Despite the challenging premise, prison escape games are few and far between, with the rather dire Prison Break tie-in game probably being the closest to representing that plot. That brings us to Mouldy Toof Studios’ The Escapists where the only goal is to break out of confinement, which could be said to draw some inspirations from the likes of The Great Escape. However there’s no big overarching story, memorable characters or quests here. It is you and your wits, attempting to find a way to freedom through any means necessary.
When you begin you can choose which prison to escape out of, from the rather relaxed Centre Perks to the tough as nails HMP Irongate. There are other prisons in-between, all of which vary in difficulty. You can escape in various ways from these locations, such as digging a tunnel, or walking out of the front gate dressed as a guard, but you’ll have to work for your freedom.
When I first booted up The Escapists I must admit I tried to just get out of jail as quickly as a possible. There’s even an achievement for escaping on the first day of incarceration, but I learnt that goal may be for the more experienced players. After a few failed fast escapes I sat back and let it all soak in. I also drew inspiration from recent Stallone/Schwarzenegger flick Escape Plan, where the lesson was to observe.
So starting a new game with my character I did just that, and fell into the routine. Opportunities arose to earn cash to buy goods and contraband from other inmates, from working legitimate prison jobs to doing favours. After getting fired from a prison job for not reaching the set quota of weeds pulled, I decided that there was much more opportunity in helping fellow prisoners. The main favours that were asked were either to retrieve an item, or to beat up a target. In my game I decided to just focus on thievery, not because my prisoner was averse to violence, but due to the fact he was less likely to be caught.
My prisoner would steal the goods people wanted and buy the things he needed for escaping, while filling other moments of free time either in the gym to build up strength and speed. Or I’d let him sit in front of a computer and raise his intellect. These are important attributes as they affect how much damage you can take from a punch or being shot, as well as what you can craft.
Crafting is an intergral part of The Escapists and the intellect stat decides what you are capable of making. There are various tools you’ll need in prison from a comb shiv to protect yourself, up to things like sturdy cutters to split open a chain link fence. In prison you can find or buy crafting plans that tell you how to make certain items, but you’ll have to acquire the necessary ingredients.
Items like duct tape, files, bedsheets, and pillow cases can all be used to create different things to aid an escape, though you’ll have to either find them or buy them. Sometimes you’ll have to wait a few in-game days before an inmate has the thing you need for sale, unless you’re lucky enough to find it while snooping. Items are also split between allowed and contraband, identified by the thing’s name written in green or red. If guards find the contraband on you or during a random cell search you will lose it, so it’s a good idea to find a hiding place for the items you need to keep.
Day-to-day routines in prison follow the same timetable, so there aren’t a lot of unexpected events that go down. Inmates will fight each other, guards will search cells, and you will plan a way out. You’re left to decide how to get out with very little guidance outside the tutorial, which could be a bit frustrating at times, but after playing for a while things begin to click. Some days you will feel like no progress has been made, while others turn up lots of good results.
The Escapists isn’t a game where you just sit back and relax, but instead one where you make sure every detail is accounted for. If you’re digging a hole you’d better have a way to hide it from guard patrols, and also find a location to dump the dirt. If you want to fight a guard you need to be stronger and have a better weapon, unless you want to end up in the infirmary. Then, when it comes to the escape, you have to make sure everything is in place.
The beauty and source of frustration in The Escapists is that even a meticulous plan can go wrong during execution. One of my plans was to cut my way to freedom through the fence. I spent days completing favours, crafting gear, and finding a decent spot to escape. Then when my character was almost out a guard wandered along and found me. I ended up in solitary with all my items, and some of my money gone. A new plan may have had to be thought of, but the experience from before helped get me out the next time I chose to break out.
The Escapists isn’t for everyone. The visual style may put some people off, and the general repetitiveness of each day could grate with others. However, The Escapists is a smart title that encourages a player to experiment with different options. There’s no single right answer to escaping, though some tactics will bring freedom faster than others. I personally found myself thinking of various plans even when not playing, and working out how viable they would be. If you enjoy crafting and planning, while potentially starting a riot, then The Escapists could be the game you’re looking for.
Version Tested: PC