The Escapists could possibly be the coolest conceit for a game I’ve ever played. If you were stuck in a prison, how would you escape? By creating tools, bettering yourself and working with or against your fellow prisoners, you are tasked with escaping from your captivity by any means necessary. Though simple in conceit, there is a definitive level of complexity and difficulty that makes the game far from a cakewalk.
Whilst simple enough to explain, there is a significant amount of mechanics that the player is forced to grapple with almost no instruction besides a relatively opaque tutorial. After selecting one of the prisons, the player is thrust into the regimented daily life of an inmate: Morning roll calls, meal times, work duties, inspections. There is a fair amount of structural rigidity for the player to comprehend quickly, but by way of giant, blinking arrows, the game makes sure the player is aware of where to go next. At the end of the day, the player goes back to their cell, sleeps, and starts anew.
It’s the time in-between (or in lieu of) these core activities that help the player on their quest to escape. By stealing from other inmates or by purchasing contraband items, the player can create new tools to aid their escape: A sock mace to knock out a guard, or wire cutters to help cut down a fence. The crafting system is relatively tame: up to three items can be combined, and if a winning combination is discovered, an item is made. There is absolutely no indication of what will and won’t combine together unless you already know a recipe, so there is a significant amount of trial and error. Crafting mechanics like these have never sat well with me, so I found I played the vast majority of the game with a guide open on my phone. Not supplying any information as to what I can craft created a feeling of restriction, rather than spurring on my creative output.
The player can take quests from other inmates to help raise a few dollars to fund their illicit imprisoned escape. These usually boil down to beating up other inmates, or stealing an item for the shady supplier. Attacking inmates and doing quests raises and lowers a favourable statistic that determines how friendly they are towards you. When the bar starts to lower, inmates will stop selling you items. If it gets too low, they’ll try and ambush you whenever they get an opportunity. Make sure to bring a weapon at all times.
When the player is knocked out, either by guard or prisoner, they wake up in the medical bay with all their contraband items (items displayed with a red border) removed from their inventory. Its super frustrating to spend a long time creating an awesome weapon and escape plan, only to have it stolen away because of one lousy mistake. The game is very unforgiving towards players and will routinely set their gameplay back twenty or thirty minutes for every small slip up. There is a way to craft items to conceal other items, but it’s laborious and requires a great deal of improvement to the player’s stats.
Each player has three stats: Speed, strength and intelligence, which dictate their ability to fight and create weaponry. Levelling these up is a must to help create bigger and better items, however they decay every morning at an alarming level. It is very easy to see your stat boosts wiped out by a few poor decisions and trips to the medical bay.
The actual escape attempts can be carried out in a number of intriguing ways that won’t be spoiled here, but their undertakings are laborious and difficult to accomplish. Completing just one prison of The Escapists is a herculean act of micromanagement – so much, in fact, that my feeble brain could never complete the task. It’s why this review will be run without a score attached. To a certain crowd with far more patience than I, The Escapists will be an absolute joy. Regardless of platform, it’s a well realized, unique sandbox experience that requires virtues that I was not blessed with. If you can handle the difficulty and unclear crafting, then there is a hell of an experience waiting for you. For the rest of us, we’ll be stuck here doing time.