Hazelight Studios might not be a name you’ve heard of before, but you certainly will do in the years to come after their recent release, A Way Out. Spoiler alert: I liked this one. A lot.
Hazelight’s debut exhibits a fresh and innovative approach to narrative-driven games with evident experience in its ability to feel like an instant classic with a retro charm on the first playthrough, and this starts with Josef Fares. Once again, whilst Fares might not exactly be a household name, but you might know him as that hero who screamed “fuck the Oscars!” during last year’s Game Awards.
Outside of becoming instant ammunition for numerous memes, the man’s CV is darn impressive: six feature films, several nominations in European cinema and 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons — his first foray into gaming and to good reception — and now a new IP with publisher EA.
So how does his newest creation showcase what Hazelight has to offer? Well, first and foremost, it must be stressed that this game is a trip down memory lane in more ways than one, but in the most immediate sense, it is because it takes you back to the summer holidays, staying in over rainy weekends and going around your mate’s after school. I’m talking about couch co-op.
Luckily, if you’re reading this then you’re most likely old enough to remember the days when playing with your friends wasn’t as easy as jumping online, creating a party and pulling an all-nighter: one of you had to actually go there to enjoy multiplayer! Split-screen only! But just because it wasn’t as easy as it is these days, does not mean it wasn’t a time of beauty found in simplest things.
‘Couch co-op’, or local multiplayer, was the primary marketing tool for this game: you play as two convicts, Vincent and Leo, as they escape from prison. Each character has their own personality and approach to certain situations, and like the good old days, split-screen seemed the natural choice.
When Fares first gave us a taste of A Way Out, he took the bold step of asserting how this game should be played. Of course, you can choose to play online, but as he stressed so passionately, playing alongside a friend in the comfort of your own home is the best way to enjoy this game, and I tend to agree. There’s nothing like screaming expletives at your partner face-to-face.
When I first picked up the game, there was a short period of adjustment as I realised just how long it had been since I had played a split-screen game. However, once I had acclimatised, the constantly switching and changing screen sizes made it feel like I was playing through a comic book, participating in one panel at a time, whilst my friend acted out the other.
The split-screen made for a high-octane, sweeping experience, busy with visuals during action sequences and with smooth and clever transitions when switching between moments that focus solely on one character, or when the camera widens for both of you to share the same shot. It becomes a narrative device of its own, highlighting the most important moment at any given time.
Moreover, the game takes this further and uses the split-screen to play with what your expectations of co-op are. There are many times when, despite being a team who rely on each other, you are instead forced to compete with one another, feeding off the dynamic between Leo and Vincent that starts out less than friendly, and given Fares’ cinematic expertise, it was no surprise that the direction of this game was excellent.
However, there are niggles about this game that my most critical side couldn’t ignore. For instance, an occasionally sticky and cumbersome cover system and fairly rudimentary shooting mechanics, but then again it was never advertised to be the most mechanically intricate or revolutionary game; instead, the focus was always going to be on story and how you interact with it.
Similarly, the puzzle-solving and quick time events, which make up the primary game mechanic, are nothing new or particularly tasking — the exception being a back-to-back climb up a tall shaft that features two meters and plenty of room for rage quits — but they serve the purpose of progressing through what is essentially another narrative-driven game. Whether it is in a crunch-time moment or a comedic mini-games like balancing a wheelchair, they get the job done.
Even the length of the first act, the actual prison break itself and the supporting character development therein could have been stretched out, sacrificed instead for Vincent and Leo taking centre stage throughout. But that’s just me wanting more of the game in all honesty; at the end of the day, the game is called A Way Out, so it was a narrative inevitability that they obviously knew they could pace through quite quickly.
Having said that, the portion of the game which you spend observing and plotting your escape from the prison was fun. It takes queues from jail-centric films and television like Shawshank Redemption and Prison Break, and not in an unoriginal or unsatisfying way, but in what that feels like a homage to these pop-culture classics; like they took notes on how to make an equally compelling narrative.
From a graphical standpoint, the game isn’t hugely impressive, but it feels clean and simplistic with plenty of charm in it’s minimalist style. The general gameplay, set-pieces and letter boxed cutscenes all line up perfectly to sustain your immersion throughout, making it feel like you are playing through a Hollywood blockbuster.
All things being considered, the game sucked me in to the very last and could school anyone on how to intertwine a balance of old-school co-op and tried and tested gameplay into a well-crafted and deeply satisfying narrative. Hopefully, Fares and his team at Hazelight can follow the likes of Naughty Dog, Quantic Dream and Hideo Kojima to create a true cinematic video game legacy.