Puzzle and 2D games will always end up sitting on the ‘currently playing’ list for at least one of my consoles, which makes a game fitting both categories an immediate favourite child. Enter, The Escapists; recently released for PS4, it instantly caught my attention with the most adorable prisoners ever. It sounded deceptively simple: just escape the equally darling prison using any means necessary. Ok tiny, flat men, challenge accepted! I never thought I’d say this, but I sent myself to prison with no friends, no skills and no eyelids; minimum security confinement can be tough.
A self-confessed puzzle game is permitted to ease the focus on a narrative so long as the challenge and drive for some form of closure is still tangible. However, I would have liked some character backstory; I mean what did Andrew do to owe time? Is he seeking some form of a rehabilitation program to better himself? Will escaping fix all his problems? After realizing I couldn’t even tell my felon apart from several other inmates I stopped caring about the poor choices he’d made and switched to puzzle mode. The story had you follow, or choose not to follow, the allotted activities for each day. For the first two days, I obeyed the rules to get a layout, movement and accessibility idea of the cheeriest penitentiary ever. No one had much of anything to say, so I opted to attempt removing myself, out of sheer boredom.
The Escapists quickly became a strategy and risk-assessment venture. Nothing was explained after the tutorial, so several days passed while I made one mistake after another while escaping. I failed chipping through walls because I hid the evidence in a room I’d watched for three days and never saw a guard enter. To my frustration, a message popped up on the screen saying evidence was traced back to me: my days of progress reset, I lost a few stats and apparently slept for three days too. After trying every job and paying for several tips, I prepared the stats I needed, crafted in secret making sure I’d thought of everything. I looked wistfully at my citrus cell-mates and turned to leave, finally after 31 days I was escaping!
Yeah, nope. This day was my turning point with patience: challenge and strategy became a consistent battle of, “what the hell just happened!?” As I walked to my freedom another prisoner hit me, in front of a guard, so the guard CHASED ME. I wasn’t prepared for this and had run right into him while avoiding the aggressive chump. I was knocked out which means waking up in the infirmary with every contraband item, i.e. necessary to escape items, DESTROYED and all of my impossible to find chips, holes and stashed items GONE. I escaped eventually, but not once in the preceding 38 days (don’t judge me) was it fun: I felt the entire first chapter was an accurate representation of prison life- utterly tedious and unfair. The irony of complete freedom to craft your escape disappeared amongst obscure recipes and far too much trial and error.
Functional gameplay mechanics meant exploring and interacting were quick and simple, even allowing me to accidently craft a shiv against a wall. There wasn’t much in the way of variety for most objects so selecting ‘use’ or ‘give’ exhausted their usefulness. I liked the crafting and journal menu that was a one touch function – without it I would have no idea for whom I’d just spent two hours making putty. Interaction with my blocky buddies was thankfully basic; I could loot, give, buy from or check stats of anyone, so long as I could catch them. Even if it was clunky or created miss-timed actions on several occasions it was a basic setup that suited the game style.
The best part of the whole experience was the start screen, its ’90s cop drama music, sirens and pixelated lawbreakers was promising. Coupled with the quips and morphing soundtrack during the few dangerous periods, I got the impression of a funky, light-hearted escape game with endless replayability. The style and effort that went into crafting this world of enclosures might not be overly dramatic or complex, but I appreciated the research and thought that went into some of the designs. It would have broken up the daily monotony if you could also craft aesthetic or wearable items; I would have sold inmates my personal line of tie-dyed bed sheets, or had sneakers with lights even. Aside from the generator in chapter two, I had no trouble discerning what every individual item was and hoped I’d get a chance to explore outlying regions.
The Escapists is an awesome idea executed with a complementary style, but I didn’t have fun playing it. I gave it hours on each chapter, and even went to Lord Google to try and understand why several logical and perfectly timed attempts blew up in my face. A challenge is entertaining, but banal repetition with so many factors in flux is frustrating and not a game I’ll replay. Next time I’ll opt to be the best-damned prison laundry man ever and get released on good behaviour; long before an escape attempt works how it should.