Once we reached the latter half, the game gradually devolved into a budget Uncharted, with the (first) climax involving Leo and Vincent mowing down hundreds of faceless henchmen in clunky cover shooter sequences. This especially felt like a slap in the face after the game had initially presented us with the choice to resolve situations either peacefully or with violence.
Brutally murdering the overarching villain led Leo and Vincent to the final reveal, which took everything we had learned over the course of our journey and completely flipped it on its head within the final hour of gameplay. The reveal caused some former plot discrepancies to actually make sense, and it also created an exciting feeling of distrust between my co-op partner and myself. This novelty twist unfortunately came at the cost of discrediting everything Leo and Vincent previously went through, making what prior bonding took place between the two characters feel like a big charade.
Though ultimately the game felt lacking in direction, with a tone that wavered throughout, it was saved by its core goal: to provide a fun two-player experience.
A Way Out provided us with plenty of laughs, even when it perhaps didn’t mean to. There was nothing funnier than watching Vincent and his wife tearfully greet their newborn daughter on one half of the screen, while Leo gracelessly fell off of a hospital wheelchair in a poorly-timed minigame on the other half. Similarly, when Leo had an emotional discussion with his wife, while Vincent spent his time trapped on a basketball court, forced to endlessly shoot hoops with Leo’s son until his screen was gradually phased out.
It also gave us plenty of opportunities to communicate and work together as a team, even if the mechanics were less than stellar.
In the end, A Way Out functioned as a vehicle for my co-op partner and I to have a uniquely enjoyable gaming experience together. Though it wasn’t an excellent game, critically speaking, it was definitely worth the time we spent on it.
An admirable feature of A Way Out is that it allows two people to play the full game together, with only one purchase necessary. A budget buy available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, I would recommend giving it a shot, even if it’s only to share a laugh with a friend.