Prison Architect Review
Prison is a cruel place and time spent there is filled with harsh realities. This is true if you’re sent there against your will, as a prisoner. But it is also true if you go there to work as well and Prison Architect goes a long way to prove this to you. Prison Architect entered Game Preview in March 2016 (check out our preview) but is about to make the leap to a full game.
Prison Architect is a simulation game much in the vein of the Sims games, except the developer chose not to give you a whole town to work with, but just that cheery place that is prison. As the architect, you’re given full reign to build the prison, and furnish and decorate it as you like. Unlike most architects though, you also basically get to run the prison once it has been built. And this is when things can get a little stressful, as prisoners aren’t really known for their good natures or willingness to put up with things that they are not happy with.
When you start the game we’d recommend that you play through the story mode. This mode gives you a loose plot to follow as it teaches you the basic mechanics and also some of the issues you’ll be up against when running your prison. Sometimes the missions seem a little bleak, but then, this is prison, things aren’t always rainbows and sunshine there. You’ll find yourself building an execution chamber, so that you can execute a prisoner. And that’s the first mission.
When constructing the new sections of your prison, you not only build and furnish the buildings but also staff them. You are in charge of the staffing of the whole prison, as well as deployment of them around the prison. This can, at first, seem a little fiddly to do but soon becomes instinctive. The initial fiddliness isn’t helped by the fact that – as Prison Architect is such a deep game – there are an overwhelming number of options. It does take a little time to understand how the to navigate through the menus using a controller; this is a strategy game after all, and so lives in a keyboard and mouse space. If you can get to grips with the controller layout – which is about as well put together as we have seen for such a complex strategy game – you will get so much more out of the game. It’s well worth persevering with.
Although you don’t have to play story mode – you can jump into the main game and get on with building your very own prison – this could be a big mistake; you’ll find the game that much more difficult and miss some of the gentle intricacies of the game.
After finishing the tutorial you’re given your own plot of land and are free to construct your maximum security prison. Before you actually start the construction process you have to choose the person to run your prison – your Warden. Different wardens have different strengths (and linking your Double ID account to your Xbox Live account will net you an additional two from which to choose). This is a decision that can impact everything. Do you want someone who can spot escape attempts easier, someone who is big on discipline to keep the prisoners in line, or someone who is as corrupt as can be because, well, why not?
Building your prison and recruiting guards aren’t your only problems – a prison doesn’t run on fresh air. For every facility you build you’ll need electricity and water to run them, meaning that you will have to plan your pipe system and your wiring and power supply units as well. Oh, and you have a budget – and in this time of austerity that budget is tight, just to keep you on your toes.
You also have to try to keep your prisoners entertained and meet all of their needs, or else they will display their displeasure in a traditional prisoner fashion: a good old fashioned riot. Cue calling in the emergency services to put out fires, treat the wounded and quell the rioters. It all adds to the challenge with which you are resented.
Ultimately, if you enjoy a good strategy sim then you will love Prison Architect. If all you want to do is kick in doors and blow away bad guys, then you probably haven’t even read this far through the review. If, though, strategy is your bag, baby, then you’ll be familiar with the one trait that has plagued – some would say defines – simulation games since the very first SimCity: repetitiveness. After building the prison, players find themselves waiting for something to happen, something to deal with, something to do! And this leads to another phenomenon of the simulation game, namely the abuse of NPCs.
Yes, we’re morally conflicted (and you should be too, you monster), but it becomes all too tempting to turn into a Prison Tyrant, singling out an individual prisoner or group of prisoners and see what tortures you can inflict on them. This is far more enjoyable than it should be, as Prison Architect attunes itself to the dark side of humanity.
Prison Architect has a simplistic but characterful – art style that works well with this genre, with its emphasis on mechanic rather than graphics. The simulation aspects are neatly implemented, but it’s let down an unavoidably tricky control scheme and gameplay pacing. It’s possible to liven things up a little bit with the fog of war feature which blinds you to certain parts of the prison, making the game a little harder if that’s your thing.
If you’re a fan of simulation games, there’s more than enough here to keep you entertained, and that dark streak of gallows humour running through Prison Architect is a joy you can’t help but laugh at. But if you like your games to feature more action, look elsewhere – this isn’t going to be the game to convert you to the genre. Planning and waiting is the key to this game and if you don’t have patience then it’s better left behind bars.
Prison Architect is available from the Xbox Store for £19.99. There’s a free demo available, too.