Seldom am I completely sold on a video game without playing it or knowing the developer.The Escapists, from Mouldy Toof Studios, available on Steam and Xbox One, is my token annual exception. It's a game about a prison break, and that's enough for me. I'm on-board.
It's just one of those concepts that sounds so good, so self-evidently appealing, that you marvel upon realizing it hasn't been done five thousand times already. And it makes you frustrated at what a conceptual closed-circuit the gaming idea marketplace has become. It's like Red Dead Redemption in that sense. "This genre is an integral part of the American myth, but nobody's doing it. Why is nobody doing it?"
I'm square in the crosshairs of this game's target market. Every time I got grounded as a child, I would plan elaborate prison breaks. I would devise the construction of a trap door under the carpet, and imagine digging a tunnel to the side yard, using a toy bulldozer as a makeshift shovel. I already had a flashlight, so night digs would be relatively effortless. I never actually did this, because I was pretty sure houses had concrete under them, and I couldn't acquire a pickaxe, but the fun was in the planning, not the doing.
If you approach The Escapists with this mindset, there's fun to be had. It's not about the actual escape. It's about the lifestyle required to get away with it. It's about looking like a model prisoner but withholding a secret; it's about obeying the letter of the law at its barest minimum. It's not the leaving that's fun, but the secret life that precipitates it. Life in prison is small, but it gets a lot smaller without big plans.
Getting Away From It All
Mind you, I wouldn't be attempting a rhetorical justification of a prison break game if I thought The Escapists did sufficient justice to the idea. Sure, it's conceptually sound. Its heart is in the right place. Where most games would use the prison break concept as a launching point for hyperviolence and morally grotesque thematic elements, The Escapists puts strategy, divergent thinking, and problem-solving first.
It's aesthetically appealing, too. It looks and maneuvers like one of those smart Game Boy Color games your older sibling played in high school, where the unavoidable cutesiness conceals a surprising intellectual depth. All the prisoners and guards are adorable – it's adorable when they brutalize each other, it's adorable when you go on lockdown, and it's adorable when you get shot from the guard tower and sent to the infirmary. It's breezy and has surprisingly funny incidental dialogue. It's Escape From Alactraz in Pokemon Yellowclothing.
And on paper it has all the details down pat; all the components are there. You can bulk up to take on guards. You can craft makeshift weapons and escape tools. There are little economies of getting paid to beat up guards or retrieve "magazines." You can overhear rumors and conversations about riots and other prison breaks. You have a demeaning day job to keep you busy. You can rendezvous with other inmates to arrange misdeeds. The lifestyle, and the strategy needed to succeed within that lifestyle, is all there.
There are multiple prisons, arranged by difficulty from your run-of-the-mill white collar resort to your maximum security killing floor. You can pick from a handful of adorable 8-bit inmates. You generally have to show up to mandatory events on the prison schedule, and you have to conceal your contraband in the event of shakedowns. In between, you plan your escape.
There are many possible routes to doing this. The game is as open-ended on that front as it should be. I never became dissatisfied with The Escapists because my dream prison break was unattainable. Its problems lie in its lack of intuitive design and its inadequate reward system.
Not Enough Explanation
For starters, the tutorial is insufficient. It explains only the basics of the controls and only hints at the higher-level strategies you'll need to develop. It doesn't prepare you for how fast the you're thrown into the design, which is sink or swim the whole way down. There's very little room for error. You'll get fired from your cushy laundry job several times before you start to manage it. You'll have to keep track of too many inmates and too many guards and feel like you're in a pinball machine. Side quests, like distracting a guard or retrieving a stolen magazine, don't have clear answers. It's a mystery what items you can craft, or why you should craft them. Because of this lack of explanation, you have to figure out the design for yourself through trial and error.
The result is a game that feels like it would be a blast, if only you were good at it. As is, with a bare-bones tutorial and hints that go by with the snap of a finger, you're never quite sure what your options are, or what play style is most efficient. You have to keep losing and learn how to lose better before winning becomes an option.
It also feels too fast. A prison break is supposed to be leisurely, and days are supposed to trickle like molasses, but here you have to work fast to stay on schedule. It's like listening to a record that's pitch-shifted up by 40%. You can hear that the right ingredients are in place, but you can't quite process them. It's over-stimulating until you get adjusted, and even then it feels like it should be slower.
But this would all be fine if there was more of a reward system. When you get useful items or complete a side quest, that little endorphin spike is missing. The game doesn't pat you on the back or get more interesting when you get a shovel or max out your strength in the gym. Your labor bears no fruit. You're working just to work. I think it could have been tremendously improved with a basic story mode where a fellow inmate shows you the ropes and explains the prison's weaknesses. A winking meta-narrative styled after Earthbound could have anchored this as a cult classic.
I don't want to get too down on it though. The concept behind The Escapists is strong, and the strategy is there. But I move at my own pace and care more about the atmosphere of a game than its underlying machinery, and I wish I had a shallow end to wade in for awhile instead of getting hurtled off the high dive.
That doesn't mean the game is wanting for charisma or selling points. I dig those cartoon prisoners. I could see routinely replaying it if there were better incentives to get good. As is, I like it and wish I could like it more. I think it's a good start at any rate. It's priced right. If you're fast on your feet, you'll get more mileage out of it than I did. And I certainly hope it sells well enough to merit a sequel. I'll be there for it.