[Update (29/06/16): A patch has since been released solving multiple game breaking bugs so hopefully people who play the game now will experience a lot less crashes than I did.]
Playing Prison Architect has caused me to experience a mixed flurry of emotions ranging from highly positive to outright negative. After around twenty minutes with the game I was pleasantly surprised to find myself reminded of my younger Zoo Tycoon playing days – except with people in the cages instead of animals. An hour later I was about to quit the game due to frustration when it experienced an error and did the honours of shutting itself off (a sadly recurring theme). As of now my opinion of Prison Architect has never reached those initial heights again but it is leaning towards a more positive outlook on the game.
The best place to start when you boot up Prison Architect is the game mode titled Prison Stories. This consists of five missions that tell a story but in reality it’s just a glorified tutorial. Each of the missions concentrate on teaching you a different aspect of managing and building your prison ranging from the basics to riot control. As mentioned there’s also a story, for example the first mission follows a man who committed a pre-meditated double murder as you construct an electric chair for him. Sound exciting? It’s not. There are some nice comic style cut scenes but it all moves a little too slowly and feels very forced – it even tries to make you feel for the guy but you’re probably better off frantically searching for the skip cut-scene button.
There are two big problems with the tutorial: (A) you need to play it to learn the basics but it’s also likely to put you off the game (B) despite the fact that it’s a tutorial it doesn’t actually teach you enough despite its length. In reality you might be better off just playing a mission or two from the tutorial just to grasp the very basics. From there you could jump into one of the game’s sandbox modes and figure it out as you go through trial and error or with Wiki guides. The sandbox modes are where this game really shines. There are two to choose from: (1) Prison Architect, which gives you a blank map so you can build your own prison from scratch (2) Prison Warden, which allows you to take over control of managing a pre-existing prison.
Due to the lackluster tutorial the first time you start up the Architect mode it’s a little overwhelming. You’re faced with a blank map and then after a couple of seconds eight construction workers and some supplies turn up in a truck or two. This is where my thoughts on the game began to grow more positive. It once again gave me those Zoo Tycoon vibes. It’s an incredibly refined and deep construction/prison management system. The first thing you’ll need to do is lay some foundations. On top of them you can start building your first cells which each require space for a bed and toilet. However before you start kitting them out with prisoners you’ll need to build a unit for supplying electricity and water then hook those up to the lights and toilets in your cells. Can you get prisoners now? Yes but I wouldn’t advice doing so until you get some guards to keep the buggers in line. Now let’s say you have your guards and you fill those cells with some grade A prisoners, what next? Riots, that’s what because the prisoners will have nothing to eat. This means you have to build a kitchen and hire chefs to cook food. Then you’ll need to build a canteen with tables and benches to serve the food.
Okay now your prison is safe from riots… until the prisoners want an exercise yard, educational facilities, a doctor, showers, books, janitors to clean or any other of the game’s numerous prison requirements. That’s not even touching on a quarter of the game’s systems, I could go on telling you about the different grades of prisoners, applying for grants, types of staff you can hire and so on so on, but I’ll leave it to you to figure out for yourself. The point is that just like most city, theme park or zoo simulators Prison Architect may seem simple in the first tutorial mission but before long you’ll be up to your neck in a jarring amount of systems, but despite the awful tutorial this game is worth the learning curve.
Prison Architect has one trick up its sleeve to set itself apart that I don’t think any other management simulator that I’ve heard of has. That trick is the fact that you can be as mean or generous as you please as long as the prison is run efficiently and the prisoners remain in line. I know you could argue that Zoo Tycoon, for example, allows you to badly manage your zoo but that means that you’ll be cut off from getting any new animals until conditions are improved, no new guests will come and your finances will slip into the red essentially meaning game over. Prison Architect on the other hand doesn’t give a damn if your prisoners are living in luxury or miserable as long as they know their place. This means you can invest in lowering the minimum amount of space require to house a prisoner and cram as many of them into as little space as possible. However they won’t be happy about it so you may need to get some armed guards in there to dismiss any fears of a riot breaking out. Perhaps you’d rather run a happier prison? Good news, the game allows for that too. You can give your prisoners luxury cells with T.Vs, pool tables and high quality personal catering. This type of prison could be ran with less guards than the other type because happy prisoners are less likely to riot.
The other mode is Prison Warden which I personally didn’t find as rewarding. In this mode you’re given a pre-made prison and put in charge of running it. I found actually making my own prison to be far more entertaining but Prison Warden did come in useful for review purposes. For example, it allowed me to see what would happen if I took a single section out of a fully functional happy prison. The thing I choose was toilets, I got rid of every single one in the prison and before long there was chaos. A small contingency of prisoners in one cell block overpowered some armed guards and took their keys and guns. Soon there was unconscious prisoners and dead guards everywhere. The kitchen was up in flames, every other cell block had joined in and that small armed contingency were stepping over the corpse of my canine control unit and out the front gate. The moral of the story is that if you take any section out of a happy prison – be that toilets, catering or a section in the perimeter fence – chaos will ensue. You might think your prisoners are happy, but trust me despite stats saying it’s so they never are. These monsters will take any opportunity to shank you in the gut and take your keys.
As the images throughout the review demonstrate Prison Architect’s developers have opted for a simple art direction with straight forward animations, but seriously don’t let a simple art direction fool you into thinking this game doesn’t come with a boat load of depth. A ship load may be more accurate. The sound design is excellent, for example if you use the L2 button to zoom out the game will grow silent but if you hold R2 to zoom in the closer you get to the prison the more noise and chatter you’ll hear. The musical score isn’t great to be honest but it does enough to add to the atmosphere that it can be forgiven. Just like the simple art direction the frame rate is also solid and I experienced a grand total of zero hiccups. While there’s no story outside of the tutorial I thought the prisoner biographies were a nice touch. Basically if you click on any one of your monstrous little inmates the game will bring up their personal information such as the crime they committed, who their families are, how long they’re serving for and so on.
There are two big issues with Prison Architect as it stands. The first is something that I already alluded to in the review’s opening and that’s the fact that the game crashes. Hopefully this can be solved quickly in a patch but so far I have lost large chunks of progress due to the game shutting itself down… twice. That doesn’t mean the game only crashed on me twice it just means I never lost such large chunks of progress again because I learned to save frequently which I suggest you also do if you’re planning on playing this day one. Linked to this is the fact that the autosave function doesn’t seem to be reliable. The game constantly tells you it’s autosaving but after a crash if you try to reload the map you were on it will be blank and your efforts will be lost. The second issue I have is the controls. Prison Architect was born on PC and as much a Pure PlayStation editor hates to say it the game would play far better with a keyboard and mouse. It’s definitely still playable with a controller but it feels a little clunky and not as responsive when it comes to laying down intricate design details. Another minus on the console version is a lack of access to the community made mods on PC which could add even more design options and system depth to the game. Who knows maybe this game will follow in Bethesda’s footsteps someday and also bring mods to console but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.
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