I'm going to forgo the usual reviewer's ploy of teasing you with the verdict throughout the review and state, from the outset, that Prison Break: The Conspiracy is awful. It's really, really bad. Under no circumstances should you should play it, let alone buy it, and if a friend gives it to you, then no court would convict you for snapping the disc in two and stabbing him in the ears with the pointy remnants. The worst thing about Prison Break: The Conspiracy is that it's not just bad; it's disappointing.
See, there's the germ of a good idea in here. An open-world game set in a prison would be marvelous; link together a strict schedule with the ability to sneak out of bounds using stealth, throw in combat and light puzzle solving, and you've got a compelling experience of trying to escape without getting caught. Tell me that's not a great idea. I don't know whether developer ZootFly intended to leave lingering traces of these ideas in here or whether my powerful desire to see such a game makes me see them in the weirdest places, but Prison Break doesn't live up to these lofty ideals. Sadly, it doesn't really live up to any lowly ideals, either.
Prison Break: The Conspiracy is set during the first season of the TV show, with players donning the boots of newcomer Tom Paxton, who has been sent into Fox River Penitentiary by the shadowy Company to find out why series lead Michael Scofield got himself incarcerated and to make sure that Scofield's brother, Lincoln Burrows, gets executed as planned. If you really need me to explain why Scofield got himself placed in the same prison as his death row inmate brother, then you haven't looked closely enough at the title. The idea is to allow players to experience the events of the excellent first season from another perspective and this, at least, is a good idea. It's even executed well in places; there are points of the season that are interesting to see again from another perspective.
The game itself is divided up into combat and stealth, each of which is as ineptly executed as the other. Stealth is by far the more prevalent and generally involves Paxton doing a favor for one of the other Fox River inmates. You might be sneaking into the kitchen to get a knife for someone to use in an upcoming riot, or you might have to exchange medication for rat poison. One way or another, your task is to get around the prison without being spotted.
The problems with this are manifold. Even if you forgive the horribly clunky system, which will frequently have people spot you through solid objects yet ignore you when staring straight at you, and the minimap's love of showing which way guards are facing rather than which way they're looking, and the exercises in tedium that are the lockpicking and vent-unscrewing minigames, Prison Break commits the cardinal sin of stealth by making it all trigger-based. Rather than watching guard movements, plotting your path, and then slipping past the defenses like a ghost, guards perform their actions based on triggers. Want to get through a door? Then you might have to peek through it first in order to trigger the guard's walking-away animation. While this is presumably meant to ratchet up tension as you complete an objective only to hear a guard coming toward the door, it tends to result in trial-and-error frustration as you try to work out where you need to move or what you need to do to activate the next set of guard movements. Occasionally, you'll perform some incredibly boring acrobatics, clambering across the ceiling from pipe to pipe, and sometimes you can even fail these if you're in a section in which a guard will inexplicably and repeatedly point his flashlight at the ceiling.
Then there's the combat, which tasks you with punching people in the face using a light punch, a heavy punch, a dash and a block. Of these, you will use light punch and block. Dash is pointless because enemies auto-lock onto you, and heavy punch takes a few seconds to wind up. In case you're wondering whether you can perhaps daze an enemy with a few light punches and then wind up a haymaker: no. That's what would happen in a good game. What you realistically do is either tap light punch repeatedly and then block for a bit, or you go really technical and start countering attacks by blocking just as they're about to hit you. The result is that the combat is as banal and insipid as the stealth, and possibly the nicest thing I can say about either is that whichever I was doing at the time, I wished I was doing the other. It's not really a compliment, if you think about it.
But there are characters from the original series, you say, voiced by their original actors! That's worth it for the fans, right? Right? At this point, I snap the game's disc in two and, well, you know where we're going with that. It's true that the characters from the series are there and a few of them didn't appear to phone in their performances, but some are laughable. The worst offender is gutter psychopath T-Bag — a brilliant and creepy character who has been rendered hilarious by the actor putting on an overly effeminate voice — but the newbies are just as bad, with Paxton having all the charisma of a paving slab and Company handler Mannix's over-the-top Irish lilt reducing any scenes in which he's featured to a farce.
There's also a crap attempt at RPG-like progression, with Paxton able to level up his combat strength through punching bag exercises or weight training in the yard. As with lockpicking and vent-unscrewing, these are both easy and tedious, and any competent gamer will snore his way through them.
We're saving the worst for last, though: Quick Time Events. While QTEs are the bane of most gamers' lives, these are particularly awful. You'll be made to mash one button repeatedly, and then suddenly — and with no warning — you must tap another, different button once. As you'd expect, this means that you'll still be mashing the first button, instantly failing the second part of the QTE, usually necessitating a sudden restart of the segment. "Aggravating" doesn't quite sum it up.
Prison Break: The Conspiracy is a complete mess. Graphically, it looks last-gen, and you'll bump into the identical twins of guards and cons with a grinding regularity. The stealth is poor even when it's compared to the aging progenitors of the genre, and the combat is a bland mishmash of disappointment, particularly when you look at how a title like Yakuza 3 manages to make brawling both satisfying and wince-inducingly brutal. Worst of all, those brief glimpses of how this could've been a great game — the early moments when you can wander the prison, or the inclusion of a pointless cash and tattoo system that could've led to something — simply make you realize how bad this is, for so many reasons.
I'll sum it up with a slew of puns: Prison Break: The Conspiracy is more like Prison Broken. It's definitely one game you'll want to escape from. Break free of the temptation to pick it up, and shank anyone who suggests you do.
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