PC, Xbox One
The first thing I did when I began my playthrough of indie studio Mouldy Toof’s latest game ‘The Escapists’ was construct an elaborate back story for my character: he was a gentleman thief, a cat burglar, strictly non-violent, who had been double crossed whilst committing his last big job and framed for murder. Now he needed to bust out of the pen in order to clear his name and reclaim his share of the score.
With these understandable, albeit cliché, motives in mind, I was ready to get down to the business of The Escapists: escaping.
And that’s where things got trickier. Unlike what so many TV shows and Hollywood movies would have you believe, breaking out of prison was difficult. It took planning, rather than a montage punctuated by catchy music; precision, rather than scrappy luck; and, above all it took patience. Forget high octane moments or riding a constant wave of adrenalin, my escape was all about counting footsteps, pumping iron and hoarding contraband.
Despite its adorable 2D sprites and pixel art graphics, The Escapists is no walk in the park. Playing a bit like the evil twin to Prison Architect, your overarching goal is to escape, but you must do this whilst managing the everyday routine of life in prison. There is a strict schedule of eating, exercising and work to adhere to, guards to avoid, fellow inmates to deal with and the ever present threat of a random cell shakedown hovering over you.
How you manage all of this and ultimately escape is largely up to you. The Escapists treads a fine line between sandbox and puzzle games; however, unlike puzzle games, there is no single solution. You could exercise until you’re strong enough to take a hostage and brazenly force your way out or steal a screwdriver and sneak into the air vents to get to the tunnel you’ve been surreptitiously digging for the past month. There are a range of items and systems that make up the pieces of the puzzle and the key is to learn, control and subvert them in a way that can be used to your advantage.
However, this openness is not without its flaws. Though there is a brief tutorial at the start of the game, it doesn’t explain a great deal about the actual process of escaping and it is pretty much left up to the player to determine how the game works. While this encourages exploration, it can also result in a bit of frustration as you get your head around the various systems of the game and the best ways to utilise them. It took me several in-game days to memorise the daily routine but, once I had, I realised mealtimes provided a great opportunity to sneak into other inmates’ cells and rummage through their stuff for good items.
One thing The Escapists prisons do have in common with Hollywood prisons is a thriving black market. Each of The Escapists nine prisons may have a different aesthetic and security level but they all seem to run on a solid foundation of contraband and it is these items that form the cornerstone of any good escape plan. Stealing from your fellow inmates is one way to get them, but this can often result in unwanted attention from either them or the guards, so buying items is another way. Money can be earned either by doing favours for inmates (which quite often entailed beating somebody up, whether for revenge or distraction) or completing work quotas at your prison job, should you be canny enough to have one.
Items can also be crafted, which is where the free range of the open world shows its more frustrating side again. Crafting notes, recipes for making items, can be stolen or bought throughout the prison but without these crafting is pretty much a guessing game. Logic dictates, to me at least, that a bar of soap and a plastic knife should be able to carve a fake gun, but no dice. On the other hand, shivs, the must-have prison accessory, are crafted via rubbing an item like a toothbrush on the wall, which I only discovered by consulting a guide after being on the receiving end of one for the umpteenth time.
Many other elements can make or break your escape plan: prison jobs, as briefly mentioned, can offer advantages such as access to guards’ uniforms or places to hide contraband in the event of a random cell search. Your relationship with guards and inmates alike is also important as a friendly inmate can be persuaded to do your bidding or fight for you if things go violent while a suspicious guard will be keeping an extra close eye on your activities. Between them and the security cameras and contraband detectors dotted around the place, constant vigilance is required to avoid anyone getting wind of your bid for freedom.
There are lots of charming details amidst all this prison grimness too: inmates will do anything from share gossip to quote movies as they walk past you (though actually clicking on them to engage in conversation can be tricky) and you have the option to rename them anything you like. I took the opportunity to name all the prisoners after Player2 writers and the guards after my past and present editors, (Hang on what??? – Ed) which often had me snickering. And there are plans in the future for both multiplayer integration and a level editor to be released in the near future, which will add some variety.
Overall, The Escapists is a solid game, the only real falling down of which is that it sounds a little more exciting to play than it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, it is immensely satisfying to carefully plot and execute an escape plan, however, the day-to-day of prison life in the course of this execution can get very tedious. Maintaining the strength or intelligence required for your particular plan, keeping up with work quotas to retain the job vital to its execution, ensuring the illegal items you’ve carefully hoarded aren’t found, all of these require a delicate balancing act that can get a little boring – and a bored prisoner is not an alert prisoner. Random chance can play a part too – don’t get me started on how infuriating it is to be so close to escaping, only to wind up in solitary for a week with a tossed cell after wandering too close to an antagonistic inmate!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go work my frustrations out in the gym. And if Officer Matt comes looking for me, you didn’t see nothing, you hear?