The Escapists is the New Black
Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time there was this blond guy. His name was Lizard and in 1985 he was sent to prison for the heinous crime of fencing. Yes, that’s right, he fenced in his annoying next door neighbour. He was nabbed by the fuzz just as he was staining the last panel and promptly sent to Center Perks Prison. But that sixteen bit lock-up couldn’t hold him. No lock-up could hold him. But the question is, can it hold you? Welcome to The Escapists, the PS4’s answer to Prison Break. Escape if you can, or spend the rest of your natural life with a careful grip on your soap.
What initially struck us about The Escapists was the magnificent graphics. Bold, colourful and glorious retro pixel art exemplified by all the shiny new gen goodness that comes with the PS4. It is new school cunningly disguised as old school. Think of it as a robber’s balaclava. You may casually glance at pixel graphics and dismiss them in the same way you would reject a masked maniac, rather than taking time to look at the tender-hearted soul that exists inside the woolly mask. Okay that’s bollocks. What I’m trying to say is that on the PS4, those pixel graphics are gorgeous, fun and entirely fitting. Each prison is a charming sandbox of prison fun and the inmates are the most superbly rendered retro sprites I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t imagine this game to look any other way. The graphical style is a giant clue that gameplay is going to be of the old school variety too. Complex with achievements that you have to work hard to earn, The Escapists is a tricky game that requires more than a tickle under the chin. Get ready for a full-on belly rub.
To win at The Escapists you need to live the prison life. You can’t expect to break out if you don’t know the layout and the schedule. Play along and bide your time. Watch the guards and their patrol routes and gradually build strength and speed in the gym. Look for weak spots that can be exploited, walls that can be tunnelled, vents that can unscrewed and doors that are unguarded. Case that joint, baby, but keep your head down. There’s a lot happening in this game and breaking out is not a quick five-minute activity. You’re doing time and you’ll need to stay as clean as possible while you plot your breakout. Turn up for roll call and meals or the guards will start getting cross with you. Upset them too much or get caught doing something naughty and you’ll end up in solitary with all your contraband confiscated. Likewise, getting into fights with prison mates will land you with similar problems with the additional predicament that you’ve made a mortal enemy who will bitch slap you every time you cross paths – slam, pow, ouch, you’re in trouble again and you’ve lost that shiv you lovingly crafted from a razor and an old comb.
Crafting plays a huge part in The Escapists. You can only tunnel out of your cell so far with a plastic spoon swiped from the canteen, so if you want to Shawshank your way to freedom you’ll need something more substantial and illegal plus something to cover the huge hole. You may also need a fake guard uniform, a copy of a key, a bed dummy or a mug of hot chocolate. Beat up a few people, nick their stuff, rummage through their cells or earn money by doing favours or getting a job and buying what you need. Combine items Minecraft style to assist your break for freedom. Your escape plan will usually revolve around locating items, stealing, fashioning and puzzling out what parts of the prison are vulnerable to your manufacturing efforts. There are plenty of crafting lists available on the internet but it’s much more fun to experiment. Discovering how to conceal daytime digging in Lizard’s cell gave me a huge feeling of progress and satisfaction. Bashing several guards on the noggin with a rake and accidentally running straight out the front gate to freedom, however, left me with the realisation that there are so many different ways to approach, plan and execute an escape. Even now, I’m plotting to return to the same prison with four other breakout strategies.
A fairly tactical brain and planning skills are required if you’re going to make it over the walls. You can’t carry around your shivs, shovels and shanks forever. Sooner or later you’ll get jumped or you’ll need to do someone a favour that will land you in solitary with empty pockets. You can store contraband in your cell desk but every morning the guards will announce who’s being searched and if it’s you, you’ll need to get your pixelated arse back to your cell and flush anything incriminating. What a pain. Perhaps there’s an alternative way to store all your naughty stuff…
There’s so much to do and so much to think about in The Escapists and it’s going to take you a long old time to truly work it all out. Yeah you can try to flush your illegal items, but what usually happens when you try to ram a roll of duct tape down a toilet bowl? This game has so many little touches, so much to ponder over, so many mistakes to make and ways to outwit the guards. Every discovery you make feels well earned and when you finally make it out the door or under the fence, it feels like you’ve won the lottery.
The Escapists puts me in mind of Skool Daze on the Commodore 64, one of my all time favourite games. I’m not even sure I understood the point of game at the time, but it was enormous fun just getting from class to class before the bell, writing on the blackboard, trying not to get too many lines and taking out the school bully when the teacher’s back was turned. Skool Daze was certainly the earliest sandbox game I can remember playing and not a week goes past when I don’t think about it. There are lots of parallels between school and prison, I reckon, and many more between Skool Daze and The Escapists. The addictive notion of just playing out a life worked brilliantly on that old game but to the point where the game’s mission was entirely forgotten. The Escapists has that same addictive and open gameplay where you just get caught up in the simulation, but alongside that, the game’s mission, the escape, is always there driving you forward. I was quite happy going to lunch, roll call, exercise time, stashing screwdrivers and improving relationships so that I could buy from other inmates, but when the opportunity came, bang, I was straight out the door. The simulation and the mission coexist in absolute harmony. The balance is pure celestial brilliance.
Adding some beautiful extra touches are the best music I’ve heard in a game since the golden C64 oldies and the ability to customize not only your character but all the other inmates and guards. I elected myself Officer Hollis and named two of our other writers Guard Nicol and Guard Dan. So Lizard would have some friends, I then banged up Punk, Northlander, Paul Murphy from The Vita Lounge, RoughDawg, Saint Dave and a whole bunch of other Twitter peeps. I did feel vaguely guilty when I made Lizard smack the proprietor of The Vita Lounge over the head with a piece of illegal contraband, but Paul got his revenge at roll call the next morning and Lizard lost his sock mace. Oh well, that’s prison life, princess.
A magnificent prison sim with a slash of Minecrafting and a sock mace full of strategy and careful planning. We’re big indie fans, but The Escapists is something really special. My fellow writer Northlander described it as sublime and I agree. If you want this to be a sim game, it is. If you want it to be a puzzle game, it is. The Escapists is a beautifully balanced and addictive prison sandbox brainteaser. I sentence you all to the most fun you’ll ever have with a plastic spoon and a slippery bar of soap.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10