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Prison Architect is a game that’s constantly popping up in my discovery queue on Steam for one reason or another, so when the game was announced for release on the Xbox One my interest was piqued. I’ve always been a fan of building and management simulators, from SimCity to Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis to Theme Hospital and beyond, but outside of the poorly received Prison Tycoon series, there haven’t been a lot of prison management simulators to play around with. Prison Architect is a welcome change from that dearth, not only because it’s an attempt to make a management sim in an environment we haven’t seen done to death, but also because it’s making strides to be much better than its predecessors. The game was in Early Access until October of last year on the PC, and is presently in Early Access on the XBO, presumably while they work out the kinks in converting code and making the game work exactly as intended with the console, but what’s here so far looks promising. Let’s run through the game a bit and see what’s here to play around with, and if it’s worth jumping onto the Early Access bandwagon to give it a whirl.
1.) The game offers two modes of play, between Prison Stories and Prison Management, and there’s a lot of benefit to having both. Prison Management is your standard “make a prison and run it as you see fit” style of play, and it honestly works as well as you’d expect: you’re able to jump into a plot of land and make a prison to your specs, then see how well you can run it (based on difficulty, which we’ll touch on in a bit). Prison Stories, on the other hand, acts as a combination story mode and tutorial for the game, which is pretty interesting as a concept. The game essentially tells five stories that are slightly interconnected as a backdrop for teaching you the game, and it’s a fun concept that works both from a “give the game a narrative” perspective and from a “teach players the ropes” perspective. It’s a good idea, if nothing else, and I’d like to see more simulation style games do this sort of thing to engage the player before letting them loose to build their own world.
2.) From a presentation perspective, Prison Architect uses a really interesting aesthetic that features bobble-headed, Weeble-looking characters to represent all of the characters, from inmates to guards to doctors and beyond, while offering otherwise normal looking environments for them to live in. It’s an interesting visual aesthetic, especially once people die in a prison riot and all of these cute bobbles are surrounded with seas of blood and whatnot, and it’s quite the contrast… but surprisingly, it works well. Aurally, the game doesn’t have a whole lot going on outside of the various sound effects, which sound appropriate for a prison simulator, and some appropriate music tracks that work fine in context. It’s not really a game about its presentation per say, but what’s here works pretty well, so far anyway.
3.) Let’s get this one out of the way up-front: it’s pretty clear that Prison Architect is a game that works better with a mouse, but what’s here works surprisingly well with the controller. Movement is handled with both mouse sticks (left moves your cursor, right moves the camera), A is your default confirmation button, B is your default cancel button, and the triggers zoom in and out while the bumpers cycle through options. Moving around both the game world and the menus works fairly intuitively, and the game does a good job of explaining how everything works, so while it can take some time to adjust to, overall, the transition has been handled fairly well all things considered.
4.) You’ll want to start off a new session by running through Prison Stories, because this will teach you how to play the game far more easily than jumping into a new prison and working it out on your own. These are a collection of five stories that take place over several years which are loosely connected to one another, which also act to slowly acclimate you to the gameplay. For example, the first story is ostensibly about sentencing a man to the death penalty and having to build an electric chair to do so, but also works to teach you about how basic building, prisoner care and electric systems operate, so you’ll walk away with a good understanding of the core infrastructure. The storylines are more about providing background as you learn the systems, but they’re interesting and actually have something to say about US prison systems oddly enough, so they’re worth going through from a narrative perspective. They’re mostly about teaching you the ropes, though, so you shouldn’t expect the story of the year or anything.
5.) Once you’ve gone through the Prison Stories, it’s time to jump in and make a prison of your very own… or someone else’s. When you jump into creating a prison, you’re given the ability to choose to play as an Architect, which lets you make your very own prison from scratch, or a Warden, which lets you manage a preexisting prison from a bunch of created locales. From there you’re given a list of options to customize your play experience, including choosing a Warden (which can confer play benefits) and difficulty level, though you can also set your own difficulty conditions if you’d rather. This includes starting cash, prison size, intake payments for hosting prisoners, Fog of War effects (IE you can only see what cameras and staff can see), and even whether you can fail outright or not. There’s even a hardcore difficulty option for turning on prison gangs if you’re looking for a real challenge, which is pretty interesting, so you’ve got a lot of options to play with before you start.
