I wake up early in the morning by some strange faces calling my name. Faces that I will never see again, for some unexplained reason. I get up and I remembered I’ve spent the night between bars. It’s time for the first roll call, I realize while I hear a police officer talking shit about me and the others inmates. It’s also the first moment I actually meet my criminal partners. They ask me for favors, I accept all of them, without really knowing how to obtain the requested items. But Enzo told me to start a ruckus during breakfast, and I know how to use my fists. So I wait until we are in the buffet, and that’s it: I’m punching Taylor in the face – sadly, he isn’t a nazi. The policemen freak out and they knock me down with just one hit. I wake up in the emergency room, and I realize this isn’t going to be an easy stay.
The Escapists is a game with a clear and simple objective: escape from prison. But don’t let its basic controls and cute retro look fool you: this title is ruthless and – ironically – full of freedom to decide how you achieve your goal. When I played the tutorial, I said to myself “okay, this is going to be a piece of cake”. However, we all know that the cake is a lie, and so is the illusion of the brief tutorial. The thing is, it teaches you the basic commands and some abilities, like crafting, which is cool. You have a button for using items/attacking, another one for dropping them, one button for interacting with people or objects, and the menus. The only problem is that the tutorial sets an ideal scenario, where you have already been in prison for some days and everything is set to get out. You only need to make the final moves, which isn’t cool for a tutorial.
When I started my first walkthrough, I was awfully lost. Everyday has the same routine (roll calls, meals, free time periods,an exercise hour, work time and lights out) in the same order and at the same hours (you have a clock on-screen, every real-life second count as a in-game minute). What you should do is memorize the routine, use the free time to wander, learn every tiny square of the map and start thinking strategies. And also have a lot of patience, as there is a lot of trial & error involved in playing this game, and any minor misstep will end in your plan ruined. Don’t worry if you drop a soap though, nothing will happen.
The next step is to build trust with your cellmates. Does Jeremy want a lighter from Chris? Take it away from him, and deliver it to big J. Your “opinion” bar will increase – his name’s color will change to a brighter green to reflect this – and you will be rewarded with gold. Jeremy will start sending you items at a lower price, and if you reach a good level in the relationship, you can send him to fight others in your name. On the other hand, Chris’ name will turn into red and he’ll kick your ass randomly whenever he gets near you. It doesn’t matter if you are alone or surrounded by police officers in the gym: he’ll engage. This mechanic is really interesting because it makes you decide who you want to help and who you want as an enemy. Surprisingly, policemen won’t hit you randomly if they don’t like you, yet they will keep an eye on you.
Speaking of which, cops can be truly unforgiving and merciless if you start making trouble. Don’t do stupid things, like trying to break the floor in front of them or leave contraband items on your desk, or you’ll be taken to the detention cell for a couple of days, without a doubt. Be careful with being late to lunch or not attending a roll call, as they will get angry or even start a lockdown if they think you are gone. And if they find you, they will torn you apart. They just come out of the blue every time (sorry). The analysis of Foucault’s panopticon seems legit, as you will feel being watched every second, even if there isn’t any policemen around.
This is a high note in the experience: the sensation of danger is real. It makes you think before making any small action, and it requires quick reactions when you screw up. It’s a shame to have encountered a good number of bugs (cops getting mad at me without reason) here and there, and I don’t understand why whenever you get hit, your character automatically changes to offensive mode and counterattacks. I was beaten many times because I accidentally hit an inmate, without really looking for it.
After a couple of infuriating hours of failing again and again, I wanted to give up. The feeling of frustration was a heavy burden, and I kept running in circles. Then, I got extremely lucky with finding a color key, tying a cop without alerting the others and opening a door I haven’t touched before. I found a way out, almost by chance. The moment I won for the first time, my emotions toward the game changed. I wasn’t enjoying it at all in the very beginning, but after the first successful escape, I thought “so this is it, huh”. I even started playing much better, noticing a lot of possibilities I didn’t see before. Possibilities that were right there, in plain sight.
Although I spend a long week trying to escape, don’t worry, you can escape in just one or two days. You don’t have to wait for four seasons and a revival for an ending, like certain overrated show. I won’t get into details on the possible ways of escaping, because it’s the whole point of the game, along with discovering and creating as many exits as you can, and doing it the fastest way possible. You can even finish the first level in one minute! Nevertheless, I will give you some hints; you can take hostages, break almost any wall or floor and create a “dummy double” for your bed. It is your job to fill in the blanks and find your way out. I assure you: it is quite gratifying.
You can read “Complete Edition” in the review title because the Switch version comes with all DLCs to date. There are nine extra prisons, with some iconic names, such as Alcatraz and London Tower, and even two Switch exclusives maps, called Paris Central Pen and Fhurst Peak Correctional. These levels are actually interesting because they aren’t just different buildings and furnitures, there are new mechanics and a ridiculous number of police officers in some, for example. A welcome addition that will add more hours and brainstorming sessions to your convicted mind.
In conclusion, The Escapists is a fantastic game which requires a good amount of dedication from the player, as it can be rough to learn it from the start for some, demanding a couple of hours to understand and know what you can really do in the game. As negative as this can turn out in the experience, it is also part of its charm. The gratification of discovering creative and unique ways of disappearing under everyone’s nose and beating the stifling routine is invaluable.
A copy of The Escapists: Complete Edition for Switch was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.