Developed by Mouldy Toof and published by Team 17, The Escapists is all about living out your prison fantasies – no, not the one about the dropped soap and the big guy covered in jailhouse tats. Staying true to its title, the game has recently absconded from PC and Xbox One and headed over the hills to freedom on the PS4, but is it worth you putting a BOLO out on?
Boy, this is a tough one to objectively review. I’ve been really interested in The Escapists since Roger’s preview last year, and the thought of creating my own Shawshank style prison break was too good to pass up, though I did have to overcome my dislike of 8-bit graphics. It was easy to be charmed when my characters name was randomly generated as Tobias (the name of the severely screwed over character central to the HBO series Oz) – so all good so far. The tutorial section gives you the basics, and I mean the absolute bare minimum info to get you going, then kicks you out into the brutal world of prison life. Game still going strong.
Starting my first day of incarceration, and not wanting to draw attention to the fact I was looking for the easiest route out of the clink, I spent the day following the routine and figuring out who’d sell me stuff. Roll call, breakfast, free time, work, lunch, free time, exercise and showers – it all makes a busy day and it was soon time to get locked into my private cell for a well earned rest. Day one over and the mechanics of the game pretty well introduced. Day two begins and it’s more of the same, as you’d expect in jail, and if you wish you can just carry on following the instructions from the guards and ignore any chance of getting on the other side of the fence.
Escape is fairly freeform with multiple ways you can tackle the problem of getting out of jail. Do you use overhead vents to circumnavigate the prison? What about digging a tunnel from your cell to the outside world? There are walls to scrape your way through, keys to steal and copy, disguises to use, or even just good old brute force against your jailers. There are many tools to be found that have limited use because everything wears out pretty quickly, but you can make your own harder wearing equipment with a bit of scavenging and wheeler-dealing. You probably guessed it, there’s a crafting system at play that makes use of everyday items and the world’s supply of duct tape. Getting out of one institution moves you to a more secure facility where the regime is harsher and there’s less time to take in the surroundings and options, upping the thought and creativity you have to put into the escape plan.
Locating the items needed for crafting useful tools seems to be a bit of a lottery, though with a bit of searching you’ll find what you need. Most of the items you’ve planned you’ll need for your escape will be contraband, meaning that you can’t be caught with them in your possession or stashed in your cell. This isn’t an issue until one of two things happens: random cell tossing, which you can run to your cell and grab the items before the screws arrive; or you get in a fight and end up at the infirmary. If contraband is found in your cell it’s off to solitary for a few days and all escape progress is reset, regardless of the reason you’re in the hole. When (and it is when, not if) you’re in a fight, losing means having all contraband confiscated. Fighting is not optional, you’ll auto-attack anyone that starts a beef with you, or get involved if a fight breaks out around you, so you’ll end up knocked out for no good reason.
This is the feature that spoiled the experience for me and caused me to rage quit – something that I’ve not done for years. To win more fights and keep my loot I started working out and upping my strength and speed, and it paid dividends until the guards got involved. Knock one of them out, the prison goes into lockdown if it’s somewhere public, and you’re in solitary again with all progress reset. The fact that you can’t prevent the fight is a massive drawback to what is a very methodical and considered experience. Your ability to successfully escape ends up not being about planning and daring, it’s just luck that you don’t get in a brawl. Avoiding fists and truncheons would be a viable tactic if the same issue didn’t persist regardless of your opinion standing with the other inmates and warders. I tried this and still lost several days of digging, scrounging and bartering in a random canteen shanking where I was only trying to finish my porridge.
It’s a real shame that The Escapists doesn’t have an option to manually control your characters aggressive actions, the open approach is there for everything else. I’ve tried to reconcile being locked up with your liberty taken away and the unpredictability of other prisoners/guards actions alongside what the game is trying to achieve, and I can’t. This isn’t a sim of life in a supermax penitentiary, it’s a puzzle game about using your environment and the objects to achieve the goal, and as such the random success feels very unfair. There’s also the price. £15 on PSN (about $20) is higher than expected for 6 prisons, with Alcatraz DLC being available if you want to punish yourself further. The game isn’t bad, it’s just the appeal doesn’t outweigh the frustration for me to keep on planning breakouts.
A review copy of The Escapists on PS4 was provided by the Team 17 PR team.