Breaking out of prison has never been so much fun. The Escapist has done a masterful job of bringing the experience of prison life to the Xbox One.
The Escapist starts off as a quaint little dream in which the player steals a guard’s uniform, digs a hole under the fence and then escapes into the night, running away toward freedom. Then the player wakes up and the harsh reality of prison life begins. Developed in tandem by Team17 and Mouldy Toof, The Escapist is an isometric 8-bit throwback to video games of an older era. And much like those older games, besides the visually retro art style, the game is really difficult to beat.
The premise of The Escapist is simple. The player is tasked with breaking out of prison. Now, how the player actually does the breaking out is the difficult part. The game is difficult because it consists of using critical thinking to solve every puzzle. There is not much in the way of a tutorial either, so getting around the prison is all about trial and error. This simplistic approach is genius and really takes the game to a new height.
Imagine waking up in prison tomorrow. How difficult would it be to survive? There would be so much information to process. The amount of pressure would cause a lot of normal people to crack. And I’m not even mentioning having to always be on the lookout for attack from other prisoners. Most sane people would just flat-out not make it behind bars.
Now imagine making it past the first night. Each day gets easier as the daily routine is learned. Now what would a person do with all the free time? Well, naturally there are thoughts of escaping, but the risks are high. What happens if the escape plan fails? What happens if you get caught? And what happens if you actually make it out of prison?
Team17 and Mouldy Toof have done a great job of really making this simulator lifelike, despite the looks. By giving no direction, the player is tasked with learning on the go, and really getting that prison experience. The day’s schedule is strict and the guards are tough. Create too much of a hassle and you’ll lose a few days wasting away in solitary. Now what’s a player to do while planning their escape plan?
The gameplay in The Escapist is as simple as the premise. There is one button to punch, pick up items, and operate jobs with. There is a small inventory, and there is a desk or hub in the prisoner’s cell. This can be used to store other items. These items can then be used in any number of ways. Some items can be used as gifts or exchanged for money. Other items, such as a sock and a piece of soap, can be crafted together to make a sock mace. The crafting system is extensive and another example of using critical thinking to solve problems.
At the start of the game each prisoner is given an orange jump suit, a pillow, a blanket, and a toothbrush. There are a lot of ways to acquire more items as well though. Players can also buy supplies from other prisoners for a price, and that crafting system I mentioned is simple, yet complex. Some tools can be combined with others to form a better tool. For example, take a razor and a toothbrush and combine them to get a new weapon, the razor brush (sounds a little like Dead Rising in that way -ed).
Players will need to craft items too, to help aid in the escape plan. By combining a prison suit, a pillow and some duct tape, players can craft a dummy. The dummy then can be placed in bed during lights out so the guards don’t think you have escaped. Planning on digging out of prison and don’t want the guards to see the busted up wall? Well channel your inner Andy Durfesne and put a poster over the hole in the wall. This system is so extensive, and so far the only way to learn crafting tips is from a payphone found in the prison yard.
Now to talk about the game within the game. There are little mini-games inside the prison that must be completed or players will find themselves being penalized in a variety of ways. Players have to adhere to a strict schedule. Morning starts at 8 a.m. sharp and the player must go to morning roll call with all the other prisoners. This is followed by breakfast, during which the player can regain stamina by sitting down and eating some prison grub. After that each prison has a different schedule, but all the activities are the same. Players will either have some free time to mingle with other prisoners or have to go to work.
Now, work consists of different jobs such as laundry detail or gardening. Performing the job is a mini-game and requires the player to learn on the fly. Perform the job poorly and get fired. Losing a prison job is not as bad as it sounds though. The player will have more free time but will also not be making any easy money. Players will also have to be more aware of the guards as they will have more time to keep watch. By performing the job well, players will make money and will also keep their guard watch down to zero. Players can also get promoted and start to make more money and have access to better tools. Oh, and outside of that, the rest of the day is filled with pumping iron.
A character in The Escapist has three traits that can be improved. Strength can be increased by working out with weights or pushups. This type of mini game is not difficult and just requires the rhythmic tapping of the right and left trigger buttons. Speed is another trait that can be increased by running, which again is another rhythmic tapping game. The last trait is intelligence and this is increased by either surfing the web (sounds like an oxymoron), or by reading in the library (that sounds more accurate). Improving these traits is optional, but if they’re not worked on at least a little the player will be at a major disadvantage. Some items require a certain intelligence level, and if the player is not strong and fast, it makes them a sitting duck to guards and other prisoners. Prison life is not easy.
Overall The Escapist is a fun and entertaining game. While it is a difficult game, it is not difficult in the sense which would cause a controller to be thrown or having that “cheated” feeling. The game is difficult because there are so many different options to choose.
In the end though, the choices don’t really matter as long as you can escape. The Escapist is all about the journey to that point. Hours and hours of planning the route, and doing all those favors for other prisoners really makes that moment when you finally do break out an awesome experience.
Definitely make sure to give The Escapist a try. Just be ready to spend some time learning the ins and outs of prison. Don’t be afraid to experiment with items and escape routes. The prison world is your oyster and almost anything is possible.