Usually, when I’m playing a game, I stay off the Internet. At least, I avoid reading about the game unless I’m stuck on something. I try to avoid any message board threads or stories that might influence my opinion of whatever I’m playing.
With The Escapists, I found myself sifting through the Steam community forums and other sites somewhere around the 9 hour mark. I was wondering if other people playing it were feeling the same way as me. I found myself disliking this game so much – hating it, even – that I’ll go so far as to say that I didn’t trust my own opinion.
The Escapists, developed by Mouldy Toof and published by Team 17 (of Worms fame), puts you in one of the coolest roles in movies: The guy who, by his own skill and ingenuity, escapes from prison and gets off scott free. Escapes and heists are some of my favorite movies, so I was looking forward to putting myself in the shoes and bright orange jumpsuit of one of these characters.
I quickly found out, though, that for me this game was less like the movies and novels I love and more like being in an actual prison.
Learning to Walk
To escape from the prison, of which there are a few of increasing difficulty, you must decide on and then execute a plan. Tools, keys, social interaction, and disguises are all options. You can even craft items. Shanks are just the beginning.
This sounds like a really cool idea, but a lot of things get in the way before you can even get started.
First is the bare-bones tutorial. While I certainly don’t want a game walking me through every little element, I want to feel like I’m equipped to handle the world. The tutorial presented in The Escapists teaches you how to scoot more than it does how to walk. I don’t remember being told, for example, that there’s a specific button to recruit other prisoners into my employ. I found it while digging through the included manual.
The interface and controls – your primary methods of interaction with the game – are constantly in the way as well. Crucial UI elements are missing. Things that would normally have an on-screen prompt do not. If you haven’t done something for a while and can’t remember which key on your keyboard does it, you’ll have to stop playing and head back into that manual.
Due to the pixel-art graphics that give the game its style – which I like – I often found myself having trouble with the controls. Fights in prison aren’t a surprise to anyone. What is a surprise is the guy who kept digging through a knocked-out guys pockets while three guards were beating on him. If two characters occupied the same space, the game didn’t seem to know what to do about that, and this is something that happens with great frequency. It can make interacting with characters in any way a frustrating affair.
And Tripping Over Your Feet
Take these together and layer them on top of the moment to moment gameplay. The prison system is a sandbox, but one with all the strict rules you’d expect of such an institution. Sleep, meals, exercise and everything else is strictly regulated. You have free time throughout the day, and this is when you’re expected to work on your plan. Each night, you go to bed and this is when the game saves.
This is a really cool idea in theory, and if the issues I outlined were taken care of, it could be really cool in practice.
What you do have, though, in practice, is a fairly involved day that can’t be skipped. If you’re randomly searched or shaken down, that’s one thing – a setback built into the game’s mechanics. But I often found myself set back by control and logic issues. It felt as if I was playing against the game instead of within it.
Furthering that feeling is the adventure game-like feel of many solutions. Grappling hooks don’t seem to get you over walls. Plastic knives can cut through chain link fences (slowly). When logic doesn’t seem applicable, experimentation starts to lose its luster. It’s hard to know what will work and what won’t.
Success in The Escapists is hard-won through slow progress; progress that is often taken from you as soon as you achieve it. The days are tedious, repetitive to the point of madness, and the system you’re stuck in feels punishing rather than constraining to encourage creativity. It feels like a prison.
I see a neat, unique game at the core of The Escapists. The idea of figuring out for yourself how to escape an environment like this is a cool fantasy. I even see a game some people might enjoy. That made the experience all the more frustrating.
If you’re going to buy The Escapists, do your research first and make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of The Escapists for the PC from the publisher. We played 13 hours of the game before writing this review.