It may come as a surprise to many of you but I’ve never done hard time, and while I have watched The Shawshank Redemption a dozen times I can’t say that I have ever given much thought as to how I would escape a prison, I mean surely there would be a guard to bribe or a laundry tuck to stow away in…….

In Mouldy Toof Studios’ “The Escapists” you have one easy sounding task. Escape from prison. That’s it, but in reality this little indie gem hides so much more depth than I would have through possible after watching the almost cuddly opening to the game.
I will say from the outset that I was terrible at this game, it broke my mind several times and my own impatience was usually my downfall, ruining hours of hard work and planning, but the more The Escapists hurt me, beat me and sent me to Solitary, the more determined I was to see it through.

In this rather humble looking 16-bit retro style title you take control of a prisoner being detained for crimes unknown. Your mission is to escape from various correctional facilities in as short a time as possible. Throughout your stay at the states convenience, you have to plan your escape, find or craft the tools to facilitate your escape and try not to make too many enemies in the process.

It is a brilliantly visionary title and the ambition of the game is exceeded only by the responsibility the game puts on you. There is no hand holding in The Escapists, no helpful hints that pop up when you get stuck. Sadly this is the biggest problem of the game, the tutorial that you are provided at the start of the game covers almost nothing of what you will need in the game proper. It is a massive learning curve and I got so stumped after my sixth failed attempt to escape that I had to look online for tips. If this is a title you want to play then I strongly suggest you check out the Wiki page for crafting items, there are so many different items to build and so little explanation that this link is a god send.

The gameplay is punishingly difficult, you will need to improve your characters stats (Strength, Speed and Intelligence) by either working out or “LOLing at Cats” in the prison’s internet room. You need to find, buy or barter for supplies and support from your fellow inmates as well as showing up for morning and evening role calls and completing your prison job (laundry, gardener, licence plate maker etc.) to earn money to make it all possible. It is incredibly well put together as your time cannot solely be spent plotting your escape or you will get a nasty beatdown from the guards.

There is a reputation system that Mouldy Toof have incorporated into the game that (and I’m just guessing here) mirrors prison life, if you wrong a fellow inmate or if they just don’t like the look of you, they will attack you and this makes things even harder. In one of my playthroughs, to earn a little extra “cred” I was told to beat up one of the prisoners; as a result, every time this guy saw me he went on the attack, sending me to the infirmary more than once. The more fights that I got in, the angrier the Guards were at me and occasionally they would simply join in the fight beating me to a low resolution pulp. It is an infinitely delicate balancing act and one that I think Mouldy Toof should be recognised for executing in such wholehearted way.

The bread and butter of The Escapists is patience and planning, it’s very important that you check prisoners cells, the grounds and even guards for items that you can use to escape. It can take an hour to find the items you need and even longer to craft upgrades for them and it can all be blown if a guard notices you are missing, sees a tunnel you have started to dig or happens to walk by the whole in a fence or wall that you have been tunnelling through. I was even caught out by the sound I made while crawling around in the air vents. When you get caught for trying to escape you will lose all contraband items (everything you would need to escape) and it puts you firmly back to square one. All it takes to lose hours of work is one mistake, one mistimed move and all of that time and effort is wasted. It’s the most punishing game that I have played in a long time, but one that I will definitely go back to.

The soundtrack is appropriately retro and catchy, working in conjunction with the rather cute graphics to lull you into a false sense of security. All conversation and dialogue is delivered through speech bubbles or text pop ups in game and I have to admit to chuckling away as the guards had to explain to us that someone had eaten all the custard cream biscuits. There’s humour in this game if you take the time to find it.

There are several prisons to choose from, starting at the “Country Club Prison” Center Perks, all the way to the Super Max HMP Iron Gate. As you progress, the security at each prison gets much more vigorous, Center Perks having no security cameras and a handful of guards to the more secure prisons that will have electric fences, metal detectors, security cameras and all kinds of anti-escape equipment to really test your skills.

I really enjoyed my time with The Escapists and while I am not that good at it I will be going back to this whenever I have the time. The graphics have an elegance that hides behind its retro feel and the gameplay, while punishingly difficult, pays off for those who can think, plan and wait for the right moment to move. It really is a cracking game from Mouldy Toof. Just try not to get shanked in the showers.