Crapshoot: Escape From Hell, the RPG where Stalin is a member of your party

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, from Hull, from Halifax, from Hell, 'tis thus. From all these three, Good Lord deliver us. Unfortunately, you can't get out of this one with a TomTom.

Of all the things to do if you find yourself in Hell, plotting escape has to be at least the third most important on the list—the first two things being saying "Oh, dang," and complementing Satan on his Andy Hamilton impression. This isn't quite the hellish abyss of infinite torture you might be expecting though. No. It's one of the weirdest RPGs you'll ever play, in a very literal comedy Wasteland.

(This is a sly allusion to the fact that it uses the Wasteland engine—that popular RPG whose Kickstarter pulled in $2.5 million for a sequel. No Kickstarter for this one though, is there? Wonder why...)

The easiest way to sum up Escape From Hell isn't simply that Stalin is one of the first characters to join your party. (Yes, that one. Except now he's wearing a badge marked "Capitalists For A Free Hell", and wants to help you take down the literal red menace surrounding him.) No, it's that compared to some of the stuff you stumble across, that's nothing. In Escape From Hell very little makes any actual sense, but there's usually a thin connecting line of logic. Even if it's really more reminiscent of the sloppy string of drool stretching between the mouths of two inexperienced kissers on their first date. Believe me, this game gets weird fast.

You play a guy called Richard, whose name I obviously approve of. That's not our only similarity, either. For starters, he's one of the least capable RPG characters ever—a guy whose idea of a successful battle is to crawl away from some grinning skeleton with half his teeth still more or less in his face. Unfortunately, from this point, our personalities deviate. It's not long before he's charging into battle with a broadsword, whereas I wince at carrying my shopping back from the supermarket. Likewise, while his quest is fuelled by the manly goal of rescuing his girlfriend—a girlfriend incidentally who shares a seductive, naked dancing girl character portrait with the legendary Helen of Troy—from the clutches of Satanic incarceration, I aspire to one day own a cat.

What's Richard doing in Hell? Depends which version of the story you read—in one, he's a loathsome 90s software pirate, and in the other, just your average game designer who happens to share the first name of Escape From Hell's writer. Either way, the basic gist is pretty simple. Our Richard finds a note containing an incantation with the power to send living souls to Hell on his friend Alan's door, for no apparent reason, and promptly reads it out to his girlfriend... making her disappear in a homophobic insult.

No sooner is this done, than he gets a call from the Divine Phone Company. This isn't the intro to Oh My Goddess though, and there's no angelic beauty on the other end willing to be his new girlfriend. Instead, they tell him what he's done, to which he responds, "You must be joking! I only said..."

And then he's standing in Hell. Honestly, there isn't a clap slow enough.

Hell is your average fire and brimstone place for this one—three not-particularly-large floors of it, with a few cities and a quite literal hell of a lot of monsters scattered around. Stench Beasts, Neanderthals, Skeletons, Archers, Demons... more or less everything except your Guardian Angel, who apologises for not showing up by leaving a note and a convenient weapon that will take out the final boss in no time flat... if you don't waste it. (Though there are other ways, so it's not as harsh as it might be.)

"The hellish landscape seems vast and unending..." adds the flavour text, as you stand before what would be an intimidating gate in a game with real graphics. "But you are driven to rescue your girlfriend by love, guilt, and the fact that you paid big bucks for this game and want to get your money's worth."

Yep. Meta from the very first room. That's Escape From Hell for you.

Before embarking into Hell proper, you need to find tools and allies. They're easier to acquire than you'd think, partly because as a living person you have more autonomy than your average damned soul, but mostly because Hell's grasp of security is more of an open palm. In the first town alone, you can go in with nothing more than a knife and a broken phone handset and emerge with Stalin and Genghis Khan as your wingmen. The main catch is that as a fugitive, it's incredibly easy to trigger an alarm and turn the normally 'friendly' Hell Guards (the game's term, not mine!) against you. Just walking too close to a receptionist at the local court will do it. So will actively stabbing someone in the face with a knife. Admittedly, one of those two things comes across as more deserved.

