Do not be fooled – the 2bit like graphics and top down view may fool you into thinking that because it looks simple and cutesy that Prison Architect is a simple and cutesy game. Hidden behind the bright colourful facade hides a game of incredible depth and satire, that once understood will quickly suck you in and have you analysing every aspect of your prison, from where you place the buildings and guard patrols to allow optimum efficiency to what reform programs you set up in order to reform and fund your prison in the future.
I have been playing my review copy of Prison Architect for about a week, and I would say I am only now, as I sit down to write this review, comfortable with the sheer depth and amount of options that this game offers. I first fired it up and made the decision to dive right in to building my own prison, opting to ignore the few options I was presented with on the main menu and jump right into a new game – I quickly regretted this decision as I was instantly lost among menus and options and tons and tons of possibilities. I fumbled my way through building my first cell, but the sheer amount of options was staggering and I realised quickly I had made an arrogant mistake. After about 30 minutes of guesswork and trial and error I quit to the main menu and fired up the top option “Prison Stories”. Although not advertised as such, this mode serves as both Prison Architect’s campaign and tutorial mode, and this is where any one who is playing Prison Architect for the first time should start.
Each of the 5 stories that make up this mode serve to introduce you to the different aspects of day to day prison life, from creating and allocating buildings to hiring staff, setting up programs of training and reform or managing the prisons budget. When looked at in isolation each step on the way to a successful prison seems easy enough, you start by building the prison, then managing what you have created such as hiring staff or applying for grants, then developing your prison further to ensure that all the prisoners are happy and tip-top and everything is shiny. Well, it all sounds simple when you put it like that… but seriously, the amount of depth that goes into each stage is staggering.
Let’s take the first step, which is arguably the easiest one – building the prison. You start by building your foundation, either brick or cement, dragging out a rectangle shape that will lay the foundations where you place the cursor. The controls were clearly designed with the PC in mind, obvious when you think that Prison Architect first came to the fore via Steam’s Early Access program, but the controls work well here, dragging our your rectangular shape using the analogue stick or flipping through the menus using the shoulder buttons. Having decided upon where you want your building placed, and provided you have hired workmen to construct it, the foundations will then be laid. Upon these foundations you can then build a range of buildings, from the obvious such as cell’s or kitchens to feed your prisoners, to the less obvious such as chapels or classroom’s to reform and educate your prisoners. This can be done by partitioning walls to break up the foundation block you laid, adding windows, doors, objects such as beds, toilets or tables, and ensuring that each room has sufficient electricity and water provided to it so that it runs as intended. This then involves building a generator and a water pump station complete with wiring and pipes that must be fed underground to reach every corner of your prison. Bare in mind that everything costs money that you have to earn, such as applying for government grants or selling items produced in prison work shops such as license plates, and remember this is just the building aspect, (and for one building,) so I hope that at least paints some picture of how easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole, and fall down the rabbit hole I did.
Prison Stories serves as a good introduction to all of the varying elements that you need to be aware of when constructing your prison. Each one takes the shape of a story with an ultimate objective in mind, from building an electric chair and ensuring it has power, to calming down a riot by hiring riot police and building appropriate facilities to ensure a future riot is avoided, to eventually building a prison from scratch and making sure you have the funds in place to do so. Each story has objectives that must be met in order to progress, and each serves as a nice introduction to the many layers Prison Architect has, without overloading you with information or menus. The stories themselves are simple, but they do have an overlaying narrative that links them all together, and each one utilises the knowledge you have gained from the previous story. This is invaluable, as quickly as you learn the basics, something else comes along that adds a new element or take on it.
Besides the construction aspect of Prison Architect there are more elements at play behind the scenes. Each prisoner has a back story and various needs, available by clicking on them and scrolling through the menus that are then presented. Most of this is just window dressing, but it does add an extra element in trying to make the needs of the prison that bit more human in nature, and the menu that deals with the needs of the prisoners helps to offer insight into how your prison is perceived by the inmates, which in turn helps to inform you of what to build next – family need running low? Build more phone booths or create a visitation centre. Spiritual need sitting in the red? Build a chapel or invest in a Spiritual Guidance program, it is really staggering the amount of depth that this game does provide and offer, and without Prison stories to help introduce me to the many layers I would probably still be struggling my way through even now.
There are other features that the game offers – for instance, with the benefit of hindsight my initial “dive right in” approach meant I overlooked the few options I was presented with when I decided to fire up a new game, for instance I was presented with the option to choose a warden, each with a perk such as avoiding dangerous prisoners and thus riots, or shady characters that managed money through fraud and dodgy dealings meaning you had plenty in the kitty to play about with when building new areas. Not only that but there is an option to save your prison for others to play about with, or to download others prisons that have been created to see what damage and destruction can be wrought – or if you prefer how successfully you could manage it, and for how long for before chaos erupted in the form of a riot or some other such calamity.
The game does hark back to the days of Theme Park and Theme Hospital, and this is in no way a bad thing. The only difference really is that where the “Theme” games had their tongue firmly in cheek, sometimes Prison Architect tries to copy this approach but it does miss the mark on occasion – for instance the time I clicked on a prisoner and their backstory was clearly based upon a well documented, relatively recent crime. I was able to see the dark humour that was trying to be portrayed, but others may not be forgiving, and it did seem to hit home the jarring discord between the bright colourful environments and the fact that you are actually building a prison – I didn’t know if it was trying to be a satire or to be taken seriously, so in the end I just took it for what it was – a surprisingly detailed, enjoyable construction simulator with a staggering amount of depth. Now if you will excuse me, I have a prison to go and run.
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