Nothing infuriates me more than being rubbish at a game. Shocker, huh? If I'm terrible at it, then I start to hate it, even if I once enjoyed it. Any time I start thinking 'Hey, I'm getting pretty good at this!' a reality check sweeps in once I get steamrolled by a player whose only explanation for being that good is one of two reasons: A. They're hacking, B. They do nothing but play this game. Option 'C' - that they might actually just be naturally better - is never an option.
This can be said for many multiplayer games I play, but scarcely can a solely single player game offer this same frustration. The Escapists, a prison breakout game from Mouldy Toof Studios and Team17 (creators of the Worms series), managed to do just that. Once the initial optimism as with any new game subsided, I began getting frustrated and trying to work out why I couldn’t do any better than I was. My disappointing time with The Escapists was due to many things, but most of all the game lacked conveyance.
If you hadn't worked it out already, The Escapists has you take on the role of a prisoner intent on escape from a prison. Originally released in 2014 but making its way to Nintendo Switch this year, the retro-styled title starts you in a minimum security prison whilst eventually progressing you to a maximum security establishment. You can befriend or make enemies of your fellow inmates, with each playing the role of taskmaster or merchant with every passing day in the slammer being different from the last. The Complete Edition on Switch includes every prison available in the original 2014 release, as well as a few prisons that were originally DLC. Though, I wouldn't know what they're like as I couldn't even escape the first one. That's right, I wasn't able to complete the first level of this game before having to review it. Allow me to explain.
There are some obvious videogame comparisons to make with The Escapists. Crafting is a key game mechanic in both this and the biggest sandbox game of all time, Minecraft. The difference is, with Minecraft, you start with nothing, hit a tree, get wood, be shown that wood can be made into tools, discover stronger materials that make beefier tools etc. etc. - there’s coherent progression. With The Escapists, it feels like you’re being told to make a 50ft minecart track, starting at the top of a hill with Creepers bearing down on you from all directions.
Considering my inability to progress, you may be surprised to discover that The Escapists has a tutorial. The tutorial has you take some items from your desk in your cell, crawl into the ventilation system, beat up a guard and then escape through a convenient hole at the back of a yard. After that, you awaken in Center Perks the lowest security prison in the game. Simple, right? As soon as you begin though, you find out there are prison routines you need to follow - like roll calls and mealtimes - and those items you found were super easy to come by in the tutorial, are now nowhere to be seen.
During the daily prison routines, you usually have to be in certain places at certain times or risk your notoriety rising along with your chance of being knocked out or sent to solitary by the guards. I began questioning whether the problems I was facing - such as the guards catching me without looking in my cell - were actually supposed to happen or just a series of bugs. During roll-calls, I would stand perfectly in line, staying still the whole time, but a guard would bark at me requesting I get a move on, rising my notoriety. This would happen during work times too. I'd be minding my own business, washing the dirty uniforms in the laundry room, then a guard would waltz in and tell me to get back to work. There was no such thing as a model prisoner during my stay in Center Perks.
So, it felt like I was at an impasse. I’d follow the day-to-day routines perfectly, take opportunities to nosey in fellow inmate’s cells when the guards were well clear, and complete favours for some cash - but none of it was progressing my escape. During the day, you’re able to buy crafting hints, purchasing them at the payphone. Often these hints have an accompanying message like: "Guard towers limit your actions outside during the day but at night it's a different story". Yet, some aren't very helpful at all, more like half a hint. One informed me I could create a bed dummy to fool the guards I was in bed as I explored the prison at night, but gave me no clue on how to craft one. After exhausting all the available hints, I thought I was better suited to make an escape. At night, I attempted to dig a hole in my cell floor to try and tunnel out, but despite the guards not shining their light in my cell, I was sent to solitary confinement for 'evidence of digging'. Being sent to solitary also confiscates all the prohibited items on your person and in your drawers. The common items you can use to dig - like plastic cutlery - take ages to make an impact and break almost instantly. And, naturally, as you're carted off to solitary the hole you spent several nights digging is filled. It's an endless, soul-crushing cycle. When caught, it's advised that you cover any holes by placing your desk on the hole made. Yet, grabbing the desk and swiftly placing it is very difficult, so you rarely have time to do it and are, again, caught.
Navigating through your inventory and performing this menial actions is painfully slow and only dulls the experience. Whether it’s the analogue stick or the d-pad that your use, often you'll be too fast for the game when wanting to select a certain item in your inventory. It may seem like a petty criticism, but when The Escapists relies so heavily upon crafting and panicked or frantic movements of objects in your cell, it adds an unnecessary difficulty in mundane tasks.
There are other ways to escape, mind you. As in the tutorial, you can clamber on your desk, unscrew the vent hatch (once you've found/bought a screwdriver) and use the ventilation system to navigate around the prison. After doing such, however, you get caught immediately if you haven't created a dummy vent hatch, or if you haven't placed the aforementioned bed dummy. As you’re never shown how to make these, the original tutorial is effectively useless.
I opted to complete this review without using any online guides - text or video. Why should I consult a guide? There should be sufficient hints within the game to understand how to get by. Whilst Mouldy Toof has put a difficulty curve into The Escapists in its structuring of the prison tiers, it has included a massive metaphorical prison fence right at the bottom of that tier, that you’ll need to Google how to scale before you can even think about progressing.
The Escapists for me was very much like being tasked to build a house from scratch, with the tools to build it scattered in the woods and the 'how-to' book to complete being mostly in Spanish. On top of that - as I would start working things out - every five minutes someone would rock up and push over the few bricks I’d managed to lay. Sure, I could have hired an attractive Spanish mentor to translate the entire book for me, but there'd have been no sense of accomplishment in that.
The Escapists: Complete Edition (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
The game is unenjoyable, but it works.
Undoubtedly, there has been enjoyment had by enough people to warrant a Switch release, but the time and patience to do the simplest things without external help was just not for me. The few humorous lines of dialogue spouted by the guards and fellow inmates did little to put a shine over my miserable time with The Escapists.