A Way Out is not really the hard-hitting, serious, emotional tale of two convicts escaping prison it appears to be. At times, it successfully strikes those notes, but extreme tonal shifts, gimmicky QTEs, and a terrible finale kill almost any emotion or tension contained in the game. In the end, entertaining environments and some inventive set pieces prove to be its saving grace.
Like director Josef Fares' last game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out contains two protagonists who experience the game's story together. Unlike Brothers, however, you'll need a friend to play with this time round; A Way Out is only playable in co-op, either locally or online. Whichever you choose, you'll always be playing in a split-screen that dynamically shifts between the respective views of Leo--a reckless, aggressive gangster cliche--and Vincent--a more cool-headed family man.
Sometimes the screen will be split vertically, sometimes horizontally; sometimes evenly, sometimes unevenly; and sometimes not at all. This framing device is mostly used in interesting ways, such as giving more screen space to whoever's performing a more important action, or splitting the TV in three to also dedicate real estate to an attacking NPC. However, it can be a source of irritation, such as when I was talking to a friendly character, only for my partner to trigger a cutscene and for the screen to shift entirely to his view, ending my conversation prematurely.
This is a problem faced outside of cutscenes, too. A Way Out's small explorable environments often contain multiple characters to chat with, but if you and your co-op buddy both engage in different conversations at the same time, the game has no better answer than to play all the audio in parallel, meaning you struggle to hear either of the conversations happening in front of you. The problem is alleviated slightly if you turn subtitles on, as each side of the screen contains its own set, but the overlapping sound is still distracting.
Such issues do irritate, but they are more of a footnote than a major strike against A Way Out's co-op-only nature. Without a partner in crime, some of the game's standout moments wouldn't feel nearly as impactful. In one early scene, Leo and Vincent are attempting to hack away at their respective jail cells using a screwdriver. While your partner stabs the wall behind his toilet, you must keep watch from your adjacent cell for patrolling guards, occupying them when they get too close and warning the other player to look natural when your distraction fails.
This is when A Way Out is at its best: communicating with (and relying on) your partner both in-game and in real life makes these moments of tension consistently thrilling. There are a handful of these set pieces throughout the 7-8 hour campaign that feel unique and justify the decision of forcing you to play with another person.
The tone veers wildly from a Shawshank-inspired escape tale to a silly semi-parody of '70s crime dramas
But while those moments do carry some tension, it's because you're sat next (or talking) to someone you care about and never because you're playing as someone you care for. The protagonists and their motivations are the most generic B-movie fodder--gangsters with escape and revenge on their minds, but with the hackneyed added layer of troubled families. To make matters worse, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural. Conversations often end abruptly (regardless of whether your partner triggers a cutscene), and entire scenes go by without adding anything in terms of plot or characterization. Some lines in particular are cringeworthy--during one sequence in which a couple are interrupted while having sex, a female extra instructs her male partner to shut the door by saying, "I'm gettin' cold in my lady parts."
The tone veers wildly from a Shawshank-inspired escape tale to a silly semi-parody of '70s crime dramas, complete with overextended sideburns and an assassination across the border in a villain's remote Mexican lair. In one scene, A Way Out nails the feel of punishing prison life, and in another it lets you act like children on a playground swing. Sometimes those conflicting tones even crop up in parallel. One poignant late-game moment--where my character learned some surprising and emotional news on one side of the screen--was ruined by my partner interacting with a bicycle bell on the other side that caused his character to exclaim, "Ring ring, motherf***er!"
If it's not the dialogue dampening moments of tension, it's the game's numerous QTEs. While A Way Out does use timed button-tapping well in some instances, such as when our characters must time their pushes up a vent shaft while standing back-to-back, it also wastes scenes with gimmicky implementations. The final playable section of the game--the crux of this entire plot and hours of journeying and escaping and chasing--boils down to mashing Square / X. A Way Out's third and fourth acts are by far its weakest: save for one inventive story beat, all creativity is lost and the game turns into a mediocre action romp with anemic shooting and little else to do or care about.
Luckily, the rest of the game (which is much longer than the mercifully contracted finale) contains more interesting and varied environments. Throughout your journey, you'll travel from the prison to a forest, a farm, a cinema, a trailer park, and more, and each is filled with objects to interact with, puzzles to solve, and people to talk to. These diverse areas are small but dense, and they add color to what could otherwise be a monochrome world of good and bad. The trailer park was a personal favorite, offering a chance to pause and play some baseball or chat to secondary characters. There's even a Trophy / Achievement for exposing the aforementioned couple to the man's jilted wife. That this captivating space comes during what should be a time-sensitive moment, when playing baseball or exposing adulterous men would be the last things on anyone's mind, says everything about A Way Out's story and tone, however.
A Way Out has problems. By the time the credits rolled, my partner and I didn't really feel like we'd been on much of a journey with Leo and Vincent. We'd been on a geographical tour, sure--one that was often trite, gimmicky, or cringeworthy--but we didn't feel the pair had learned anything or grown in any meaningful way. I did, however, enjoy the journey I'd been on with my friend sat next to me. We had to look out for each other while escaping prison, work together to solve puzzles, and save each other's life on multiple occasions. Our characters might not have grown closer together, but A Way Out's forced co-op is worth it for the few standout moments it provides.