Note: A Way Out doesn’t require two copies of the game for online co-op. The Friend Pass system allows anyone who owns A Way Out to invite a friend to play on PC or console.
Co-op only, split-screen, and with a focus on working together. A cinematic tale of two men attempting to break out of prison and find their double-crosser. A Way Out from indie studio Hazelight Studios and writer-director Josef Fares is without a doubt, memorable. Not only in its ambitious execution, where the split-screen presentation cleverly shifts focus depending on the needs of the story, but also in how it aims to use player co-operation to provide a dramatic, tense, and unexpected conclusion.
And to give each player a definable role to play in a story filled with numerous twists and turns.
In A Way Out two players take on the role of either Leo or Vincent, inmates in an American prison circa the early parts of the 1970s. Having never met the two find themselves in adjacent cells, and soon enough begin to share aspirations of breaking-out to right perceived wrongs. There’s an element of Telltale’s cinematic adventure games like The Walking Dead to the setup, in that story trumps freedom and experimentation. And is mostly linear. Where A Way Out takes on a feeling all its own though is with the split-screen presentation. Designed to be played in its entirety this way, as a co-op experience, just about every aspect benefits.
Player choice not only in who gets to be Leo or Vincent, but also how to proceed or which route to take. Outside of deciding on whether to listen to Leo’s advice and steal a cop car to race across a bridge, or Vincent’s more reasonable ‘let’s hide underneath and go that way’ - A Way Out actively attempts to put each player into their role. And mostly succeeds. As the hot head, or more boisterous one, acting impulsive as Leo makes sense. On the flip side to this attempting to talk your way out of a situation as Vincent begins to feel natural.
One of the subtler charms of A Way Out is that deciding to listen to Vincent or Leo makes as much sense as listening to your real-life co-op partner.
But, A Way Out relies heavily on familiar tropes found in several cinematic action-adventure games. From overly thrilling escape sequences involving death defying jumps and hanging onto ledges through to shooting at an endless stream of bad-guy cars that stop chasing you after you blow up or crash a certain amount. Most of the prison sequences are lifted wholesale from films too, where tarring a roof and asking for beers is pure The Shawshank Redemption. As is breaking into the warden’s office - where you wouldn’t be amiss to wonder if Leo and Vincent were there to do his taxes.
But there’s an undeniable appeal in getting to live these recognisable moments in a co-op game. Where having Vincent distract a guard whilst Leo attempts to find a way out of his cell is but one of many great moments that’s also more than a little familiar.
Unfortunately this means that authenticity is almost completely absent from A Way Out’s story, which for the most part feels like a compendium of stuff you’ve seen before in a movie from the ‘80s or ‘90s. Even Tango & Cash gets a nod in the rain-soaked rooftop escape sequence. This also extends to most of the superfluous dialogue, which is reminiscent of both popular and even generic cinema. Now, at this point one might be thinking that A Way Out might be a narrative misfire. It isn’t.
Where A Way Out succeeds, is where it ultimately counts – in establishing the relationship between Leo and Vincent and using that a basis to build a fun and engaging co-operative experience. One could even point to the often-predictable dialogue as an excuse for players to inject more of themselves into either protagonist. An act that adds immeasurable charm to an otherwise ‘seen-it-before’ tale.
Even the chase sequences and end-of-your seat moments begin to feel more personal and engaging the more invested you are as either Leo or Vincent. The shifts in perspective and the way in which the camera and pacing plays with the co-op nature of the premise is often impressive. From a hospital escape that feels every bit as thrilling as any scripted sequence of events we’ve seen, that also includes a strange yet brilliant homage to Oldboy, through to a scene where you also get to see an antagonist’s perspective in a three-screen split as he tries to hunt you down. And then there’s the dramatic conclusion that elevates A Way Out as a game mainly due to how it plays with the mechanics and idea of co-operation itself. Even though the twist is not all that original.
Above all else, and despite its similarities and homages to several films and other properties A Way Out surprises with little touches and moments of joy. Stopping to play Connect Four in a hospital waiting room or picking up a banjo for a strum in a farmer’s house after washing his dishes and stealing his clothes. A Way Out understands that co-op can be fun and spontaneous in addition to providing another tense moment requiring coordination.