The Escapists Review
Like many other kids in the UK, Chris Davis grew up playing classic games like Skool Daze. That experience, coupled with movies that highlighted prison escapes, inspired Davis to create his latest title called The Escapists. This one-man army formed the Mouldy Toof studio and thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Escapists has emerged on multiple platforms. It landed on Steam last year and now it’s on PlayStation 4, so Sony fans can attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible: Escape from prison. A mix of puzzle and role-playing elements, this one requires patience and plenty of ingenuity. It’s just a little vague and taxing.
As you can tell by the available media, The Escapists hearkens back to the glorious 8-bit days, when sprites and pixels dominated. In that way, it’s hardly fair to compare the game to modern-day creations; all one can say is that it faithfully depicts an era long past. If you’re averse to this particular kind of presentation – or you’ve had your feel of retro presentations in recent years – then maybe nostalgia doesn’t play a big role. For most, though, this is all about simplifying the graphics and focusing on the gameplay, which results in a difficult and surprisingly trying experience. Otherwise, what do you want me to say? The little pixilated characters look surprisingly good? Well, I suppose I could cite the game’s solid design, which is indeed pretty impressive, if a little bland.
Yeah, I know, it’s a prison. “Bland” comes with the territory. I honestly don’t know how to make such a setting seem more appealing, and I have similar reservations about the music and sound effects. Obviously, you can’t expect anything more than classic electronic beeps and boops, with the synthesized soundtrack tossed in for good measure. The soundtrack is better than you might think, though. Again, it’s all about reaping the nostalgic emotion while simultaneously providing players with a unique and deep puzzle-adventure. We put almost no emphasis on the technical elements, other than to say they’re completely stable and undeniably charming. You don’t have to worry about crashes or glitches here, that’s for sure.
You can probably guess the goal of the game from the title: You have to find a way to escape from prison. Well, there are multiple increasingly difficult prisons, thereby giving us a traditional level-based structure. You start out with few guards and simple guard routines, and it’s just a matter of making the most of your opportunities. As you might anticipate, timing is everything; making your move at the wrong time will inevitably result in a return trip to your cell. You attend roll call, head to the cafeteria for grub, exercise in the yard, and you can even interact with other prisoners. The idea is to form alliances that can lead to favors.
The game is played from the old-school 2D top-down perspective, which makes it easy to check out your surroundings. Observing is a huge part of the game; if you’re not taking your time and discovering potential lockdown loopholes, you’re gonna be stuck in there for a very long time. You can take advantage of a basic crafting system, where you can combine simple items like toilet paper, bed sheets and wire to make more useful objects. You can even craft melee weapons, wire cutters and shovels, necessary for your tunneling escape. However, if you’re caught doing any of this – from the crafting to the actual escape – you’re done. You’ll be stripped of anything you created and you might even be sent to solitary.
On the one hand, this system works very well in establishing tension. You’re always worried that a guard will spot you, which results in some sweaty palms. If you have little patience, this is not the game for you. If you think you’re just going to sprint down the hallway, bashing guards to pieces on your way to freedom, you’re in for a rude awakening. This adventure is far more cerebral than you might believe. And I’m a big fan of that…but only if I’ve got some instruction and direction. Yes, it’s realistic that a prisoner wouldn’t have access to tutorials, but there are times when you feel stymied because nothing is explained. You make so many mistakes out of the gate that you really start to feel trapped. Fitting, yes, but still annoying.
This is a common problem with retro-style games these days. I guess the designers assume that because we would never have received any tutorials or assistance in the old days, we can’t have them now. The difference is that we didn’t have games like this is the old days. They looked like this but they weren’t anywhere near as deep and involving, which is where the hint of direction would come in awfully handy. For instance, that crafting system, while straightforward at first, can be tricky depending on the items in question. Then there are times when you’re not even sure how you got caught, and you lack the necessary motivation to try again. Try, try again is the mantra for The Escapists and while sound in theory, it can be exceedingly tedious in practice.
However, I should make it plain that the game is designed quite well. The tougher prisons require a huge amount of observation and attention to detail, and it can feel unforgiving, but it’s really just demanding. It asks you to put your best foot forward, which is the hallmark of a challenging, well-produced title. Besides, you don’t want too much in the way of explanation; puzzle purists probably don’t want any. I say some simple descriptive lines would make the game that much more accessible and it would enhance the pacing a great deal. But those who simply enjoy the task at hand might disagree. Lastly, you do get that thrill of satisfaction and accomplishment when you finally bust free.
The Escapists doesn’t take itself too seriously but definitely asks you to be serious about your approach. Observation, methodical planning, and timely execution lie at the core of the experience, and if you’re particularly detail-oriented – and diligent – this game will deliver. You have to like the fun twist on a normally gritty, hopeless situation, and the basic controls are just fine. There’s nothing technically wrong with the game (and there shouldn’t be, given the minimalist approach) and there’s some good design here. It’s just a little too tedious for my taste and it there’s a fine line between unfair and properly unforgiving. Not sure Davis strikes that balance well enough.
The Good: Charming retro presentation puts a fun spin on the prison environment. A lot of solid, challenging design. Generates that good old-fashioned rush of satisfaction. Demands attention and ingenuity.
The Bad: Visually a little bland. Pacing can feel way off. Often tedious due to a lack of guidance or instruction. May only appeal to a very particular kind of gamer.
The Ugly: “I just lost everything and now I’m in solitary. …awesome.”
6/5/2015 Ben Dutka