Developer: Mouldy Toof
Publisher: Team 17
Platform: Xbox One, Steam
Genre: Adventure, Action, puzzle
‘The Escapists’ from Mouldy Toof studios is a game that mixes NES-era nostalgic graphics with crafting, puzzles and a fierce challenge. Due to its simplistic graphics, I can see a lot of people taking a quick glance at it and moving on without giving it a chance. Don’t let it’s adorable sprites fool you; this is a game that will ensnare players by its rewarding gameplay and fiendish puzzles.
The game sees players attempting to escape various prisons of varying difficulty. At first, the game can be quite daunting to an inexperienced escapist – you don’t quite know to get started. You have three primary stats – strength, speed and intelligence, and the ability to craft items, but exactly how you plan and execute your escape is up to you. Your best bet is to stick to the prison’s schedule and keep your eyes open for any information that will aid you. You are provided with plenty of free time, so players will be able to sneak in extra workouts in the gym (vital for improving your strength and speed), educating themselves in the library, mugging other inmates or looking for weaknesses in the prison.
Of course, being smart, strong and speedy means nothing if you don’t have the right tools to escape the big house – this is where crafting comes into play. While crafting can be an uninspired and lazy design technique in other games, it’s a perfect fit for this nifty little prison escape sim. I won’t go into detail with any specific recipes (that’s one of the best parts of The Escapists), but some of the recipes and created items are really quite ingenious!
Now, in addition to the crafting, atmosphere and stats progression, one of the biggest features of The Escapists are its inmates and guards. At the start of the game, players can name their inmate and if they choose, the rest of the prison population – guards included. This adds a great deal of charm to the game, as players can rename the characters after their friends, family or favourite fictitious characters. I named my fellow inmates after some of my best friends, and the way they interacted with each other left me chuckling on numerous occasions.
The prisoners will beat each other down on a daily basis, and if any of them dislike you, you might become a target as well. The same goes for the guards – annoy them or beat them up and you’ll soon become their new punching bag. So how do you make friends? By giving gifts and completing favours. Some favours can include beating up a particular inmate or guard, to procuring a particular item for another inmate, to causing a ruckus at the next breakfast, dinner or roll call. While favours earn you money, at later prisons you can end up making as many enemies as you do money – though a clever player will figure out a way to win people over.
Should a player successfully attempt a prison escape, they are treated to a brief cutscene of their escape, though they will more often than not end up back in police custody if their escape is sloppy. While that inmate may have just earned themselves a one-way trip to solitary confinement, the player unlocks a new and more difficult prison to escape with a new inmate. Figuring out crafting recipes, sneaking about prison at night unnoticed, stealing valuable items and finally escaping a prison is one of the most rewarding gameplay experiences I’ve played in a long time. No wonder Andy Dufresne looked so blissfully happy at the end of The Shawshank Redemption!
Of course, while I absolutely love The Escapists, it’s not without its faults. For one thing, the game is quite repetitive. While I acknowledged there is a strict daily schedule there is still room for special events and variables in the gameplay that aren’t present. What if you became friends with an inmate, only to see them released and being replaced by a new and unpredictable one? What if the Warden visiting presented some sort of unique opportunity? Perhaps you could save him from another prisoner and be granted a favour, or maybe you can beat the heck out of him and impress all the other inmates?
Another disappointment is that no other prisoner is remotely interested in the premise of escaping prison – they don’t even mention it (though they do spread rumours about someone planning an escape). You can give prisoners wire cutters that you no longer need, but they will not use them. You can become best friends with another inmate, but you can’t take them with you. You can’t ask for someone to do a favour, even though you will be completing quite a few.
While you can become “friends” with other inmates, there are no alliances or gangs between them, and at no time does a riot break out. I understand that Moldy Toof wanted to keep things light-hearted, but surely inmates running around breaking tables and chairs and pushing each other would have sufficed as a “riot” to present the player with an opportunity.
The game also has one heck of a difficulty spike. The first prison is a minimum security cakewalk, the second, while being more difficult, also presents different opportunities than the first, but the third prison catapults the player into a maximum security hellhole, where everything has changed thanks to the addition of metal detectors and security cameras – you don’t even have privacy in your own cell! While escape is possible, “Shankton State Penitentiary” is a nightmare – and the game only gets harder.
The Escapists is a fantastic game that will reward players will a real sense of achievement. While it has the potential to be much more, the game as it stands is easily one of the best downloadable games on Steam at the moment, and certainly one of the best on Xbox One. Do yourself a favour and get locked up today. Fingers crossed it continues to get regular updates (and hopefully DLC) in the future, because as it stands the game unfortunately has little replay value.