Every great prison break in history has been executed by someone with the ability to make a fully functioning machine gun out of two plastic forks, a DVD of Adam Sandler's 1989 cinematic masterpiece Going Overboard, and three inches of wire. The Escapists teaches you everything that you need to know when you inevitably get locked up for those things that you look at on the Internet, and it does so in a way that's deep, complex, and not always as fun as you'd like.
The problem is that life in prison is incredibly dull. You have to live to certain schedules, perform specific tasks, and avoid that one guy who always wants to talk about the fine workmanship of French antiquities in the shower room. There's a reason people try to stay out of prison, and it's mostly because access to Netflix is massively limited.
Turning that life into a game was a brave move, and it's one that pays off in some ways. You need to use your free time very carefully, and building items to give you the upper hand is interesting as well. Unfortunately, this doesn't change the fact that by day four of your sentence, you'll probably be starting to feel glad that your imprisonment isn't actually court mandated.
Could the developer have made it more accessible – or more fun? Of course it could. The studio could have added actual events to enjoy as you work towards your jailbreak, or a more informative tutorial and a better tips system. Instead it refuses to hold your hand, hoping that you'll feel a deep sense of accomplishment when you finally jump the fence.
This is a game for people that like to think, experiment, and explore. You'll need patience and more time than most gamers will want to give it, but if you tick those boxes, then you won't be disappointed. Everybody else ought to wait until the price comes down or avoid it entirely, as the cute graphics make it seem like something that it's not.
As your time inside increases, you'll complete jobs, raise money, find or make items, and slowly develop a plan of escape – well, eventually anyway. On paper it sounds amazing, but there's quite a learning curve that means that without outside help you'll likely just be playing a prison life simulator. When a plan comes off, you'll be thrilled, but in the early days, it's just as likely that a text box will pop up saying that you've been caught. It doesn't matter how careful you are: psychic guards are going to catch you, take your contraband, and fill your hole (regardless of where you put it). There's nothing more annoying than your carefully laid plans being busted by wizards.
Across its six maps, The Escapists best highlights just how tough it is to escape from prison, and how demoralizing it is to do exactly the same thing every day. You can steal, beat up your enemies, laugh at cats on the Internet, or work out at the gym – but ultimately you're working to somebody else's time. The crafting system at least allows you to circumnavigate that a little, putting a papier-mâché replica of yourself in your bed, for instance, or dying a bleached prison outfit Policeman Blue; there are dozens of weapons, items, and outfits to discover.
Each level is harder than the last, but the developer probably could have gotten away with one prison. The replay value is unbelievable, and the amount of content included is huge. If this game clicks with you, you could spend hundreds of hours discovering every secret space of each prison. There's already a downloadable map available, too, so you can extend the experience further if you want to.
To make money, you'll be able to do prison jobs or take on missions from fellow inmates. Beating up a police officer or criminal rival can net you some cash, which you'll be able to spend on various items. It can all get a little repetitive over long-term play, but most objectives are incredibly easy and will take you all of a second to sort out.
It's unfortunate that officers and inmates don't have more personality. They roam randomly, except when they need to be somewhere. Annoy them and they will try to make your life difficult whenever they see you; befriend them and they'll protect you in a time of need. It doesn't matter what their name is, they'll all act more or less the same.
Meanwhile, the graphics are pretty nice but stylized, which doesn't really suit the nature of the game. The text occasionally seems way too small, but it doesn't usually have any purpose and likely won't annoy too much.
The Escapists is excellent at what it does, there's no doubt about that, and it's cornered a market that nobody else dares to touch. It's generous with content, it's deep, and, at times, it's extremely satisfying. Still, it can be very tedious, and as such, unless you're actually in prison and have time to kill, there are probably better ways to spend your limited gaming hours. If the premise intrigues you then by all means give it a go – otherwise, you may want to refrain from spending your time behind bars.