The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time. Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman (and famously narrated by the latter), Shawshank provided both a sympathetic look into America's prison system and the thrilling escape story of an innocent man. Through deceit, planning, and cunning, Andy Dufresne pulls off a prison break that would make even Michael Scofield envious.
The Escapists 2, developed and published by Team17, offers the ability for players to orchestrate their own fantastical escape plans. Rooted firmly in the realm of fiction (because let's face it, no sane person would actually dream of going to prison), The Escapists 2 provides a novel and surprisingly cathartic "prison-simulation" experience.
With its interesting premise and addicting, bite-sized gameplay loop, The Escapists 2 had me hooked for several entertaining hours. However, repetitive crafting, clunky inventory management, and an overall lack of guidance left me wishing for something greater than the sum of its parts. The result is a game that has immense potential, yet misses the mark on more than one occasion.
The premise of The Escapists 2 is simple. As a new prison inmate, your goal is to escape as soon as you can. As the prison warden walks you around the grounds of his prison, he introduces you to various places of note: the canteen, where inmates eat; the courtyard, where mandatory roll-calls are held; and the cell block, where inmates sleep at night. Eventually left to your own devices, players must brainstorm, plan, and execute their own escape, or risk facing their prison sentence.
While being incarcerated and trying to escape from prison is hardly an ideal scenario for a moral human being, The Escapists 2 provides the thrill of experiencing this taboo part of society. One can imagine the backstories players may concoct for their own inmates: wrongly accused of theft, framed for murder, victim of a failed inner-city system. Of course, there are just as many stories they could create that would support the opposite: serial killer, rapist, human trafficker.
It is ultimately up to the players to make these distinctions and come to their own conclusions. While understandable for a sandbox game like this, The Escapists 2 misses an opportunity to provide an interesting narrative that sheds light on these inmates and their troubled lives.
At first glance, The Escapists 2's gameplay seems filled to the brim with complex ideas and mechanics. Each day, you must manage your inmate's health and stamina, avoid raising your "heat" level with the guards, and work to increase stats for strength, fitness, and intelligence, all while going about your daily routine and planning your means of escape. Yet for how addicting the overlying game initially feels, it's tough to overlook many of the game's leaps in logic and oversimplifications when it comes to its different gameplay systems.
Each in-game day plays out the same way. Players get up at 7:00am and head to the field for roll-call, after which they head to the canteen for breakfast. The rest of the morning and afternoon is dedicated to fitness workouts, job duties, showering, and additional roll-calls and meals. Of course, players are free to skip some or all of these activities, albeit at their own peril; it doesn't take long for the guards to catch on to you.
The real meat of the game takes place during "free time," when players have no other commitments and are free to complete favors for inmates, explore the prison, and continue to carve out (often literally) their escape route. In order to make an escape, you're going to need items. From a pair of cutters capable of cutting through the prison fence, to a stun gun that can incapacitate inmates and guards, to a key mold that grants access to locked hallways and doors, nothing gets done in The Escapists 2 without the proper tools in hand.
Building these tools involves a robust but ultimately heavy-handed crafting system. With the tap of a button, players can pull up a five-page menu listing scores of different items. These items range from flimsy, breakable tools to more durable, reliable essentials. By combining different components, players can create useful items to aid them in their escape.
These components are key to the entire experience in The Escapists 2. Without soap, you can't create a bludgeon of a weapon to knock out guards; without duct tape, you can't create a pickaxe to tunnel underground. The list goes on and on, and almost all of your time in The Escapists 2 is spent finding these materials.
And yet, finding the right materials for a given escape plan is easier said than done. Reasonable rationale might lead players to expect to find soap in the shower room or duct tape in the electrical closet. Unfortunately, almost all of these items are relegated to an unlikely place: the desks in inmates' cells.
Putting aside the suspension of disbelief that prison cells would somehow remain unlocked throughout an entire day with little to no monitoring from guards, looting these desks is by far the most tedious aspect of The Escapists 2. The game simply forces you to go dumpster diving for specific things in order to make any forward momentum.
Worse yet, since the contents of these desks are randomized, the ease in which you find a particular item you're looking for fluctuates drastically from day to day. So while The Escapists 2 might boast an impressive degree of freedom on paper, in reality your options are disappointingly limited by what you find (or can't find) in any given playthrough.
My frustrations with crafting are only exacerbated by The Escapists 2's clunky inventory management system. Players can only hold a maximum of six items on their person, with additional storage space relegated to—you guessed it—their cell desk. While the limited storage space is hardly an issue and adds to the challenge and tension of the game, moving things around can get messy.
Oftentimes, I'd be fiddling with the controls so much that I'd lose precious time to complete tasks and improve my character's stats. With no effective way of sorting through clutter, I found myself constantly pulling out and dropping items during my several playthroughs. The Escapists 2 offers such a tantalizing sandbox that it's unfortunate that so much of it is spent messing around in menus.
Both these crafting and inventory woes can be primarily attributed to The Escapists 2's lack of overall guidance. Throughout my time playing, I wished there was a way I could prioritize the crafting of a particular item. Horizon: Zero Dawn did a great job of minimizing the tedium of grinding for items by allowing all craftable weapons to generate their own respective quest lines.
Given that The Escapists 2 already has a quest system implemented, being able to set waypoints for specific item materials would have been a godsend. Heck, even just highlighting certain materials to remind players that they're looking for them would have been a welcome improvement. Instead, players are forced to blindly pick up objects and clog their inventories in the hopes of them being useful down the line. While an old-fashioned pen and paper can alleviate some of this stress, the fact that this form of guidance isn't worked into the game is disappointing.
With multiple prisons to outwit, tons of makeshift items to craft, and a myriad of inmates to help and guards to bribe, The Escapists 2 offers a large variety of ways to mastermind your own break out. Unfortunately, this freedom often comes at the cost of real depth. While the game brings an incredible amount of great ideas to the table, a laundry list of missing features left me wondering "What if?" for a potential sequel down the road.
As it currently stands, The Escapists 2 isn't a bad game. Those able to overlook its flaws will find something wholly unique and immersive, and even those who aren't should find things to enjoy within the first several hours of gameplay. At the same time, however, it's painfully clear that a few more quality of life improvements would have made the game so much better. For those looking to become the next Andy Dufresne, The Escapists 2 will certainly whet your appetite. Unlike the movie, however, don't expect it to be smooth sailing.