The Escapists is a game that made a name for itself during its Early Access period. The idea behind it is both simple and appealing: a prison escape simulator. At this time, in every article (including this one) about the game, you’ll encounter at some point a parallel with Prison Architect. As much as I think the developers of both games are starting to roll their eyes at the fact that it’s apparently impossible to speak of one game without bringing out the other, it’s to be said that the comparison is almost natural. Each game feels like the upside down version of the other. Playing The Escapists after playing Prison Architect will invariably make you imagine of escaping the very prison you built. But I digress.
The game starts with a quick tutorial, a feature that was not present in its Early Access stage with the result of making new players pretty confused about what they were supposed to do. The tutorial stage is pretty short but its shortness is wanted. Its purpose is to show the player the main mechanics of the game and nothing more than that. It shows you the essentials of the crafting system, what to look for and how you can achieve your goal of reaching freedom. No more than that. What’s clear from the beginning is that The Escapists is not a game that will hold your hand. The tutorial will present you with the tools you’ll have at your disposal but after that the game leaves you at your destiny with no more than a “now it’s up to you buddy”. At that point, things can get a little confusing.
The Escapists fit in a category that some people call “Wiki games”. Those are that kind of games where you will purposefully be given very little information in order to force you to explore and experiment. At the same time, the information can be so scarce that, especially in your early playthroughs, you’ll find yourself almost forced to check the wiki for a better understanding on what you’re supposed to do. The crafting system is a good example of this.
To craft an item, you just have to combine 2 to 3 different items and obtain a new one. Around the prison you’ll find craft notes that will tell you what items to combine into what. Notes are pretty uncommon so you really can’t fully rely on those unless you decide to spend way more time than needed in the stage. So you’ll find yourself checking the wiki quite often to see what items you need to craft a shovel or a contraband pouch to make hot items go undetected under sensors. The game is not all about gathering and crafting though. Escaping from prison requires careful planning and observation, while remaining in the shadows and maintaining an appearance of normality to the eyes of the guards and the other inmates.
The first thing that the game will teach you about life in prison is that it’s all about the routine. The days are punctuated by several time windows where inmates, including you, are expected to be at certain places and perform certain actions. Failing to do that will peak the “Heat” meter, making the guards suspicious of your doing and making a trip to the infirmary or the solitary cell much more possible.
The day starts with the morning drill, where the prisoners are counted and shakedowns are announced (if your name is picked, you better dispose of any contraband you have in your cell). During that time and the lunch period after that, you’ll have the chance to meet your fellow inmates. Some of them will ask you for favors in exchange of money. Sometimes they’ll ask you to retrieve an item, some others will ask you to beat someone that stepped on their toes or to grab guards’ attention so they can dish out a knuckle supper undisturbed. All this to raise some money to use to buy items from the cellmates that have something to sell.
In between these periods, you’ll have to find the time to sneak out where you’re supposed to be in order to gather the pieces of your grand plan. Other prisoners’ desks will be your main source of crafting items. Then it’s all a matter of finding vulnerabilities in the complex and making use of those. You have a wide choice for your course of action. For example, if you’re scheduled for laundry duty, you can try to snag out a guard uniform you can use later to go around undisturbed at night. Maybe you can find a way to take a mold of a key and return the original before anyone notices it’s missing. Or maybe you could decide to go for a more classical approach, crafting a shovel to dig your way out or chipping your way through a wall in a revival of The Shawshank Redemption.
Choice is what makes this game fun. You outline your grand plan in order to achieve your objective. Of course your decisions are tied to what you manage to find and make use of and to the context you find yourself in.
There are 6 available prisons in the game, going from minimum to maximum security. In the first one you’ll have a huge margin of error and you’ll have the power to decide the course of action. Starting from the second, stricter schedules and security will start getting in your way and your planning will have to take that into account.
The game makes a great job of making you weigh every decision. You are constantly forced to tread lightly since a single mistake will make you end in a solitary cell or in the infirmary, possibly depriving you of the items you collected thus far. The downside of this is that the mechanics can be sometimes frustrating. As was mentioned earlier, it’s all about the routine. Day after day, you’ll have to do the same actions, trying to find the best moment to gather the bits and pieces of what you’ll need to escape the prison. After a while it starts feeling repetitive.
At the same time, it’s all in preparation of that final moment. The night where you decide “it’s time” and your carefully planned escape finally starts. Admittedly, any plan can go south very easily. Maybe a guard decided to walk in the wrong place at the wrong time. But when all goes according to plan and you manage to leave the prison behind you, boy, it feels good.
The game visuals and audio compartment are both heavily inspired by the 16-bit era. The graphics are a pleasant work of pixel art and both the characters and the background are adequately presented, even if not very rich in detail. There’s enough variety in the audio compartment that the music never feels boring. The sound carry that SNES era verve that old schoolers love so much. Overall a good job.
The Escapists works on a simple premise and gives the full package to make it work. Sure, there’s basically no storyline and the characters say not much more than few lines of dialogue, but in a game so focused around the mechanics, the storytelling is surely not a primary concern.
Disclaimer: This game was obtained from the developer and reviewed on PC
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