Emma Withington reviews Prison Architect…
What sort of prison will you build? Me? Oh, I decided to construct a labyrinth involving at least seven circles of hell…
Prison Architect isn’t solely about building a prison and task management – it’s a highly detailed sandbox sim with moral choices. Not simple prompt based choices, mind you, the running of your prison is entirely in your hands. You can choose to design a prison of reformation, build a Super Max high security facility – undertaking brutal methods, or you can attempt to create a balance between the two…
After spotting Prison Architect at EGX Rezzed this year, I knew this was a game I wanted to get hands on with – the 15 minutes available wouldn’t have been nearly enough to fully experience all of the game’s possibilities. After a highly successful PC run, Introversion have teamed up with Double Eleven to bring Prison Architect to consoles.
Prison Architect on PS4 has four main modes: Prison Stories, Architect Mode, Warden Mode, and World of Wardens. If you’re new to Prison Architect, Prison Stories is the place to start. This mode acts a series of tutorials and teaches you some of the key aspects involved in running your prison, through surprisingly detailed scenarios which also raise some interesting moral questions; highlighting the ongoing human rights debate – from all perspectives – and corruption.
The stories begin with Death Row in which we meet Edward, an inmate facing the electric chair after committing crimes of passion. The CEO gives you a to-do list which is designed to introduce you to Prison Architect’s basic construction features, including how to lay power cables beneath the surface of the prison. It’s a well crafted introduction that, while we aren’t playing with realistic 3D characters, makes you think about your actions more than you would in, say, Theme Hospital – which takes an unpleasant environment and makes it incredibly goofy and far removed from day to day hospital experiences, that even I can play it without unease. In Prison Architect, there is something slightly chilling about laying the power cables which will enable the execution of Edward, or any other future prisoners.
The stories continue in this manner by introducing you to other key aspects of Prison Architect such as, dealing with emergencies, creating a reform prison by providing education and prison labour, riot control and building a high security facility by creating patrol routes or bringing in armed forces.
Architect mode is, of course, the sandbox heart of Prison Architect. You are ready to utilise what you’ve learned, but you soon realise that the tutorials only scratch the surface – it has an immense level of intricacy, from basic needs to connecting wires to security cameras. Before you begin, you are offered a host of settings. The console versions present you with some new options which enable you to increase your starting funds, intake payments, and turn off the failure conditions – which suits the casual gamer who wants to simply build and design without having to strategically structure a prison. Another fun new feature is the ability to generate lakes – turning your prison into an island or a fortress surrounded by a moat.
The best way to begin, I find, is to plan ahead – use the planning tool to create the outlines of your prison and fill it in gradually with ‘quick rooms’ first, before you go full Christopher Wren, until you have the funds to expand. Unless, however, you’re like me and suffer from bouts of impatience and decide to construct the walls of your ginormous labyrinth instantly with only $100,000…This is where the grants system comes in, if you’re starting from scratch the grants are necessary for expansion and assist in funding prison research (bureaucracy). In console editions the senior staff you hire pop up with suggestions as to what your prison may need, which can be helpful with such a vast array of tools.
In games such as Theme Hospital, Sim City and so on, things tend to stabilise once all of the necessary tasks and needs have been met. In Prison Architect, once your prison is ready to handle an intake of prisoners, the manipulation is just beginning. You can control everything from the daily regime, your policy and what the punishments for each incident are, to deciding the fate of individual prisoners – Johnny has two murders under his belt and a high re-offending rate? Is it time for an execution or will you attempt to reform him?
Warden Mode presents a selection of ten pre-built maps for you to jump straight into, some of which are really quite incredible in their scale and detail, if you don’t fancy spending too much time on drafting and building your own prison. There is also a choice of wardens, each warden comes with their own permanent buff which helps you in certain aspects of running the prison. For example, the lobbyist ‘uses his connections to make sure only easily controlled prisoners end up coming his way. Halves the likelihood of receiving prisoners who are violent, lethal, volatile, deadly or fighters.’
World of Wardens mode is an online prison sharing system, in which you can download and play with prisons created and shared within the online community.
Visually our prisoners look kind of adorable in their minimalistic 2D flatness, until, hey! Wait! Oh the horror…! As the inmates riot, hacking away at the guards with scissors and contraband weapons. Then, depending on who’s on patrol, get their head blasted off by an armed guard or ravaged by dogs in a style reminiscent of South Park. Prison Architect has great naturalistic sound design, which increases/decreases in volume as you zoom in and out of the map. However, I can’t help but feel it needed a low level theme running in the background – particularly when you zoom out, you can have long periods of silence if you are constructing prior to having an active prison. I would occasionally run Spotify in the background – largely classical themes, which work reasonably well.
As a console port, Prison Architect has done better than most. We are presented with a console friendly user interface (UI), which doesn’t at all skimp on the existing mechanics of the game. The d-pad is your main hub, holding four sections: Reports, Prison Running, Emergencies, and Construction. The only real issue that is recurrent in this genre, is that the navigational speed you would get from a cursor is reduced and the accuracy of scrolling over and clicking on inmates, building placement, or dragging custom dimensions with the analog stick can become a bit clunky. However, this makes the planning tool I mentioned earlier an incredibly useful mechanic for the console.
Experience: Prison Architect is a complex, but accessible sandbox strategy with seemingly endless possibilities and a surprisingly in depth campaign that is both fun and engaging!
Replayability factor: High – so much choice!
Game Mastery level (Trophies): Easy, but time consuming.
DLC: All Day and a Night – All Day and a Night introduces 8 new wardens, 8 new prison maps and 8 new plots to expand your prison experience and bend the rules – £6.99.
Emma Withington – Follow me on Twitter
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