The Escapists: Complete Collection
Developed By: Mouldy Toof Studios
Published By: Team17 Digital, Ltd
Category: Role-Playing, Simulation, Puzzle
Release Date: 9.25.18
Do you like TV shows like Prison Break and Oz but wish they had more in common with the 16-bit era of video game history? That’s weirdly specific, but Mouldy Toof Studios has got you covered with The Escapists: Complete Collection for the Nintendo Switch. It’s a port of a game that’s been ported to every other major gaming platform, but we wouldn’t want our favorite console to lag behind, would we? The good news about being the last platform to get the game means we don’t have to wait for any DLC. As the “complete” in “Complete Collection” implies, all the downloadable stuff comes standard in the Switch version. Let’s get started.
Something pretty interesting happens with the story in The Escapists. There is a very basic setup for the gameplay, certainly, which is that you are a prisoner and you have to escape from prison, so you do – if you finish the scenario, anyway. I guess you can give up and never make it out if that’s more your speed. And… that’s really it, as far as the storyline goes. But in the course of plotting your escape, a curious thing starts to happen; a deeper story starts to create itself before your eyes.
While there isn’t any grander scripted narrative at work, there is an interplay between guards, prisoners, and the player that creates a story of everyday life in prison. There are fights, prisoners beating guards, an underground market, and favors changing hands that build and break relationships every day. It’s a fascinating thing to behold, a story writing itself before your eyes – and a different story every time you play a prison, too. Granted, the story is fairly rudimentary and the characters aren’t that deep, but it was a really cool sensation to experience it unfold. Story is probably the most important element of a game for me, and the way that The Escapists experiments with creating one is a really cool idea. It reminded a lot of FTL in that respect, which is never a bad comparison to make.
The Escapists mixes some light RPG elements with crafting mechanics to create its gameplay. Your character has three stats; strength, speed, and intelligence. Strength increases your health and melee damage, speed is pretty self-explanatory, and intelligence is used to determine what you can craft. Certain items can’t be crafted until you hit a certain level of intelligence. In other words, you’re going to want to increase your intelligence early and often. There are facilities in each prison you can use to increase your stats, like a gym and some computers.
Getting Out Of Jail Is Not Free
The crafting system is pretty robust, and it refuses to explain itself for free. The only way to get recipes is by trial and error or calling a hint line on the prison phone. If you have a review to finish (or if you’re lazy) you can also find a crafting guide online, but that’s definitely cheating. Just because you know what you need, though, doesn’t mean it will be easy to get. Items can be bought from other inmates, stolen from unconscious inmates/guards, or stolen from other inmates’ cells. It’s pretty hit-or-miss in regards to what is available when. If no one has the stuff you’re looking for today, you have to wait for the next day to see if anything turns up. I had to wait four days before some dang duct tape showed up. Items names show up in either green or red. Green items are safe, and guards won’t take them away from you. Red items are contraband and guards will take them away from you if they catch you with one. Most crafted items are contraband, so it really sucks when you lose that shovel you spent eight days crafting just because Santiago started a fight with you.
Interacting with the guards and inmates is one of the more important aspects of the game. Inmates will ask you for favors, and will offer you a reward for fulfilling them. Their opinion of you also increases, and once you have maxed out their opinion, you can ask them to attack guards and other inmates for you. But if their opinion of you is low enough, other inmates will attack on sight and refuse to sell you any items, if they have anything for sale. You can also pay off the guards or just beat the hell out of them and take their stuff, but the latter has consequences. You get sent to solitary if you just wail on them, and when they send you to solitary you lose any contraband items.
Combat is really simple but has far-reaching consequences. You just mash the fight button until your opponent runs out of health or you do. If you lose, you wake up in the infirmary (minus any contraband in your inventory, naturally). If you win, you can loot your opponent’s unconscious body. You also lose favor with them, thus losing the ability to trade with them. You can get back in their good graces by giving them gifts or doing favors for them when they ask, but things get easier if you just avoid fights wherever possible.
Orange Is Definitely Your Color
The Escapists has a retro-styled 16-bit graphic aesthetic that’s pretty cool if you’re into that sort of thing (I am). Specifically the graphics remind me of the SNES-era Final Fantasy games, only if they had taken place inside of a modern prison instead of a gorgeous fantasy land. The music is up tempo and fairly tense. It tries to create an atmosphere of suspense, and while I think the music is great, I never really felt like there was much in the way of suspense when I was playing the game. Navigating each prison is challenging, but the gameplay relies so much on its patterns that there’s not really much suspense to be found.
The Escapists: Complete Collection has no touch or motion controls, so you can play it docked or undocked as you prefer. I thought the graphics looked a little stretched out on my TV, so I recommend it for undocked play based on that. Still, it’s only a slight preference, and I generally prefer my Pro controller no matter what, so you can pick your poison here.
TL;DR: Interesting narrative design, easy to understand but hard to master gameplay, and a retro aesthetic combine for a fun experience.