I want to break free.
As a man who appreciates personal space, the concept of prison terrifies me. As a man who also lives on the right side of the law, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever find myself incarcerated, but should I suddenly “go wrong” and swap my current lifestyle of tea-drinking and pasta-munching for baby-slapping and puppy-punching, then just know that the second I step foot in my cell I will melt into a puddle of tears and urine.
Fortunately The Escapists, from Mouldy Toof Studios, portrays the experience of life inside the clink in a virtual realm meaning no murders are required for entry, with the prison you inhabit receiving a cheery pixelated makeover so as to completely rid it of the overwhelming claustrophobia and fear that is presumably apparent in a real prison. The goal of The Escapists is, as the title suggests, to escape the prison you’re locked inside (the cause of your imprisonment is never made apparent, so you’re not burdened with the guilt of being a murderer, being a rapist, or any other heinous crime your li’l player-character has gotten involved in). You name your prisoner, you’re assigned daily tasks, and you’re required to show up for roll calls, dinner time and shower breaks (gulp) lest you want to incur the wrath of the incredibly violent guards.
The Escapists doesn’t give you many pointers as to what you should be doing outside of your prisoners’ daily schedule, which makes sense given the context. If you were locked in a real prison, you wouldn’t have someone tapping you on the shoulder saying “Hey, you might want to find a trowel in order to dig yourself outta here”—you must learn these things for yourself. Your day begins with a morning roll call, and ends with an evening roll call. In between these roll calls you’ll be told to take a dinner hour, exercise at the prison gym and, if you choose to assign yourself a job via the job board, carry out your in-prison duties that range from laundry, to woodwork, to metal work.
Failure to appear at the right place at the right time will result in the guards being alerted to your wrongdoing, and the amount of “heat” you’ve managed to attract shows up in a meter on the upper left corner of the screen. There you’ll also see your health, available cash and fatigue level, which can be reduced by showering, resting or eating. You can lessen this heat by simply avoiding the guards for an extended period of time, and though there are quite a few of them, they aren’t exactly the brightest folk.
After garnering over 90% heat I often managed to avoid a beatdown simply by hiding in the library which, considering the prison is armed to the teeth with security cameras, probably shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. That being said, if guards remained omnipresent then it’s unlikely that you could actually achieve anything in The Escapists, so it’s perhaps in the best interest that they remain a little dim-witted.
If a guard does manage to track you down and beat you up, you’ll immediately be transported to the on-site medical room in order to recover, and any contraband you’re carrying will be disposed of. As acquiring contraband is critical to escaping the prison, it’s also necessary for you to hide contraband you acquire in your cell’s desk and the desks of your fellow inmates. It’s also important to remain sneaky in plotting your escape and cover your tracks as soon as you lay them.
For instance, when I managed to get my hands on a trowel I immediately began digging beneath my cell. Unfortunately, no sooner had I dug a yard beneath the prison did the game inform me that I would need support beams to ensure that the facility's floor didn’t come crashing down on top of me. Upon exiting the hole, I came to the realization that I probably should’ve acquired something to cover up it up—a guard immediately noticed the mess I had created, beat me down, and removed the trowel from my inventory, too.
The Escapists isn’t a game that you can simply rush into. Acquiring the tools you need to progress can either be done so by completing “jobs” for other inmates, such as beating up guards, creating diversions while they kick someone’s teeth in or getting your hands on something they want, thus earning you money that you can then use to purchase items from other inmates, or by crafting them. Various items can be acquired to craft useful objects/weaponry and crafting notes can be found around the prison in order to learn how to create more advanced stuff to help you progress. The crafting process is extremely simplified with only a single button press to combine two or three items together, but there are plenty of combinations to choose from.
The alpha version of the game contains only one playable map, though Mouldy Toof Studios’ promises that more will be included in the final game, along with a map editor that will allow you to create your own prison. There’s also a leaderboard in order to measure how quickly you escape each prison against other Steam users, which adds an extra layer to what could potentially steal hours from your life.
I really enjoyed my time with The Escapists. Despite its prison setting it encourages the player to explore, with new ways to escape frequently making themselves apparent and new items to craft that can aid your little prisoner in his quest. Though its crafting elements and aesthetics will likely see it compared to Terraria, I found that it had more in common with the Hitman series, in that it rewards patience, timing and an imaginative mind in order to concoct foolproof ways in which to escape those dreaded prison walls. Keep an eye out for this one and learn more on Steam Greenlight.