Lil and Laarg aren't the type of guys to make their prison beds and lie in them. Captured by the tyrannous Bakuki, the duo quickly embark on an escape mission through roughly 80 rooms of Escape Plan's labyrinthine prison.
It's never as simple as jimmying open a well-placed window with a convenient crowbar, though – in fact, the Nightmare Before Christmas-esque characters can't wield tools of any sort. Success hinges directly on Lil and Laarg's own abilities and timely movements, plus a little help from your guiding hand, of course.
Locked doors are the least of your problems, though ultimately those bolted metallic hatches are often the only way out. The cells are filled with gaping abysses like they're going out of fashion, deadly Tesla coils, blades and more. Most of these obstacles can only be overcome with direct intervention with a touch of your finger – swirling a fan around to cool blistering lava, for example – but your wards have a few tricks at their disposal too.
Caffeine amps Lil up; letting him guzzle at a coffee machine puts him into a giddy, gibbering state that gifts him temporary speed boosts. He's happy to attach himself to the nozzles of helium canisters also, transforming him into a balloon-like form that moves through the delectable power of wind-breaking. Laarg uses his stocky stature to barrel through wooden blockades, and each of the pair is able to jump into bubbles to float about in a more sanitary manner.
Escape Plan couldn't be emulated on any other system without losing something; the use of both touch surfaces and tilt is essential. Lil and Laarg's special abilities are activated by pinching them on the screen and rear touch pad simultaneously; blocks are pushed in and out of the background with careful presses on the front and back of Vita. The protagonists are moved with directing drags on the touch screen; enemies are distracted with back-taps, helpful sheep steered onto door-opening buttons with back-swipes. Floating characters' movement is adjusted with SixAxis motion.
Escape Plan isn't hugely challenging, but it has moments that make the ever-present 'skip level' function tempting, included so that all of the content can be seen by every player. What it is, though, is consistently creative. New elements are introduced at a steady pace, and most rooms are different without being overbearing. You don't get a chance to get bored during the four hours the first play offers because the challenges are always changing.
To encourage repeat play, each stage is graded with a star ranking system based on speed of completion and number of gestures used – the lower the better on both counts. A weekly challenge mode will be integrated in the near future, though the update hasn't gone live at the time of writing.
However, the touch controls occasionally become an obstacle in their own right. The prisoners are moved by tracing over them in the desired direction, but the input needs a degree of accuracy that can be difficult to achieve when you're switching between hazards over the front and rear of the console at speed. They work, but repeat attempts are sometimes required.
Since everything is done by finger, Escape Plan can get confused about what you want to do – levers are shifted with a drag, but if Lil happens to stop behind one then it can be difficult to get him away from it, the attempt to guide him being taken as a command to grab onto the lever instead. A point and click system that still required direct control to activate special moves or stop movement might have worked better.
The black and white visuals, abstract character babbles and a soundtrack made up of famous classical pieces, such as Flight of the Bumblebee, combine to make up a fantastic, distinct style. These choices contrast wonderfully with the semi-futuristic setting of the metallic prison; Escape Plan is a joy to look at and listen to.
There's another stark contrariety too: the adorable characters, including the dumpy enemy grunts, don't even hint at the level of violence contained within. Defeat often results in huge blood splatters across the floor and walls, which is a shocking – but brutally hilarious — incentive not to mess up again. Unlimited lives are at your disposal, but every failure is added to a tally on Lil and Laarg's tummies, relentlessly taunting you with an always-visible death toll that definitely will increase with regularity.
Escape Plan's style and intelligent use of Vita's inputs come together to make it one of the more compelling titles in the system's launch line-up. It harbours the odd control issue and is over pretty quickly, but that doesn't mean that it deserves to be locked away and abandoned in the PlayStation Store – far from it. It's inventive and entertaining and a versatile display of just what Vita can do.