I hate Santiago.
He follows me around the prison as I'm stalking the corridors and plotting my grand escape, launching into an uncontrollable rage whenever he gets within five feet. Just this morning he tried an assault during breakfast in the dining hall, and this afternoon, as we shower with the rest of the inmates, he’s sure to come rushing at me through the steam.
I can’t blame him really. A few days ago, in an ill-advised bout of desperation, I stole his screwdriver. It was the final piece of my first-ever escape plan. Time was running out and I certainly didn't have the cash to buy it, so I took him out in an act of primal force; endless days of working out in the gym resulting in a swift beatdown. The aftermath of the melee became a little confusing however, and at some point I think I lashed out at Santiago with a hammer before stealing the rest of his supplies and leaving him naked in the courtyard. That last part might have been a little too much.
It was all pointless. Later that night I loosened the bolts with my precious screwdriver, scrambled up into the vents and made my way carefully around the duct system to drop down into the foyer, with the intent of breaking through a wall that I had been weakening surreptitiously over the past two days. No sooner had I done so when a blue-suited officer came flying around the corner on patrol, the prison guard striking swiftly before dumping me into solitary confinement. The resultant cell shakedown lost me all manner of goods that had been carefully stolen and crafted during the previous few days, and when I emerged back into general population it was back to square one, but with a pissed-off Santiago now haunting my every move.
Make a breakThis is the good side of The Escapists. Each of its six pixel-art prisons are sandboxes full of opportunity and escalating size, home to a huge amount of interlocking gameplay systems that require careful management and manipulation. You’re dropped into each one with scant introduction to basic facets of play, and then it’s down to your own initiative to survey your surroundings; to steal, craft or acquire objects and tools that will assist your escape, and then to execute your plan flawlessly when the time arrives.
It plays a little like Don’t Starve crossed with Spectrum classic Skool Daze. The basic principle of acquiring many low-level objects with which to craft better alternatives is at its heart, but instead of harvesting logs and stones to make a fire, you’re stealing talcum powder and glue to make a rudimentary putty, forming a mould by knocking out a guard and imprinting a stolen key, then creating your own ghetto door-opener by using a lighter to melt a plastic fork into the correct shape.
The crafting system is simple to utilise and yet houses a vast number of different item combinations, and aside from a few hints that can be purchased in each level, all of them will need to be discovered on your own (or via GameFAQs, I suspect). It's not an easy process.
As you build that crafting knowledge and wander the halls, snowy wastelands and desert camps, you’ll quickly begin to recognise potential escape routes and exploitable situations, but it’s the daily routine that always gates your progress. Prison life runs like clockwork, and you have to play along. Failing to follow strict instructions from the guards will send an entire complex into lockdown, while causing a high-profile violent spectacle will inevitably result in a trip to solitary and a loss of carefully-crafted items.
So you have to go to breakfast every day. You have to work a job at an allotted time to earn money for bartering with other inmates (unless you get yourself fired...), to exercise, to shower, to head back to the food hall for an evening meal, and to attend a formal head-count. These are non-negotiable, meaning that time to perform tasks for other inmates, to buff your own strength and speed, or to tinker with the prison environment is extremely limited. Plans have to be achieved inch-by-inch.
Take a breakIt turns out that strict adherence to routine is both a godsend and a curse for The Escapists. My first successful prison break was one of palpable tension, and took nearly three hours of planning, crafting, daily chores and trial-and-error to get right. As the time ticked forward during that final day into nightfall, the stakes were raised little-by-little. I avoided inmates as much as possible; I turned up early for every daily chore, I unequipped my weapon so as to not accidentally knock anybody out, and I kited Santiago away from prison guards whenever he came in for the kill.
The final release on successfully pulling off the plan was thoroughly worth it. Lights out; a body double stuffed into my bed; a neatly-washed guard outfit; posters, and fake wall blocks to cover tracks; wire cutters crafted by repeatedly breaking into other cells and stealing the materials I needed. It all came together beautifully. I ran, I cut, I scrambled around, I made it. Nobody suspected a thing.
Of course it hadn't come together in the many, many attempts before that, and it’s those days that begin to drag when you move through progressively larger and more elaborate prisons.
Each environment does a good job of adding new mechanics and interesting obstacles to overcome (electric fences, jungle, guard towers, etc), but the days that lead up to your attempted break-out soon become tiresome. You quickly learn when to interact with prisoners and when to avoid them, which quests to undertake to get key figures on your side, when to go rooting around in other cells, which items create the necessary tools you need for your plan, and which stats you need to increase at the very beginning of your stint inside. Go here. Sit there. Attend this. Wait. Wait. Wait.
The daily prison routine quickly turns into a chore, with the slow build-up of tension replaced by tedium as you’re frequently just standing around until nightfall to try something new, or for the day to reset and more crafting resources to become available. Sure, there are parts of your plan that you can execute in daylight, and even it’s possible to cobble together schemes that don’t need the cover of darkness at all, but that’s not normally the case. At that point the grind really is a grind, and it becomes a little difficult to wade through.
- Deep crafting system
- Fun, creative sandbox
- Palpable tension
- Functional design
- A little too repetitious
- Extremely hard
- Punishing mistakes
The Escapists: Xbox One ReviewThe Escapists is a flawed but thoroughly interesting prison-break sandbox game with a slow pace that’s both a strength and deterrent.
The first few prisons, and your first few hair-brained escape plans, are superb experiences, full of creativity and tension. Trial-and-error tactics slowly give way to a cogent timeline of crafting and events that need to occur for your scheme to succeed, and that laser-like focus of routine and preparation gradually ratchets up the pressure when it’s time to finally bust out.
That planning phase soon turns a little sour however, and the daily routine that underpins prison life makes a little too much of The Escapists a chore.
Regardless, when it succeeds, The Escapists is a unique experience. Cutely-designed pixel art graphics belie a game that has dozens of systems interplaying at its core, and while it’s fun to prod them all and see what occurs, I just wish it didn’t take quite so long to do so. While it has you under its spell, The Escapists is thoroughly recommended.
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