Review: Prison Architect
In 1999 at just eight years old I found myself completely wrapped up in Roller Coaster Tycoon. It was my first ‘sim’ game and unlike most of my friends I certainly wasn’t drawn to it through my love of roller coasters. I actually dislike roller coasters thanks to acrophobia and instead found myself simply falling in love with the management aspect of the game. It allowed my imagination to jump from the LEGO bricks on my floor to an amusement park of my own creation on the computer screen. My love for the Roller Coaster Tycoon series never really expanded into other games in the genre, but rather it simply continued within games that allowed me to create and manage amusement parks. Over time I fell away from PC gaming, spending much of my time instead with consoles or handhelds, and eventually left the genre that I knew so little of behind.
Prison Architect changed that just a couple years ago when it hit Early Access on Steam and more recently reinvigorated my interest in the genre with its PS4 release from Double Eleven. Once again, it’s not so much an interest in the American Prison System that’s drawn me to this particular game, but rather an interest in being in charge of a system that requires stern leadership. It taps into that creative side of me that loves to build and plan out every little detail. Though perhaps more interesting is the way in which Prison Architect presents a window into prisons and the culture around them. I’m sure it’s not a completely accurate representation, but it did at least give me pause; especially with how the overarching story is framed throughout the game’s five chapters.
The campaign’s story is specifically there to demonstrate what prison life is like on a day-to-day basis while also building the foundation by which you’ll learn the tools of the trade. There are a lot of things going on in this game and the campaign’s biggest strength is its ability to guide players through nearly every tool that’ll be available to use. It isn’t perfect (I would have liked to see a chapter covering some more advanced tools), but overall it’s a great way to get your feet wet and avoid feeling overwhelmed once it’s time to get started on your own prison. The other interesting thing to note about the campaign is how it demonstrates the differences in how one might run a prison. One character takes the stance that prisons should offer inmates’ chances at education and work programs to possibly better their lives while another character argues that some people don’t deserve that second chance. The game doesn’t get weighed down in the specifics of each side, but it does enough to demonstrate that everyone can run their prison in whatever way they’d like.
Starting up a new file in the Sandbox mode, even after finishing the campaign, can still feel a bit daunting. There are, after-all, a ton of systems at work here and the owner of a prison needs to be mindful of inmate needs, daily routines, and staff fatigue as well as a number of other vital issues. Thankfully Introversion Software made sure to include a few features that’ll help make prison planning a little more digestible. For instance, it’s smart to apply for grants, which help designate what kinds of things you should build first. Typically the first available grants will have you build a temporary holding cell, kitchen, dining hall, showers, and offices that’ll be used by some key personnel that should be hired early on. As you complete and apply for more grants the game will slowly take you through new elements of a prison while allowing the prison to slowly grow over time. This is to say that it’s not a smart idea to immediately build a prison capable of holding 100+ inmates; without proper planning or staffing it’s likely that the inmates will just break out into riots.
Playing Prison Architect with a controller has gone a lot better than I expected. It’s not the accuracy or speed that you’ll get with a mouse and keyboard, but the controls have been adapted well to the DS4 controller and, combined with an updated UI on consoles, it’s really quite easy to do everything I want without any sort of hassle. It’s also very simple to check out other user created prisons through World of Wardens. In just seconds, you can download another player’s prison and try it out for yourself. I haven’t spent too much time playing with other user created prisons, but I do love scrolling through just to admire some of the incredibly intricate and impressive prisons that have been built.
Whether intentional or not Prison Architect isn’t just a creative outlet to ‘build stuff’, but it’s also made me stop and think about the kinds of things that are needed to run a facility such as this. I suppose that’s why I ensured my inmates had the ability to work and learn during their time in prison so that one day they might have a better shot in the real world. No matter how you run your prison Introversion Software has provided everyone with complete freedom to handle things in any number of ways. More importantly the campaign and a number of other quality-of-life features help to ensure that the game itself is fun and rarely overwhelming.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here.
What I Like:
- Campaign that eases you into game's toolset
- Control over every aspect of the prison
- Good console port
- World of Wardens
- Grants help make starting and growing a prison easier to understand
What I Dislike:
- I wish the campaign explained some of the more advanced tools better