The Escapists Review (Xbox One)
While the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row series have gloried the criminal underworlds of gaming, we hardly get any titles that show the more realistic fate of a life of crime -- prison. Team 17, known for its work on the Worms series, has made a sandbox role-playing game done in a retro style to help show what life is like while carrying out a prison bid. Alliances will be formed, freedoms will be taken, items will be sought and sorted, and blood will be spilled as you try to survive your daily routine in the pen.
The Escapists has you playing as a convict who is fully focused on going beyond 'The Longest Yard.' In order to reach deliverance, you must navigate your character through his day-to-day activities while scoring the items you need to make it outside. All the while, you've got guards breathing down your neck, inmates you've gotta help (otherwise they won't help you escape), defenses you've gotta test, weaknesses you've got to find and your daily duties you've got to do. We all know the success rate of the prison system's rehabilitation isn't all that it's cracked up to be. So expect to find yourself trying scheme after scheme to escape all six prisons of The Escapists, but sometimes, 'The Green Mile' seems so long.
Most prisons are gritty, grimy and filled with buff guys who'd love to give you the Derek Vinyard treatment, but The Escapists' prisons are a bit different. While most of the inmates are hopelessly stuck, your character has more liberating goals in mind than simply wasting away and carrying out a sentence. The biggest surprise in The Escapists comes in the form of its presentation. It was developed in the style of a 16-bit era role-playing game. Walking around and seeing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest-esque visuals was a much more welcoming sight than the old "hold my pocket" routine.
Speaking of routines, living your life as an inmate in The Escapists is all about maintaining one. You and the rest of the prisoners are woken up every morning at the same time for morning inspection, sent to breakfast in the cafeteria, put to work and all kinds of others scheduled activities. During free time, the inmates are encouraged to roam the complex (which is a bit strange for prisons to do). You can visit your friends, do favors for money/friendship (like jump an inmate or get them an item they need), rummage through other people's bunks, investigate the prison's defenses and trade/sell items with your orange jumpsuit-wearing brethren -- these extracurricular activities are meant to help you get the tools that you need to leave the prison. You will need to do these things a lot, because The Escapists' inventory system featuring 200+ items is the main drive until you reach the great outdoors.
With hundreds of different items to combine and collect throughout your rounds of the prison, and only six inventory slots to carry them, you will be frequenting your bunk a lot for storage. There is where The Escapists' main mechanic becomes the most addictive and tedious. Much like Resident Evil's inventory management, gathering the items you think you need will quickly become a nuisance. Unfortunately, the game doesn't really let you know what you need or don't, which is rather lifelike, but quite frustrating. You can equip various weapons to help attack, and you'd be surprised at some of the weapons you can craft through item combination (the game hardly tells you any of the formulas unless you spend your hard-earned money on a payphone for tips). Some of these combinations make sense, such as a bar of soap and a sock becoming a silly flail, but others are simply obscure, like glue and toilet paper forming paper mache, and two of those forming a fake ventilation shaft cover. You need to cover your getaway, otherwise the guards will follow your trail before you're gone, confiscate all your hard-earned contraband, beat you up and send you to solitary confinement, damaging your relationships with the guys, gaining more notoriety with the guards and making it harder to get the tools you need.
If The Escapists' item drive seems like it's too much for you, it's the largest component to the game. The jobs you have to do, such as washing the prison's laundry or mopping its halls, are oriented towards' the game's item system. Making this entire game revolve around gathering certain kinds of inventory and using them in the right circumstances is overly repetitive and ingenious at the same time. You'll be surprised the days you'll spend in-game scrounging for a specific item to collect your set, like a screwdriver for the vents or the items you need to form a makeshift shovel. Even if you have the items you need for going over (or under or through) the wall, or if you're wearing the stolen guard uniform and have the key replicas needed to make it through the front doors, there are multiple ways the system will relentlessly try to keep you from escaping, which is both realistic and can easily frustrate most players (good luck with the watch towers and snipers).
When you're not scheming and rummaging through the prison, you can act like a legitimate inmate, which is boring. You can do your duties, get stronger and faster from the gym (which can help you escape), go on the Internet, read in the library (both raise your intelligence, which is required for more high tech item combinations) and help out the guys. All of this eventually gets remedial after an hour or so of playing by the rules, so things don't really pick up until you start roaming the halls and starting your own escape plans. Make sure you combine those extra pillows and blankets you found to make it look like you're still in your bed, put a poster up if you dig a hole into the wall, replace the vent cover if you go up and bring a shank in case you've gotta get up close and personal with a guard on your way out. You could always start a riot by successfully knocking out a lot of guards, but that's if the repetitive nature of The Escapists doesn't knock you out first. Once you reach the advanced security prisons with harsher rules and stricter schedules, you can just imagine how hard it can be just to get that one item you need to finish your required tool.
It's refreshing to see a game like The Escapists completely focus on a commonly overlooked aspect of the criminal acts we’ve all committed in other games. Even better, The Escapists takes the daily grind of being an incarcerated criminal and gets its aesthetics of a 16-bit RPG -- the characters visibly walk in place when they're standing around doing nothing. The resulting effect is a game that is minimal/simplistic in its presentation, but delivers in different ways while offering a ton of variety. Its item system is a quite convoluted and I'd shank a fool for a lock-on system, but The Escapists provides a decent simulation of the jailbreak story that keeps escalating each time you Houdini/Andy Dufresne yourself to a great escape. Things certainly get repetitive and confining throughout your days in the pen, but that's where things felt the most authentic. The Escapists certainly has its times where it felt like Shawshank's river-crawl through crap, but each escape felt hard-earned and true enough to the point where we felt clean on the other side of its prison walls.
This review was completed using a retail copy of The Escapists provided by the publisher for Xbox One.