Inmate Management with Dark Sense of Humour
Prison Architect has been on people's radar for over a year now. Developed with the help of Steam's Early Access program by experienced indie developers Introversion Software (Uplink and Defcon), how does it compare to classics of the genre like Theme Hospital and RollerCoaster Tycoon?
Building, Planning, Managing Your Prison… and Sometimes Panicking
Prison Architect is all about creating a facility that will cater for the needs of an inmate population. How this is achieved is down to personal preference; you can create a prisoner's heaven, full of entertainment, cushy jobs and luxurious cells. If that's not your style, you can create their worst nightmare. Rule over a dingy, bare and severe prison with enough guards to dwarf a small nation's army.
There's only limited space available on a map, and deciding what goes where early on (using the planning feature is a good idea, especially on your first couple of builds) can be a real test of organisation and planning skills. Every prison will need basic rooms and utilities - there has to be an electrical substation, a water system, cells, showers, a kitchen and canteen and staff offices. Speaking of staff, no prison will function without its own fleet of workers, a warden, chefs and prison guards.
Release Date: 06/10/2015
Available on: PC Download
Play the Game
It's already sounding a little complicated, isn't it? We've not even scratched the surface. There's a budget, and the prison must make money. This is done by balancing expenses (including wages) against the money your prison earns from housing the inmates. There are reports galore to read through, each individual prisoner has a rich profile that can be accessed by clicking on them. From this profile, prisoners can be searched, harassed or punished on a whim.
Aside from the essential staff and rooms, the options are there to build an infirmary, complete with nurses, to look after any injured staff or prisoners. Going through the richly detailed reports section gives the player access to training and rehabilitation programs that will require rooms such as the common room and appropriate staff, i.e., a psychologist, to be taken on.
The prison needs to be protected against rioting, arson and drug trafficking. Each room and building will need to be connected to the power grid. Objects that require a large amount of electricity will need their own direct connection to a capacitor. Sprinklers require manual connection to the prison's water system. Doors and windows must be added to each building - the creation of each little part of your prison demands attention to detail - so much so that it's perfectly possible to spend an hour playing and barely have the basic rooms and facilities up and running.
There's so much flexibility in what type of facility you can build that it will take multiple complete builds in sandbox mode to fully explore them all. For instance, I currently have two saved sandboxes on the go - one is a super high security and high-discipline facility that takes no nonsense from the inmates (brought about because gang warfare broke out in the middle of my canteen), and the other is more of a rehabilitation centre than a prison. The prisoners have all the modern comforts they could need, and I have large scale programs in operation to cure drug addiction, alcohol addiction and even behavioural problems.
Not your Average Tycoon Game
When we think of the classics of this genre - RollerCoaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital and crossovers like Dungeon Keeper - we're used to a certain type of humour. Not too dark, even in Dungeon Keeper's case, and plenty of laughs.
Prison Architect is a real mixed bag in this sense. The narrative through the campaign is grim and adult stuff. There's a voiced and drawn graphic affair that leads into a double homicide. There are protracted in-engine garrotings and stabbings. The first part of the story deals with the ethics of building, testing and eventually flipping the switch on an electric chair, and whether that's really justice. It's a far cry from Theme Hospital's ‘invisible man syndrome' and ‘piles' spiel.
Campaign and Sandbox
There are two main ways to enjoy Prison Architect. By default, the game will automatically launch into the career mode, which is narrated through a combination of in-engine and comic book style cutscenes. There's a storyline that ties these missions together, most of which take that classic tycoon game route of having you fix an already built facility rather than starting completely from scratch each time.
The sandbox mode is, I imagine, what most people excited to play this game are really looking for. There are several options available before starting to tailor the experience you'll get - stuff like random events and gang warfare can provide an unpredictable challenge, while other options like unlimited money can help to ratchet down the stress.
While the campaign is nicely done and has clearly had a lot of thought and effort put into it, I'd be lying if I said that I found it riveting. For me, the whole point of these games is to start completely from scratch and explore the creative opportunities that the game provides.
Prison Architect is perhaps one of the most in-depth building/tycoon games available on PC. It's delightful that a developer has gone for the full-blown take on micro management in an era where beloved franchises are often released in dumbed-down and simplistic states. Channelling your inner prison designer will set you back €28 on Steam.