Fifty shades of cage
If The Escapists is guilty of anything it’s that it does what it tries to do too well. Of course, a game that asks you to escape high-security prisons should require a certain amount of guile to beat; but the exhilaration that comes with each escape is often tempered by the sometimes exhausting grind it takes to get there.
That’s not to fault the considerable depth that The Escapists provides, though. You’re tasked with escaping six prisons of increasing difficulty, gathering items to aid your exit along the way, all the while adhering to a strict prison schedule throughout the day.
Fail to show up for lunch, for example, and the guards will trigger a full alert, inevitably ending with a baton to the head and a few days in solitary. Should you be holding any contraband (of which there is lots) you can kiss that goodbye, too. There’s also daily cell shakedowns, meaning guards will confiscate any illicit items they find stashed in your cell.
Said items can be acquired by rummaging through cells, working prison jobs, and completing tasks for fellow inmates (‘That guy stole my cupcake – shank him,’ for example). Money earned can be spent with certain inmates and, hey presto, now you own a screwdriver.
Importantly, items can be combined with others to make useful stuff like shovels or pickaxes. Item crafting is often a matter of mashing things together until something good happens. Where logical combinations like ‘sheet of metal, duct tape, timber’ will make a shovel, how and why to make putty, for example, is less clear.
The Escapists is best experienced without resorting to a wiki, but items are often scarce and generated at random; finding out how to make certain things by wasting valuable resources isn’t ideal. The game does include scattered crafting notes that can be purchased or salvaged at random, but even a full crafting diary doesn’t detail everything you can make.
Item crafting apart, breaking out of The Escapists’ more complex prisons often requires meticulous forward planning. You’ll find yourself going about the normal day-to-day routine, all the while picking holes in prison security, tentatively prodding at certain aspects of the infrastructure, hoping against hope that you don’t draw attention.
I once devoted an entire night to temporarily shutting down the prison’s power so that I could cut through a fence before returning to my cell. Escapes are often made in baby steps and going back to the daily prison routine with an escape plot only partly hatched often adds an oddly welcome tension.
It’s when those plots are close to fruition that The Escapists is at both its most tantalising and most frustrating. Each in-game day takes about ten minutes to tick over if left to its own devices, plus a little extra when pausing for crafting, item looting and the like.
Actually implementing an escape plan can potentially take dozens of days given the need to comply with prison rules at the same time. While, early on, utilising your time to set a breakout in motion is key, once most of the pieces are in place days tend to drag.
The daily routine is just that. By its very nature it’s a rote, repetitive pursuit – it’s supposed to be, after all. But this doesn’t help when all that’s left is to wait for nightfall and make your way out. If, when the time to flee arrives, you make a mistake, then you lose all your items and start afresh.
You can load up from the start of the previous day, but rattling through the same routine of roll calls, breakfast, work, free time, exercise time, dinner and more roll calls feels unnecessarily slow with your final escape so close.
It’s a tricky trap that The Escapists falls into in that more frequent saves would only lessen any tension. Similarly, although speeding up time would be handy in these instances, its inclusion could likely have a similar negative effect. Of course, prison isn’t supposed to be fun and, perversely, it’s the fact that The Escapists achieves this so well that makes it somewhat trying.
The things you do end up being a matter of necessity: you work out because you need better speed and strength stats for beating up inmates and guards; you study for intellect points which means you can craft things; you shower and eat to bring your fatigue down; if your stats are all full, you still go to breakfast or to the gym so the guards don’t Taser you.
You’re obligated in a way, that while perfectly apt, feels like it could have been a little looser. As interesting as The Escapists is conceptually, it feels as though the opportunity to create a playpen full of happy accidents and assorted tomfoolery has been missed. There’s lots of ways to escape, but equipping yourself to do so feels much the same each time.
Still, figuring out just why the hell you should combine a nail file with a piece of timber, or how to steal a key from a guard without getting busted, negates the monotony. The Escapists is at its most enjoyable while you’re trying to figure it out.
The Escapists isn’t immediately rewarding, but Mouldy Toof Studios deserves credit for creating something that shuns instant gratification, instead demanding patience and a significant time investment first. The Escapists is likely to be one of the more unique games of 2015 and is worth a look for that reason alone. But be warned that breaking out is welcome for more reasons than one.
Version tested: PC
+ Escaping is tense
+ Conceptually unique
+ Lots of ways to break out
+ Rewards investment
- Could be more user friendly
- Slow moving
- Item combinations aren't always logical
- Controller support is a surprising omission