The Escapists 2 Review
The Escapists and The Escapists 2 have long been the darlings of the world of indie PC gaming. These 2D prison break titles have captured the imagination of fans around the world, and now the sequel, The Escapists 2, has made its way to the Nintendo Switch. The top-down, pixel art, pseudo-sandbox style game of prison breaks, like I said, may have fans the world over, but after dozens of hours of truly forcing myself to find quality in the game, all I was able to discover was a mishmash of broken ideas, borrowed concepts, lame humor and an overall package that may as well have "meh" or "don't" printed on its boxart.
As you can imagine from the game's cover art and title, your main objective here is breaking out of a number of increasingly secure and difficult prison settings. You must plan intricate routes and methods for freeing yourself from cells, walls, barbed wire and guards, and the entire experience is a thoughtful, time-consuming endeavor, with success rivaling the feeling of finishing a truly difficult final boss or a seemingly unattainable victory in the Monster Hunter games. The catch is that in addition to planning your great escape, you must abide extremely strictly by prison rules to avoid suspicion. That means nightly lockdowns, roll calls and meals at set times, avoiding the more... let's say unhinged... inmates while at the same time making alliances with others (on the surface). Escaping even the most basic of prison settings is an exercise in not just skill, but planning and the patience of a kid using a stopwatch to begin counting down to Christmas in mid-October. Don't get me wrong, careful planning, strategy and forethought are what set great games apart from ones that are simply OK in my mind, but sadly The Escapists 2 falls into the latter category.
If I have to be perfectly honest, and I do as a reviewer, the main issue with The Escapists 2 is the seeming randomness of success over defeat. Let's say you need an item from the warden's office. You can spend literally hours making the right acquaintances, procuring the methods for entry and theft and executing the perfect plan, only to have a random guard - a guard whom you've never seen before at all, let alone patrolling that area - show up out of nowhere and send you - painfully - back to square one. More than carelessness or rushing into dangerous situations, the randomness of events is more often than not the biggest factor in escaping versus a world class beat down, and a lot of times it feels simply unfair. I'll note here that I did complete the entire game before writing this review; this opinion isn't coming from someone who got screwed once and threw things down in disgust. Even forgetting simple things, like reclosing a door or rehanging a poster can quite literally result in hours of hard work being thrown down the tube, and with an aggressive autosave system, retries are out of the question. Good games, in my opinion, succeed on player skill, understanding of mechanics and practice, practice, practice. In The Escapists 2, none of those seem to matter one bit, from the first stage to the last, and victory ends up feeling more like winning an unwinnable hand of blackjack than it does a triumph of pure skill.
Luckily, the co-op mechanic has been added for this sequel, which can (but doesn't always) make escaping a little bit more of a reasonably attainable goal. Having another player makes a world of difference when it comes to timing, distraction and strategy, and The Escapists 2, with just that addition, makes the original game look like a bunch of unfairly stacked RNG nonsense. Planning and coordinating with a friend makes the game infinitely more manageable, to the point that it even seems fair, making me wonder why anyone would ever go back and play the first for any reason. On the flip side, if you or a friend screws up an important part of the plan, without getting too graphic, the game can inspire the kind of explosive anger that gets the local police knocking on your front door.
I've often discussed my wife in reviews, but I can't remember one where our co-op experience was more relevant. Due to a phone call from my boss, I missed the time frame for stealing a certain item, which in turn blew our whole escape plan. I haven't seen her that furious, eyes burning red and fists clenched, since Felicity cut her hair or her friend accidently knocked over and shattered her Dr. Who LEGO set. That's right; a mistake in The Escapists 2 almost earned me a night on the couch and a can of beans for dinner, Rorschach-style. As much as co-op does heal some of the first game's issues, I'd recommend against playing with anyone who has control over where you eat and sleep.
Now, The Escapists 2 refers to itself as a sandbox game, and I get that... to a degree. Following prison rules - an absolute necessity - negates the fact that it isn't what it is described as; it's more of a 2D, top-down free roam game with some of the strictest rules and obtuse solutions I've ever come across. Later prison escapes seem to offer fewer and fewer viable methods of success, meaning escape is all but following one, two or three sets of rules to the letter if you want out. And while early stages set up a lot of the methods and mechanics available to you to progress, later stages toss in new mechanics that go 100% unexplained until you either stumble upon them yourselves or check an online guide. I'm at a loss at how anyone, anywhere could find even a sliver of fun in an experience like that.
Despite a rabid fanbase for the series, I'm unsure as to how anyone could not just appreciate, but love, the video game equivalent of hitting yourself in the head with a rock for seven hours, only to be told to start over because you weren't hitting quite the right spot. The Escapists 2, for this reviewer, was little more than an exercise in drawn-out torture, followed by the extremely occasional triumph. But even successes never felt less like actual wins; more like luck that opened gateways to new stages where things would be even more unfair and unforgivable. In a move that doesn't happen often these days, I'm going to go against the mainstream critics and fans and say The Escapists 2 is a Switch game that doesn't even deserve a first look, let alone a second. If I want to feel the opposite of entertained, and instead an emotion bordering on physical pain, I'd save my money and throw myself down the stairs. My home has two flights, one for each game in this inexplicably popular series. Good news! I never have to play either again, and I can get the same feeling by hurling myself down one of the two carpeted inclines in my own home - for free.
Final Rating: 30% - Avoid getting locked into playing The Escapists 2 in the first place.