As a reviewer of video games, every now and again you can fall into a bit of a dull patch. Every game looks the same. Nothing is interesting. Nothing on the horizon really excites you the way that games of old did. It all gets, for want of a better phrase, a bit "meh." Generally though, you'll find that something comes along that injects a new found fervour into your love of games. It doesn't necessarily need to be a superb title, or one with a big budget behind it. It just needs to have that certain something that kicks you into gear.
The Escapists is one of those games.
It isn't the world's most earth-shattering game, nor is it the prettiest or the deepest. But this top-down mix of the 8-bit classics Skool Dazeand The Great Escape is massively, massively refreshing. For starters, it provides an actual challenge with actual options, as opposed to just being purposefully misleading in order to throw you off the scent of the one method of progression that other games would provide.
You begin life in the game as an incarcerated criminal who has dreams of busting out of the joint by any means necessary. Before you get plonked down in the middle of each of the increasingly secure prison complexes, you can rename and restyle your fellow inmates, so Inmate Mike will instantly be given the moniker of a close friend, whilst Clive will be switched with the name of that guy you hate from the office. Obviously, one will always be named Norman in homage to Ronnie Barker and Porridge, if you've got any sense. This level of customisation makes things more personal and even though you're supposed to be focused on the task at hand, it's a fun distraction to knock seven bells out of that fellow from accounting that keeps stealing your parking space, especially when you get to pinch his cupcake and his shiv afterwards.
Combat is what will lead you to be stood on the stickiest of wickets. Fighting is done by pressing a lone button to throw punches, with the same button being used to wield any weapon that you happen to have equipped. The speed at which the characters dash about the place – and the fact that they can overlap each other on the screen - means that there are times when you'll be trying to take someone out as a favour to another inmate, only to find that you've inadvertently clubbed the wrong person or worse, both people that were near you. Hitting them just once gets them understandably annoyed, and they'll chase you down until they get bored (which is unlikely) or until they've exacted their revenge (which is very likely.) The speed of movement of the characters is also a hindrance when it comes to giving people items. If you get a job in the mailroom, you have to take letters and give them to specific people within a time limit. That's all well and good, but you can be chasing them down for ages, only to catch up with them and watch as they sprint past you because you didn't press the right button in the split-second that they were in the right place.
But these issues are only minor annoyances. The Escapists is a simple-looking but incredibly complex game. There are multiple ways to escape from each of the prisons and an absolute stack of combinations to explore when it comes to crafting. This means that creativity is the name of the game when it comes to planning your escape. Maybe one inmate has a knife in his desk, but is hanging around his cell. If you do Norman a favour and steal his comb back from Mike, he'll be less likely to keep his eye on you, allowing you to nip into his cell and steal his smutty magazine. That magazine, when combined with some duct tape, could be turned into a poster that will distract the guards for long enough for you to give John a wakeup call with a sock stuffed with bars of soap, allowing you to steal his knife. That knife might be useful to cut through a fence…
…and so it goes. In fact, The Escapists could well be classed as overwhelming. There are payphones that will dispense tips in exchange for cash but aside from that and a very short tutorial, you're on your own. Doubtless, some will be lost and not be able to keep track of all of the variables that have to be considered in order to make the perfect escape. Others who persevere though, could find themselves falling in love with The Escapists, in all their pixelated glory.
The Escapists is not a game for those who get frustrated easily. You can spend all day adhering to the prison's rules – attending roll call, doing your work, managing your inventory so that you aren't keeping prohibited items in your cell in case there's a shakedown – and spend many more in-game days planning your escape, only to find that you've forgotten one minor thing and your chance is lost. That will either steel you for the next attempt, or cause you to put the controller down in anger. If you're in the former group, the sheer wealth of options available to you, combined with the art style and the occasional laugh-out-loud moment, mean that The Escapists is definitely recommended.