This first town is very busy—a kind of waiting room for Hell's lower-grade denizens. Satanists, for instance, convinced that their hard evil work will be rewarded just as soon as the devil notices they've been misfiled. Clowns who force happy-face buttons into your hand, which you can wear as a kind of ironic protest. Assorted topless women trying to get you into trouble, because this game's designers had a few Issues that soon enough get promoted into a whole enemy type called "Evil Woman".

But you know what really stands out? The fact that when you leave, it's as a motley crew of you, Stalin, and Khan, wielding broadswords and using dustbin lids as shields, on a quest to beat up Satan.


It's a fairly vague quest aside from that though, as Escape From Hell doesn't like to get too specific about what it wants you to do. You occasionally bump into people who want things, and they'll give you stuff if you help out, but it's all pretty informal. In most cases, you don't even have to—the inventory hand-over is just part of the conversation and they'll quickly fill your inventory with mostly worthless crap like pin-buttons and laptop computers so that you won't realise you're not actually picking up crucial quest items. Sometimes, their standard RPG manners are even a trap.

Venture out into the red wastes for instance, where you can recruit Hamlet by giving him Yorick's skull, and you'll soon find yourself in Limbo, the city of Virtuous Pagans. This is probably the nicest part of Hell, being given over to people sent there without actually being at fault—the likes of Plato for instance, bemoaning his stupidity at inventing platonic relationships. It's better than finding out what it's like to spend eternity with a red hot fiddler crab lovingly crammed up one's anus, but being spared torture doesn't mean they're nice.

Take one of the most overt quests you'll find—in the middle of wincing at a Chinese karate expert called "Ach Chu", and a version of Cleopatra with "Limbo Bimbo" written on her stomach. Seriously, game, what the hell? If I didn't know how misogynistic things get later, I'd be shocked.

But anyway. You meet Benedict Arnold, who asks you to steal some weapon plans from Aaron Burr, who lives just down the street. Seems easy, yes? It is. Do it though and your only reward is Arnold screaming, "I PROVED IT! HE ISN'T VIRTUOUS! HE'S A THIEF!" and turning the entire town hostile.

On the plus side, this is still at least slightly nicer than another game, Strife, where one of the first missions is a trap that will actually render the game impossible to complete. Here you can at least continue, either by surviving the ambush, or by abusing the fact that you can't actually die for real in the game. Instead, you can load, or opt to go back to the starting location, but keeping your inventory, stats and party. Making everyone hate you can still be problematic though, making this mission an official Dick Move. As opposed to our Dick's mere dick-headed moves like...

Chatting with assorted historical characters can only get you so far though. Your goal on Level 1 is to find a way down to Level 2, and nobody's exactly open about how to go about it. This is probably because it involves trading a guy a cassette of music in exchange for a parachute and jumping, and that's just embarrassing. Even Hell has some civic pride. It's not like it's Bradford.

There are some other gimmicks to the land though, which are much more respectable. As you explore for instance, you'll find golden tridents sticking out of the ground—and touching them alters the rules of the world. One might add extra lava pits to make navigation fiddlier for you, but also give you more scope for getting away for monsters. Another shifts Hell through time to a period where guns haven't been invented, rendering them useless. Another pacifies the Stench Beasts who are all over the place, which is massively handy. They don't hit that hard, but they have a huge distance attack and can do serious damage if you're swinging broadswords and other melee weapons instead of shooting them.

Your basic goal on Level 1 is to infiltrate Satan's main town, Lucifer's Landing, which involves either joining the Hell Guard by assorted clever trickeries or simply punching past them. It's harder than it sounds, not least because using the old save/load trick isn't an option. You can save if you want... but enemies are brought back to life. Your arse, prepare to kiss it goodbye.

(You'll also find at least one amusing spin on regular RPG questing in this area, with a demon who asks to trade a Demonic Shield for a phone handset. You know what the phone handset does? Sod all. You know what a Demonic Shield does? Helps stop you being knocked out by demons and waking up in a cell with, for example, a wire pipe-cleaner up your penis tube. This isn't a game that rewards helping every last random NPC out with generous favours just because they ask politely.)

