We first became aware of Mouldy Toof studios when we looked at Spud’s Quest a little while ago. It was a charming, Adventure's of Dizzy-like, game that showed some good potential. Now the one man studio is back with what should prove to be a break through title. There’s still an emphasis on moving items around to the correct place but The Escapists is a very different game.
The basic premise is that you are an inmate at a prison and have to find time in your daily routine to plan and execute an escape plan. There are a number of ways to do this and different prisons act as sandbox playgrounds for budding escapists to play around in. There is no one way to escape and everything from impersonating a guard to digging a good old fashioned tunnel can be attempted. You can even take over the prison if you find enough rope.
Viewed from a top down perspective you move your little dude around the prison as a clock ticks away. Different prisons have different routines but you will need to attend roll calls, meal times and things like exercise and shower sessions. You can also get work which earns you money (as well as possibly getting you closer to much needed supplies). Money can then be used to buy things from other prisoners,
The other prisoners will also ask you to do favours for them. Completing these normally involves creating distractions, finding objects or beating someone up. Carrying out their requests will bring more money and also make them like you a bit more. Upset a prisoner and they will come looking for you and beat you up. The same can be said of the guards that patrol the place and it’s best to keep an eye on exactly who you are upsetting.
The key to the game is finding contraband items such as wood and metal and then crafting them into tools which can help you escape. Hiding these tools is one of the biggest challenges as your cells are given regular shake downs and the discovery of a banned item leads to solitary confinement and effectively a reset in your progress. This can be very frustrating when you have spent months digging a tunnel only to get found out and have to start again.
While the joy of seeing a well-executed plan come together is great the frustration of seeing a small mistake set back hours of progress will be too much for many players. It does seem a little unbalanced in this respect and we can’t work out why a discovery of tools somewhere results in every fake wall, vent or tool stash being removed around the entire prison. You can reload to the start of each day but even that can seem to set back progress in a game where it comes slowly and every square of dirt dug needs to be done so incredibly carefully.
The game can also be a little repetitive. This is fine for your daily routine as it allows you to understand patterns and the movement of the prison. It’s not so great when you have been stuck in the place for months and the other inmates and guards don’t really offer you up much in the way of character or conversation. At times it can feel like you’re just waiting around for an inmate to have a certain type of item for sale and when this happened we really weren’t having fun.
That said, when you begin to make progress it can be a very special game world to be a part of. The problem with sandbox games by nature is that they don’t really have structure to progress and while your days inside certainly do, to finally get hold of an item after months of waiting and then have it quickly taken away with a small mistake just feels very unfair at times and we can see this putting some gamers off. If something was added to make the acquisition of items more proactive a lot of this problem would be solved very quickly.
Overall, despite its faults, The Escapists is a highly ambitious and clever title in a lot of ways and we simply have to recognise and applaud that. It’s also quite original and despite our frustrations we spend a good ten hours with the game in our first few days which show its ability to draw you into its daily routine. If you like free-form puzzle solving and have a high tolerance for pain then this could be the game for you. With a touch more polishing it could also be the game for everyone else as well.