With better funding, more time, and a bigger team, developer Mouldy Toof’s The Escapists 2 looks to expand upon the original’s solid start and become the truly great game it threatened to be. So is The Escapists 2 destined to be the developer’s breakout (not sorry) hit?
The Escapists was a labor of love by a single man, a top down prison break sim with delightful 16-bit style visuals where you had to balance keeping prison routine with planning your escape. It was a little lacking in depth beyond a handful of solutions, plus the difficulty curve was often more brutal than the beatings the guards doled out, so a sequel seemed like a welcome way to build on the promise of the premise.
So here we are two years on, and it’s quickly apparent that while this is a big improvement on its predecessor in many ways, it still sticks rigidly to the guns that doled out so much grief before. Visually there’s a lot more polish to the endearing retro art style, with a better level of detail to character models and the locations themselves, alongside a small, but noticeable upgrade to the animation, but that wasn’t really an issue last time round so more of a bonus upgrade. It makes for a more colorful depiction of cartoon prison brutality at least.
The thing I had wondered about the most in terms of tweaking and possible revision was that difficulty curve. The Escapists is suitably tough as nails to succeed in, and sometimes that provided untold levels of frustration as hard-earned items are lost when an escape plan goes awry, destroying what could be hours of work in an instance. The guards are highly vigilant, meaning they’re quick to react to anything suspicious, whether that be the sound of a brawl or catching a look at your makeshift escape tunnel because you forgot to cover your work. Basically the guards were the largest obstacle to escape.
The flipside of this was that pulling off an escape by the skin of your teeth was absolutely exhilarating. You have a strict timetable in both games, requiring you to attend roll call, meals, and work or set off alarms and have the guards hunting for you. In your free time, you worked towards your escape by completing favors, working out to beef yourself up, and implementing small parts to the overall structure of your preferred method of escape. It was an acquired taste then to be sure, so a better balance of risk and reward was something I’d expected for The Escapists 2.
There has been a tweak thankfully, at least for the opening prisons, as the ways to escape are far more numerous, and a touch more forgiving, but it’s worth pointing out that it is only a minor tweak. Guards are still only ever a glimpse away from rumbling you, and you’ll still lose items if you fall foul of the wrong people, and you can potentially lose hours of progress thanks to an aggressive autosave tied to online score leaderboards. If that was what put you off the original, it hasn’t changed significantly enough to persuade you to try again. Perhaps it’s for the best. The Escapists’ reason for being ties into how difficult and time consuming it can be, and stifling that for a bigger slice of audience pie would definitely put a dent in that risk/reward dynamic. Happily Mouldy Toof has found a different solution to the problem that improves your enjoyment. Co-op.
The setup of the first game did appear to lend itself to co-op, and now it’s here, it does indeed fit nicely, and alleviates some of the frustrations of failed planning thanks to some good-natured goofs with pals and strangers. Naturally communication is key to success, but there’s likely to be plenty of cross words as you try to come together to form a solid escape plan. Happily you can play it locally as well as online, and it really shines through the game’s difficulty issues, even if they still exist to some degree.
This isn’t a huge leap from the original then, multiplayer aside, but it is a significant jump in quality and variety that was sorely needed. The scope of ways to escape is vastly improved upon, and the daft new prisons are great additions (escape from space jail!). Throw in multiplayer and that makes this a great sequel for fans of the original. For anyone who felt the original was unfair, laborious, and overly dismissive of your free time, there’s very little in the sequel to change your mind.