Thankfully, most of us will never need to figure out how to bust out of prison. But it makes for a heck of a foundation for a puzzle game. Unfortunately, The Escapists is a little too married to the realism of its concept to fully work as a game.
The Escapists (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
If you want to make a game about breaking out of jail, going adorable is a good idea. The Escapists is a retro game, full of 16-bit sprites and lighthearted music, and it makes breaking out of prison just completely adorable. Beyond that, though, there’s not much going on; there’s a plot, to a degree, but it’s really all about busting out.
Puzzle RPGs are a rarely explored genre, relative to mainstream gaming, and it’s an interesting idea. That said, for reasons we’ll get into, this feels strongly less of modern gaming and more of “life simulators,” those goofy Flash games you could play back in the day where you went to the gym to build your stats.
The Escapists is very, very dedicated to being at least somewhat realistic. So, you’re on a schedule: You’ve got roll call, work, food, exercise time, free periods, all of it rigidly controlled. It’s an interesting aspect, but it chokes in the rather crucial respect of, well, refusing to give you anything beyond that schedule.
Essentially, each level is a puzzle; you’ve got to work out how to escape, in increasing order of difficulty. The problem is the game lacks any sort of real quest structure. You can take on little side quests to cultivate friends and collect cash, but that’s about it; everything is up to you, and you’re on a strict time limit. Adding to the problem is that it’s easy to tick off your fellow prisoners, who will try to beat you up at every possible opportunity, and often the guards will kick your ass as well.
It boils down to crafting; you’ve got to gather, buy, or steal materials and tools, figure out how to use them, and pull it all off before you get busted. When you can pull it off, it’s a great feeling, but get caught and it’s back to the beginning of the level, or at least your last save. You can either experiment with your stash of crap, or you can buy crafting recipes. I suppose you could also look them up online.
Finally, the controls feel unintuitive and unresponsive, at least on the PS4. It’s not unplayable, but you’ll accidentally punch some people a few times.
There are only six prisons, but there are multiple ways to escape each one and figuring them out in the abstract is a hoot. If you’re into this game, you’ll be into it for days.
Making this less grindy and more quest-driven would have been a much better way for this game to go. As it is, if you’re very patient, or like tough puzzles under time pressure, this will be your game.
Verdict: Worth A Chance