The Escapists is a pretty straightforward game in terms of story. Players take control of a randomly generated (and even customisable) prisoner. The goal is simple – to escape from different prisons by any means necessary. There’s really not much more to it.
And while there’s no major story being told here, the writing is peppered with a kind of dark humour that you’d expect to find in a Team17 game. Whether this publisher has some influence on the development of the game has yet to be seen, but it’s a nice touch that’s worth mentioning.
If you had to use one word to describe the visual presentation of The Escapists, it’s easily pragmatic. The game employs a very simple, lo-fi look that harkens back to NES games of old. The design of the game’s art is similarly quite reminiscent of the old Final Fantasy games – right down to their idle animations which look like they’re walking on the spot. The menus themselves evoke a similar feel too.
The games sound design is similarly quite lo-fi in its presentation. All kinds of sound effects have a notably retro sounding tinge to them, while the backing music itself is very much modern music. Surprisingly, most of it is more sombre and melancholic pieces while others have more of a kind of “plodding” sound to them. In short – the soundtrack feels mechanically repetitive in a way does a great job at representing the monotony of prison life. One particular stand out here is the night time music which is very calming and almost akin to other similarly lo-fi games like Minecraft.
Make no mistakes, The Escapists is a very tough game to get your head around. The tutorial is straight forward and makes a typical prison break seem like a cake walk, but rather it serves as an approach on how to play The Escapists. You see, barring the original tutorial, The Escapists is a remarkably open ended game. You can do almost anything to get out of prison (provided you don’t get caught) and the game pretty much lets the player loose.
When and where you’re let loose is what affects the gameplay in The Escapists. There’s about six different prisons available to the player, each varying in complexity and tone. The prison you start off in is pretty simplistic – allowing players to run almost anywhere at their leisure. It’s easily the most basic of the six and serves as a great training ground for learning how The Escapists works.
Following that, there’s several worse ones such as a gulag, a compound deep in the jungle, a desert compound and even one that feels more or less like a modern day concentration camp. Each prison is progressively harder to break out of than the last, but thankfully the more complex they are, the more ways there are to break out. The Escapists is a deceivingly open ended game, once you break it all down.
Prison life as it seems is pretty formulaic. Every morning you’ll have to wake up, attend a “roll call” of sorts, have breakfast, lounge around, have lunch, go to your job (if you’ve got one) and eventually call it a night before doing it all over again. The crux of the challenge in Escapists comes from attempting to properly fulfil your rotations and activities without alerting suspicions of the guards, while also working out a way to escape your current predicament.
Each prison comes with a set of other prisoners and guards that you’ll (kind of) bond with during your stay. They all have individual thoughts and personalities, some are more edgy while others are calmer. But more importantly – they’ll all remember if you do anything wrong to them. Hit one of them by accident and they’ll hate you forever, attempting to beat you down at any given moment. Others can be won over by trading items or even by completing “favours”. Favours serve as a kind of side quest that lets you build relationships with other inmates or simply earn money.
If it’s not through the favours you carry out for other inmates, you’ll be able to make money by carrying out your job. It’s a simple task – one of which involves taking out dirty laundry and putting it into a machine to wash it – but it’s one that makes you some money. Each job has its own location too, so if you’re needing to get into a certain room it’s totally possible to beat up whoever has that job so that they won’t turn up and you’ll be able to take over. The job you start with, for example, lets you wash dirty uniforms but also gives you the perfect opportunity to take a clean one for disguise later on.
The Escapist’s inventory system is similarly quite ingenious. As it’s a prison, there’s items that are allowed and items that are contraband. Of course, a Minecraft-esque crafting system lets players turn allowed items into contraband should they wish. A sock and a bar of soap makes a pretty nifty makeshift mace, for example. Contraband is what you really need to be careful of – as guards will randomly inspect cells (or your item chest) or will automatically confiscate any contraband if you’re beaten down during a fist fight and sent to the infirmary. It’s very realistic, but also very frustrating if an item you’ve spent ages crafting is taken from you in the blink of an eye.
It’s really how all of this comes together that makes The Escapists a rather enjoyable experience. Not only can you dig your way out of your cell – but you need to find a way to cover up the evidence whenever a guard strolls past. This is where a large majority of the tension in The Escapists comes to – not necessarily formulating your plan but executing it without getting caught. Given that the whole premise is to escape from prison, it’s hard to argue with the very tough consequences of getting caught (literally having to start again) but it can be genuinely tedious if you’ve got to repeat everything again.