I'm imprisoned in a game. Literally. The Escapists is a prison breakout game, and here I am sitting in my 6x8, trying to figure out how exactly to abscond from my hopefully temporary residence.
The creation of British developer, Mouldy Toof, and published by Team 17, The Escapists is a slice of pixel entertainment that in many respects is a grand puzzle game. The objective is to search your surroundings for items, craft them into tools, and then use them to make good your escape. Sounds simple? It is in principle, but in practice it's far from that. Far, far from that.
The game is sandbox in nature. Apart from the most basic, cursory tutorial, you're left to your own devices to figure out exactly what it is you need to do to escape from whichever of the game's six prisons you're residing within. In many respects, this makes the game something you'll either love or loathe. If you're a fan of puzzle-style experimentation and trial and error, The Escapists will prove highly engaging and rewarding. If you're not, there can be a lot of frustrating noodling around with a wide variety of items under a wide variety of circumstances and situations as you figure out exactly how the game works. And getting it wrong can result in you losing much of what you've worked towards. Save early and save often would be the mantra here – except that you can only save by the day, which makes things even more challenging.
While you plot your escape, you need to follow the daily prison grind of role calls, eating, exercising and sleeping – plus doing your daily job should you have one. What you ultimately need to do is procure the correct items to be able to build tools to facilitate your escape - while also hiding them from guards. So, for example, finding the tools to be able to dig a hole in the back of your cell to hide other tools, then acquiring a poster – crafted using a magazine and duct tape - to cover the hole in which you hide your escape gear. It's quite complicated stuff, and as you can see, this is exactly why the game is rife with a tremendous amount of experimentation and trial and error.
As well as dealing with the routine of prison, you can also do favors for other prisoners to earn coin. These range from stealing items and causing distractions to beating up other felons. Money is useful for buying items, and oftentimes fellow inmates will have key items that you need, such as perhaps a piece of timber that you can combine it with a file to make a handle (and then use with duct tape and a sheet of metal to make yourself a shovel).
Care needs to be taken when wronging inmates, because once you've fallen foul of another prisoner, that person will become your enemy and will quite happily kick the crap out of you given half a chance. So therefore it helps that you can buff up your stats by regularly using the prison gym's running machines and weights to give yourself an advantage if you're attacked. Of course, crafting yourself a nice shiv might also help ensure that anyone attacking you will end up being the one sent to the infirmary, rather than you. Oh, and don't forget to use the Internet or read books to boost your intellect. The smarter you are, the better the tools you can create.
In many respects, The Escapists is in equal measures enthralling and frustrating. It's great in that it really makes you think laterally about your situation and the tools and items you have available to make good your escape. There's tremendous scope for experimentation, and a mind-boggling amount of things you can do, from copying keys to crafting a dummy so that guards won't be alerted that you're on the lam when you finally make a break for it. Figuring out just what you can do, and then planning around your discoveries is at the heart of what makes this game fun.
But then it's also punishing. You can put a lot of work into a plan, and have it unravel due to a random event, such as a guard walking in. When everything you're working towards becomes undone in these kinds of circumstances, it's hard not to hurl the joypad across the room in sheer frustration. Then again, when you are on the brink of a breakout, the game can make your heart pound and your teeth clench as you execute your well-laid plan. In that respect, the game cleverly captures the stress of an actual breakout.
To be honest, I started off absolutely hating the game, but the more I worked with it, the more I began to enjoy it. Sure, it's monumentally frustrating when you finally craft something really useful, and then lose it due to some random fight, but when your plan does come together and you finally manage to break out, the game does give you a huge feeling of achievement. And once you have done it, there's more motivation to return to the game, because you begin to see things in a bigger scale, and your plans become more complex.
Ultimately, The Escapists is a fun, entertaining and fiendishly complex puzzle game that's perfect for patient gamers who love to experiment and figure things out for themselves. However, those who like a little more direction and immediacy to their action should probably steer clear.
Nice, humorous pixel art gives the game bags of character.
Pleasant tunes help you while away the hours..
The menus and interface can sometimes be a little clunky to use.
The open sandbox nature of this game means there's plenty of long-term challenge here, if you're up for it.
An enjoyable puzzle game that features a surprising amount of depth. However, its gameplay can sometimes be as frustrating as it is rewarding.