The Escapists is a game for people who like the early parts of Hitman levels: the careful planning, the testing of systems to see how far you can push them, and the way everything can go south in an instant if the wrong person sees you in the wrong part of the building at the wrong time. Unlike Hitman, however, there’s no second part of the level; when you fuck up and the guards turn hostile against you, it doesn’t turn into an action game. There’s no shootout because there are no guns (at least not in the first level) and there’s really no good way to fight the guards. You can get a drop on a guard with a weapon and knock him out, steal his keys. But once you’ve gone down that path you’re just a few minutes away from having all your items taken away and being stuck in solitary.
Each level of The Escapists drops you in a different clockwork prison. Your day is divided up between meals, work periods, exercise periods, and free time in which (depending on the prison) you can explore or improve your character. There are dozens of items to collect and combine into makeshift devices that can help you escape. Because escape is the only goal. You just have to get out, and the catch is that the game gives you no idea how you’re supposed to do that. Dig a hole? Cut through the fence? Hide in a box? Copy the right keys? For the most part, The Escapists doesn’t even tell you what’s possible, let alone the easiest path. The tutorial leads you through an escape where all the pieces are laid out for you (and one that is, I believe, impossible to put together yourself) and then throws you back in prison to figure out your own way to freedom.
If you go along with the other moving pieces of the clockwork world, you’ll never get anywhere. The items in your own cell aren’t enough to plot your escape, so you have to deviate from the path the game sets out for you–raid other inmates’ cells during exercise time, steal plastic utensils from the lunch room, use your job in the laundry room to nab a guard’s uniform. All while keeping your head down, because getting caught or beat up by another inmate takes away all your contraband items. And contraband items are the best items.
I escaped the first prison on my sixth day. I don’t want to say what I did, because figuring out how exactly I was going to get out without any preconceived notions was the best part of the game. But if you want to see me stumble around on the first day (which doesn’t spoil anything but a couple item combos) and get an idea of what the game looks like, I’ve done the 21st century thing and uploaded a video.