I sit at my desk swaddled cozily in blankets, writing this review and drinking peach tea and eating crackers and listening to Oneohtrix Point Never’s Memory Vague (a criminally underrated release) and thinking one thing: “thankfully, at this exact moment, I am not in a prison.”
“But Ryan!” you protest. “Isn’t society itself a prison? Aren’t you essentially imprisoned by the system of higher education which you willingly give thousands of dollars to despite having a growing suspicion your degree will be totally useless?” Well, yes. But right now, I’m talking about the kind of old-fashioned brick-and-mortar state penitentiaries that Introversion Software’s Prison Architect puts you in control of.
Fellow Chooch writer Michael has covered Prison Architect before in a wonderful editorial, but that was over the game’s alpha/Early Access version. Prison Architect 1.0 has finally gone live, busting into our lives in a fit of both violence and hilarity, like the jail breakout scene at the end of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. Anyone? No? Okay. Moving on.
It would be pretty redundant to review a 1.0 that feels exactly the same as previous versions, but thankfully this newest update to Prison Architect brings the big guns, both literally and figuratively. 1.0 really feels like a full, almost entirely new game, and not just a minor update slapped on to justify a more expensive price tag. There’s a lot of fresh content to go over, but it’d probably be best to hit the high points. I don’t think I could even begin to catalog the amount of new objects and staff members and such that have been added.
For the unfamiliar, Prison Architect places you in control of constructing a prison from the ground up by taking grants and loans and receiving income from the state based on how many and what kind of prisoners you keep. You also oversee all imaginable aspects of daily operations. This includes everything from where you direct the facility’s funding to deciding down to the exact minute when prisoners are supposed to shower.
Like any sim game, there’s a lot that goes into managing a prison. For example, every room type has requirements, whether it be a checklist of certain furniture items or just having to construct the foundations in certain dimensions. You can’t slap a chair out in the middle of a field and designate it as a functional office, sadly. You probably could make your jail into a confusing and complex labyrinth, but Prison Architect generally isn’t a game where you want to subject your NPCs to Sims levels of existential torture. A lot of the game hinges on keeping your little people in a good mood, for both prisoners and staff members. Unhappy prisoners? They riot. Tired staff? They won’t be alive five minutes from now when the prisoners manage to jump them.
The question really comes down to exactly how you want to manage your prison. Do you want to save money by creating bare minimum cells, or do you want to reduce the possibility of riots by giving prisoners some more expensive amenities? Are you fine with granting prisoners a degree of autonomy, or are you going to reduce chances of contraband by giving them a strict schedule with routine guard checks? Would you want to keep dangerous maximum security prisoners in order to get more funding, or would you rather play it safe? There’s a lot of options in Prison Architect, and although some work better than others, the game never tries to shoehorn you down a particular path for success.
The mechanics will probably seem pretty standard to anyone who’s played a sim/management game before. At times, the amount of content in menus can feel cluttered and dense, but at least the simple aesthetic makes it easy on the eyes. Prison Architect is a made-for-PC game, but it doesn’t suffer under the weight of intensely complicated keyboard controls or commands like, say, Kerbal Space Program. In fact, the entire game can be played with just the mouse. It doesn’t take too long to get the hang of either, especially with some of the new 1.0 additions.
Earlier versions of the Prison Architect included a “one-and-done” tutorial prison that taught incredibly basic functions of the game, but 1.0 comes with a five prison “campaign.” Each prison has a different story, or scenario, or whatever you’d like to call it. The first level deals with building an execution chamber for a death row inmate, while the second has you trying to rebuild a flame-ravaged prison, set against the backdrop of a brewing gang war.
The campaign levels are a great way to learn all the intricate functions of the game, which is especially necessary for me due to the huge amount of content added since the last time I played. Surprisingly enough, I found myself fairly engaged in the stories told in each level. They may not be anything award-winning, but they’re all an entertaining and occasionally harrowing look into the world of the game that integrate incredibly well with the mechanics they’re meant to teach.
The first scenario makes it abundantly clear that you, as the operator of this prison, are not supposed to care about the lives of inmates. What they did (or didn’t) do to end up here isn’t important, what’s important is that they’re now your problem, and more or less another resource to be managed. The game, perhaps unintentionally, raises some weird questions about what you, the player, are willing to feel and do in regard to these inmates in order to operate a smooth prison. But, I’ll refer those existential questions back to Michael’s editorial again. What I’m heading towards is the addition of the ultimate prisoner sympathizer: Escape Mode.
Escape Mode is maybe the biggest and most important feature of Prison Architect’s 1.0 release. Escape Mode puts you in the role of a random prisoner, with your objective, unsurprisingly, being to escape. You do this by starting fights and stealing contraband, and racking up “reputation points” which you can use to upgrade your prisoner and recruit others into your squad.
Since Escape Mode is played on player-made prisons, it’s where the decisions you made as a “prison architect” really come back to haunt you. Those metal detectors around every corner seemed like a good idea when you were in control, but now they’re making it impossible for you to smuggle those damn scissors back to your cell. Did you make your prison into a labyrinth, even though I told you not to? Well, good luck finding your way around.
I’ll admit, escaping from your own prisons gets tiring after a while. Thankfully, Escape Mode allows you to pick a random prison on the Steam workshop and escape from that one instead. “But Ryan!” you interject again, having managed to keep quiet for most of the review. “What if the random prison you get assigned absolutely sucks?” Well, the developers thought of that too. You can set a star level on what prison you want – rated one star and above, three stars and above, etc., and that’ll usually separate the good from the bad.
Escape Mode is fun, but it isn’t perfect. There could definitely be a lot more variety in terms of items to use and methods to escape. Once you escape, you’re assigned a point value, which seems sort of arbitrary and ultimately pointless. Any inmates you recruit into your squad have to be broken out too, unless you just remove them and prematurely end the game. And, as mentioned before, the whole challenge hinges on being placed inside a competently made prison, which doesn’t always happen.
But, since Prison Architect is still primarily a sim game, these flaws don’t feel as detrimental as flaws in the game’s main mode, of which there are thankfully few. For example, one of my biggest issues is that the game lacks a title screen and brings you directly into gameplay upon opening. That’s it. That’s the biggest gripe I can level against the main mode of Prison Architect. Escape Mode is more like a nice little dessert to go with the already incredibly well-made main course. It also provides a way for builders to share their prisons in the most sadistic way possible, which can be pretty fun.
All in all, Prison Architect 1.0 is a wonderful sim game made even better by the addition of more content and extra game modes. Some may be put off by the $30 price tag, but I can say from experience that the content definitely delivers. This is a game you can end up sinking a lot of hours into, and that’s not even including Escape Mode. I highly recommend Prison Architect to anyone who considers themselves a fan of that ambiguous genre of simulation/management/strategy games that includes the Tycoon series and Sim City and the like.
Now that I think about it, there’s something weirdly charming and borderline whimsical to the way the game handles itself, even with bouts of bloody violence constantly breaking out. Maybe it’s the simple graphics? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that I haven’t had this much fun playing a 2D human misery simulator since Space Station 13. Consider that high praise.
Prison Architect is a fantastic sim game with a few minor hiccups. Who knew that prison could be so much fun?