Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Mouldy Toof Studios
Videogames are often a form of wish-fulfillment, a chance for us to play through a wide variety of fantastical scenarios that we’re unlikely to ever encounter in real life. The good news is that if you commit a big enough crime you too can get thrown in jail and attempt to spend countless hours figuring out how to escape, re-enacting the premise of this new game The Escapists.
After a flimsy tutorial showing you the basics of interacting with the world you’re dumped into a pixellated prison with no explanation of your crime. You’re left to your own nefarious devices, free to plan and execute an escape in whatever fashion you deem fit. Uniforms can be stolen, tunnels dug, items crafted, walls destroyed, food eaten and so much more. Punched a hole through a wall? Cover it with a poster! Need to steal a key? Gather the components needed to quickly make a copy so that nobody is any the wiser. Completing favors and working prison jobs can earn money used to buy items from other inmates, or you could just raid their cell and see what goodies they have, or you could pummel them and take what you want from their body. Alienating your fellow convicts, though, means you’ll likely be left unable to purchase anything unless you curry favor again with them by gifting money or items, while guards are naturally not to be trifled with too often or they’ll make life trickier.
While planning your escape prison life must be followed or else the guards will grow suspicious. Morning role call should be attended, and listened to closely in case the guards announce that your cell is getting a shakedown, while other things like lunch, workout, free period and more need to be heeded. Fail to show up for a least a few seconds for these daily events and you’ll get chucked in solitary. With the initial prisons the guards are quite lax when it comes to having you following the routine, but as you progress you’ll need to make more effort to mold your plans around life in a prison. Each day of your imprisoned existence is about maximizing your time, be it gathering money to buy something useful or experimenting with the crafting system to get something new. Crafting items is as simple as chucking two or three things together at which point the game will show you if that combination can create anything or if its a dud.
The wealth of little details is often incredible. Bed sheets can be used to cover the bars to your cell in order to keep your activities hidden, while dummies can be made to place in bed in order to fool patrolling guards. A comb can be hit on a wall to create a basic shiv, ventilation shafts are good for hiding your most valuable stuff in and contraband can even be hid in a convict’s desk before a search if you’re quick enough. A screwdriver might be the obvious choice for getting through a vent, but experimentation reveals that a file can do it to and that plastic spoons can be used to scrape through a wall, albeit very slowly. False fences can be made to hide evidence of tampering, plastic melted down to form material needed to copy keys, You can even start a riot, or just go work out in the gym to increase speed and strength. This is a game that wants you to explore its depths and learn for yourself, often through failure. But never fear, because you cannot die; you just get knocked out and wake up in the infirmary, or placed into solitary confinement for a few days.
For some people the learning process could prove frustrating. The way certain things interact isn’t always clear, and the hint system which involves paying for a tip is often useless. Wandering around until something finally clicks isn’t uncommon, and the random generation of new items with other convict’s desks and what they have for sale means you can spend a long time waiting for the right item to crop up. It could leave many people feeling irritated, but as you progress you’ll get the hang of things and learn to adjust on the fly if you can’t find exactly what you need. Finally making your move brings an immense sense of satisfaction; it wasn’t the game guiding you through some scripted sequence where failure is nigh on impossible, it was you carefully plotting an escape, gathering the tools needed, figuring out how to hide contraband and timing your every effort. Through time spent with the game you’ll slowly learn that tunneling out of your cell means you need sheets to cover the cell bars, a dummy for the bed and a good reputation with the guards so that they won’t grow suspicious and tear the sheets from the bars. You’ll discover that you can make a vacancy in a specific job by ensuring that the current inmate assigned to it doesn’t turn up for his shift, allowing you take his place and steal materials. You’ll learn to watch which doors guards go through in order to work out what keys they have. You’ll learn and learn and learn, and hopefully get better. Or you’ll be like me; still in jail after 50-days.
