There's a kind of weird irony in the idea that anyone would pay to spend time in a prison. On the one hand, they're the time-out room of the adult world, but on the other they're also a truly interesting social experiment. We watch movies like The Shawshank Redemption and TV series like Orange is the New Black, and we wonder how we, as (mostly) well-adjusted adults, would fare if we were locked up in a small space alongside so many dangerous and antisocial people – a pigeon among the cats.
And what if, like Andy, we could escape? What would it be like to experience the exhilaration, tension, and the exquisite taste of that first sweet breath of freedom after breaking out? Enter Moudly Toof's The Escapists, a game that may just be the piece of digital escapism you’ve been looking for.
The Escapists uses the now-ubiquitous “retro” graphics that has become the calling card of indie gaming in recent years, and while it has its rustic charms in some cases it usually does little to enhance the experience. Here, a beautifully executed pixel art approach does is hide the complex and flawlessly executed mechanics that underpin the whole experience. Exceeding player expectations is something Moudly Toof has excelled at here.
Escaping is of course the goal, and there are many ways you can go about it, whether you overpower a guard to copy his key, complete a favour or two for another inmate to gather some resources, or even cause a riot to slip away in the chaos - the choice really is yours.
There are a number of elegant mechanics that work here. The crafting system is robust, and like many other aspects of the game, far deeper than it initially appears to be. The addition of some RPG-esque stats and tasks adds depth to what could have been an otherwise pedestrian prison-themed puzzle game. You’ll find yourself using the yard to increase your speed and strength in order to be more formidable in any physical confrontation. Intellect is essentially an unlock, at higher levels you’ll be able to create more complex and useful items, and it’s these items that will the most useful when attempting to escape or overpower a guard.
The real key to success here is in the planning. How much a player will enjoy their time behind bars is directly related to how much satisfaction they can derive from the planning aspect of the game and the repetitious nature of observing and collecting information, as well as the trial and error nature of some aspects of executing any plan. Just as in a real prison there is a very set routine for what a prisoner is supposed to be doing, and where they should be doing it. This allows a fairly predictable day to day chain of events that can be exploited in order to help effect your escape, but there is monotony to it as well. This daily grind an intrinsic part of the game experience and the prison conceit, but it may understandably turn off some players.
Failure is always an option and all too often it's the smallest mistakes, or the oversight of one minor task task that leads to discovery. An open door may lead to the discovery of an unconscious guard. Or before you even start an important piece of contraband could be confiscated and you're off to solitary confinement where you'll have plenty of time to dream up a new plan or figure out where to find a replacement.
There are of course other inmates sharing your confines, and many of them can be used to increase your chances for escape. In prison anything can be a tool. Some inmates will sell you useful items, while others may ask for a favour that you can choose to complete for cash or respect. More often than not, these call for you to bash another inmate, or to steal something. Your fellow prisoners can also be used as bait, or exploited to gain access to different areas of the prison. You can even make them fail at their own tasks if you think their job might gain you some advantage.
Technically the game is also very solid, but does suffer from some issues when there are too many interactive objects in a small space, this can lead to some important information or an object being obscured. It’s a minor issue in the scheme of things, but also happens often enough to warrant a mention.
After all the failings and stumbles, finally having an escape go as planned is extremely satisfying - and that’s something that I was also not expecting. Not once have I become bored, or lost that feeling of excitement when I finally got it right. The Escapists never fails to be anything short of completely entertaining, and I can think of no higher praise to give any game.