The Escapists review

I push my desk under the ventilation shaft and clamber up, the cover blocking my way is off in a matter of seconds using the screwdriver I had bought from Bob earlier in the day, working my way through the ventilation system I visit a fellow inmate who sells me a bar of soap. Together with a stinky old sock I craft a mace and ‘sock’ the nearest guard and grab his uniform. I walk out into the yard undetected by the other prison officers. Next to the chain link fence is a hole where a shovel has been conveniently left, jumping in I continue the tunnel and dig my way out… I’m free… then I wake up still trapped in my cell. It was all just a dream and the tutorial to The Escapists.

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The Escapists is a lighthearted top down adventure that puts you in the pixellated shoes of an inmate. From the rather pleasant confinement of Center Perks to the harsh maximum confinement of HMP Iron Gate, you must work out how to escape each of the six prisons in the shortest time possible. There’s no set routine of how each prison plays out, sure there’s the daily grind of getting up, attending roll call, eating, exercising, showering and working your day job but everything else is different – you are asked different favours by your fellow inmates and the items for sale or hidden in the various cell desks change – reloading a checkpoint makes the items shuffle too so you can’t rely on trial and error if your plan is based on looting a certain item.

The gameplay strikes a balance between sim and puzzle, but if you have an aversion to sims then The Escapists is probably not for you. The style of the game reminded me of my misspent days playing The Great Escape on the C64 and like the 8-bit adventure, The Escapists offers little in the way of hand holding. Money earned is spent on contraband from dealers or on pay phones to purchase ‘tips’ but for the most part you will need to experiment to work out the different ways you can escape – from creating a fake key by creating a mould using putty that you crafted from toothpaste and talcum powder to forging a shovel from timber, a file and a scrap of metal.

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The construction of the 200+ craftable items are all rather obvious when you look at what component parts are available to you, but like Minecraft you are restricted by your own creativity. Similarly, your escape plan can be elaborate or simply involve digging a hole in a secluded spot of the prison but if you get busted it’s off to confinement for three days. Upon your return all of your efforts to escape will have been patched up and any items you’ve carefully collected (and hidden) will have been confiscated. It is a harsh punishment for failure but then this is prison!

The success to surviving is to keep your head down – be nice to your fellow inmates (and the guards where possible) and form your escape plan carefully, which sometimes means you will need to spend some time studying in the library to increase your intelligence – there is an attribute system that restricts your speed, movement and ability to craft certain items – only by visiting the gym and library will you increase them.

Prison life follows a strict routine but  you can duck out of your responsibilities at any time. Doing so will mean that you will be fired from your job and if you’re spotted by the prison guards during your extracurricular activities, their suspicion levels will increase, max it out and you’re in for a beating waking up in the infirmary with your health replenished, guard suspicion level reduced and any weapons or contraband you held confiscated. Missing roll call isn’t advisable either – the prison goes into lockdown and if you remain hidden, backup is called – upon arrival you are automatically busted.

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There are some freedoms to prison life – during the course of the day there are several free periods that you can use to go about whatever business you fancy – hit the gym, visit a loved one in the visitors centre or carry on digging that tunnel to freedom with plastic spoons you stole from the canteen. Free time is also a great time to complete favours or purchase items from fellow inmates. Each day there are several inmates with a handful of items for sale although if they dislike you don’t expect them to sell you anything. You can raise their opinion of you by doing favours or giving them useful items, this comes with its own issues though. You can’t go around giving gifts to anyone; you can only give items to prisoners that are offering something for sale, which means if you accept a favour to give Bob a plastic comb you can only give it to him on the day that he is selling – it can be most frustrating especially as you can only have four favours active at any one time – rejecting a favour only makes you unpopular.

It’s easy to become absorbed in the daily grind of prison life – to succeed you have to manage your time effectively to sneak in some recon of the prison layout, gather supplies or to increase your physical attributes while at the same time juggle relationships with the guards and inmates – no not those kind of relationships! What works for one prison might not work for another and each one gets steadily harder as you progress through the six prisons. There’s also a leaderboard showing you just how slow (or quick) you are at escaping compared to your friends – I won’t be winning any awards for fast getaways anytime soon!

The Escapists is a charming yet devious prison sim. Hours flew by as I plotted how to escape – at times the difficulty was excruciating as every person in the prison wanted my head under their boot but even after turning the game off my mind was racing to work out where I had gone wrong and just how I could tweak my plan to get around a hurdle that I hadn’t accounted for. The success of The Escapists is how well you can think outside the box, or rather, outside the prison cell – I’m sure there will be plenty of adventures to tell once the game releases on February 13.

Thanks to Team 17 for supplying TiX with a download code

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