The critically acclaimed franchise The Walking Dead has stumbled its way into video game territory several times with mixed results. Developer Team 17 (Worms) has decided to take on Image Comics flesh-eating series by integrating it with their popular game, The Escapists. For those that don’t know, in The Escapists you barter or steal components in order to craft items required for breaking out of prison. The visuals are reminiscent of 8-bit pixelated sprites; the sound effects and ditty tunes reflect this retro vibe.
You play as everyone’s favourite crazy cop protagonist Rick Grimes. Waking up in the hospital as he does at the start of the comic series in Days Gone Bye. You have to find your way through the building for a tutorial in the loosest sense of the word. The game then skips past Dales RV camp that could have perhaps been used to further flesh out the tutorial. Instead we find ourselves at the Greene’s Family Farm a few issues later for our first comprehensive level. First thing you have to do is go to an early morning head count that happens at the same time everyday. Then it’s on to breakfast, why the head count can’t be done here I have no idea. Well, actually I do, it’s the first of many times The Escapists many intricacies that belong only in a prison setting show up.
One hour after breakfast you have chores, which is fair enough as these need to be done for survival. Some chores in later levels are a good way of acquiring crafting items by going over the quota. Failure to do menial tasks will cause a lack of moral and walkers will invade the safe zone. However, if you have sanitation duty or weeding then don’t even bother wasting your time. You aren’t given enough time to search around a large area and fill the high quota making it practically impossible to complete. If it wasn’t laundry duty, which is done within a small box room, I ended up skipping. Just missing the occasional chore actually has very little effect as long as you attend every meal and head count.
There’s a lot more freedom to explore than in The Escapist but due to the many mandatory meet ups you probably won’t go anywhere until the night. For the first few days working out in the gym or playing games to boost your stats is a more efficient use of the twilight hours. However, the RSI inducing mini-games for the gym are a bit of a pain and seem to be made overcomplicated just for something to do. Especially when you consider playing games to boost IQ requires just a single button press. Rick isn’t the fastest on his feat; so bear this in mind when racing against the clock. Using a running machine you can increase his speed though there’s little notable difference when playing the game.
The combat is the weakest element of the game, which is a shame. Going off the series, melee should be able to kill many Walkers; instead you’re lucky to survive an encounter with just one. Even though you can modify tools into more powerful weapons they still attack in the same manner. So you can’t make a short-range weapon into a one with longer range. Shooting is the best way to dispatch the undead even then you can only modify your gun once and there’s no headshots or critical hits. So it’s always going to take more than one precious bullet to down an enemy. Bullets are limited so you should only ever modify or use ammo packs on an empty gun.
Sleeping within the allocated hours of the night is the only way to save the game. Due to the amount of daytime mandatory meet ups you’re forced to do most of your adventuring for items at night. So if you miss the save window you’re going to have to wait. There’s no way to manually save, so if the game crashes, as it did for me due to a bug connected to reading the sign on the outside of the midnight salesman shack before he was there, you lose all your sleepless progress. I learnt fast from this punishing revelation and made a point of heading to bed within the final hour of every night.
Just to compound this issue even further your AI friends just blunder into zombie-infested areas. This became a big issue on later levels where chores require you to traverse through walker territory. You can’t claim back areas either which would have really helped avoid this issue. You can equip friends with weapons and armour but not in the early stages due to the limits of the crafting system. You can also use items such as a working radio as a distraction should you be lucky enough to get the right components. With limited use this is a temporary fix to an on-going problem.
All too often they died and I’d die trying to revive them within the thirty seconds time limit. Best-case scenario, this causes you to wake up in bed and skips the only time you can save. Although it’s never made completely clear until it’s too late, there are characters that are required to complete the level. Worst-case you are unable to revive them they die then it’s game over, from day one of the level, all those long days of progress lost, regardless of saving. What’s really odd is completing a level loses all character health, strength and intelligence progress. So you have all that working out in the gym to do all over again, oh the joy…
Arguably the core mechanic that this entire game revolves around is the crafting. You will need to craft all kinds of things from melee weapons and upgrading guns to a shovel or a handy pickaxe. Actually, more than handy, it’s a necessary requirement for buildings that lack doors. Hacking through walls is the fastest and most efficient way in. You could use the shovel but it’s time and resource consuming and totally pointless in this setting. You’d think that maybe you should block up a big gaping hole in the wall. If this was an hoards of Walkers would be piling through it, instead they remain blissfully unaware. Fortunately, as the game progresses you are given different avenues such as air ducts to infiltrate these kinds of buildings. That said, the point remains, many things you can craft are pointless only highlighting the obvious. The crafting system is clearly designed for an entirely different kind of game and no kind of comprehensive reworking for this genre has been done.
A major issue with the crafting is that key components such as duct tape and timber are used for the majority of schematics. They are incredibly rare to come across and unfortunately you can’t craft them. There’s no way to dismantle items to get these components either. Got a wooden baseball bat? Need timber? Well you’re not going to get it from the baseball bat. It could be easily fixed by requiring an adequate consumable like a chisel or hacksaw for the process. As that’s not the case you’re stuck constantly looking for key items. I found a good yet completely counter intuitive tactic was to get purposely killed to skip a day so the contents of desks reshuffle. Another weird element is how specific the crafting is. For example, you need walker entrails and plastic sheets to make walker camouflage. It won’t let you use bed sheets as an alternative even though they would have sufficed. This lack of flexibility permeates throughout; looking for a specific component when others would suffice is just annoying. That’s not to say crafting is completely horrific. The things you can craft have a certain amount of logic to the components used even if it lacks flexibility. There’s also an experimental element to it that is fun for the most part.
You have a personal desk for hoarding a limited amount of loot, every other desk’s items change randomly every time you go to sleep. Store something in them and it will be lost for good. There are backpacks that litter the area that you aren’t able to pick up to carry more items, like they do in the comics. However, like Rick’s desk the items they contain are persistent and they can be used as a storage hub between locations. A minor nit pick, because I always find this jarring in games, is that you can search desks for items but not the various cupboards and shelves in the environment.
Ultimately, there’s enough crafting to make things interesting even if it’s linear, lacks intuitive flexibility and most of all refinement for this genre. It’s not that you can’t make a survival game from The Escapists mechanics; it’s more that this fails to. Things have been added but they’ve not taken out the unnecessary and there’s no real evolution to be found. The NPC’s lack any sense of self-preservation with game ending consequences. It gradually becomes a constant escort mission leading to frustration. What’s the point of more freedom if you become a prisoner by arbitrary tasks that the majority of times are there just to slow you down? Only because of that does the game take a fair amount of hours to complete, if the monotony from repetition doesn’t get to you first. There’s no reason to replay it again outside of collectables that have no impact on the game. Even fans of The Escapists series may find this title to be the weakest so far. I’m well aware some gamers will relish the strict crafting limitations and steep learning curve this game has to offer. So it may appeal to you if you like that sort of thing. However, for the vast majority, you might want to avoid this as if it’s got a zombie virus.
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