It's lunch time at a run-down prison. You're finishing your meal, rocking a nice orange jumpsuit. The inmates around you don't have much to say. Out of nowhere, Rob and Sarah get in a brutal fight. As the guards swarm in bearing their batons, you slip into the hallways. Those two will be out for a while- a good time to swipe some goodies out of Sarah's cell. This is one of many scenarios you'll learn to take advantage of in The Escapists 2, a game that amplifies Team17 Digital Ltd's undeniable dominance in the prison escape subgenre.
Escapists 2 is exclusively focused on this simulation/strategy gameplay, so don't expect any kind of story outside of prison descriptions and passing speech bubbles. Occasionally you'll see a line that satirizes our justice system, but that's as deep as things are gonna get on the narrative end. Instead, your intrigue will stem from its gameplay. Now, that might sound like a bad thing, but even if it could be, The Escapists 2 packs enough depth and variety to ensure this isn't the case here. A breakout involves lots of careful planning and yes, grinding, as you steadily build up the resources you need. Each prison will change how you approach the process, and when you've got a grip on most of them, it's time to go online.
But let's back up for now. The game kicks things off with a rudimentary tutorial where you'll learn the basic controls and not much more. I suppose this is a good time to point out that my first few hours were the hardest to get through. The most immediate and ultimately persistent problem is the way the game controls. Simply put, too much action is invested into the "use" button, making it easy to accidentally misapply your input. This sounds minor, but again, it's persistent, and could have very easily been circumvented. And then you have to contend with an unnecessary learning curve. The tutorial at first seems adequate, but the truth is that it leaves many key gameplay elements unexplained. Jobs, it told me offhandedly, allow you to get money. Fast forward to my first scenario and I keep getting rejected for jobs. Why? Because it turns out I need to go to the rec room and read to boost my knowledge. Unexplained mechanics, wonky controls, and non-linearity combined to make my first sit-down with The Escapists 2 like jumping into cold pool, even if I had cute little water wings on.
Even as you endure a bumpy start, there's no denying this game's sense of charm. Visually, for example, Escapists 2 is a stunner. Everything from characters to environments is detailed with meticulous care, each pixel playing its own role in a beautiful mosaic of the hellscape you're trapped in. The soundtrack, while not as outstanding, is quite varied and manages to capture an introspective zeitgeist that nicely complements your daily activities. And as you follow the yellow arrow to wherever the prison wants you to be (you'll get in trouble if you don't), you'll get an odd sense of satisfaction from daily life. The way the sprites move, the way sounds pop, the silly things barked out by the inmates and guards, these things just work together to make your life sentence a pleasing one.
But you're still supposed to escape! Factoring in how time fast-forwards when you sleep, each day is roughly 16 minutes long. Mandatory obligations take up a small portion, leaving the rest for you to earn money by working and doing favors, and to gather materials by purchasing and stealing as needed. It's through this routine that you'll discover how deceptively smart the system can be. I remember looting a knocked-out guard, and then later that evening I was greeted in my cell by a lovely snarling German Shepherd. The speech bubbles I mentioned aren't just for laughs, either. Disgruntled complaints and casual remarks sometimes reveal weaknesses in the facility's structure or protocol. Deep, intelligent mechanics abound in The Escapists 2. Meanwhile, the locations on offer - from a standard prison to a speeding train to a space colony - all feature different procedures, crafting options, and escape routes. As satisfying as it is to make your grand breakout, The Escapists 2's greatest asset is its longevity.
At the tradeoff of feeling like a third wheel, there's much to be learned the easy way by going online and learning from the pros. Thanks to the success of its 2015 predecessor, The Escapists 2 enjoys a thriving multiplayer community. It's nice to see the inmates around you conveyed by real people, but don't go here to soak up the atmosphere. Even on maps that don't impose a time limit, everyone scrambles to be the first one out. Dawdle too much, and the host will likely move on while you're still a jailbird. As of writing, the servers can be pretty dodgy, too; even with fast connections, other players will often stutter around as the system struggles to keep up. Still, this is a minor tradeoff for the new experience of dynamically cooperating and competing with your fellow inmates.
I never sat down with The Escapists 2 without smiling. Even during its rough first hours, its personality and a keen sense of humor kept me going. And as you discover its layers of challenge, intrigue, and variety, you'll be hooked. By turning the routine into a steady and engaging flow of progress, and by spicing things up with historical and fantastical locations, The Escapists 2 gets tremendous mileage out of its premise. Then you have the online, which is mildly problematic yet brimming with life and new ways to experience the game. You may be serving time in jail, but The Escapists 2 will ensure that you won't feel guilty about it. Now excuse me, I think I've earned some kind of punishment for that awful wordplay.