Update: The Escapists 2 has since launched on Nintendo Switch. Scroll down to the end of this review to our impressions of the game on Nintendo's console. The score remains the same.
Original: Creative freedom in a video game is always a difficult area, because on the one hand in principle all gamers like to think that more freedom, and by consequence more choice, is a good thing, but in practice it's hard to implement this without leaving the player feeling at times overwhelmed, aimless, and frustrated not knowing what to do and where to go. This was one of the biggest areas of discussion with 2015's The Escapists, that it wouldn't be to everyone's taste as a result, but now the sequel is busting out, and aiming to push the boundaries of prison escaping even further.
For those who don't know, The Escapists (if you've not worked out by the title) is a game where you play as a prisoner who is aiming to escape prison, and the whole thing is from a top-down perspective. How do you break out, though? Well, that is indeed the question, as it's up to you to experiment with how you want to escape, making it as hard or as easy for yourself as you want.
This sequel aims to soften the blow a bit, though, and this has always been Team 17's intention, taking the original's sometimes unforgiving gameplay and making it that bit more user friendly. For example, in the first game dialogue boxes would pop up if the game didn't want you to go to a certain place and perform a certain action, and now there's much more rationalising going on in these areas.
One of the big areas this has changed is crafting, as that was more of a system of trial and error in the first game, but now a handy menu lets you sample what kind of shivs might be to your liking, or how to get the best shovel for tunnelling to freedom. This menu, while it could have been a bit easier to use, makes the creative process that bit more straightforward, as it shows you what's available to use to interact with the world, as you can't get out without crafting and creating a selection of goodies for yourself.
Another way the whole process of prison life (which is "no fairytale world", as Morgan Freeman once said) is made easier is the streamlining of the UI. When you get a favour, for instance, the objective of that favour is highlighted on your mini-map, and after you accept the favours you can get all the way to completing them without entering any menus, making everything smooth, quick, and easy.
When we say it's been made more accessible, though, we don't mean it's easy - far from it. The tutorial, for instance, only gives you five minutes of how to do the basics, like move, dig, mine, and climb on things. Then you're pretty much thrown in at the deep ends. By accessible, then, we mean that all the tools at your disposal are made clearer to you - the actual process of breaking out of prison is still no mean feat, and there's a lot of roadblocks in your way.
It's hard to talk about The Escapists and any of its levels without giving clear methods of breaking out of prison away, but by utilising things you craft you can dig underground, dig through walls, cut wiring, and enter ventilation shafts, among many other things, and these are your barebones, obvious methods of getting to freedom. Much more can be done if you want to be a bit more fanciful with your plans, though, as there are things like fake fences, key moulds, and grappling hooks to also make use of. Spending time to try new things out is encouraged, then, but you don't have to spend huge amounts of time on things if you don't want to.
On top of planning your escape you also have to remember that, as a prison, there's things expected of you, and you can't spend sunrise to sunset scheming and preparing. As well as free time you also have to work a prison job, eat your meals, shower, exercise, and, most importantly, attend roll call. Missing any of these will raise the security level a bit (unless it's roll call, then you'll straight up cause a prison lockdown and get beaten), so you can't just flunk these, meaning balance is a must. You should also be careful not to annoy too many fellow inmates or prison officers, as they'll also make your life hard for sure.
This formula doesn't apply to all the prisons (levels) though, as each prison is different. The times to wake up in Centre Perks 2.0 and Rattlesnake Springs, for example, are completely different, and in Cougar Creek Railroad there's a completely new approach. On this very creative level, which is part of the new moving prisons detailed in the below trailer, you're told at the beginning that you're not to go out of your cell or you'll be attacked on sight. Period. Of course, you still have to, but the game becomes more about remaining undetected while escaping the moving train rather than just planning an escape while freely wandering around a prison.
Arguably the most noticeable improvement with The Escapists 2, jumping from the first to the second, is the visuals. Sure, the first one was in a pixelated style (it was emulating a ZX Spectrum game after all), but here a few more pixels have been thrown into the mix, so it still looks cute, but just that little bit more detailed, artful, and colourful. The visual flair is fantastic, from the different prisoners to the wonderfully amusing prisons themselves, and it's a marked improvement on the first game.
There still remains that point to be made, though - it's not for everyone. The lack of hand-holding, being told where to go, and assistance in escaping is definitely going to grind some gears, but Mouldy Toof Studios has added appropriate measures here to make sure the tools you can use and the options available to you are very clear, meaning it's up to you how you want to use them. All of this is done without compromising the game's integral challenge, and believe us when we say, that challenge is a big one.
Update: The Escapists 2 has just landed on the Switch as well, a version which we've been playing as we revisit all of the content we've already seen. And when we say 'all of the content', we mean it, as it's the exact same game copied over onto Nintendo's hybrid console, complete with all the stuff we enjoyed from the PS4 version we initially played for review. Now, of course, you can take it with you on the go. There's something very portable-friendly about The Escapists, whether it's the cute little characters or the very accessible (but hard-to-master) approach, and we often found ourselves playing it in portable mode over docked.
The Switch also lends itself nicely to local co-op as well, since you can detach the Joy-Cons and invite a friend to try their luck at escaping with you. We didn't actually find it too hard to navigate when the screen was split in portable mode, as we could still do everything we needed to do and the game still looked good and ran well, but the Joy-Con controls can be a bit fiddly. For instance, attack can only be activated by pressing the right bumper when locked onto someone, which then also turns the left bumper into block. When not locked though, the bumpers are used to cycle the inventory, so this takes a bit of getting used to, especially when things get heated and you need to act quickly.
For the most part the game's simple nature means it's quite nice to take with you and play with friends on the Switch, whether that be locally or online, and it's the perfect way to pass the time when you're on a train journey, figuring out exactly what it is you need to do to break free from captivity. Since all the content from the other versions is there as well, there's no reason why Switch owners shouldn't try their luck at escaping the weird and wonderful prisons of The Escapists 2.