I would not have been surprised if The Escapists had been titled Prison Life Simulator instead. Given an isometric top-down view of a prison, you are a prisoner who must do whatever he can to escape while sticking to the routine given by the prison staff to avoid suspicion so that you are don’t get your stash of contraband confiscated or carefully laid plans set back to square one. In theory, this sounds thrilling and fascinating, but in practice, The Escapists does more to simulate monotony and frustration that it does a secretive-yet-thrilling prison escape.
After a very brief tutorial on how to break out that makes the game seem like a cakewalk, you are tossed into the first prison and left to your own devices, now trying to figure out how to escape with a tutorial that turns out to have barely scratched the surface of all the game mechanics. The job board? Favors? Deeper crafting? What specific items do? Contraband? Relationships with other inmates and guards? These are just a few things that are never covered, left instead to painstaking trial and error to figure out, while you also attempt to maintain a sense of routine in your prison life. A more robust tutorial would have gone a long way in making The Escapists more enjoyable, instead of wasting too much time trying to figure out what you can use a comb to craft, or why the guy from cell 2B keeps kicking your ass every time he sees you.
25 to Life
The biggest issue with the crafting system is that it is not intuitive. You can create a flimsy shovel out of a tool handle, a sheet of metal, and some duct tape, but to create the tool handle, you need to combine the file and timber. You can look all of this up online, as The Escapists has been out for some months now on Xbox One and PC, but the lack of being able to get in depth information about crafting and what items do in-game is frustrating. I was hoping that the visitor mechanic, where you could spend some of your free time talking to visitors, would yield crafting recipes to aid in my escape, but even The Escapists Wiki page about visitors states “the visitor does not help the player in any way towards their escape.” Visitors, though they have a whole area dedicated to them, turns out have absolutely no purpose other than simulating prison life.
Once I looked up a few things, I began to have a little bit more fun with it. It’s still a bit slow, with needing to maintain a prison life schedule, and spending far too much time working on relationships with everyone in the prison. Other inmates who don’t like you will beat you up for no reason other than to see you knocked out, but that knock out means that all contraband is confiscated from your person. Trying to fight back risks you being seen by the guards, and even if you do manage to beat the other inmate down, the guard is more than likely going to put you in the infirmary, not to mention now being on bad terms with that guard. There is a significant imbalance in the game’s risk versus reward.
The Escapists Review - Prison Life (PS4)
Once you’ve figured some things out, it’s far too easy to have all that progress dashed in an instant. If you are caught for something, your cell gets a shakedown, all of your contraband is confiscated, and any walls that you have broken through or holes that you have dug (if you’ve gotten far enough to figure out how to do that) are filled in. Escaping isn’t as easy as making a shovel and digging out. You’ll need to find ways to cover holes, make the guards think you are following routines, and hide your contraband. One slip up in the entire process can destroy all of your progress, and without an initial tutorial to at least clue you in on things, it gets to be very frustrating.
The Brute Force Method
With the frustration of obtaining materials, keeping to the prison’s routine, maintaining relationships with the guards and other inmates, and losing it all because some guy decides he wants to pick a fight in the showers, I finally settled on throwing myself into building my strength and health in the gym, day and night, routine be damned. After that, I found a blunt weapon in one of the other prisoner’s desks, and went on a spree of knocking out guards, stealing their keys, and walking out of the front door. Yup, that’s how I finally did it. I could have gone through walls, dug a tunnel, or stolen and made copies of the keys, but after a tedious process of trial and error and constantly being thwarted time and again, I found it simpler to use the brute force method for my grand escape.
The Escapists holds the methodical tedium of a prison life simulator with some escape mechanics built in, rather than a thrilling game in which you plan your escape. More focus on teaching the intricacies of the mechanics in-game would have done wonders for The Escapists and actually hatching and carrying out a master plan for escaping confinement, because at its core The Escapists is a thrilling concept. Instead we get stuck going through the motions like it’s The Sims: Prison Life as we realize we’re two months into our sentence and no closer to being on the other side of those bars than the day we got thrown into the joint. Time to hit the showers, boys!
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