As you progress through the game prisons become tougher, the guards more watchful and wary of your actions. What they don’t need to become is more over-zealous, though. Numerous times I got attacked by other prisoners only to have the guards turn on me, despite no aggressive action on my part. The guard’s are controlled by a heat rating, and during these moments the rating would suddenly soar for some reason. It took me a little while to realise that like other inmates guard’s have an opinion of you, and if it’s low. If you happen to be late for lunch, workout or role-call then meeting a guard in the corridor will raise your heat level, but if you encounter a few in one area by pure chance you’re suddenly screwed as the heat rating takes an immediate leap to the 100 mark, even if you were mere seconds late and attempting to get to the location. It can be a little annoying, and the fact that guards can be given things to increase their opinion of you, and even the fact that they have opinions, demonstrates how the game could sometimes do with giving players a touch more information.
Some problems stem from the game’s control scheme which feels like it would be far more at home on a PC. Attempting to very quickly target specific areas of wall or other things feels sloppy, as is dealing with the other inmates. Talking to a specific chap amongst crowds is tricky, and you have to get close to other prisoners to talk to them, a problem with those that don’t like you very much, whereas on the PC you can do it from afar. These issues are not terrible, but can definitely make those close shaves even closer as you try to place a desk over a hole. Speaking of close shaves it seems you can’t cancel out of many animations, leaving you vulnerable when trying to dig through a wall and a guard comes round the corner. This may be a deliberate design decision to encourage you be judicious with your digging, but it feels unfair to be chipping away when a guard comes out of nowhere and catches you in the act.
There’s leaderboards in place so you can compete to escape each prison as quickly as possibe, giving the game some bonus replay value, as if hunting for new ways to escape wasn’t enough. It’s nice to see them included, but even nicer to see that the developers haven’t emphasised them too much. The leaderboards are kept largely out of the way, and thus you never feel rushed to complete a prison. You can take as long as you want, and then later on perhaps go for the fast times.
During my time with the game some glitches and problems did become apparent, including several crashes while loading into the game. Finding guards just spinning on the spot was worryingly common as well. The worst problem was when one of my escape attempts was completely ruined by not one, but two glitches. Having spent plenty of time gather tools I broke through the wall of my cell and then a second wall to the outside world. Avoiding a patrolling guard I began to get excited; I knew I had enough tools to get through the outer fence to freedom, and there was plenty of time until daybreak. Mere minutes later I had cut through the fence, and while letting out an exulted cry I went through the gap…or at least, I tried to. For some reason the game wouldn’t allow me to get through the fence. With no tools left in my inventory and no more in my desk I hurried back to my cell intended on sleeping through the rest of the night and hoping above all hope that the guards wouldn’t notice the hole in the fence. However, once I returned to my cell I discovered that for some reason I could no longer cover the hole in the wall with a poster. Naturally with a hole in my wall and a hole in the fence the guards caught me the next morning.
I also noted that if you attempt to dig a hole, chip through a wall or cut a fence the guard’s will always somehow be aware that you’re the culprit. As a test I dug a hole to the outside in the solitary confinement cell, and once it was found was immediately thrown, somewhat ironically, into solitary confinement for my effort. How did they know? It became even funnier when I chipped through the wall in another innmate’s cell and the guards still knew it was me. I even went so far as to put sheets on the cell and a dummy in the bed in order to frame my neighbour, but no luck was had.
Visually the game just doesn’t do it for me. The retro-inspired graphical style has now become an over-used trend, it has to be said, but in the case of the Escapists it just doesn’t do anything interesting. That’s not so say that the game looks bad – it most certainly doesn’t – but it also doesn’t do anything to stand out from the crowd. Likewise the audio is merely okay, the music hovering in the background of your hearing but never impressing and the everyday sounds of prison life
Though most certainly annoying these problems I’ve mentioned don’t take away from just how fun the game is. At first it feels like trial and error as you constantly get busted, make enemies of every guard and felon and fumble with the mechanics. Eventually, though, you learn the details, slowly working your way from clueless idiot to calculating escapee, a master of planning and logic. Sure, there’s a couple of areas where the developers need to convey aspects of the game better, and there’s some problems that need patched, but this is ultimately an immensely satisfying, fun title. Absolutely recommended.
+ Discovering something new!
+ Putting a plan into motion!
+ Performing a flawless escape in just a few days of in-game time.
– Crashing at launch.
– Getting an escape mucked up by a glitch.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Have you dreamed about escaping prison? Have you created fantastical plans to achieve that goal? Can’t be bothered murdering someone so you can get sent ti prison to try those plans out? Then this is the game for you.