The Escapists Review

Richard Walker

If prison dramas have taught us anything, it's that life in chokey is rubbish. Whether it's being shanked in the refectory or violated in the showers, being behind bars is no picnic. And so it goes in The Escapists, as you're cast in the role of a little pixelated inmate, condemned to a spell in the can, unless you can concoct a wily enough plan to liberate yourself from the cold stone walls of your cell. You are an escapist. Hopefully.

As the game's name suggests, the sole objective is to get out of each one of the game's six prisons, using whatever tools or useful objects you can get your mitts on. How you make your escape is left entirely in your hands, although there are certain limits to what you can do that are only made more obvious due to the huge wealth of possibilities that developer Mouldy Toof has managed to stuff into the game. Like why can't I dig underneath an electric fence or zipline from a rooftop like in Tango & Cash?

You can craft all manner of implements, from pick axes to simple shivs, razor combs, shovels, fence cutters and other makeshift items, while the number of avenues for making it out of each prison are mostly limited only by your imagination. So, when you do run into an obstacle or an inability to perform a task that you otherwise could in the real world, it's a little jarring. That said, there are always options at your disposal and you're seldom left wanting for a viable strategy or plan of action.

As with real prison life (presumably), there are jobs to do that earn you coins, which can then be traded with your fellow inmates for helpful items like screwdrivers, stepladders, wire or other difficult-to-obtain goods. Or you could simply rifle through the desks of other inmates while their cells are vacated at the risk of being caught by the ever-vigilant prison guards. You can also get up to mischief within your different job roles, stealing a guard's uniform from the laundry for use as a disguise, nicking wood from the workshop, a trowel from the gardening room or lifting cutlery from the kitchen for cutting through fences, for instance.

Of course, escape is never quite as easy as you might think, and The Escapists' opening tutorial is only the smallest and most brief taster of what transpires to be a far more complicated beast. Once the tutorial is done, you're on your own, left to figure the rest out for yourself. But therein lies the beauty; the freedom to discover what's possible, to push and pull at the boundaries without having your hand held. It's a refreshingly old-school approach.

In spite of this bold method, The Escapists can sometimes be a frustrating affair. Get into fights with guards and inmates, and you'll be plagued by outbreaks of violence that will see you stripped of useful items on your person and thrown into solitary for three days. Rebuilding broken relationships after numerous riots in the canteen means giving wronged inmates or guards appropriate gifts or money, or completing various favours for them (like ambushing guards and inmates or obtaining contraband) to wipe the slate clean. Or you could just start a new game or revert to your last save. You can only save at the end of each day during lights out though, so failure means starting the entire day over.

The Escapists is a remarkably difficult game, the relative ease of the minimum security Center Perks prison followed briskly by the harsh snowy confines of Stalag Flucht, with its electrified perimeter, metal detectors, security cameras and comparatively complex layout. If you think you can simply tunnel your way out under the electric fences, you'd be dead wrong. Later prisons introduce even more fiendish layouts and security measures, ramping up the already incredibly steep challenge.

Trial and error is at the heart of The Escapists, which is why it's somewhat disappointing that there isn't an option to save whenever you like. Experimentation is a risky business, with failed attempts at escaping heavily penalised. Any contraband you've painstakingly gathered is confiscated, so if you've lifted keys from guards and made plastic copies or constructed useful tools, they'll be stripped away unless you've stored them in your cell. You're essentially forced to start over, so it's preferable to load your save game. Again.

Once you get the gist of how to craft and how to turn basic tools into more durable versions, and learn to cover your tracks with fake wall blocks, posters or fence panels, The Escapists starts to make sense. You can also butter up other inmates with gifts to make them minions that you can instruct to serve beatings to whoever you like, creating helpful distractions or providing backup when a big ruck gets heated in the courtyard. It's another tool in your arsenal that makes prison life in The Escapists that little more bearable.

Should you make it out of Center Perks, Stalag Flucht, Shankton State Pen, the Jungle Compound, San Pancho in the middle of the desert and finally the maximum security HMP Iron Gate facility (The Escapists' equivalent of Wormwood Scrubs or Alcatraz), you'll net a big, fat 150 Gamerscore. It's the hardest of The Escapists' achievements by far, with others simply asking that you accrue $1000, beat down 50 guards and 50 inmates, craft every item and more.

It's an achievement list not without its fair share of grinding, and scooping the full 1000G will take more than a few hours. Boosting your strength, speed and intellect is easy enough, and you'll need to do that to craft the game's multi-part items like the grapple hook for scaling walls, for example. It's a decent enough list, but with only 16 achievements, it feels like a wasted opportunity for a game boasting so many options and variables.

The Escapists is a clever and inventive game filled with neat ideas and gameplay mechanics, and is effortlessly endearing with its 8-bit sprites and funky ditties. But beneath the colourful, friendly veneer and brilliant concept is an unforgiving game that will stretch your patience to breaking point. You'll tear your hair out as your best laid plans go awry and you're forced to play through an entire day again, adhering to the strict routine as you wait for night to fall so that you can try once more. And more than likely fail instantly the second you run into an unseen, off-screen guard.

But when your escape plan works and everything goes as it should, The Escapists is sublime. It's just a damn shame that this sort of gratification is so horribly rare, making the game - for the most part - about as fun as being repeatedly stabbed in the showers. Life in prison is horrid then, and life in The Escapists isn't much better.

The Escapists

What looks like a bright and breezy game turns out to be an incredibly stiff challenge that can occasionally be hugely rewarding. More often than not, however, The Escapists is about as pleasurable as a swift kick in the bollocks.

Form widget

The music is so catchy that you'll probably hear it on constant loop in your brain for a few days. There's no chatter though: it's all humorous text in little speech bubbles.


Charming and cutesy 8-bit sprites that give the game bags of personality, but don't exactly put the Xbox One through its paces. The six prison locations are fairly varied too.


Controls are largely intuitive, though they can cause you to sometimes make mistakes, like hit an inmate or guard by accident causing all hell to break loose. That's not the main problem though. It's how utterly punishing the game is, only the most patient will make it out of all six prisons. It's fun, but flawed.


Six prisons, each more difficult and unforgiving than the last. Got an airtight escape plan? Don't bet on it. The Escapists always throws in an unforeseen curveball, just to screw things up. There's plenty of game in here, but only sadists will persevere.


Mostly designed around grinding, the 16 achievements on offer here all encourage repetition to build up numbers. It's not much fun and doesn't really focus upon the whole escaping aspect, despite the game's title.

Game navigation