The Escapists is the type of game that absolutely benefits from Steam’s Early Access program. It’s a game that could have very easily turned into something that should only exist on cell phones and tablets, but thanks to a surprising amount of depth and character, The Escapists manages to be a winsome, though flawed, experience.
The Escapists stars a number of playable characters with varying beginning stats (essentially intelligence, strength, and speed). Each day begins and ends in their prison cell, and is split largely up by a schedule of activities and meals. In some ways, it’s a lot like prison, and it can be about as boring as one would expect.
Yes, visiting chow hall allows you to become more closely acquainted with your peers, but they offer up little conversation outside of a few minor jobs. These jobs are relegated to standard “beat this guy up and loot his body” or “retrieve this item from this location.” They’re not as easy as they sound, because fighting someone can result in a rather serious health decrease, and most rooms are locked by the prison security staff. Doing these odd-jobs earns you money, which can in turn be used to buy items from prisoners or tips from a pay phone.
The premise of the game sounds rather simplistic, and it is, but don’t think of that as a bad thing. The game completely lacks direction outside of it’s painfully short tutorial, so the player is left to decide which items are best to craft, and then how to craft them with materials they’ve either purchased or stolen. You can dig a hole with a spoon behind a poster in your cell, or you can beat up a guard and wear his uniform to leave hastily. The choices are yours to make.
The open-ended nature of The Escapists is both the game’s greatest strength and weakness. Some players will absolutely love the fact that the game refuses to hold your hand. It doesn’t care that you might grow bored sticking to such a strict schedule and it doesn’t care if you can’t discover which two items combined create a weapon. You’re forced to think outside of the box, and doing so will create the most fulfilling experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, will be players more keen on straightforwardness. The Escapists offers almost none of this. It says that a good prisoner sticks to the schedule, but gives no clues on how to escape. Based upon that description alone, readers should know if this is a game for them.
Luckily, The Escapists is perfectly fine with being something geared towards a niche audience. It’s relative depth and ease of use means that it plays the ultimate game of “easy to learn, difficult to master.” It’s this mentality that grew frustrating at times. I would approach a fence away from any guards and begin digging, except there were guards around. I just couldn’t see them. Obviously the game couldn’t be that easy, but it also could have been more obvious that I was within the line of sight of some distant guard in a tower. At this point, the game devolves into a trial-and-error sort of experience. Try this, and if it doesn’t work, try adjusting and test it out again.
That’s where The Escapists really struggles. It forces you into a schedule, and seemingly dares you to break out of it, but doing so punishes you. So what are you expected to do? Follow the schedule and rarely have an opportunity to plan your escape? Or break the schedule and risk getting into trouble? There’s only a little middle-ground, and if that’s the sort of thing that sounds fun to explore, then great. I know I enjoyed it for a given amount of time, but the game is built entirely upon this balance, and when it works it works, but it doesn’t work 100% of the time. The Escapists rides too heavily upon this balance, which isn’t really much of a balance to begin with. The schedule aspect is boring, and the preparation for escape is thrilling. Which one would you look forward to doing? But each is a necessity in order to win, and, at times, you’re left with feeling sort of like you’re completing chores.