Platform: Xbox One (reviewed) / PC
FOR those of a certain age, the Spectrum game School Daze is a deep well of fond memories. The 1984 title featured a schoolboy protagonist by the name of Eric, and the player’s job was to steal an unfavourable report card from the staff room before his parents caught sight of it. It was a simple project but in many ways it paved the way for the open world genre. With no thrusting narrative to guide your hand, its purpose was at times vague, but finding your way was always great fun.
Over three decades on, The Escapists is arguably the spiritual sequel to Microsphere’s classic, and not just thanks to the liberal use of blocky sprites in each game. Set in a prison, you are an inmate tasked with busting out. To do so you must be seen to abide by the rules and regulations, while secretly working out a route to freedom by crafting, stealing, bartering and identifying a prison’s weak spot. All the while, the game is set in the crushingly repetitive world of prison life, where meals are dispensed at the same time every day and dull tasks like cleaning and laundry cannot be avoided.
The repetition and routine of prison life strengthens your resolve to escape it
Forcing the player to engage in such drudgery might seem like an unusual mechanic, but it services the story and - after prolonged exposure to the wearying timetable that defines life inside - strengthens your resolve to break out. Do not let its plain graphical style deceive you; this is a game rich in experience that asks you to conform yet rebel. It encompasses stealth, theft and violence, but all must be deployed sparingly and strategically. Above all else, you must plan diligently.
There are times when you will have devoted several hours to stockpiling a vital horde of supplies and tools, only to witness the crushing sight of guards confiscating them during a cell search after one mistake too many. Part puzzler, part RPG, it is no prison simulation, but it is a test of endurance and patience. The game’s tutorial does little to enlighten you as to the best course of action; instead, you learn via a process of trial and error, meaning that when you do start to figure things out, it is tremendously rewarding.
The Escapists is a fulfilling and clever little game
Some people will find the constant grind of The Escapists too much to actually enjoy playing it, but that seems to be missing the point. What makes the title a fulfilling and instructive experience is the very fact that you must go through the grind. It is tough and it is punishing but when it all comes together and you break out of a prison, whether by force or perspicacity, you begin to realise that this is a very clever little game indeed.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
Don’t hide tools and possessions in your desk, but use the ventilation system to prevent guards discovering them
Mealtimes offer an ideal opportunity to speak with fellow prisoners, form bonds and secure different items
Whether it’s digging a hole or chipping away at a wall, be sure to clear away any signs of your escape route