Besides family and friends, escaping from prison is probably one of the biggest things on an inmate’s mind while they’re doing their time. However, less than 2% ever actually act upon these thoughts and form their own escape plan. Despite this, the theme of escaping from prison is relatively popular within cinema, and it has spawned some of the greatest films of our time. Some of those classics are The Shawshank Redemption, Papillon, and The Great Escape, all of which tell their story within the confines of a prison. However, the theme of escape is not so common in videogames, with most preferring to base one single level around the subject instead of an entire game. Developers Mouldy Toof Studios are rectifying this with The Escapists, a game that puts you in the shoes of an inmate and tasks you with hotfooting it to freedom.
Players only have access to one prison at the beginning of the game, with more being unlocked as they successfully escape their confinement. There are six prisons in total for the player to plot their egress from with each varying in difficulty, from the minimal security centre called Center Perks to the high security Stalag Flucht POW camp. Upon picking their own prisoner, the player is taken to the first prison in the game where they must adapt to life in jail and eventually, begin to plan their departure. There isn’t a story that ties all six prison escapes together; each one is seen as its own separate entity.
If Moudly Toof Studios were trying to replicate the harsh life of being in jail within the opening to the game then they achieved that, because we had a very rough start with The Escapists. The player is immediately expected to follow the prison’s strict schedule, with specific times for eating, exercise and sleep. If the schedule isn’t adhered to then guards will become suspicious and eventually come looking for you, which could result in a stint in solitary confinement. While the schedule may feel a little unfair on the player at first, it is an accurate representation of prison. Real life inmates are expected to follow strict rules and guidelines as well as the jail’s schedule, and so to not include their own agenda would be a large oversight by the developers, because then would that really be prison at all? The game starts to open up when the prison’s schedule gives prisoners free time where they can do as they please. This is the time where the player can begin to lay foundations, and eventually make a break for it. And with six different escape methods on offer, the player has a lot of freedom in how they go about this. You could choose to dig under the walls using the cover of night, take over the prison by killing a certain number of guards, or even start a full-scale riot. None of these methods are spelled out or explained to the player, so it is up to them to fend for themselves and develop their own plan of going AWOL, much like a prison in real life. Each method requires a certain amount of planning and specific items, and this is where the crafting system and prison jobs come into play.
The Escapists’ job system gives the player the chance to earn money, which can be very beneficial later on in the game. Throughout the six prisons, the player will have access to a variety of jobs which reward you with money and could benefit the player in their quest for freedom. For example, while doing the laundry you could steal a guard’s uniform and use it to your advantage. Or once you’ve finished your job for the day, you could start to chip away at the walls surrounding your workplace and begin your quest for freedom that way. If the player meets their quota for that day, then they will be rewarded with a certain amount of money, which can then be used to buy items from other prisoners. Another way of earning money is to complete small quests handed out by other inmates in the schedule’s free time, and these could include beating up another prisoner or obtaining a certain item for them. Both the job system and the quests on offer are vital to your getaway because they will give you the money to buy more expensive items such as the trowel which can be used to dig underground, or the hammer to beat up both the inmates and guards. Another way to get better items is to make them using the game’s crafting system. Crafting notes can either be found within each prison or bought from another inmate, and these detail a way of crafting a new item or weapon the player could use. The crafting system and the ability to buy items from other inmates are both excellent additions to the game that replicate prison life to a tee, as real life prisoners have contraband items confiscated from them all the time. And how else would Andy Dufresne have got that rock hammer without a little help from a fellow inmate in The Shawshank Redemption?
Not only can players improve their chances of a successful outbreak by buying better items, they can also work on their character’s stats in three areas. The prison’s schedule allows inmates time in the gym, and here you can improve your character’s strengths. After so many reps on the bench press, the player’s strength will develop and allow you to deal far more damage to your opponents as well as the ability to carry heavier objects. Inmates can also opt for the treadmill which improves their speed, and allows the player to travel around the map much faster. Finally, reading books in the library will improve your inmate’s intellect, which enhances their ability to craft items and allows them to apply for better jobs in the prison. Upgrading your stats, the job structure and the crafting system all work together to form one main purpose: to increase your chances of a triumphant flight. It all works very well and forms a sort of three-step method. First the player improves their stats so they become stronger and gain access to better paid jobs and craftable items. Next, you are better equipped for beating up other inmates if a prisoner’s quest requires that, and you can apply for a better job and thus earn more money. Finally, you can take the money you’ve earned from your job and quests and buy the items you need to craft those weapons and tools you need to leave the prison. Everything within the game ties in with something else to boost your chances of slipping away, and this creates a seamless experience that is a joy to progress through. It isn’t even a particular easy system either because the player has to put some effort into learning how everything works together, but this only makes it even more satisfying when your plan finally comes together and your bid for freedom is prosperous.
One of the most striking things about The Escapists is of course its art style, which is inspired by the 16-bit era of videogames. The game continues a long line of 2D indie games that use this visual style, and we think it works well here. The visual style reflects the game’s main objective: simple visuals for a simple target, which is of course to liberate yourself. We didn’t experience any technical hitches or bugs throughout our playthrough of the game either, which in a time that includes the likes of triple-A titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Unity, is something to be commended.
The Escapists sets out to create a fun and realistic prison escape game, and it has done that with flying colours. The player will immediately sympathize for their inmate as they begrudgingly follow the prison’s schedule, but then bask in the excitement as they start to plan their prison desertion. The three-step system of increasing your stats, getting better jobs and then crafting the items you need works wonderfully and creates a smooth and logical experience that anyone could enjoy and appreciate. However there are areas for improvement, one being a story that could tie all six prisons together which could help the player build up a connection with their inmate. Also, the game would benefit from a more in-depth tutorial than the one we see at the beginning of the game. Otherwise, like us, players may be lost at the start of their stint in prison and not entirely sure of how to go about forming some sort of escape. The Escapists doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Shawshank Redemption’s emotion, relationships between characters or interesting story to tie everything together, but it does create an engaging and noteworthy experience that should be played by all.