"I can't go back" is the common refrain of the ex-con in crime fiction. And while it remains a fine game in and of itself, Switch owners might find themselves expressing a similar sentiment about The Escapists. Team17 made the curious decision to launch The Escapists 2 prior to The Escapists on Nintendo's hybrid platform. It's a piece of reasoning straight out of the 'best foot forward' school of thought, but it hasn't done the original game too many favours.
The Escapists 2 is simply a better game than The Escapists in every conceivable way. When played in their natural sequence, that wouldn't have been so obvious or problematic. But approaching The Escapists from the opposite direction here on Switch reveals a less pretty, less varied, less slick and more frustrating game with no multiplayer component. All of which makes The Escapists sound like a bit of a dud. It really isn't. It's a delightfully tough little sandbox experience that mixes a tightrope-walking core challenge (escape the prison) with the clockwork repetition of daily busywork, all accompanied by with a whimsical tone.
You play the role of a tiny pixel-art convict doing time in a zoomed-out, top-down prison. Each day you must guide your criminal through his regular routine, from morning roll call to lights out. In-between you'll take some exercise, do a job, eat three square meals, and maybe even make progress in your plan to escape. Key to getting by in (and getting out of) prison is your interaction with your fellow inmates. You might find yourself earning money by running errands for some of them, which could involve pinching a bar of chocolate or kicking off in the dining hall so as to provide a useful distraction. You'll need those funds to purchase items for your escape attempt. That might involve a series of objects that can be combined to form a digging implement or a weapon. You'll also need to plan to cover for your breakout attempt, as the guards will be on the lookout for anything out of place.
One of the best things about The Escapists is the way it just leaves all of these overlapping systems up to you to discover, with minimal guidance or hand-holding. Unfortunately, this also proves to be one of the game's worst points. Life in prison can become as much of a chore as the real thing, as you fall into an endless cycle of repetitive tasks, irritatingly regular scraps and meddlesome guards. Even running simple errands here feels like a bit of a grind, as you scrabble around the whole prison looking for a single convict to work over. The sequel went some way to mitigating this by offering up a map with waypoints and a handy arrow system, so you always knew where you were going. It also seemed to increase the number of entertaining options at your disposal, so it always felt like you had several alternatives should things start to drag. Don't get us wrong, there's loads to discover here in The Escapists. But the game is in no hurry to present it to you.
It's also noticeable how much less polished The Escapists is compared to the follow-up. It's a much sparser, more simplistic-looking game, and the UI is much less refined. Combat, meanwhile, is a comical case of buzzing back and forth past your opponent, trying to time your punches right to bring their health bar down - something that was again improved for the sequel. Indeed, the original's controls, in general, feel somewhat fiddly and inconsistent, and we constantly had to stop and think about the correct button to pick up an object. We also experienced quite a few glitches in the game, such as certain items refusing to be picked up, or unconscious inmates appearing to run frantically on the spot. In a game that's been around for a number of years in one form or other, that's disappointing.
Again, this is all sounding rather negative, and we should re-emphasise that there's ample fun to be had with The Escapists if you're made of sufficiently patient stuff. But we could never shake the knowledge that there's a much more polished, fleshed-out and just plain superior version already on the eShop. And if you've exhausted The Escapists 2's generous package, going back to the original is going to feel like a step back. If, however, you played and loved The Escapists 2 and found your thirst for charming sandbox gameplay unquenched, then going back to The Escapists might well provide the extra content you crave. This is, after all, the ultimate version of the original game, with all the prisons from the base game and nine additional bonus maps to sink your time into. But if you're really interested in the developer's ultimate vision for The Escapists, it's all there in the sequel.
The Escapists is a cute, challenging, and potentially rewarding sandbox game that refuses to hold your hand. Releasing it after the much more refined sequel doesn't prove flattering, however. If you've played The Escapists 2, the original will feel like a notable step back. If you haven't played The Escapists 2, that's the game you should go for.