I’m saving up for a screwdriver. The inmate from the cell next door has said he’ll give me $30 if I can find a dice for him – though what he needs the dice for, he won’t say. Joe says he’ll give me some cash if I create a diversion in the canteen at dinner time. If I can keep on doing little tasks like this, I should be able to scrape together the $60 Tony wants for his screwdriver.
One of the inmates – a little guy called Rory – seems to have taken a thorough dislike to me for some reason. This may be because he caught me rummaging through the desk in his cell once, which is quite petty, really – I was only looking for a roll of luxury toilet paper and perhaps a spare sock.
Every time I see him, Rory seems angry, which makes the task of knocking him unconscious with a rake and stealing stuff from his pockets that much easier – if he’s spoiling for a fight, he can’t exactly blame me if I help myself to a few things, can he? By a stroke of luck, Rory happens to be carrying a dice, which I promptly sell to my neighbour.
I’m one step closer to getting my hands on that screwdriver.
The Escapists appeals to some of the less appealing human instincts: betrayal, violence, theft. It’s an interesting twist on a new breed of survival game popularised by Minecraft – here, you’re crafting, bartering and foraging not to avoid starvation, but to find a way of getting out of chokey.
In this respect, The Escapists is vaguely reminiscent of the old ZX Spectrum classic, School Daze. Both see you quietly rebelling against authority while at the same time staying out of trouble. In the case of School Daze, this involved sneaking out of class, scribbling rude words on chalk boards and knocking fellow pupils out with your catapult. In The Escapists, you sneakily horde up stuff you’ve either purchased and stolen and use it to break out. You have to maintain the facade of being a model prisoner in front of the wardens while quietly plotting your means of escape.
The Escapists’ retro roots are underlined by its dinky pixel graphics, which lend a hint of cosiness to a game where you can knock out a fellow inmate with a bar of soap in a sock. Then again, The Escapists is more a knock-about caper than a hard-hitting comment on the prison system; there may be violence in The Escapists, but it’s more like a 16-bit Porridge than Scum or The Green Mile.
Your average day is complex and fraught with pitfalls. Step out of line in front of a warden, and he’ll beat you. Inmates with gold icons above their heads will sell you things, assuming you haven’t done anything to upset them. Inmates with green icons above their heads will give you little side missions in exchange for cash. Meanwhile, tasks like visiting the gym or getting on with your day job boosts your stats. It’s all in service to your final objective, which is to find the weak point in the prison’s security and exploit it. This can involve sneaking out through the vent above your cell (which is why a screwdriver comes in handy), digging a tunnel, or disguising yourself as a warden and sneaking out under everybody’s noses.
As you plot and barter, the prison carries on its grinding regime. There’s a morning roll call. You eat breakfast. You train in the gym until a bell rings. Lunch is held at 12 noon on the dot. You take on a job as a cleaner or in the laundry room.
The game keeps you surprisingly busy, as you rush to and from these various appointments while still finding time to find materials and plan your escape. It’s tough, too, since the wardens will respond brutally if they catch you doing anything untoward; at one point, I was caught sneaking around in another prison cell (one of my favourite pastimes), and the warden chased me relentlessly around the building until he had me cornered. A few blows later, and I’d woken up in the infirmary – and worse, the ill-gotten items in my pockets had been confiscated.
Make no mistake, The Escapists is a tough little game, and aside from an opening tutorial, doesn’t exactly hold your hand as you adjust to prison life. Crafting is a simple matter of mixing and matching two or three objects, Minecraft style – but there are no obvious clues as to what items you can make, or what materials you’ll need to make them. It’s perplexingly opaque at first, and quite a lot of time can be spent fruitlessly juggling materials around to see if anything of use will be yielded.
It’s a game that requires patience and careful planning, and there are times when it can become incredibly frustrating. The careful stockpiling of bits and pieces, or the crafting of useful tools, can all be undone with an unexpected search of your cell – or an altercation with a warden, as mentioned above.
Then again, The Escapists’ challenge is also part of its appeal; the harder the regime tries to grind you down, the more determined you become to escape. The game’s repetitive nature, lack of handholding and difficulty may be enough to put some players off; for those looking for a retro challenge, The Escapists is worth persevering with.
The Escapists is out now on PC and Xbox One.
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