Being the architect of a prison is more than the simply putting the walls up, apparently. I may not have studied architecture, but I always assumed it had more to do with structural mathematics and design than it did with making sure prisoners had clean clothes. Maybe I have been terribly misinformed about the role of an architect or perhaps the title is a little misleading, but behind the brick walls is a complimenting and complicated game.
As the controller of a prison, you will be in charge of the layout, employees, punishment and even the needs of the prisoners themselves. If you can’t juggle all of these aspects of prison life, expect fires, riots and drug smuggling to take control of your meticulously crafted buildings.
Prison Architect was one of the first golden boys of the Steam Greenlight platform, releasing in an acknowledged state of incompletion with constant updates until it eventually, officially launched last year. Like its PC counterpart, the Xbox One version of the game will be released first in Game Preview, and as such has some features missing at launch. This can be a little worrying, but with the developers proven record of updates and support, this is game is as secure as, well, a prison.
Instead of offering a traditional tutorial to introduce the player to the many mechanics of Prison Architect, the game offers ‘stories’ which lead you through a series of events that require you to interact with everything you need to manage a prison on your own. Unfortunately not all of the stories have been developed yet, with two still locked, they do still teach you enough to get started. It also helps cultivate a sense of the story telling that hides beneath the surface of the cartoonish, top-down format.
Prison Architect: Xbox One Edition is truly enjoyable for two completely distinct reasons. The first of which is the more obvious, balancing the ebbs and flows of prison life requires a Tremendously far-reaching but delicate touch. Managing all the different aspects you have, from making sure the kitchen runs smoothly to cracking down on illicit substances and rehabilitating the inmates is deeply rewarding when everything runs so smoothly. Building new aspects of your prison, taking in more responsibly and more options for you to manage only heightens the new satisfaction you feel. And Prison Architect lets you run your prison however you’d like as well. Being a ruthless taskmaster can make your prison stable but running on fear comes with the possibility of violent uprisings, while being more tender means the prisoners might start taking advantage.
It’s impossible to have the prison running immaculately all the time, there will always be a smuggling ring left uncovered or an angry prisoner just waiting to lash out, but that is where the second part of the Prison Architect comes in. Playing this game creates the opportunity for stories to be told. I remember witnessing my first murder in the showers, with my guards trying to quell unrest in the canteen there was no one to intervene. There was a fire in the kitchen that spread to the wards, and I had to watch in horror as my guards were unable to get everyone out in time. These stories, these events that occur fluidly throughout your time as manager and architect are what separates this game from the other sims out there on the market. Each prisoner has a name, a sentence and their own ambitions, and it’s your job to make sure that all these don’t combine to create the perfect storm under your command.
Luckily, however much you have to do in any given minute, the controls are streamlined and intuitive enough to make the game playable. Countless attempts to create and recreate real-time strategy games for a gamepad have tried and failed to find a place on the console in the past, but it honestly feels like this is the best adaptation I have ever played. Although it does take a little getting used to cycling through the various menus to find what you are looking for, it’s all elegantly out there for you to operate. One really nice aspect of the game is the assignment of rooms, that dictate what an area will be used for. This helps narrow the uses down, meaning you can more quickly find what you need in the menu to complete your construction.
Naturally there are some problems with Prison Architect, most come from the fact that it resides in Game Preview. For instance, the game is unusually quiet. I had to turn my speakers up to the max to hear the gentle sounds of scuffling feet and distant conversation, only to have the game screaming at me the second I paused. It’s a little unpredictable, but hardly a lasting issue.
What does hamper the game, is the lack of direct control. Sometimes you have your workers leave behind a box, lock a worker in a room or complete work in a disastrously roundabout way. It would be nice to control specific worker to get a job done properly, but sometimes you have to just shrug it off.
Prison Architect: Xbox One Edition is not without its problems, but the enjoyment you take from overcoming them and whatever else the game throws at you, coupled with the addictive stories that trickle out through the iron bars, make it well worth a long, enjoyable sentence.
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