This article was written by guest writer Tom Daniel.
The Escapists promises to finally create the ultimate prison break video game, created by the one man team at Mouldy Toof, a genre and scenario with so much gameplay potential that even as I write this, it baffles me as to why it has not as yet been fulfilled over the last several gaming generations.
Lovingly crafted in a top down pixel art style which we have now almost become as accustomed to in 2014 as we were back in 1992, It is up to the player to live out the harsh reality of 16-bit prison life, a life not too different to screen greats like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Great Escape’. It revolves around strict routine, violent inmates, even more violent guards and, of course, the constant desire to get break out.
As the game’s title subtly suggests, it is this factor that is The Escapists’ main focus. The game looks to give you all the tools, or should I say soap, toothpaste and socks, that you would expect from your imagination of a stereotypical penal institution and leaves you to conjure whatever scheme you see fit in order to once again taste freedom.
The final version is set to have several prisons of scaling difficulty to conquer, but the recently released Steam Early Access build which I spent my time with – though the game is also coming to Xbox One in 2015 – gave me a single penitentiary as my playground to master. My character was being made to fall in line from the moment the game starts, as I followed the strict daily routine that I would eventually become more than familiar with during my hours of playing.
Morning roll call, breakfast, work, midday roll call, free time, dinner, exercise, shower, free time, evening roll call, lights out. That’s one day in The Escapists; that is every day in The Escapists. During this daily routine it is up to me as the player to find the time to accumulate the required items and goodies in order hatch a grand plan of escape.
This is where my first issue with the game raises its head. To begin with, it is hard not to smile and chuckle as you watch your little pixel convict scurry from place to place trying to keep up with the daily chores, but it really did not take long for this novelty to wear off. While these tasks really do well to convey the monotonous ways of prison life, they also translate to monotonous gameplay.
I understand completely that this may be what the developer desired, as an incentive to break away from the system and encourage the players needs to escape, but I can’t help feeling that the daily routine was taking up such a large chunk of my time with the game that my plan for escape started to become directed less toward seeing out my in-game schemes and more toward the permanent freedom of shutting down my PC for good.
The real fun of the game comes when you start noticing how the prison contains everything you need to form your plan. You can interact with your fellow convicts with just a click of a button which will bring up all you need to know about them, from simple physical stats like strength and speed to intelligence and even his opinion of you. A click on a tab from there will present you more options such as buying goods as well giving goods.
Some of your fellow inmates will also require a favour from yourself which is indicated by a green ‘!’ over their heads, “John snitched on me, go beat him up,” a prisoner might ask, so it’s simple enough to go beat up John and complete the favour, earning a few dollars at the same time to go towards items for your plan.
Although, what if you notice that John is not exactly the biggest push over in the yard? This is where your character development comes into play. A simple game mechanic can improve your own stats, so if you hit the prison gym, for example, you will be rewarded by an increase in your strength which will make pushing John around a lot easier.
With the coin you earn form these favours, you can start purchasing the toys for your great escape! Unfortunately for you, what you need does not come flat packed with simple instructions like an Ikea book shelf. Instead you must gather the ingredients and put them altogether via a simple ‘craft’ menu not to dissimilar to Minecraft’s. Want a shovel to dig your way out? Then you will need several items in order to craft one.
Once you do have your shovel mind, don’t start thinking you can just dig anywhere and at anytime. Guards will patrol, your cell will be checked and any evidence of wrong doing will see your little pixel man thrown into solitary, virtually reseting your escape plans back to square one. You will have to be sneaky, dig only at night, cover your hole with your desk and even create fake walls to fool the screws!
This is where the game really seems to shine. The creative options you have for how you might want to your escape seem to be endless. I mostly opted for the old fashioned ‘tunnel my way out’, but with guard uniforms that can be taken, vents to climb into and riots that can be started, the real fun will come from experimenting and seeing what grand plans you can come up with to beat the system.
All this is very exciting but it also leads me to my next problem with what I played, how do you do all this? The game offers so much to do but from my experience it is completely letting itself down by not teaching me how to accomplish any of it.
A tutorial or even a learning curve seem to be non existent from this early build of the game, leaving me incredibly frustrated from spending many hours having to follow the mundane daily schedule due to the fact I honestly did not know how to accomplish much else. Hopefully this is something that will be easily rectified before the final release, by just doing a bit of hand holding so that the player is fully aware of the potential delights that the game has to provide.
The Escapists is a fun concept which is full of humour and has some exciting big ideas that I cannot wait to see come to fruition. The real challenge for the developer will be seeing how accessible they can make it and nailing the game’s pacing. Manage that, and this could be something very special.
Tom is a freelance video game business developer and community manager who has worked on several independent games and prides himself on telling anyone that will listen that he can finish Resident Evil 2 in 1 hour 20 minutes. He has not worked on anything related to The Escapists.