Beat-downs and break-outs.
Loads of gamers would probably like to leave behind the illness or confinement they feel in the real world, and video games themselves allow that, but something about The Escapists irks me. It’s not that the title doesn’t offer scores of items, environments, characters, questlines, oppressive guards, and mundane work-out equipment, or the likes of one seriously standoffish warden. It’s the lack of enthusiasm.
When you start your first prison break, you’re not told where to go. The green objective arrow more frequently points to the day’s next activity, not the weapon or tool needed to leave. In that way, The Escapists does present a wide-open canvas with which nefarious-minded players can experiment on, but it won’t teach you any tricks should you land yourself in a legitimate penitentiary any time soon.
Take the game’s tutorial, for example. This sequence actually allows the player to understand a few different mechanical systems in a short span of time. What it fails to do is apply those systems to the world around the player at any point following that. Rather than present players with another crafting recipe, The Escapists leaves doors open where a normal prison would not. I had to seek out the next crafting opportunity through a favor for another inmate. I’d rather the game offered more obvious steps toward escape.
It could be more valuable for both the player and the overall experience to understand what kind of character you’re supposed to play. The Escapists minimally sets up an inmate, but it’s the imaginative mind’s responsibility to fill in a backstory or a Taken-inspired “specific set of skills” with which to focus on. If you want to play a prisoner specializing in playing politics, that’s here, though the title’s execution of a favors-focused quest system could leave you bungling a key trade. Focusing on crafting offers similar bumps in the road to freedom given how scattered materials can be around the prison itself.
Unfortunately, even if you fail to achieve escape, the characters you meet in-game prove genuinely likable and some brief narratives become entertaining in their own right. Connecting two prisoners between two different trades doesn’t offer a distraction for the guards, but it does allow you inventory freedom not otherwise possible. One prisoner may ask you to steal back a pillow, but the journey between these two points and the day’s activities in the meantime turn a small task into an epic.
I don’t think the game could accomplish this feeling without its choice of graphics, sound, or vibrancy of color. Wandering around the first prison, I was beaten up several times and left unconscious on the ground. Players in a similar position will wake up in the infirmary, where I was able to walk out unscathed and more often than not without the key items needed to continue my previous mission. It’s a horrifying interruption that may or may not approximate the life of a penal system inmate in a roundabout way.
I doubt I’ll go back to the game or try to escape again. With its truncated clock system, The Escapists balances two opposing forces against the player’s own patience with notable mechanical leverage no matter where you’re coming from. On one hand, I ended up feeling gratified and at peace doing menial mini-game-like tasks, including exercising and laundry duties. On the other, it seems like Team 17 and Mouldy Toof Studios don’t want you playing the role of a prisoner at all.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on Xbox One version. Also available on PC.