6.) Jumping into an existing prison gives you most of the infrastructure you need in order to make a go of prison management, so if you’re coming in fresh from Prison Stories that’s a good place to start. Jumping in and building your own prison from scratch isn’t too hard, though, especially if you have a good amount of money to start with. For one thing, the game gives you several useful tools for building, including the ability to design a building before you commit to anything so you can design the framework, decide if you like it, and then commit, so if you screw something up and don’t see it until later it doesn’t cost you cash. The game also offers up several default compositions of various building you’ll need, such as power plants and cells, so you can just plop them down and move on if you don’t feel like designing everything out from scratch. When it comes to laying out rooms, the game also makes it a point to make much of the elements as easy to access as possible as well, such as allowing you to sort your room objects by the type of room you’re in (so you only have access to the things you need), as well as highlighting whatever you’re missing at the moment so you can complete the room in question. This is all quite helpful for laying out your prison exactly how you want it, so you can be sure to have everything you need on hand at all times.
7.) One other thing that’s really worth mentioning here is that Prison Architect is really designed to be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, so even the worst Wardens can make a go at running the prison of their… well, hopefully not dreams but you get the idea. I touched on the difficulty levels before, but the overall spread of options you have here really bears mentioning, because it’s very well-tuned toward offering players the exact spread they’d like. Want to make the game heavily oppressive? Turn on Fog of War, reduce prisoner payouts, institute prison gangs and only draft the most violent and problematic prisoners into your prison. Want to make the experience really easy so you can just build and goof off? Jack up the prisoner payouts, start with the highest amount of money available, pick a Warden who gives you a bonus you fancy, disable fail states and only bring in the least violent criminals possible. Hell, you can even turn on infinite money if you’d like (though this disables some Achievements, which is a smart idea I’d think) so you can just build with no consequences. It’s not that often where a game is so readily acclimated to so many different styles of play, and it’s encouraging.
8.) That all said, there are definitely some hiccups in play that can be observed in this title at present, though fortunately nothing permanently game-breaking. Playing through the Prison Stories does a solid job of acclimating the player to how the game works, but some things aren’t properly explained. For instance, at one point the game asks you to create a Solitary cellblock from scratch, but it doesn’t do the best job of outlining exactly how that should be designed, which left me to spend half an hour trying to figure out why Solitary rooms weren’t working before I realized that the zone had been drawn into the doorway, which was causing it to not recognize properly, which seems petty as a failure state. The final stage of Prison Stories is probably the worst for this, however, as the stage advises you to use all of the tools you’ve learned to build a proper prison… but if you use room prefabs you’ll destroy your cash reserves, because they utilize concrete, which is super expensive, leaving you to work around this.
9.) Even outside of the Prison Stories, there are a few things that make the game feel a bit confusing, such as how it can be murderous to force the game to lay down a foundation for a building without using the Planning or room drawing tool, or how to bring in prisoners to your prison (which isn’t really spelled out in the tutorial). The game also seems to have problems with its building algorithms; at one point, for example, my workers stopped building outright and would not respond or indicate why until I discovered, by accident, that the Delivery area had filled up, which somehow prevented them from working altogether. You also have to go back and check their work, as sometimes they’ll just leave holes in walls for… no reason I can see, honestly. Also, it’s worth noting that the game doesn’t really seem to be designed for a high-definition television display, as the fonts are fairly small and some things are just impossible to read, including basically the entirety of the Bureaucracy screen, which, considering this manages all your upgrades, is kind of frustrating. All of this can (and should) be corrected, but at present, these are things that are a part of the current build, and they’re worth noting before you jump into the game.
10.) All told, there’s definitely some promise in Prison Architect at this stage, and with some significant cleanup of the issues mentioned above, it’ll easily be one of the better downloadable games on the Xbox One, and a game the console could surely use at this point. There are some really great ideas here, like the “World of Wardens” system that (if you register) gives you two free Wardens and access to prisons made by other players, that really give you the indication the developers have some good ideas for how to keep the game fresh for a long time to come. There are definitely some issues that need to be corrected before the game comes out of development, but they shouldn’t prevent you from playing the game if you’re interested in jumping on board with the game before final release. We’ll keep an eye on it and have a more detailed review to offer once the game is in a more complete form, so keep an eye out.