The Escapists is one of the newest in a recent trend of 8-bit retro style games that are deceptively difficult to win. Its idea is simple enough: you're a prisoner that must train, gather tools, and figure out a way to break out of the prison that you're in. The manner of your escape is open-ended, but the game does everything it can to make sure the odds are firmly stacked against you.
Plotting Your Escape
Similar to games like Don't Starve, the player is dropped into the world without much of a clue. Players have to figure out the basics, like recipes for new tools, the layout of the prison, and devise the best strategy for escaping. However, the game can go a little too far in withholding information. For example, there are three different character attributes players need to keep an eye on: Strength, Speed and Intelligence. They decay daily and quickly. Furthermore, your strength is tied to your health, so the weaker you are, the fewer health points you have. However, there are no prompts for what to do when stepping into a workout machine. I had to remember that F1 brought up the controls, since there's no listing for it in the main menu, and eventually figured out that mashing Q and E works the exercise machines.
Figuring out how to escape is one thing, but it sometimes feels like the game is actively withholding basic controls and information from the player. The tutorial teaches players basic movement, and using tools for a quick escape, but doesn't provide enough details for a full playthrough. There are a number of other details that players have to find out for themselves, like how the metal detectors detect far more than metal. The detectors will sound the alarm if you walk through them with any kind of contraband in your inventory, which includes everything from guards' uniforms to duct tape. Guards will descend upon you as soon as that alarm goes off, so you have to keep in mind what you have on you as you walk around.
Escaping from prison largely involves sticking to a sense daily routine. You have a prison job with a minimum quota, and you're expected to be in specific places at certain times, like meals and roll call. But once you meet the minimum criteria, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want. You don't have to stick 100% to the routine, but the guards will take greater notice of you if they see that you're not where you're supposed to be.
You might want to go the exercise room to improve your physical stats, and use the library or computers to increase your intelligence, which allows you to craft more sophisticated tools and pick up better jobs. Between your daily routine and maintaining your stats, you'll want to do some favors for your fellow inmates to improve their opinion of you and earn some extra cash. Favors usually involve beating someone up, which requires changing the pointer from a passive green color to a aggressive red to select who you want to attack. You have to be very careful and keep track of what color your pointer is. There have been numerous occasions when I forgot my pointer was on attack mode and I ended up beating someone up in front of guards when all I wanted to do was browse his sale items.
Digging to Freedom
After doing favors, you'll use the money to buy items, and ultimately enact your escape plan. The Escapists requires a lot of patience, planning and micromanaging. In the context of breakouts in popular culture, it lacks the riveting fast pace of an episode of Prison Break, and models itself more after the long executed escape plot from The Shawshank Redemption. You have to attend role call to find out which rooms are getting searched to make sure they're not going to raid your cell and confiscate your contraband. Unfortunately, other than other people's cells, there aren't a lot of places to stash your stuff. Closets are only good for hiding, and the universal contraband detectors restrict your movements. The best you can do is either rotate your stuff around different cells, or toss your gear on the ground somewhere in hopes that guards won't happen upon them.
The game also has a habit of pulling cheap moves on the player. For example, when you knock out a guard and steal his key, you'll only have a few seconds to stash it or copy it. Otherwise, you'll automatically be sent to solitary confinement, whether the guards find you or not, and all the contraband is removed from your inventory and cell. Similarly, the authorities will always know when you're up to something. If they discover a hole dug into a wall, they'll automatically link it to you. There's no way to frame someone else, which really should be a part of the gameplay.
I have to admit that I wasn't able to stage a successful escape in The Escapists. Playing mixes the joy of figuring out an escape plan with the monotony of daily routines and the utter frustration of watching it fall apart due to small details or game limitations. That's not including random events, like figuring out where you can get duct tape or a trowel to dig your way out. It's too bad you can't pay someone a little extra or perform a favor to get a specific item.
The goal is to get out of prison in the shortest amount of time possible, and how you accomplish that is completely up to you. You don't have to improve your stats if you can figure out a better or faster way. There are also alternatives to doing favors and earning money. The game is open, but it's up to the player to figure out what's possible and endure the frustration of numerous setbacks. Once you've escaped, you can move on to a more difficult prison and try to figure out how to break out from there.
The Escapists certainly isn't for everyone, but it's easy to understand the appeal. You need a great deal of patience and a capacity for dealing with mundane tasks along with time management. Players require a certain kind of grit to take on the numerous setbacks, but finally escaping can be an exhilarating experience. Although I lack that kind of perseverance when it comes to games, I won't hold it against The Escapists for requiring it. However, I do wish that you could do something unexpected to help break up the monotony, like start a prison riot. Or form dance troupe with your fellow inmates.
This review is based on a PC code provided by the publisher. The Escapists is available now in digital formats for 17.99.