The first few days in prison are always disorienting. You don’t know the floorplans. The perimeter is a mystery. You have to follow around the crowd of inmates to find the mustering grounds, the workout room, the dining hall. You might even head back into the wrong cell at the end of the day if you’re not paying attention.
And that’s the point. The Escapists is all about getting your bearings. It’s about falling in line, learning routines, and, eventually, escaping. Everything moves at a breakneck pace, just to ensure you can only take in your surroundings in split-second increments. The clock is always ticking at the top of the screen, with bells going off to indicate the next part of the day.
There’s the wake up, the morning roll call, then breakfast. Sometime between breakfast and dinner, they fit in free periods where you can do want you want (within reason, of course), a workout period (gettin’ swole), a group shower (fun with soap!), and job time (if you have the competence to hold down a job in lockdown).
The guards expect you to be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there. Late for roll call? You get heat from the guards. Leave the dining hall early in order to scope the electric fence? Heat from the guards. LOLing at cats on the internet when you should be turning in for the night? Heat. Rack up too much heat and you could find yourself on the business end of a nightstick.
It’s not hard to stay on the guards’ good side, though. Follow the few simple rules and everything will be just fine. The boys in blue aren’t beyond a bribe or two, though. You can give items to any character you want, guards and inmates alike. Give an inmate a porn magazine and you’ll likely see his opinion of you go up. Give a guard a “Do-Do Donut” and see if he’s amused even in the slightest.
I thought prisons would be stark places without much in the way of inventory items, but I was wrong. The Escapists is a game predicated on inventory and crafting. Anything and everything you pick up is something that can be combined with something else, or is at least useful on its own merits. You won’t know how to make anything at first. Sure, you could start slapping together random items, but good luck on actually crafting anything useful that way. You’ll likely have to head to the payphone, purchase a tip from whoever’s on the other end of the line, and learn crafting recipes that way.
Crafting starts off easy enough. Throw a bar of soap into a sock for a classic “soap party” weapon. Equip that. Then, the next time some inmate decides he’s not taking anymore of your lip--or, perhaps, if another inmate has paid someone else to take you down a peg--then the ol' soap-in-a-sock gives you something with a little more oomph than your bare fists.
Buy enough tips, and you’ll soon have more recipes than you’ll know what to do with. I know, for instance, that I can tie two bedsheets together to make a sheet rope, but that doesn’t mean I know how to plan an escape with one. I even learned how to make a fake fence cover, but I didn’t learn how to make fence cutters until much later. The incredibly quick tutorial shows you how to take a screwdriver and get up into the ventilation shafts, but I have yet to come across a screwdriver in my game, or even have the knowhow and components to build one.
Point being: The inventory goes deep.Your pockets aren’t bottomless, though. You’ll be doing the inventory-shuffle dance step that’s familiar to anyone who’s played a traditional role-playing game. Do I free up some space by giving a watch to Officer Serpico, or do I drop it on the ground in favor of this set of kitchen utensils? Do I make a padded inmate outfit out of a blue book, duct tape, and my orange-is-the-new-black coveralls, or do I not risk getting caught with it during a shakedown? Decisions.
You have seemingly fewer pixels than an 8-bit Space Invader. Customization gives you lighter or darker skin, a few simple hairstyles, and a couple face modifiers. Nothing fancy, but it does the trick. It’s also helpful if you give your inmate a name that you’ll respond to as a player. In other words, during evening muster, when everyone’s getting into formation in the central courtyard, you might want to give your inmate your real name. That way, when the guards inform the group that so-and-so is going to have their cell tossed, then you’ll break ranks and get the contraband out of your possession before it's too late. Maybe that's not even possible. Stay on the guards' good side. It keeps them out of your cell.
If the guards do catch you with contraband, like the soap-sock combo you came up with earlier, then you’ve earned yourself some time in solitary. Probably three days’ worth. In those three days, all the stats you’ve built up begin to atrophy. All the speed and strength training you beefcaked yourself up with are now lower. You’ll have to hit the gym again to get your stats back up. Helps in a fight. Or running from a fight. If you can outrun somebody that’s got your number, they might just give up if they can't catch you.
Upset enough people, inmates or guards, and you could find yourself running a lot. Or in the doctor’s office a lot. Sometimes money-making schemes come your way. Joseph could want something simple, like a paperclip, and he’d be willing to give you $25 for your troubles. Or Chet might’ve had just about enough of Bill’s crap, and he wants you to teach Bill a lesson: the kind of lesson that’ll put Bill out of commission for an hour or so. If Chet’s payout is worth it, go ahead and take the job. But, if you can’t risk having Bill stalk you for the rest of your days in prison (because people have long memories in prison) then maybe you’ll skip out on the contract.
There’s a lot to learn in The Escapists. I won’t even pretend to write a guidebook. Just remember that it’s the point of the game to learn what you can and can’t do, what you can and can’t get away with. And, at some point, your patience and perseverance might pay off, and you’ll have orchestrated some means of escape. Perhaps you’ll dress up as a guard and mosey on out. Perhaps you’ll dig a tunnel, cover your tracks, and taste sweet freedom when you come up from underground. Perhaps you'll unwittingly start a riot and run right out the front door. I have no idea how I triggered that scenario. But it didn't take me long to make a break for it, I'll tell you what.
If you ever just walk around, though, wondering how in the world you’re ever going to break out of these prison walls, then you’ve caught onto what makes The Escapists a rare experience. In the span of a normal day in prison, you can go from helpless and hopeless to inspired and equipped. Then again, you might suffer yet another setback when the guard tower catches you digging a hole with a garden trowel, sending you right back into 72 hours of solitary. Ironically, in prison, the opportunities can seem endless.
Sometimes you’re a rat in a cage. Sometimes you’re a lion. But when all your planning, patience, and possibly plain old good luck finally pays off, The Escapists rewards in a rare way. Because in The Escapists, whether you catch a break or catch a beatdown, you’ll know you’ve earned it.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile