Have you ever stopped and thought to yourself “I would love to run a prison”? No? Me either. I’m not saying Prison Architect might make you reconsider your stance – however – it does manage to make the micromanaging of a prison utterly compelling. Forget your city, roller-coaster and zoo tycoons – Prison Architect is a seriously dense simulation game that isn’t afraid to tackle the nitty gritty of life behind bars with a hint of brevity for good measure.As this is a simulation game, there obviously isn’t a whole lot of story going on except for the one you create for yourself. There is, however, a short campaign which also acts as a tutorial. The chapters of the campaign provide a snapshot into the life of particular prisoners while also running you through the numerous systems within the game. The chapters do a sufficient job of depicting the harrowing realities of incarceration but ultimately does little to add to the overall experience. The one thing the campaign does nail is setting the tone of the game. Despite the games unassuming demeanour – things can and will get dark.For me, the innocent art style of Prison Architect is not only welcomed but a necessity. Do I want to see a hyper-realistic model of a human prisoner constantly vomiting his guts out because he’s suffering from drug withdrawals? No. Am I ok with seeing an avatar with the head of a Canadian from South Park and the body of McDonald’s Grimace do it? Yes. Am I asking a lot of questions in this review? Maybe. Due to the nature of the simulation and the context of which it takes place – the cartoonish caricatures provide the perfect counterbalance for the heavier subject matter.Unfortunately, the campaign/tutorial does little to prepare you for every penitentiary problem that is going to be thrown at you. You will be overwhelmed, things will go wrong and you may even begin to wish that you were a prisoner instead of a warden. You’ll also probably be referring to several online forums and wikis as the game makes little effort to hold your hand
When starting a game you have the option of building your own prison from scratch, using a pre-built prison or downloading other players prisons from the awesomely titled World of Wardens. From dealing with power generators to plumbing, I decided to go with a pre-built prison as I have always sucked majorly at building things. Once you’ve selected your prison you can then set the budget of your prison (from little to unlimited) and other numerous parameters to fit your preferred style of play. This includes choosing the warden for the prison who come with their own set of perks. Will you rule pragmatically and use prisoner reform as your greatest weapon? Or will you rule with an iron fist and ironically, take no prisoners?
From there you’re then thrust into the life of a prison warden. You’ll need to organise a regime for your prisoners consisting of things such as a time for showering, yard time and the most important of all, meal times. You’ll also need to organise patrol routes for guards, security systems, drug programs, metal detectors, visitation rooms, doctors…the list goes on and on. You can even adjust the policies of your prison. That means if a prisoner tries to Shawshank it out of one of your poop filled pipes (which they will) and you catch them in the act, you can decide how severe their punishment will be.
After a kitchen fire, a small riot and a few unsuccessful great escapes – I finally felt like I had a hold on the game. That was until a legendary prisoner was transferred to my prison. Now if Pokémon and Barney Stinson has taught us anything, it’s that legendary things are good. When it comes to Prison Architect, legendary things suck. All my legendary prisoner did was kill my staff, recruit more members for his gang and break whatever he got his hands on. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to stop him from disrupting my otherwise well-managed prison.That was until there was an unfortunate “disaster”. Due to some poor construction planning – for some reason – my legendary prisoner’s solitary cell had a power station installed in it. And due to a “miscommunication” with the fire department, they then proceeded to drench said power station which then caused a wildfire in his cell. Despite the imminent danger the roaring fire posed to my prisoner, the firefighters were then “inexplicably” sent back to their station while the cell went up in smoke.
Although I’m not proud of my actions in this particular instance – these are the sort of scenarios Prison Architect will constantly be assaulting you with. On top of balancing the everyday managerial tasks of running a prison, fires of the metaphorical and literal kind will pop up everywhere and how you deal with them usually comes down to what’s best for your prison in the long run
If you enjoy simulation games that focus on the minuscule and minute, while tackling a more adult subject matter than most sims – this game is for you. Just be warned, once this game gets its hooks into you – you won’t want to be escaping from this prison anytime soon.
The PS4 version of Prison Architect was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.