If there’s one genre that really embraces the true potential of video games, it’s simulation. With simulation games, one can fulfil every dream they’ve ever had, from the more modest professions like long haul train driving, to the somewhat more unrealistic manager of a football club–even the downright impossible, such as an intergalactic trader in a futuristic universe, is made possible in a video game. Yet, despite their broad range of subjects, one thread tying most simulation games together is that their topics are usually things that people would love to do in real life. That isn’t the case for The Escapists, a simulation game that asks the player to plan and execute escape from gaol.
The Escapists presents the player with six different prisons with varying degrees of difficulty, and, after a very threadbare tutorial, shoves the player into the deep end. Sure, the deep end is the “very easy” difficulty prison Center Perks, but there’s no way I would’ve been able to escape even it without the help of an online guide or two. The tutorial runs you through the basics of the game, such as how combat and crafting work, and guides you through escaping via unscrewing the air vent in your cell and climbing out of the prison. That said, there are countless ways of escaping left to be explored, and every single one requires you to really pay attention to what you’re doing. You need to be aware of where you’re expected to be at all times as determined by the prison’s daily schedule; your fellow inmates, tasks they have given you and their opinions of you; your attributes and what you need to get them to; completing your daily job quota to stay in the guards’ good books and ensure that you have money coming in every day. Even in the easiest prison, guards are more than happy to send you to the infirmary for straggling just a few minutes behind for a meal.
On the surface, the Escapists’ generic 16-bit indie charm might suggest that the game is rather shallow or simplistic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even after spending a ton of time playing the Escapists, and even longer reading about it, I still don’t know a quarter of what there is to know about the items and mechanics that lie beneath. There are hundreds of different items, some legal and some contraband, with hundreds of different ways of combining these items to make more items. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how much you enjoy reading guides), many of these crafting recipes aren’t all that intuitive. I usually shun the idea of guides, particularly in a game such as the Escapists that is all about finding your own path, but how else was I supposed to know that combining two files and duct tape would make a pair of wire cutters? And then combining them with another file and roll of duct tape would make sturdier cutters? Or that if I couldn’t find any files or duct tape, I could combine three lots of dental floss to make an alternate cutting tool?
The Escapists is the sort of game that requires you to read a manual, so I’m a bit disappointed that Mouldy Toof haven’t provided an official guidebook or manual or anything. I understand their desire to encourage the community to discover the true depth of the game, and to be fair there are tons of community-made guides (of varying quality) online, however it makes it a bit daunting to jump in without much information as to what you’re actually doing.
The way that I’m talking about the overwhelming complexity of the Escapists, it might come off like I think it’s a bad thing. It’s not. It’s daunting, sure, but it’s not necessarily a negative feature. The primary effect it has on gameplay is instilling a requirement for meticulous planning of your escape. There are so, so, so many things that can go wrong and cause your entire escape to go tits up. Even the tiniest little mistake will see you in solitary for a couple of days, your cell cleaned out of all the invaluable contraband you’ve managed to obtain. Weeks and weeks of in-game time are required to plan an escape and acquire the necessary materials; something as simple as a poster to cover up the hole you’ve chiselled through your cell wall requires a magazine and a roll of duct tape, the latter of which is highly sought after and always in scarce supply.
I also have to mention the humour provided by the one-liners that your fellow prisoners are constantly spitting out. Sure, there’s the low-brow “Don’t drop the soap!” line that at least one character invariably says during each daily shower block, but as a general rule the jokes and gossip that come from the prisoners are funny, clever, and an important factor in elevating the prison and its prisoners from simple pixels to genuine characters.
One genuine gripe I do have is with the control system. The Escapists plays out in a low-resolution window and is controlled with WASD for your character’s movement and the mouse for interaction. Given the low resolution that the game plays at and the grid-based maps that make up the prisons, the movement system feels very touchy and difficult to control. More than once I had trouble passing through a single-unit square such as a hole in my cell wall as quickly as I might have liked, due to not being able to line up my prisoner with the hole. Items are carried in slots 1-6 which were regularly just totally non-responsive. I noticed this most prominently while working in the laundry; half the time, clicking the clean laundry into the clean laundry basket simply did not work. Far more often than I should, I found myself having to use an item more than once just to get it to do what I wanted it to do. No, it’s not a deal-breaker, but it does make the Escapists just that little bit harder to enjoy.
Continuing with the control system, I would have absolutely loved controller support. I’m the sort of person who uses keyboard and mouse when it’s obviously an advantage (FPS, strategy, etc) but prefer using a PS3 controller when I can get away with it, such as in platformers (see: Spelunky) and open world action games (see: Sleeping Dogs). The Escapists was released for Xbox One as well as PC, so a control mechanic for a joypad was obviously designed. Why can’t there be an option to use that system on PC as well?
The Escapists is a deceivingly deep and staggeringly original experience that you could easily sink hundreds of hours in to and still not know everything there is to know. Sure, it’s (relatively) easy to escape Center Perks, but Her Majesty’s Prison Irongate will take you a couple of dozen hours real-time and most likely months of in-game time to formulate, organise and execute the great escape. It’s not a perfect game by any means, and if the idea of sifting through guide after guide doesn’t appeal to you then maybe you’re better off giving this one a miss, but if the Escapists piques your interest then you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of the Escapists by Surprise Attack.