Magnetic Realms’ Inescapable is a Metroidvania-style indie game of admirable constraint and deliberateness. Even for a one-man Amiga homage, it never overreaches in its pursuit of a specific type of gaming minimalism. In this day and age, this in turn creates a style, and atmosphere, that is much its own.
(It helps that Amiga-style platforming is seldom imitated these days. If you can still remember, Amiga games were often half-arsed ports from other platforms, with terrible palettes and clunky controls, bogged down by the constraints of the Atari ST.)
The keys to understanding Inescapable’s aims are the arts of 1) imitation and 2) limitation. Here, what was once a sheer necessity (say, a hardware constraint), is now a choice, or a decision, that enhances the game’s retro aspirations. Japan-based developer-designer Matt Fielding characterizes the game as being “…inspired by a wide range of classics of the genre such as Exile, Gods, Switchblade, Flashback and even the Dizzy series.”1
As imitation, Inescapable is almost pixel-perfect: Its look and feel are right on cue, modeling even the less-than-ideal parts of what made Amiga games tick. Its ladder-climbing animation is by far the funniest, and awkwardest, that I’ve seen in a long time (click to see an animation):
As far as limitations, then, Inescapable’s cumbersome, bare-bones combat too has been delegated to a secondary position, just as it was back in the early ’90s. If Inescapable wasn’t so tonally coherent, so focused, the above statement would be a damning criticism. Yet, Fielding’s choice to focus instead on platforming and puzzles for progress – in the stead of combat – feels like the right one in terms of the game’s identity.
Should we pursue the Amiga comparison to its final conclusion, even the game’s complete lack of background music could be taken as a nod to the memory constraints of the Amiga 500, a platform where games often came with the unfortunate choice of either a) music, or b) sound effects – seldom both. At times, I personally supported the game’s fine ambience with electronic music (Pregnant Head, anyone?), but the silence never hurt the game much. In fact, in the very beginning, the ominous lack of music only furthers the exploratory spirit of the game.
In terms of the graphics, then, the age-old Sega vs. Nintendo palette divide could come to play here. Those looking for bright colours and effects might come away looking disappointed, as Inescapable’s graphics are muted, saturated, and muddied. Much like the rest of the game, the visuals are notable for their effective understatedness. The game also comes with a “CRT” graphics filter that is highly recommended – even while playing on a CRT monitor! -, as the filter gives the game “That ’90s Look.” The environmental art very much recalls that of a Super Metroid or a, say, a Blackthorne.
Perhaps for the better, some of Inescapable’s retro-ness is just for show. The game supports gamepads, has fully customizable controls (see the option screen on the left), and five save game slots that can be saved to and loaded from at all times. These minor improvements are very meaningful, though saving does not actually save your position in the current room, which is slightly unfortunate (some puzzles would be rendered easier, more forgiving).
Inescapable also comes with a curious façade of a story arc that seems to take aim at the foundational clichés of the genre. There are plenty of minuscule hotspots in the game for the player to activate, and these consistently hint at what could be an “epic”, “heroic” story – that is, in a different time and place. But as with the rest of the game, these snippets and bits of writing are ultimately a tool – rather expertly utilized by Fielding – for creating an illusion, or a sense, of place – and at the very end of the game, a very specific mental space that the game ultimately, laudably, inhabits.
In fact, everything about the game seems so very, very deliberate. But not everything about it is perfect: Inescapable has great platforming mechanics, and for the most part, everything gels right up until repetition – largely brought on by increasing difficulty – starts to set in. Players will find themselves consistently low on energy, with brutal fall damage making every jump and fall a perilous enterprise. Be warned: Using the game’s few inconspicuous, non-refilling health stations too early in the game can also prove nigh-fatal.
As much fluidity as there is to the jumping and running, some of the game’s secondary features – like utilizing updrafts for alleviating and avoiding fall damage – are less clearly defined and visualized, making it hard to survive certain puzzles without a modicum of repetitive trial and error (and as such, failure). Furthermore, the lack of an auto-map – or just a map! – left me disoriented at times, running the same circular caverns back and forth.
(At one point, I even tried drawing a napkin-map of my very own. This cartographical attempt never brought me any additional success at navigation, however, given that the positioning of the different caves and routes seems to be a little strange, a little bit off.)
In a perfect world, I could see many players simply smooth-sailing their way through Inescapable without an ounce of backtracking or spatial confusion. Yet my personal run with the game was hardly that – one audacious, late-game platforming puzzle had me quitting the game several times, in anger, before ultimately pushing through with sheer review rage.
Of course, to my delight(!), Fielding has since made the game easier and/or more accessible: Fall damage has been practically removed, the updrafts that I had trouble spotting are now better visible, and even the physical layout of the environment supposedly makes more sense now. These changes should largely render my above complaints invalid, though I’m not sure whether or not these changes chip away at the core personality of the game a tiny bit. In any case, the above changes will surely make the game a much smoother experience.
More than anything, Inescapable – in the form that I played it – made me confront my own mortality as a gamer and a reviewer. It made me somewhat reconsider the video game reviewers of the magazines of my youth.
Either: How hard it must have been, pre-internet, to face these games of great difficulty, having to push forward alone, equipped just with your own skills and a perverted kind of perseverance. How ‘hardcore’, if you don’t mind the expression, these reviewers and critics must have been!
Or: How different it must have been to be not so shackled, or constrained, by the foolish assumption – or ethical demand, even – that reviewers actually play, or complete, video games… or, ultimately, the newfangled idea that video games are designed to be beat in the first place.