The Escapists review for PS4, Xbox One

Platform: PS4
Also On: Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Team17
Developer: Mouldy Toof Studios
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

As settings and premises go, The Escapists seems fairly unique. I may be forgetting some other obvious examples, but it seems to me that there aren’t too many games out there in which you play as a prisoner plotting his escape from jail. Needless to say, going in I was both intrigued by the possibilities and excited to see what Mouldy Toof and Team17 did with such a set-up.

All it takes is a couple of minutes, however, for it to become abundantly clear why no one else has set their game in a prison: because it’s mind-numbingly dull. I mean, that’s kind of the point of prison, right? In general you go to jail because you’ve done something that contravenes society’s legal and ethical codes to such a degree that it’s been decided that you need to have your freedom revoked. If it wasn’t boring, it wouldn’t be much of a punishment.

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The thing is, while that may be an effective deterrent against crime, it doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable gaming experience. I may be generalizing a bit much here, but I feel like the whole point of games is to let you experience a world that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. Outside of gaming, I don’t imagine most people will get to find out what it’s like being a person with superhuman abilities, or a world-class athlete, or an indestructible fighter, or any of the other myriad experiences gaming has to offer.

While most people probably — hopefully — won’t ever get a first-hand look at what it’s like being a prisoner, The Escapists still is full of the sort of obligations and schedules that define everyday living. True, most people’s daily lives don’t involve morning and evening roll calls, or designated meal, workout, and shower times, but a key part of The Escapists is getting and maintaining a job, which requires showing up on time and meeting quotas. Even if you live a white-collar existence, that’s not too far from reality. Not even the game’s “free” time is all that enjoyable; you walk around a small yard, taking on menial tasks and getting into fights. I know that even the best RPGs still have time-wasting side quests, but The Escapists takes that to a whole new level.

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At this point, you may have decided that I’m the completely wrong person to be writing about The Escapists, since I find its fundamental premise irredeemably dull. And…well, you’d probably have a point. But even if I didn’t, I still think I’d have major problems with its gameplay. It’s not at all intuitive. In fact, it’s so counterintuitive, its tutorial actually manages to make things less clear, rather than more. The way the intro makes it seem, you can be out of the prison within a couple of easy moves. In reality, by contrast, you’ll have to spend an insane amount of time figuring things out: on top of the aforementioned menial tasks — which are made more difficult by the fact there’s a) no map guiding you and b) no way to find out who anyone else is save for walking right up to them — there’s a whole crafting system to figure out that feels like it goes out of its way to be as hard to understand as possible.

In The Escapists’ defense, I guess, there are plenty of people for whom “being insanely hard” is a pretty attractive value proposition. And for those people, there should be more than enough here to love. For anyone else, though, this will just offer dull, endless drudgery, and that’s precisely as fun as it sounds.

Grade: C-