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The Escapists, out Feb. 13 on PC and Xbox One (I reviewed the PC version), is a fun, clever look into a setting not often explored in video games: life inside a prison. Don’t be fooled by the retro-style graphics from developer Mouldy Toof, however. While this foray into life behind bars may appear superficially cute, it offers a surprisingly deep and puzzling experience. Your goals adventure/puzzle title are simple: Move your inmate around, search for and craft useful objects, and survive the daily grind of incarceration long enough to escape.
What you’ll like
Open-ended, emergent gameplay
After selecting an inmate and one of the different prison scenarios, The Escapists summarily drops you right into your cell and starts your first day. Messages pop up telling you where the guards expect you to go, and helpful yellow arrows point you in the right direction. You’ll go through roll calls, meals, work details, exercise time, free periods, and lights out. It’s up to you to follow these directions or not, but be prepared to suffer the consequences if the guards catch you outside of where you’re supposed to be.
Inmates will give you a variety of tasks (quests if you will) that you can complete to earn money, which other prisoners will be happy to take from you in exchange for both mundane and contraband objects. Randomized object placement and job assignments give you diverse experiences every time you play. Each time you start a scenario, your game will be slightly different, and you’ll have to tailor your strategy to what’s currently available to you. Otherwise, you’re free to follow your own path and create your own narrative.
The game also tracks several statistics for your character: strength, speed, and intellect. Improving your strength by lifting weights increases how much damage you both take and deal out to others. Using the yoga mat or the speed bag increases your speed attribute, which increases the frequency of your attacks. If you use a computer or read a book to raise your intellect, you gain the ability to craft more complicated items. It’s your choice whether to try to play it smart and build your own items or become a hulking brute who just takes what he wants from others.
Robust crafting system
Much of the fun in The Escapists is discovering new combinations of items, but some of the things you can craft include various types of tools, makeshift weapons, disguises, and concealment devices to hide your illicit activities. Some recipes require several steps, first to make the component materials and then to make the final product.
Nearly every object has one or more uses, and your ability to carry only a limited number of items will require you to frequently drop or hide items as your priorities change. Run out of digging implements before you finish your tunnel? No problem. Use some other materials to craft a weapon and shank the guy in the next cell so you can take his shovel. Just don’t leave any contraband where the guards can find it.
Many paths to success … or failure
The number of options at your disposal, and the myriad ways they can potentially fail, make for a constantly changing game. Air vents, if you can get them open with the proper tool, allow you to hide items without the worry of discovery when guards search your cell, but make sure you close them, or they’ll notice something is amiss. You can use plastic utensils to slowly chip away at a wall, but if they find an uncovered hole, you’ll be on a one-way trip to solitary confinement.
Many other ways exist to escape. You may find methods to dig under walls or climb over them. Working in the laundry may provide you a clean guard uniform to use as a disguise. And really clever and persistent players may find a way to simply unlock the front door and walk right out.
What you won’t like
The tutorial doesn’t really prepare you
The tutorial level provided does introduce you to the controls, give you an overview of the routine of prison life, and allow you the faintest glimpse into the crafting system. It does not prepare you adequately for the wide variety of gameplay at your disposal, however. For example, early on you may receive a request from one of your inmates to distract the guards at a particular time of day. At no point, however, does it give you any idea how to actually accomplish this task. You’re pretty much left to figure out everything on your own.
While some may appreciate the lack of hand-holding, sometimes not having a clue what to do can be frustrating until you finally discover the solution. Expect slow progress at first until you figure out some of the basics.
The Escapists presents a dynamic, fun, and challenging experience in a unique setting. The simple presentation belies the complexity and variety of gameplay. Gamers looking for a cerebral puzzler with a high replay value would be well-advised to check it out. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable prison experience.
The Escapists releases for PC and Xbox One on Feb. 13, 2015. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a Steam code to download the game on a PC for the purpose of this review.
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