Ostensibly, the Escapists is a game about breaking out of a prison. Doing so will require various aspects of time management, strategy, pattern recognition, light relationship simulation, crafting mechanics and exploration. All of it comes together in a somewhat satisfying package, but it falls short of greatness in several areas. For the first hour or two, my impressions of the game were actually fairly poor. It felt restrictive. Not in the sense that it should (with the whole prison escape angle), but gameplaywise. While there is a tutorial, it only teaches you how to interact with the environment and the most basic of item crafting mechanics. It doesn't teach you the complexities of the gameplay in a satisfying way nor does it really develop any sense of how to actually accomplish your goals. Coupled with the clunky menu and the crapshoot nature of the crafting mechanism, the game did not leave a positive impression on me at first.
This is unfortunate, as The Escapists is actually quite deep and offers you a tremendous amount of flexibility and freedom on how to actually accomplish your goals. But when I literally had no idea of what the game allows you to do based on a lack of information or proper tutorials, I find myself growing frustrated. At the outset, I just wandered around aimlessly without any idea of what to do or where to go. However, once things finally started to click into place, I saw how complex the game actually is. It’s a shame that it took me so long and so much experimentation to get there.
Boiled down to its essence, the Escapists is a puzzle game. You're placed into a box (the prison) and the puzzle is figuring out how to escape. How will you do it? Will you try to dig your way out to freedom? Will you try to simply overpower your way out and break through the front door? Will you make a dummy using pillows to trick the guards into thinking you're asleep while you ninja your way out of the prison, using forged keys and stolen security cards? Each prison gives you several methods of escape and finding them is the fun. Each prison also serves as individual levels. The sole goal is to escape from each one. There is no story or narrative.
You will have to keep an eye out on the areas the guards patrol less often and what their schedules are. You will have to build up relationships with the inmates by doing them favors (more on that in a bit) and to earn money. The more obstacles each prison adds means even more time tinkering around with the system before you can escape. It can be a laborious and time-intensive processes. Just getting the layout and the patterns down could take many in-game days. When it all starts to fall in place is when the game is at its best. But failure comes with a price. If you get caught, you lose all your contraband (basically that means almost any item imaginable), and depending on the severity of the prison, you may even be punished further.
One of my least favorite aspects of the game was the favor system. Favors are small tasks or side quests you can complete to earn money and increase your standing in the eyes of the other prisoners. They primarily come in three varieties: beat someone up, procure someone's items, or cause a distraction. This grows old very quickly and could really use a lot more depth to it. Sometimes, it doesn't even make much sense. In one scenario, I was told to get a chocolate bar from another inmate. Well, that inmate happened to be selling it, so I purchased it, thus completing the quest. But it didn't count. The only way to complete the quest was to steal it from him. I found this to be very frustrating, since what did it matter how I got the chocolate bar from the inmate? It's a shame that a game that thrives with so much freedom and depth so severely lacks it in other areas.
My other major complaint was the crafting system. You can select up to three items which can then be crafted to a whole new item that makes sense in the context of what you combined. Sometimes, this makes sense like socks and soap. But usually, there's no way to know what will happen when you craft things together, making it a seemingly random affair, at least from my perspective.
The other way to craft items is to interact with them in the environment. For example, you can turn a toothbrush into a makeshift knife by using it against a wall. There is nothing in the game that would hint that this sort of system exists. It isn't covered in the tutorial, nor is there any reasonable way to know this.
The Complete Edition is the same as the basic version with the addition of the DLC maps (which are all unique prisons serving as single levels) previously released, including a James Bond-themed level and my favorite, escaping from Santa’s Sweatshop.
Overall, The Escapists is not a game that I particularly enjoyed, but at the same time I didn’t dislike it either. It was a decent time, but that fun was rather short-lived. The game suffers from a lack of explanation and there's no real indication on what you can actually do. The depth is there, but only if you're willing to do and try every combination of actions and items over and over. The crafting system is mostly guesswork and random chance. But the freedom you have in planning your escapes, the strategy aspects, surveying the area and pulling off your breakout, are thrilling in their moments.