Prison Architect Review
Sim City meets Prison Break. Sound interesting? Prison Architect puts you in the shoes of a prison CEO, letting you build and manage prisons, inmates and staff — and it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Originally released late 2015 for the PC, Prison Architect recently made its debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, bringing the rich, well nuanced simulation title to a whole new audience. We dove in to see how Prison Architect plays and feels, and how it fares on console — traditionally a difficult platform for sims.
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Prison Architect is surprisingly broad with the array of options and customisation on offer. Management covers all levels of your prison system, from the high level decision making of prison regime styles and applying for grants, down to small details such as placing TVs, phone booths and soda vending machines for the denizens of your penitentiary.
You’re eased into the various functions of Prison Architect, from simple room building and decorating to managing prison policy and reformation programs, via a simple campaign. Each chapter introduces new aspects of the game, walking you through what they do and why they’re important. While you’re able to jump straight into the full sandbox mode and play around, the campaign is definitely the best way to learn how things work, not to mention how to handle tricky situations like rioting.
While the chapters were mostly solid, we did experience a few problems here and there — notably, a completely gamebreaking bug which froze prison visitors and didn’t bring any new ones to the prison. Unfortunate, when the current objective required new visitors. When hiccups like this occurred, the only thing that made progress was starting the chapter over from scratch.
Once you’re familiar with the basics, you’ll probably jump straight into sandbox mode. You have two main options here: “Prison Warden” mode offers a bunch of premade, ready to run prisons for you to get your feet wet with, tinkering and reworking as you please, while “Prison Architect” gives you an empty plot of land to completely start from scratch.
The game certainly doesn’t go easy on you, however. You can plan out an entire total prison system, designed to be as effective as possible, but once your inmates start arriving and settling in, things can quickly go awry. Prisoners get up to all the usual illicit activities you’d expect, and smuggled goods can lead to stabbings and killings as prisoners fight for dominance. Find and remove the contraband, and suddenly inmates hooked on those drugs are going into violent withdrawal, getting angry and eventually rioting, sending guards fleeing for their lives as the convicts smash, burn and kill anything they can.
The way you handle and deal with issues that arise impacts your success, too; bring in armed guards and they’ll intimidate prisoners into behaving better, but when things get rough those same guards are likely to shoot freely, bumping the body count and fueling the rage of other inmates. You’ll need to be careful with how you equip your guards — tazers help take down escapees in a non-lethal fashion, but won’t protect against dangerous situations as effectively as guns — as well as planning efficient routes for them to patrol.
Some very savvy prisoners will even make the occasional escape, especially if they find a good water pipe to utilise, so keeping a close eye on inmates acting suspiciously is a must. You’re able to bring in dog handlers, whose canines are adept at sniffing out escape routes, but are pretty costly to bring in and maintain.
An important aspect of Prison Architect is managing the needs of your prisoners, Sims-style. Each convict has their own needs and requirements — clean clothes and environment, food, family contact, and so forth. Letting these needs get critical will quickly lead to unhappy inmates, and then you’re back with the rioting. Needs can be tricky to manage, as the more freedom and luxury you offer the prisoners, the more opportunities they get to smuggle contraband into the prison, causing others to get hooked on alcohol or drugs and creating further vicious cycles of addiction and violence.
You’ll score points for each prisoner you successfully rehabilitate and release, with options to teach them basic crafts and skills for use out in the world. You’ll lose points for each prisoner that dies, so if you’re looking to conquer the leaderboards you’ll need to take care to manage the needs and wants of inmates whilst keeping them safe, addiction-free, and well trained. This is, of course, extremely difficult.
Prison Architect also features a “World of Wardens” community, where players can share their prison designs with other players. If you’ve built a particularly tricky, fun or creative prison, you’re free to upload it for anyone else to download and enjoy. Community content like this is a nice touch, and integral to any good simulation game.
Prison Architect transitions nicely to console; controls are easy to learn and become quickly become second nature. While the AI sometimes gets confused — workmen getting stuck for several in-game days behind guard-only doors, or taking hopelessly inefficient routes — the game is, by and large, a fun and novel title. Fans of simulation, building and management style titles should absolutely look into Prison Architect.