Outsmarting the guards and making a great escape is every prisoner's dream, but as The Escapists demonstrates, it isn't easy. You meticulously plan, craft tools, wait for openings, and hope your plan goes off without a hitch. While the premise is interesting, the gameplay relies too much on repetition, never capturing the adrenaline rush of a daring escape.
The life of an inmate is routine, and The Escapists captures this to a fault. You eat meals, take on boring janitorial jobs, curry favor with other inmates, and exercise your mind and body to succeed. The simulation starts off amusing enough; waiting for the opportune moment to steal from inmates is exciting, and crafting better items gives you a constant focus. However, the daily repetition (especially locating specific, randomized items) becomes frustrating. Every day feels the same - another fight, another generic conversation, another roll call. Even when you escape one prison and get moved to another, the loop stays the same with a few new items and security measures.
You suffer through the routine because you are preparing to escape. Your break-outs can happen in multiple ways, like digging your way out or taking over the prison with brute force. I enjoyed the creative and numerous routes to freedom, but hatching a plan involves too much patience and trial-and-error. You are given little direction for the complex mechanics, apart from a brief tutorial that barely scratches the surface. You must learn through failure. Want to cut your way through a fence? You need to be equipped with a fake fence cover before you do or you automatically get sent to solitary, lose all your contraband, and forfeit three in-game days. You only learn this after you attempt it, and you can't possibly predict every necessary step to avoid disaster. You're constantly punished for mistakes and losing progress because of them, yet this experimentation is essential.
Obtaining what you need to put your plan into action depends on building relationships with other inmates. Unfortunately, you don't interact with them in any meaningful way. You're constantly trying to get on their good side, so they'll sell you items or jump people for you. Yet the relationship progression comes down to you do boring favors like locating items, beating up others, and acknowledging them every day. It feels artificial though. Essentially, you're just raising a meter and your conversations remain the same – utterly generic.
The whole process is a tough barrier of frustration. From aggravating prisoners who constantly attack to the guesswork-focused crafting system, The Escapists is always challenging you. On the one hand, this gives you a grand sense of accomplishment when you win; I enjoyed those lightbulb moments when I finally figured something out, and I appreciated the tension that I felt every time I put my exit plan into the action. On the other hand, the slow progression loop and repetitive gameplay outweigh the brighter moments.
The Escapists implores you to dig deep for your strategy, but it doesn't offer enough excitement along the way. The concept is sound; I just wish I had more fun. I like the idea of The Escapists better than the game it actually is.
Escaping from prison isn't an easy feat, but it also isn't very fun in The Escapists.