Review: The Escapists

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It took Allied troops in World War II almost fifteen months to break out of the German-Run POW camp Stalag-Luft III—you probably remember it as “The Great Escape.” Union soldiers had to spend months digging a tunnel in darkness, surrounded by squealing rats to bust out of Libby Prison during the Civil War. Hell, it took Andy Dufresne two decades to bust out of Shawshank in the fictional Stephen King novella.

The point is that jailbreaks aren’t a walk in the park—they’re tense, difficult and very, very time-consuming affairs that end in failure far, far more often than they end in freedom. And that’s The Escapists in a nutshell—I mean jail cell. Mouldy Toof’s 8-bit jailbreak exercise is devious, challenging and exacting, and it also raises a key question: What if a game does a great job of giving you exactly what it advertises…but that something is as frustrating as it is fun?

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The graphics may look 90s-era cartoonish, but the developers have done a spectacular job of capturing what it’s like to be trapped behind walls and bars. Executing a plan takes an absolutely painstaking level of attention to detail, time management and plate-spinning. You’ve got to steal/purchase/acquire the items you’ll need to break out of your cell and hide your progress from the guards and the warden. You have to pay attention to buffing your stats by reading and working out so you can use better tools and craft better items. You’ve got to keep to the rigorous daily prison schedule—dude, roll call’s in ten minutes! And you’ve got to manage relationships with the other inmates—you may be able to curry favor (and cash or a new crafting item) by kicking the ass of a certain inmate, but in doing so, you’ve earned an enemy who’ll be only too happy to return the favor or wreck your plan at the last minute.

It’s easy to see how The Escapists’ core audience is the uber-patient type of sandbox gamer who’d rather skip the hand-holding and just while away the hours exploring. And sure enough, the game does very little to help you stage your plans. Beyond the first tutorial that introduces the very bare-bones basics of crafting, a skill that’s going to become crucial to your ongoing success, The Escapists leaves you entirely to your own trial and error devices to learn that, say, a comb and a lighter are critical pieces to crafting a key mold. (Hint: duct tape makes just about everything better.) Again, that’s fair—it’s not like new inmates in Alcatraz are handed the recipe handbook for creating a zipline hook from a wire and a piece of timber—but it’s not like you have nothing to pay attention to here but prison-lab experimentation.

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And it’s all so tense and precarious. All it takes is a single stroke of bad luck—a testy inmate picks a fight at the wrong time, or a guard makes an unexpected appearance, and you’re set back at least a full day’s work, depending on whether you’ve remembered to rely on the game’s save system. And when your reward for success is—gasp!—being dumped in an even more difficult prison, your motivation may begin to wane well before you’ve made it to Shankton State Prison.

Finally staging a successful breakout is like a dose of pure adrenaline—you’re on top of the world, like the guy who just caught the touchdown pass in the Super Bowl or stumbled across the marathon finish line. The agony of failure here is equally acute: It’s sort of like the feeling a domino artist must have when he accidentally sets off the chain reaction a few tiles before the whole thing’s complete. Yep, it’s time to pick up the pieces and start again.

Gamers who are sympatico with the A-Team’s Hannibal Smith, the type who love it when a plan comes together, have found their puzzle nirvana. For the rest of us, packing an extra dose of patience in our bedrolls is probably just as important as a Bible and a shiv.

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Pros:
+ The graphics may not be detailed, but the recreation of managing inmate life sure is
+ Sandbox elements are deep and interesting
+ Successfully executing an escape makes you feel like John Dillinger

Cons:
– Overreliance on trial and error can be frustrating
– One mistake can sink the best-laid plans

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on PC via Steam
Publisher: Team17
Developer: Mouldy Toof Studios
Release Date: 2/13/2015
Genre: Strategy & Simulation
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.