Release Date: October 6, 2015
Platforms: PC (Played), PS4, Xbox One, Switch, mobile
Honestly, I figured I would never play my copy of Prison Architect, even though I have owned it for years. I am notoriously terrible at simulation titles, and this one didn’t appeal to me as much as others. This game recently got released on the Switch, however, so I thought now would be a good time to dust off my old (digital) copy of this game in order to give potential new buyers an idea of whether Prison Architect is worth a look or not.
My first few hours with Prison Architect were pure chaos. The mishaps were comical, but the results were horrifying. In my first prison, I accidentally locked the dining area and subsequently starved a large portion of the population before I realized my mistake. The remaining population proceeded to riot because I didn’t know how to limit the population of my prison and therefore had nearly eighty prisoners without a bed to call their own. In other simulation games, these sorts of issues might have made me give up on the game, but something about Prison Architect made me keep going.
Part of the reason for my willingness to keep chipping away at my understanding of this game is its fundamental design. This game may look impenetrable, with menus everywhere and a multitude of varying micromanagement menus to look into, but the game does a great job of introducing the player to all of the mechanics in a way that didn’t feel overwhelming, while still allowing for individual experimentation. Additionally, no matter how badly I messed up my prison, I never managed to ruin anything to the point where I actually broke my game. I could always come back from everything that went wrong, which made the game surprisingly forgiving when compared to many of its simulation peers.
While this game is primarily a sandbox-style simulator, there is a campaign consisting of five levels, and this story mode serves as one of the best tutorials I have ever seen in a simulation title. Each of the five campaign levels teaches a basic tenant of the overall prison architect formula, whether it is stopping a riot or just making sure prisoners have a shower facility. These concepts all build on top of each other as the tutorial goes on, but the genius part of this tutorial is that it encourages exploration of other features. In my time with the campaign, I was experimenting with features that would later be explained in greater detail, which allowed me to learn in both a guided and independent manner.
While the campaign does a great job of teaching basic mechanics, I still found myself frequently left stumped as to some of the more nuanced mechanics in the game. An example of this is when I realized that my visitor’s center was somehow set up improperly, which was leading to families coming to visit prisoners, but prisoners being unable to enter the facility. This led me to a lot of googling and guide-crawling, which isn’t uncommon for simulation titles, but it is still a bit disappointing that the tutorial is so generally robust, yet seems to have blind spots that cause frustration.
The campaign is completely optional, so simulation genre veterans or players who prefer to learn as they go can immediately jump into the sandbox and start building a prison completely from scratch. Player choice is extensive when setting up a new build scenario, as there is a list of all of the potential win and lose conditions that can be toggled on and off at will, as well as a variety of other settings that can be used to make building a prison much harder or easier. Personally, I liked playing this game with the infinite money option, as I like to build with reckless abandon and tend to have some exorbitant spending habits in my simulation games.
Since this is a simulation title, some issues that plague the genre as a whole show up here, as well. For example, one issue I had while playing Prison Architect is the amount of downtime I felt like I had sometimes. Once I got a prison up and running with all of its facilities, sometimes I just needed to wait for the next shipment of prisoners. Even turning the fast-forward all the way up, that wait could take a few minutes and I had nothing to do in the meantime. It isn’t a major complaint, but it is worth noting because it’s definitely something that I wish simulation games on the whole would improve upon for the future.
The final, brief note in this review is on the graphics and user interface. The user interface, on the whole, is quite good. It’s not the most intuitive menu, but it doesn’t take too long to understand what all of the buttons mean and they are positioned in a logical manner. The overall graphics presentation, however, doesn’t appeal to me at all. The prisons themselves are dirty and gritty looking, which is contrasted against very low-detail prisoner sprites. That, on its own, is weird, but it gets weirder when cutscenes play out and the tiny sprites turn into comic book drawings. There’s too many different design styles in this game and they don’t mesh very well with each other. Still, I’m not the kind of gamer that is enormously bothered by graphics, so while I didn’t care for the art style, this is in no way a deal-breaker for my overall enjoyment of the game.
Prison Architect looks terrifying at first glance. The user interface is made up of extensive menus and statistics which are difficult to navigate and understand. Ultimately, however, once the initial learning curve wears off, either through the phenomenal campaign or sandbox experimentation, there is a large amount of depth that will keep players coming back for more. While the game may not be perfect, it is certainly one of the better simulation games on the market right now, and its forgiving campaign tutorial makes it a surprisingly good starting point for the genre.
Personal Enjoyment: 8/10
Technical Review: 8/10