I’ve done things. Things I’m not proud of – rummaging through the pockets of an unconscious inmate, instigating a riot, attacking a prison guard with a shank… yet I don’t feel any guilt from any of this. After a few days playing The Escapists I’d reached the stage where I saw everything and everybody in terms of what possible benefit they were to me. I don’t even know why I’ve been imprisoned and I don’t really care – all I know is I’ll do anything I have to in order to escape. What’s happened to me?
Starting life as a Kickstarter project from Mouldy Toof Studios (actually a one-man project from fellow Englishmen Chris Davis), the Escapists is a remarkable achievement given it’s limited resources. Best described as a sort of puzzle-RPG, the aim of the game as you might expect is to escape from six ever more secure prisons. However how you do so is completely up to you as there’s a myriad possible methods of escape in this genuinely open sandbox setting – many games promise to put you in what feels like a living, breathing world but few manage to do live up to their promises like this.
The cute-pixel graphics may give the game a retro appearance, and the audio effects are extremely basic, but they hide an in-depth system that really brings to life your simulated prison. Guards, staff and inmates (who can all be renamed if you desire) go about their business and interact with each other – sometimes violently – completely independently of your own involvement. The primitive graphics do serve to distance you from some of the violent actions taking place , and I wish more had been done to make characters more obviously distinctive but generally it works very well.
When actually going about your day you’ll find favours are earnt, rivalries settled, items confiscated and days fly by as you bide your time and plan your escape. Sometimes a plan takes weeks of preparation, other times a sudden opportunity presents itself and you have to make your move instantly – in this world prison is never dull, even when it’s being repetitive. And while there may not be any spoken audio there are constant speech bubble comments from all characters that both build the atmosphere and provide some comedy moments.
Following an extremely brief tutorial when you start the game you’ll find yourself quickly thrust into the games first prison, the low-security Center Perks. In a brave decision you’re given very little instructions and have to learn as you go, and initially this can be quite overwhelming. With so many possible methods of escape to consider and no clear direction, the daily routine of prison life actually comes in quite helpful. Each 15 minute day consists of roll calls, meal times and exercise sessions but outside of these periods you’re generally free to explore and make your plans. Collecting items, performing tasks for other inmates and even working a prison-job can all contribute towards this but in the end it’s up to you how you spend your days.
However all this freedom can be a negative as well. It took me weeks to escape from the first prison (although it seems incredibly easy now) as you’re left on your own to experiment with the confines of your environment and learn how to craft a multitude of useful tools from the everyday items you can scrounge. Getting caught with contraband and thrown into solitary effectively restarts your progress, in contrast to minor infractions which only earn you a beating from the guards and result in you waking in the infirmary and I did find my frustration building at times. Other issues such as not knowing how to use the gym equipment (to increase your speed and strength) also could have used some explaining, it’s a long time since I actually had to read the control settings of a game in order to find out the basics.
The slightly fiddly keyboard and mouse controls didn’t help either – characters buzz around the prison at speed which sometimes makes clicking on them tricky, or more crucially trying to move a poster or desk back into place before the guard walks past your cell again. A lot of research into prison movies (and of course the Prison Break TV series) has clearly taken place and all their clever ideas have been usefully incorporated, it’s just a shame that occasionally I don’t feel fully confident that I’ll be able to pull off a plan due to the controls.
However all of this doesn’t detract from the main game itself which is incredibly rewarding once you put the time in and begin to see rewards. The sheer scope of possible actions means you’re never short of things to do, and even when you find yourself temporarily stumped you can always embrace the RPG elements of completing tasks for other inmates to earn money and loyalty, or building up your intelligence by using the prison computers.
Despite only having six maps there’s a vast scope for replaying the various prisons to try out different methods, and with the recent addition of a map editor the slow trickle of user-created maps is sure to generate a flood of quality challenges to keep even the most ardent escape artist busy for some time to come.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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