That right there sums up the two main feelings I have about The Escapists from Mouldy Toof Studios. What on first inspection and during the game’s opening tutorial seems like a game where you simply plan an escape from prison, by crafting and finding the appropriate tools, soon becomes something very different… If you let it.
After completing the basic opening tutorial, where you carry out an executed plan to escape the minimum security prison, you are soon woken up to find out it was all a dream and that you are actually in day 1 of your prison stay. It is a clever way to introduce the basic game mechanics and steps away from the usual dull methods of explaining everything. Anyway, I digress.
After playing said tutorial, what the game does is throw a massive spanner in the works. As you expect to go around the prison, talk to people, gather resources and plan you escape and that is kind of how the escapes will work. However what happens is that you find yourself getting more and more involved with prison life as you go.
Just like in any prison (we assume) you have a structured day. You wake, go to roll call, eat, get exercise, shower, lunch, jobs, dinner, evening roll call, then bed. Within all that though there are sections of free time, where you can wander around the prison and get to know your fellow inmates, guards and even the area.
You can speak to most characters in the prison and all start of neutral towards you, but as you start doing favours for different people you start to see a change in attitude. One inmate tells you that something of theirs has been taken by another inmate and they want to you go and get it back.
This first time around at least, sees you following your target and beating on him to steal his items, This helps you carry favour with other inmates, but also have yet more turn on you, Piss any inmate off enough and you have a target on your back. Which is fine as the guards may well step in and protect you.
I say ‘may’ because it is very easy to annoy a guard to the point they will just stand and watch, or even jump in and beat you down alongside other inmates. At this point this is a Panorama investigation waiting to happen.
The more you play The Escapists, the more you start to appreciate the depth. You should follow the day’s schedule to the letter, but you can find moments to sneak off still. But miss something like a roll call and there will be trouble. Jobs are important and will have an effect on your plans at some point, so losing yours is never a good idea, but it does become possible to find ways to make others lose theirs, so you can then step in. That might even become a legitimate tactic at some point.
Items you find can be stored in your cell, but again you need to be careful if your cell is picked for a shakedown, because being caught with contraband will lead to yet more trouble for you. The items you find are then used to craft the tools you need to help escape and if you have played a game like Minecraft, then you will be used to the craft mechanics already, but even if not they are very simple to work out.
The thing with The Escapists, is that it really is two games in one and it is up to you how you play it. Sure you can plan an escape and more on to the next prison with higher security and tougher escapes. Or you can just live the prison life and go about your day to day business. Because there were certainly times I forgot about the main goal and just tried to keep my head down and survive prison.
There are some many little subtleties within The Escapists that it would be a massive checklist to go through them all now and to do so would rob you of that joy of discovery that I witness as I played after going in pretty much blind.
Characters are all identikit in appearance, yet manage to have a lot of personality and probably more than you’d find in some bigger AAA titles, all this without any voice acting at all. You learn who to trust, who is out to get you and in your own mind you start to play games with the other inmates. At one point I was even becoming paranoid that one guard in particular had a hit out on me, because everytime I got beaten up, he was always around the corner…it was him, I know it was, he is after me and there is nothing I can do. But he’ll get what’s coming!!
I mean, yeah, that’s not possible right? I shouldn’t find myself that drawn in to a simple looking Indie game that is about crafting and escape, should I? If that is all it is about, then kudos to Mouldy Toof for managing to create a believable would in the confines of a prison, but I do suspect that escaping is merely just a small part of what has been created here.
Whilst I was aware of The Escapists, it was never a game on my most wanted list, but having now played for a good number of hours and still only scratching the surface, I can wholeheartedly recommend picking this up and get involved with one of the first great indie titles of 2015.