When The Escapists rocked up on PS4 last year, it was a genuinely pleasant surprise. A retro-inspired, top-down, prison escape sim that left you to figure out what you needed to plan your jailbreak with whilst maintaining an order to your everyday existence as a prisoner. Then, when you made your escape, you were off to a higher security prison to start again.
So, beyond the more obvious link, why has developer Mouldy Toof returned with a version of the game set in the universe of Robert Kirkman’s downbeat horror comic, The Walking Dead? Aside from a time where Rick Grimes and his less than merry men and women live in a prison, the fit doesn’t seem quite there on the surface. Yet further investigation sees The Escapists formula turned on its head. Now you want to be locked into one of the various sanctuaries for fear of what lurks beyond it. The only escape here is from the horrors of the zombie apocalypse.
The Escapists: The Walking Dead splits up several major areas and story arcs from the comics into five scenarios: the hospital, Hershel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury and Alexandria. The hospital is used as a tutorial level, guiding you through the basics in a pretty similar manner to the original version of The Escapists. When you get to Hershel’s farm you begin to see the differences in play.
You still have to adhere to a routine. Doing odd jobs, eating meals as a group, roll call and all that, but now it’s to instill a sense of community and security amongst the survivors. You are playing as Rick, and as such, you’re the leader and influencer. If you don’t keep up appearances and make life easier then people will likely die. Well, they’ll die at some point no doubt, as the scripted moments from the comics will see the demise of most characters when they’re supposed to go. Levels always end in a reluctant escape as zombies and/or psychopathic survivors descend upon your refuge as the story so dictates.The Escapists: The Walking Dead is now more like a survival game instead of the prison escape sim it was born from, and it’s neat how such small changes make a big difference to the tone and style of the game.
The worry I had early on was that it’d be a bit too story-driven, as the game continuously points you towards the next major event during the early stages, skimping on a lot of the cerebral work you’d normally do. It feels a bit like too much hand-holding for a game that originally expected you to figure things out for yourself. I suspect the license attached required things to be a little clearer, as not to alienate fans of the comics and telly show, but it poses a threat to what makes The Escapists tick. It’s still ambiguous to a degree, and opens up after Hershel’s farm, just not in the dynamic manner that worked before. You’ll still find items that can be crafted into more useful tools for entering vents or smashing a zombie’s head, but finding out what goes with what is up to you. Generally though, you’re guided a little too much and that massively drains the potential replay value that can be had with freedom to interpret.
Combat has had a bit of an upgrade from the original. Guns now play a bigger role, and are pretty simple to use. L2 aims at the nearest enemy and a squeeze of R2 fires off a shot. Bullets are naturally a bit limited so there’s no going on a rampage. It’s as careful and considered as it should be in a world that’s effectively dying. Melee combat is less successful, still rooted in the problematic combat of the original game. It definitely adds an air of caution and panic when all hell invariably breaks loose, but it also brings plenty of frustration as your inaccurate swing causes you to fail once again. It’s a shame melee combat wasn’t significantly tweaked, as the stealthy focus of this game’s precursor is almost nonexistent, relying on constant use of violence to solve problems instead of finding smart ways round the issue. Considering The Walking Dead deals as much with discussion and debate as it does bloody shootouts, this feels like an oversight.
The real appeal behind this spin-off version of The Escapists is clear enough. Recreating key moments from a popular comic in adorable sprite form. To this end, The Escapists: The Walking Dead succeeds. While it skimps on the nitty gritty, seeing key locations and comic book frames recreated this way is a pleasant treat for fans. The pixel panels that ape the original art from the comics is wonderfully done, Carl being shot never looked so cute. In game, the tiny forms of much beloved characters (sans Daryl of course, as this is based on the comics, not the show) are another delightful sight, as are the different locations. You can find the comics themselves hidden around the place as collectibles too, though sadly, they aren’t readable, a pixel version of an entire volume of The Walking Dead? That would have been a real selling point, even if it was truncated somewhat, but alas, the cutscenes are the closest it comes.
It’s a little unfortunate that The Escapists: The Walking Dead manages to capture some of the spirit of the comics and the dynamics found within, yet fails to observe the more important ones. Why the heavy reliance on combat? Why the power-walking zombies? Why the restrictions where they are unnecessary? It adds up to a game that almost pulls off its change of direction, but ends up being terribly indecisive about what it wants to be. For fans of The Walking Dead, this is worth a look. Fans of The Escapists, however, may find it a little harder to enjoy.