Prison escape is a popular sub-genre in many forms of entertainment, predominantly in television and film. While we all want the bad guys to stay behind bars in highly secure facilities, the idea of somehow breaking out still very much intrigues us. We relish the idea of ingeniously overcoming something that is seemingly guaranteed and impossible. The concept surprisingly isn’t as common in video games, and that’s where publisher Team17 Digital and indie developer Mouldly Toof Studios come in with their upcoming release: The Escapists. The game is still under development and has some ways to go before all of its cool ideas are fully implemented, but we were provided with an early build showcasing the work done so far.
The visuals almost resemble a classic sprite-based Final Fantasy title. It’s a nice look for it, with plenty of character and personality. The prison facility is varied and quite intuitive, hosting a seemingly insurmountable quantity of unique inmates. The aesthetics and graphical style works in favor of the game, and more importantly complements the game’s pace and structure. The Escapists almost feels like a RPG in many respects, except you’re stuck in one place and engaged in micromanagement for the most part. Still, it has the multitude of tasks, extensive interaction with inmates, item crafting, and even a light job system of sorts. Yet these RPG components come together to form an entirely different beast. The goal is to break out of prison and this requires a very astute observation of the game’s environment.
While the idea of a perfect prison escape plan sounds like a slow and meticulous process, The Escapists speeds it up substantially. This design decision is a good one, as it keeps it engaging and forces you to think and act faster. That said, the first few sessions of the game will result in a ton of mistakes, but everything moves so quickly that you learn from them just as fast. The pace is rapid, and a ton that happens in one bite-sized sitting with the game. You essentially have to follow the prison’s schedule and behave accordingly in each period, so on each day you’ll have to follow through in the lunch period, exercise period, shower time, roll call and even a recess of sorts (no wonder kids hate the schooling system). Non-compliance results in a brutal beating from the prison guards. Luckily, though, you only really get knocked out and can carry on from the doctor’s quarters almost immediately. The idea is to try to find little opportunities within the daily grind of prison life, opportunities that are not always apparent and require you to be observant and diligent.
It doesn’t spell anything out; you just have to live out the prison life and see what happens. That said, even if you can’t figure things out, the process of going through it is always demanding. From the janitor level prison jobs to tasks such as reading and exercising, there’s plenty of little things that can improve certain attributes of your inmate. The quest/favor system is highly engaging with so much to do that it’s often hard to keep track. Favors can involve things like making a scene, stealing an item, or making a delivery of some sort. While there are plenty of interesting NPC prison inmates to chat with and accept favors from, it’s often a challenge to remember who is who because there are just so many sprite characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all. As you go through the jobs, favors, daily activities, and collect seemingly mundane and common items, the game gradually starts to unravel as you discover potential escape routes. The multitude of common items gradually prove their worth when you experiment with item crafting.
The Escapists is far from ready, but this early build is already a lot of fun. The demo only offered one prison camp with the final release aiming to not only include numerous other prison sites, but also a level editor tool which will allow players make their very own prison hell. There will be more prison jobs, more escape possibilities and basically more of everything as development carries on. As far as originality and fun factor go, The Escapists does a lot of things right, and things can only improve from hereon.