The scene was set for an audacious escape. The dummy was tucked neatly between the bed sheets. The foxhole had been chiselled out from underneath the desk, leading to the yard. The freshly laundered prison guard disguise was prepped and ready to go. As soon as the lights went down, Tango, the loveable, flame-haired vagabond, set his plan into motion. No sooner had he tunnelled his way out of his cell than the phrase every aspiring prison escapist hates to hear rang out: “Tango, what are you doing?”
In his haste, Tango had foolishly forgotten to don his disguise. His disillusionment with the letter of the law was written on his furrowed brow as he violently flailed his sock mace at poor Officer Leeroy. Unfortunately, Officer Leeroy had a truncheon, which proved to be the more effective weapon as he sent Tango on a humiliating trip to the infirmary.
While everything written above is merely fluff, the fact remains that stories such as this will arise naturally as you play The Escapists. The game is delightfully open, yet rigid and punishing at the same time. Delivered in a decidedly retro, 8-bit style, The Escapists throws you in the slammer, and leaves you to figure out how you are going to pull off your own great escape (with hopefully more aplomb than the attempt detailed above).
While the title is effectively set in a sandbox environment, the gameplay executes rigorous routines that you need to comply with in order to avoid attracting negative attention. As you would expect in a correctional facility, the guards keep a watchful eye for any suspicious activity, and are none too shy in delivering a brutal beat down if you step out of line. They’ll search your cell and confiscate contraband, and have no hesitation in shooting you from guard towers if you happen to be caught digging holes in the yard.
To stay off of the guards’ radar, you’ll need to learn how to stick to the daily routine and keep your nose clean: make sure to attend morning roll call, make sure you eat at the correct times, and make the most of your exercise periods. In many ways, The Escapists is as much about maximising your time as it is about escaping prison.
While that final escape is the end goal that you should be working towards, there’s always time for a little self-improvement. To pull off a successful escape, you’ll need to think about boosting your stats. Intelligence allows you to craft better items, strength makes you tastier in a fight, and speed allows you to run away quicker when it all goes wrong. Most prisons have a gym and a library that will help you in this regard. Unfortunately, your stats will decrease rapidly if you don’t attend to them at a rate of roughly three points a day, so you’ll find yourself managing your stats when you could be searching the prison for useful items or completing jobs. Creating a hyper-intelligent Adonis may prove difficult with the time restraints on your day. A slower rot rate might have been helpful, but it is what it is and it’s another element that you’ll have to contend with.
While you’re always adhering to a strict schedule, you still need to find time to interact with other inmates. Some of them have tasks for you, which usually involve beating up another inmate, or obtaining an item for them, and all reward you with cash. Cash can be used to buy items that other inmates have smuggled in. This is vital to obtain some of the most useful items in the game, such as screwdrivers and files.
You also have the option to craft items with a surprisingly diverse crafting system. A bar of soap and a sock can create a sock mace. A comb and a razor can create a particularly nasty weapon. You can even throw scalding hot chocolate in people’s face with just a mug, a bar of chocolate, and a lighter. You’ll find many methods of dispatching your adversaries with a little bit of creativity, and it’s testament to the game’s systems that you are able to combine items in this fashion.
Much like the prison environment it emulates, The Escapists is a harsh environment. While there is a short, unskippable tutorial at the start, this really doesn’t begin to cover the basics, and the game leaves a lot to player trial and error. As a player, you’ll meet more than your fair share of errors. The Escapists isn’t friendly towards those who prefer a little guidance, and that is an overwhelming problem for a new player. After spending some time with the game and experiencing many botched escape efforts, the rewards will eventually become clear once you ascend over that steep, initial difficulty spike. In this fashion, it is definitely worth persevering with The Escapists, as there is plenty of fun to be had once you get to grips with prison life.
The situations that arise in this seemingly simple game are the main sources of entertainment. If another prisoner has a poor opinion of you, they may attack you, which in turn makes any prison guards in the vicinity attack them. While this can be annoying, it gives you the opportunity to pick their pockets without repercussions while they lay unconscious on the floor. It also means that in order to avoid regular beatdowns, you’ll have to figure out how to get on the prison bully’s good side, which you can do by completing favours for them, or by beating up another inmate that they aren’t especially fond of. Your relationships with the inmates who have items to sell are important, and sometimes it pays not to just shank them and steal their stuff. This gameplay feature is very robust and offers an interesting dynamic that you have to consider.
Unfortunately, there are certain actions that will trigger a fail state automatically. For example, leaving your cell for too long after dark without a putting a dummy in the bed will trigger a text box telling you that the guards discovered that you left your cell, and they’ve put you in solitary confinement. It doesn’t trigger an alarm where you have to avoid the guards, it just dumps you in solitary without giving you the chance to escape. This feels like a missed opportunity, and would have made for a much more tense escape if you had guards searching for you at the same time.
Using its decidedly retro presentation, The Escapists deceptively gives off an air of simplicity. With the 8-bit graphics and low-tech sound effects, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the gameplay systems are not all that complex. It is an appealing aesthetic, giving the game a light-hearted treatment that merrily tempers some of the frustration you may experience when the guards lock you in solitary confinement for three days.
There are also spots of humour that help to break up some of the more monotonous parts of the game. Some of the conversations that the prisoners and guards have are amusing, including several references to prison movies. These serve to provide a little entertainment when you have to attend roll call or shower, elements of the game that can waste your time when you could be pumping iron or breaking into the ventilation system.
Overall, The Escapists is a difficult proposition for newcomers, but an easily recommended one. There are several prisons available to try to escape from, but they only open up once you’ve completed the prison before. Even Center Perks, the easiest prison in the game, is a steep challenge when you first start the game, but who said prison was a holiday camp?