Gato Salvaje’s episodic AR-K series is one I haven’t been particularly kind to so far. The debut episode had illogical puzzles, initial translation issues, and some spotty voice acting. The second chapter was an improvement, but still had some notable gameplay issues and didn’t seem to advance the storyline very much. Then the indie Spanish developer took to Kickstarter to fund the next episode, with the promise of a new writer and other enhancements in store. So after all of that potential and previous disappointment, how does Episode 3: The Great Escape measure up? I am sincerely happy to report that the latest installment is indeed a vast improvement on virtually all fronts. Interface issues have been fixed, puzzles are sensible and fun to solve, and the plot is finally, FINALLY thickening. AR-K’s third episode still isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a solid chapter of adventure gaming and a very hopeful sign of the work yet to come in the series finale.
The Great Escape naturally resumes from the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 2. Our heroine, Alicia Van Volish, has just fallen into an abyss while searching the police station for information about the mysterious “Sector 8”. As Episode 3 begins, we find her in the middle of a pile of garbage with a broken leg and very little light. Things get better for Alicia from there, but not much. It turns out she has found the fabled Sector 8, but is now trapped inside it with the rest of its inhabitants. Alicia is immediately assigned to a factory with a schedule so gruelling she literally has to sabotage the entire workplace in order to get the time off she needs to escape. Fortunately she isn't alone in her efforts, as Franky the burger-flipping bull has followed her down in a noble but ill-conceived rescue attempt. The two join forces with Grigor, the soft-spoken twin brother of Alicia's now-two-night-stand Sascha Blaine. Apparently Sascha lived in Sector 8 years before and is, to date, its only escapee. The three hatch a plan to follow in his footsteps.
What makes this episode so much more engaging than the previous two are the characters. On the brighter levels of the AR-K, the floating space station all humanity seems to now live on, I couldn't really see what drove any of the people Alicia interacted with. Her roommate Nuno was depressed, but his despair seemed to be fuelled more by a desire to be emo than by any actual personal difficulties. I still have absolutely no idea why Alicia's professor, Reitherman, hated her so much. Perhaps this was a commentary on the lackadaisical nature of people living in a hypothetical utopia, but either way it made for a far less interesting cast.
The denizens of Sector 8, however, all have far more depth as a result of their harsher surroundings. They were all born being told they have an important job to do in keeping things on the AR-K running. They live in filth and don't seem to have any hope that things will ever improve, but a surprising number of them derive purpose and satisfaction in the knowledge of the good they're doing. Predictably, some of them have a major crisis of faith upon meeting Alicia and realizing that not only is their endless labor unappreciated by the surface, but their very existence isn't even public knowledge, to the point that nobody even knows there IS a Sector 8. The characters you meet (nearly all of them human, though some are unusually not) have different attitudes about their lives, but they all feel more like real people than the lighthearted (and occasionally silly) population living with on the surface. Even the alcoholic anteater overseer has more depth than Nuno.
This episode is also aided by the plot finally moving forward, in no small part due to bringing an experienced writer on board in the person of Greg Rucka, veteran comic book writer for both DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) and Marvel (Spider-Man, Wolverine). I obviously don't want to spoil anything, but The Great Escape sheds some light on the mysterious orb at the center of all of Alicia's troubles, as well as what the mysterious villains might be up to. There are still some questions to be answered, of course, but it's nice to see the story taking shape after so many hours of feeling directionless to this point. The revelations about Blaine's past through his brother also provide insight into one of the more enigmatic characters in the game. His loyalties are still questionable, mind you, as he's provided ample evidence that he could be on either side of whatever it is that's going on.
The interface is more streamlined here than in either of the previous episodes. There's less attempt to be creative with it, but I honestly feel this helps the game as a whole. Left-clicking on a hotspot interacts with it, while right-clicking is only used to get Alicia's description of an inventory item (a feature that was sorely lacking in Episode 2). Alicia no longer stores ideas as inventory, but you still collect and utilize objects with appropriate hotspots along this way, this time accessed from a bar at the bottom of the screen. One new addition is a map icon which allows Alicia to quickly move to any location she's visited previously.
The narrator from The Girl Who Wasn’t There is gone completely, without even an acknowledged send-off. He is eventually replaced here with a picture of Franky in the upper-left corner, who Alicia can communicate with throughout her exploration of Sector 8. Franky can be helpful as well; clicking on him and then on a hotspot will prompt him to tell you if he can assist you with something. Replacing an arbitrary fourth wall-breaking figure with a character that is actually in the game was an excellent move. More than ever, now Franky feels like a real ally of Alicia's.
The puzzles are also improved this time around. I took issue with the logic of some of the puzzles in the last two episodes, but had no such problems here. Some are a bit simple, such as when you have to do a bunch of random item trading to get something you need. Others are a bit trickier, like when you have to find clues left by Sascha to crack his safe. My favorite puzzle (and by far the most difficult of the episode) involves Alicia solving a decade-old mystery with only the vague testimonies of five witnesses. After studying a list of odd clues (including information on what the five suspects smelled like, no less) you need to accuse the right culprit and identify their motive. This essentially becomes a logic puzzle that is extremely fun and satisfying to solve.
Fortunately, what was strong in the last episode is still strong here. The graphics maintain their cartoonish charm, though they're much less bright and shiny in the dank recesses of Sector 8. The cinematics are the same quality as before, and like the in-game animation are simple but well-drawn. The voice acting, led by Ash Sroka as Alicia once again, is still top-notch, and it helps that the supporting characters have more depth to work with this time around. The other sounds are basic but effective, from lightly melancholic melodies in places like Grigor's cramped apartment and the infirmary, to ambient sounds like distant train rumblings, a crackling fire, and a staticky radio trying to blurt out an inappropriately jazzy tune. It all comes together to paint a picture of a world very different from the one we've been exploring in the last two episodes.
AR-K's third episode is not without its flaws. The mysterious villains still haven't been fleshed out enough to be truly interesting (or villainous). Between the fun and challenging puzzles are others that are straightforward. Some of the fourth wall-breaking jokes fall a little flat, and there are still some typos here and there in the subtitles (though significantly fewer than before). Clocking in at around 2-3 hours, the episode is also rather brief. But these are now nitpicks, not the kinds of serious issues that plagued its predecessors. The evolution of the AR-K series represents a young studio gradually reach their stride, learning from their mistakes as they go, and it's truly a pleasure to see. Gato Salvaje has one episode left to wrap the story up. If it improves on The Great Escape as much as every episode has improved on the one before it, it'll be awesome. I can't wait to play it.