Reviewing Moldy Toof’s prison escape simulator The Escapists has been one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had in reviewing videogames. With it’s charming pixel art graphics, surprisingly complex gameplay and a sountrack that puts a smile on your face, it has all the makings of an underdog indie hit. Yet, as I came to find out over several frustrating hours, there’s really a lot more to The Escapists than simply liking it or not liking it. Read on to find out why.
The premise of The Escapists is rather simple at first. You pick a prison to try and escape out of, with each prison having different attributes and levels of difficulty. Beneath that is a whole universe of complex game mechanics that will take a fair amount of time to even become aware of.
The Escapists’s greatest strength is the tremendous number of methods you can employ to get out of jail. You could do it the old fashioned way by tunneling your way out of your cell, you could disguise yourself as a guard and walk right out, or you could get violent and start a riot. It is truly a game that you can get creative with, and the satisfaction of even successfully pulling off one stage of your plan imparts a level of satisfaction matched by games like Dark Souls.
This is because while The Escapists gives you a lot of flexibility with how you approach things, it is also extremely difficult. This is a game that requires a great deal of patience and finesse, so much so that in many ways it actually simulates the emotional experience of being in prison. Each day requires that you follow your schedule, which involves attending roll call, eating meals, doing a mundane job, exercising, showering, and hitting the sack. Straying from this routine will earn you the ire of the guards, who will happily beat you senseless and take away critical contraband items in your inventory.
These sections of the game are, as you might expect, completely uninteresting, save for the occasional fight that breaks out between inmates. However, you can’t blame the game for being uninteresting in that regard because this is precisely the very nature of prison.
This leads me to my primary difficulty The Escapists that, in light of its nature as a prison game, shouldn’t be taken as a valid deficiency with the game. This is a game that doesn’t hold your hand at all. It expects you to experiment on your own; poking and prodding different elements of its prison system to see what works and what doesn’t. Often times your attempts will be met with failure, and this can have crushing results when a crucial item you spent days trying to craft is confiscated from you just like that.
A lot of your failure will stem from your difficulty at understand how the game’s mechanics work. You might, for example, realize that you can use your blanket to cover your cell to prevent guards from looking in. Then you would hop on your desk and unscrew the ceiling vent and climb in. Problem is, if you don’t put the vent cover back, you will instantly be sent to solitary confinement. Realistically, this doesn’t make sense at all, as your cell is supposed to be covered up, but this is how the game works. In another instance, you could spend a lot of money to buy a stepladder from one of the inmates, only to discover that it doesn’t do anything to help you reach a ceiling vent. Learning the logic behind The Escapists relies on a lot of trial and error, more often the latter, and, once again, while one might be inclined to mark this down as bad design, it must be made clear again that this is precisely the same kind of frustration and sense of defeat one is likely to experience when actually trying to break out of prison.
Another thing to consider is the game’s old school pixel art graphics and 8-bit sound. They certainly have charm and give the game a nostalgic feel for many older gamers, but in all honesty I found this artistic style to The Escapists’s detriment. The problem is that much of the game involves going through the drudgery of prison life. This wouldn’t be a problem; in fact it would be quite enjoyable, if the game had something that even vaguely resembled modern day graphics and sound, as one would be better immersed in the idea of being in prison and would thus be more willing to experience even its dullest moments. However, The Escapists accomplishes the absolute bare minimum in representing its world, short of using rudimentary geometric shapes to represent everything, and what you’re left with is something more akin to a board game than an immersive videogame. Characters are constantly stuck in a walking animation, even when they’re standing still or sitting down, and all the inmates and guards are devoid of any distinct personalities and spout random prison-centric phrases with no sense of continuity. Again, being an indie game with a retro feel, The Escapists shouldn’t be knocked for this; but it does mean that players are likely to either love it or hate it because of this aesthetic.
The Final Verdict
So here’s my ultimate point. The Escapists is a well designed and thought out game. It affords you all the tools to plan your schemes and is extremely well balanced. However, it is not a game for everyone. It is strictly for A, players who have loads of patience and a willingness to try again and again in spite of failure, and B, players who can appreciate old school pixel art and sound. If you fit both of these criteria, you are likely to have more fun with this game than you would with many of today’s triple A titles. If you don’t, you’re likely to not have any fun whatsoever. Like the real world prison system, only those willing to go through the unpleasantries of life behind behind bars to slowly but surely chip away at the walls will escape.
+Countless ways to plot your escape
+/-Rewards those who are willing to be patient and experiment, which will turn some players off as well
+/-Old school aesthetics can be an acquired taste
-Understanding the game’s internal logic can be tedious and frustrating