Game Name – The Escapists
Platform(s) – Xbox One, PC
Publisher(s) – Team17 Digital Ltd
Developer(s) – Mouldy Toof Studios
Genre(s) – Strategy, Simulation
Release Date – February 13, 2015
Price – $17.99
Reviewed on- PC
So what exactly is The Escapists?
The Escapists is a new 16-bit indie prison simulator/strategy. Lighthearted and quirky despite the setting, the game is split into 6 prisons, each more difficult than the other. The player’s mission is to escape (in case that wasn’t clear from the game’s title), but how you do so is completely up to you.
After receiving my copy from the game’s PR team, I loaded The Escapists feeling more than ready to tackle the challenges it would try and throw at me. What occurred next was the most confused I had ever been since 2013’s Burton-esque Don’t Starve. Just like Don’t Starve, The Escapists throws you into the fray without much direction on how you should navigate the game. Nonetheless, with a some experimenting, I eventually figured bits and parts of the game out.
How does it play?
The gameplay is simple enough. The standard WASD allows you to move, spacebar toggles combat on and off, with your mouse taking care of any action commands. The first instance of confusion came when the first day’s exercise period came up. You’re given the option of lifting weights (which boosts your strength stat) or the treadmill (for speed) but with no explanation on how to do so. After a healthy amount of mashing my keyboard, I figured that hitting the Q and E buttons in succession did the trick.
The day is split into a set schedule. Each day begins with the morning rollcall, then comes breakfast, free period, lunch, time set for either leisure or your job (if you have one), exercise, shower, dinner, followed by evening free time, and then a rollcall before bed. In between, you have the option for taking on tasks for other inmates (which more often than not involves beating up another inmate or even a guard) in exchange for money. Helping your fellow cons will raise your reputation with them, and if they like you enough, they may decide to jump in with you in a brawl. All of these tasks do feel repetitive after a while, with your grudging acceptance for the sake of the monetary reward.
The crafting system can be a tad bit annoying. While the interface is simple enough (open the crafting window and add the items you want to combine), correctly combining items is a different story. Crafting notes instructing you on how to make specific items can be found while rummaging through desks or bought off of inmates when they do happen to have any (what they carry seems to be randomized) will make your life easier. You’re welcome to fumble around without these notes in the hopes of a successful combination. Simple weapons like a glass shank could probably be correctly guessed (glass shard + roll of duct tape), but more complicated items would require either the crafting notes for clear instructions, really lucky guess work, or the game’s wiki page.
While crafting notes are not a requirement for being able to craft. INT (intelligence) levels are. There will once again be no explanation as to how this is achieved.
However, where the game does shine is finding ways to slip out of the forced schedule to further your escape plans. Met the quota for your job early? Sneak out and dig through the desks of the other inmates for items, find secure spots to dig at, etc. There is going to be a lot of trial and error, and those errors will cost you. Just when you think you’re making some progress, a random check by the guards can reveal your stash of contraband and all the items you’ve gathered for the past hour is confiscated. In one instance I was so excited by the prospect of being able to finally sneak out, I accidentally tried doing so when I was expected at the evening roll call, costing me everything I was carrying. This is a very punishing game where you have to quickly learn what you’ve done wrong.
So this is what freedom looks like
Like a plethora of other recent indie titles, The Escapists has a retro 16-bit look to it. While some have called this resurgence a fad or even laziness, the simple but charming graphics work well for the game. What sets these (good) indies using 8 or 16-bit graphics apart from the major AAA games, with their often fancy visuals graphics is that they don’t have to rely on gorgeous graphics to try and hook you in (This isn’t to say that all indie games are well made or that all AAA games are just prettily packaged messes).
You won’t see detailed character models or stars appearing across the sky as nightfall approaches, because the graphics aren’t the selling point of the game. The visuals aren’t sloppy by any means, but there’s only so much that can be done with these types of graphics. It’s kept simple and it works. Anything more, and it would detract from an already complex game. The gameplay is what makes the statement for this game.
Ah, the sweet sounds of escape
The Escapists has a very catchy but short sound track. Each period of the day is marked by its own music which can become repetitive after long playthroughs as the day’s schedule is set on a cycle. Some of the pieces definitely adds to the atmosphere of the game. Missing a roll call will activate a lockdown, which comes with remarkably spooky music causing me to panic the first time it occurred (Yes, this did lead to me running about frantically outside until I got sniped near a guard tower).
The sound effects are simpler and reminiscent of older games. They get the job done but probably aren’t something you’ll be taking great notice or interest of.
This game is definitely not for everyone. Those looking for a story driven narrative or fancy graphics won’t find it here. With an abundance of titles that often times make it near impossible for you not to win, this is definitely a nice change. The Escapists very much so calls for the player to do a lot of exploring and tinkering to figure out the intricacies of the game. There are times when it feels like the game is hard just for the sake of being hard, but if you can stick with it, The Escapists is a wonderful albeit niche game. The $17.99 price tag may be a bit hefty for a lot of people, so unless you have the time to put into actually playing the game, it might be wiser to wait for a future sale.
* A press copy of the game was supplied for review. *
- Multiple approaches to how you play
- Variety of stages and difficulty levels
- Fun soundtrack
- The game can be very punishing. This might turn some people away.
- Monotonous characters. You won’t ever develop any attachments to any of the characters you meet. After a while, dialogue gets noticeably recycled.
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