With the help of well-chosen friends though, taking two of Dante, John Wilkes Booth, Hamlet and Horatio, Stalin, and Ach-Chu, Level 2 awaits and... wait, I forgot someone. Who was that other party member?

Ah, yes. Of course. Sadly, not that one. I won't say he'd be more effective, but I suspect he'd have more of a 'khan-do' attitude. Later you can also opt for, amongst others, Wild Bill, Mozart, Blackbeard, and Dr. Jekyll. In a bit of a waste, none of them have any real personality beyond their introduction spiel and their stats, with most characters in the game sharing just a small pool of portraits. Even Satan doesn't get a unique one when you fight him, which seems very disrespectful of the designers.

Level 2 is a land of much tougher demons, terrorists, gangsters, and inmates considered so dangerous, they've been put in a prison. In Hell. Think about that one for a minute. Among the famous figures you'll meet here are Spartacus, Houdini, Byron (a cowboy, for some reason), Dracula, Jessse James, Al Capone, Mozart being tortured by being made to listen to jazz, and another naked blonde woman called, simply, Blonde, because this game continues to have serious issues. As if that's not bad enough, she has no skills at all. Literally none. Fuck you, Escape From Hell.

(Of the 20 or so recruitable NPCs, she's also one of exactly two women—the other being Alison, Richard's girlfriend, who only shows up at the very end, but at least knows how to handle a gun. That's beyond pathetic when you think of how many historical characters could have been worked in.)

Level 2 is nothing compared to Level 3 though, where good taste really goes through the grinder. You know who you meet down here? Hitler. OK, fair enough. It'd be surprising if he didn't show up.

But you know where you meet him? Dachau.

I'm not sure what in the name of all things idiotic convinced Escape From Hell's creators to put a real world concentration camp into their comedy RPG, but that's what's waiting on Level 3. This marks exactly the second time ever I've seen it invoked for comedy purposes, with the first coming from Walt Disney. For a while, disgruntled employees at its theme parks would refer to them as "Mauschwitz", before being ordered to stop by management and opting for "Duckau" instead. At least there's a certain amount of dark humour in that, poor taste though it is. Escape From Hell? Not so much.

Oh, but the real kicker about meeting up with Hitler in this game?

You can recruit him.

I'm totally not kidding about this.

That's it, really. No, not the end of the game—there's plenty more of that as you fight your way through "Dismal Land" to get to Satan's fortress, rescue the beautiful generic portrait that is Alison and finally fight your way out by either hitting Satan with the holy power of the crucifix from the start of the game or a couple of anti-tank rounds if you can't be bothered. It's just that nothing after this point can quite live up to the fact that you're wandering around Hell with Adolf Hitler watching your back.

Unfortunately, by this point it's also become very clear that for all of Escape From Hell's ideas—good and bad—it's not particularly finished. Lots of things are brought up only to not actually go anywhere, from Hitler's plans to conquer Hell and let Goering have Level 1, to sub-quests where characters don't actually respond to you. The worst case is right at the end, where you're warned that the portal back to Earth will only open if you've been comporting yourself with honour... when in fact the game doesn't give even the faintest damn. It opens, you see some sky, and that's it. Boring.

Oh, what could have been...

There were plans for a semi-sequel to this/Wasteland called Meantime, which would have taken the engine and turned it into a time-travel thing—characters like Amelia Earhart and Albert Einstein and others whose initials aren't AE teaming up with the player to fight evil. Unfortunately, that project got cancelled when it became clear the technology was drifting too far behind the Ultima series—particularly Ultima VII. That's a pity, as its own attempt at a historical yarn, Martian Dreams, remains a cult favourite. In that one you find yourself on Mars with assorted luminaries like Tesla, Rasputin, and Warren Spector, and we'll probably look at it one week because it's pretty cute.

For now though, if you want to see the full Escape From Hell experience, check out this screenshot-based Let's Play. It covers all the quests and cool bits in epic amounts of detail, and without the epic amounts of grinding it takes to beat Level 2. Oh, so much grinding. But then, I guess it is Hell.

And the quickest way to escape it? Alt-F4 works pretty well.