If you want to play A Way Out, you're going to have to bring a friend along for the ride, because Hazelight's debut game is a co-op only adventure designed for two players to tackle in tandem. It might be the studio's first title, but it's the second from creator-in-chief Josef Fares, who has built on his stellar work on a Brother: A Tale of Two Sons (which he made with Starbreeze) with an equally ambitious game that once again actively works to subvert player expectations.
From a mechanical perspective, A Way Out is an extremely interesting and highly engaging game. The version we played for review was local co-op only, but at launch an online mode will also be available, however, even if you're playing online, you're still going to share a split-screen with your partner, and you'll both see everything that happens at all times. You won't always have half the screen each, but you will both see the exact same images throughout the seven-hour campaign. It can get busy and sometimes you'll miss things, but you simply cannot look away either.
You can see the cinematic heritage of director Fares throughout the story, and you'll pick up on scenarios that flirt with homage, not overtly, but enough to make this feel like it has been heavily influenced by Hollywood. It looks slick, too, with the screen often partitioned into smaller sections, each one showing something different, creating a visual richness that's easy to appreciate. Normally it's just the two leads, Leo and Vincent, but other times we can also see what other characters are up to.
The co-op gameplay is divided very simply, with one player controlling Leo, while the other player takes on the role of Vincent. The two characters are often polar opposites, beyond their shared criminality, with Vincent cooler and more measured than the impetuous and aggressive Leo. We found ourselves gravitating towards Leo because, of the two people playing, we felt better aligned with his more proactive nature, while our partner was happier playing the more reserved Vincent. We can imagine that most people who play will sort themselves similarly, wearing the pair of shoes that best fits their personality.
The players first take control of their characters as Vincent rolls into prison on a bus, while at the same time Leo patrols the yard. Watching from above, Vincent can see his co-op partner disembark and make his way into the bowels of the facility, and then while he is being processed Leo can talk to other inmates outside. The whole thing plays out at the same time, with Leo's meandering walk around the yard juxtaposing Vincent's introduction to prison life.
Eventually, the two are introduced, with their meeting taking place in the midst of a fistfight. Both men are thrown into a melee with prisoners who are looking to kill Leo, with the action taking place out in the yard, and later there's another scrap in the cafeteria. Thereafter, with both men in the infirmary, Leo spots a tool that might help him escape, and with Vincent prepared to act as a lookout while he stealths through the ward to fetch it, the pair start their journey towards escape and, ultimately, revenge.
In terms of the controls, there's nothing particularly interesting going on, with basic movement and dialogue options available from the start. You can interact with certain items in the environment and there are lots of quick-time events, but you'd have to say that, in terms of traversal and interaction, A Way Out is largely unremarkable. Where the game shines, however, is the point where the players' relatively mundane actions intersect. Whether it's two strands of the same story playing out on different halves of the screen like at the very start, or both characters sharing the screen in scenes during which both players shoulder the burden of hitting buttons when prompted, like the fight in the yard, there's a lot of clever stuff going on.
One of our favourite moments from near the start of the game saw the two men taking it in turns to act as lookout during the night, watching for patrols while the other used the tool stolen from the infirmary to make an exit in his respective cell. There's just the right amount of things to do on-screen that means you have to rely on your partner's eyes while you focus on the task at hand - removing bolts, chipping away at plaster, and moving everything back into place before the guards come back - and it's a sign of things to come, because advancement requires coordination at regular intervals.
We don't want to delve too deeply into the story for fear of spoiling something, because as anyone who has played Brothers will tell you, there are clever moments waiting to be discovered that are best served fresh, but we will say that we were engaged throughout. We thought the overall pacing of the story was solid, and there were plenty of satisfying moments where Hazelight made clever use of the co-op mechanics, during combat and stealth sections in particular, as well as during more novel situations that we won't spoil here. We will add, however, that several of the sections felt rather forced, with environments clearly built to facilitate co-op gameplay, like a section where some old tires were stored on an inaccessible balcony that required coordination to reach, just because.
Interestingly, the different personalities of Leo and Vincent can lead to alternative dialogue options and contrasting outcomes to certain situations, with Leo's more aggressive nature often leading to more violent outcomes, whereas Vincent often wants to let things play out more diplomatically. Certain situations offer you a choice between one approach or the other, and you won't be able to progress before you've both come to an agreement on how to proceed. It's a neat system, and it helps with replayability, giving an incentive to those who want to go back and take a second pass with the other character. We also really liked the little activities scattered throughout, as you can play arcade games or arm wrestle or throw darts, with scores on-screen to facilitate a little friendly rivalry.
Despite being engaging from a mechanical perspective and offering distractions and alternative solutions to various scenarios, it's actually a very prescriptive experience and there's very little in the way of player agency. Given how the two stories are entwined that makes perfect sense, and it's also to be expected given the heavy emphasis on narrative, but there are a few issues that arise from that.
The biggest problem is the writing, and it affects the game from start to finish. This is clearly the work of someone writing in their second language, and often the dialogue is a little wooden or unconvincing. Instead of a natural back and forth between the characters, the exchanges can sometimes feel a little stilted. Elsewhere we noticed turns of phrase that didn't quite ring true, the kind of phrases that are close to being accurate, but just wrong enough to jar with a native speaker who's been using them all their life.
At times things also felt a little rushed, and the story is forced out via exposition-heavy dialogue that doesn't develop the characters at all and which serves only to further our understanding of events in general, rather than enriching our appreciation of each passing moment. Sometimes we wanted the action to just slow down a bit, giving the characters more time to breathe.
Then there are the plot holes and inconsistencies that regularly popped up. Upon completing the game a number of our questions were explained away by events, but not everything made complete sense or had us entirely convinced. Our main issue was that at times there was a lack of detail, and instead of the exposition-heavy dialogue, we think the story could have done with some additional substance and a touch more creative flair. Perhaps they didn't want to overdo the cinematic angle, but just a couple of scenes focused on the manhunt, for example, would have cranked up the tension a bit, and there were a few characters that we thought were a little undercooked.
The bluntness of some of the writing meant that it was hard for the actors to shine, but even then some of the pacing in the dialogue was a touch too slow, which only emphasised the shortcomings elsewhere. It's not a bad story - actually we rather enjoyed the premise - but the delivery isn't great and it lacked a layer of polish that would have seen the score go up a notch or two. It's not a terminal problem by any means, but when a game hinges so heavily on a story and its telling, it's the little details that make all the difference.
If this was a film, the score would be much lower, but the interactive elements, however inevitable and scripted they may be, enhanced the overall experience. Despite a few missteps, there are some real standout moments waiting to be enjoyed, and if you like co-op games and have a regular partner for same-screen gaming, then you're going to want to take a closer look. It's not perfect by any means, but it's still worth your attention. Once the credits have rolled and you're done with it, you might not feel the need to play through the story a second time, but you will have still played a unique and engaging game that dares to do something different in an industry that's often frightened to take risks.
We're delighted that Fares and his team at Hazelight made this game, and we want to see more from the studio in the future because while this debut title may be flawed, it's equal parts fascinating. We might not be at all inclined to pick up the controller and go again, yet we can't stop thinking about what we just experienced either, and that alone makes A Way Out an interesting proposition in an industry overflowing with sequels and remasters.