Preview: The Escapists

The Great Escape and The Shawshank Redemption are two excellent examples of prison escape movies done right. Now go ahead and find two examples of prison escape games. Not so easy is it? That's because, sadly, this particular genre hasn't yet kicked off in gaming. The Escapists, developed by Mouldy Toof Studios and published by Team 17, hopes to change this, as you experience life in prison while also planning your escape.You are not told what you did to earn incarceration but that doesn't matter. All that matters is getting to the other side, to freedom. If you haven't experienced the prison breaking side of gaming before, this will probably be your best chance. Life in Shankton State Pen is harsh and riddled with routine. Juggling your free time with attending roll call, dinner, work and more can be a grinding task. Missing roll call or breaking the rules is the fastest way to get sent to the infirmary and lose valuable free time. Of course, staying strictly by the rules is going to get you nowhere. While you must stick by routine, planning your escape should be your main priority, and to escape you'll need tools and items. These tools and items can be looted or the bodies of knocked out inmates but, unfortunately, the guards don't appreciate these endeavours. You can also beat up other inmates or steal from their cells, but this will only infuriate the guards further. The supplies you gather can be stored in your cell, but cell shakedowns are common, and if illegal items are found in your cell, you'll enjoy the next few days in solitary confinement.

Right off the bat you will see four numbers in the top left hand corner of the screen. The first shows your cash, which can be obtained by completing quests for other inmates, or by doing your daily job. The second is your health. The third is your guard heat, which grows dangerously higher when you break the rules. Fourth and last is your fatigue, which increases as you work, and is reduced as you rest, eat or bathe.

The little resources you scrounge can be used by themselves or crafted into other tools to aid in your escape. Getting these items is much easier said than done, especially considering there are detectors everywhere that will alert the guards if you have an illegal item in your possession. How you escape Shankton is completely up to you. In my playthrough, I used the air vents to store illegal items, and as a method of getting to the roof. From there I swung down on my rope, wary not to be spotted by searchlights or guards, and made my way to the fence, which I promptly cut open using my cutters. Finally, I used my shovel to dig under the wall to freedom. These last five minutes were incredibly tense and the thrill of finally escaping is a rarity in games today.

But this is only one of the ways I could have escaped. I could have dug a hole in my cell, digging and digging until I was beyond the wall, using braces as supports along the way. I could have escaped during the day instead of the night. I could have used forged keys to escape my cell and out the front door. You see, it's The Escapists open nature that makes it so original. There are so many tools at your disposal, yet obtaining them is as much a mystery.

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Scrounging supplies isn't the only thing you will do with your free time, however. There are three areas of your character you can improve- intelligence, by reading, strength, by lifting weights, and speed, by using the treadmill. Intelligence allows you to apply for better jobs and craft more complicated items. Strength increases your health and speed increases your... well... speed. All of these actions require energy, which can be restored by eating, resting, or having a shower.

One of the most profound aspects of The Escapists is its learning curve. I was constantly learning from my mistakes, sometimes to the point where it was trial and error. This is not a bad thing at all, and I actually enjoyed learning more about how the prison worked, and becoming more confident in my escape plans. In fact, I would even say it played a key factor in my enjoyment of The Escapists. Similarly, The Escapists doesn't give much away by itself and demands you just figure things out as you go along. This worked well for me and the games difficulty curve, as I mentioned earlier, but I fear the controls may be too vague for some casual gamers. Hopefully a more fleshed out tutorial is implemented for those who need it, or it may repel some gamers altogether.

The Escapists doesn't have a particular length to it. It really depends on how long it takes you to escape. Personally, I escaped on the 41st day, around eight hours in, but it could have been much more, or less, than that. Upon your escape you will be met with a completion time, the amount of in-game days you took, as well as average guard heat and overall score. This is sure to encourage some to replay the game, and escape at faster times or in different ways.

The art direction behind The Escapists is unique, but also fitting. While the 8 bit art style could be considered cute, the colours are drab and bleak, reminiscent of prison life. The soundtrack is similarly well suited. All of these elements combine to give the feeling of routine in a miserable life ahead.On the other hand, the cute 8-bit art style does remove some of the seriousness and the other prisoners are often lighthearted in their dialogue. Those who pay attention to what the other prisoners have to say will also be treated by an easter egg or two.

If what I have played is anything to go by, The Escapists is shaping up to be a fine game indeed, giving the player a lighthearted yet real version of prison life, while also offering the thrill of escape. For fans of crime drama's such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape this game is a must when it releases on Steam Early Access later this year. Hell, even if you're not a fan of crime drama's you should still be keeping a watchful eye over The Escapists.