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Prison Architect Review (PC)

Crawling a mile through early access to freedom!

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It’s an ongoing and important debate whether prison is for punishment or rehabilitation. Up till now though, this debate has never been meaningfully explored in games. Enter Prison Architect – the ultimate incarceration simulator – where you can decide for yourself whether those on the wrong side of the law just made some bad choices or deserve to be locked up with the key thrown away.

Prison Architect has a central campaign that doubles as an extended tutorial for the game’s many intricacies. It’ll teach you to build secure accommodations for your prisoners, and how to build functioning canteens and kitchens to feed them, infirmaries to keep them healthy and give jobs to keep them occupied. Not only does the campaign provide a forgivingly gentle introduction to the initially daunting complexity of Prison Architect, it also tells a surprisingly gritty and compelling main story.

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Once you’ve achieved certain objectives, a comic book style cutscene occurs to advance the plot. As an upcoming prison administrator, you’ll oversee various prisons, handling events such as rehabilitating suicidal inmates and suppressing prison riots. A harsh light is shone on the corruption of the prison-industrial complex as the storyline explores the innate contradictions of the private prison system profiting from incarcerating convicts rather than rehabilitating them. It’s also an unsympathetic portrayal of how politicians score points by showing themselves as “tough on crime”: turning prisons into factories for resentment and re-offending. Prison Architect pulls no punches when depicting the brutalities that sent the criminals down the river, but it pulls on the heartstrings instead, as it suggests the hope that with a second chance, people can change for the better.

Despite the cutesy sprites that depict your many inmates, an appropriately gritty tone is struck in Prison Architect. There are plenty of problems that can befall your jail, and you’re given very deep control over how to solve them. Fires can break out, and you’ll have control over every one of the firemen as you try and get their hoses to contain the blaze. Likewise, should a prison riot occur, you can call in the riot police and have them sweep through the building with shields and batons, controlling where you deploy each one. If you make mistakes in a crucial situation like this, like trying to take on too many rioters at once or god forbid, letting the rioters get to the armory, your prison could be doomed. You might need to regularly search cells to make sure makeshift weapons or other contraband isn’t being hidden, but do this too often and your prisoners get restless. It is very enjoyable to have such precise control over how you deal with disasters when so many simulation games focus purely on the design aspect.

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This is not to say that the design aspect of the game is lacking either. Making sure you have an adequate power and water grid is crucial, and it’s also vital to make sure there aren’t ways for your prisoners to escape. If you make your prison too much of a maze of walls and heavy jail doors, however, it can be difficult for prisoners and staff to get around. Prison Architect really challenges you to carefully design a prison that’s both functional and secure, and that makes it so much more satisfying when you get it right.

There’s a tech tree to progress through that opens up when you build offices for such prison officials as the warden, the foreman and the security chief. The tree gives you a choice of which techs to prioritize, and consequently, which approach you’d like to take towards your convicts. Researching new security options will let you keep the prison population under your thumb. You can build security cameras to make sure you’ve got eyes on your convicts at all times. You can get confidential informants to help you acquire more precious knowledge about the prisoners, such as which ones are most at risk of a shanking in the showers and might need protective custody (like the ex-cops and known snitches). Armed guards and sniffer dogs patrolling the grounds are even an option, though their presence can make the populace feel oppressed (especially if a trigger happy guard guns down a prisoner).

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There is a path to securing your prison that doesn’t involve great expenditures on jack-booted oppression of your inmates. There’s a danger bar at the top of the screen that determines how close to a riot your prison is. If you hire a psychologist, you can see your prisoner’s various needs, and if you keep all those needs satisfied, your prisoners should be content enough not to cause trouble. You’ll have to use your limited resources to prioritize what the inmates need most. If they’re lacking in ways to have fun, it might be good to build a common room with a TV and a pool table. If they’re missing their family, you can build phones or a visitation area to make sure they can keep in touch with their loved ones.

When your prisoners have served their term behind bars, they’ll be released, and whether or not they end up re-offending is largely up to how well you’ve treated them. You can make sure your prison’s re-offending rate is kept low by giving your prisoners new skills, whether it’s helping out in the kitchen, laundry room, making furniture and license plates, or getting a more formal education in a classroom. Having your prisoners do some of the work not only saves you spending money on more expensive staff, but it can also help you generate a little extra income.

What makes Prison Architect so fun is how you’re able to choose what balance of fear and hope you want to strike. Some players might enjoy the jackbooted approach of randomly throwing prisoners into solitary confinement to keep them in line. Bleeding heart liberal creampuffs (like me) can get more satisfaction of setting up a parole board to release prisoners early with the mindset to get a fresh start in life.

Prison Architect4Prison Architect has spent some time in early access, and it shows, as there’s quite a few conveniences on offer to help you with the daunting task of building your very own nightmarish panopticon. Building cell blocks can be quite a repetitive process since it involves designing large areas with identical rooms. Luckily, there’s the easily researchable “clone” option, which allows you to pretty much copy and paste entire wings of your cellblock. The full version of the game also includes nifty little extras such as the “Prison Escape” mode where you can download someone elses’ prison from Steam and test how secure it is by taking control of a prisoner and trying to escape it yourself. There are also collectibles for completionists out there such as unlockable polaroids that depict scenes of prison life.

I wish I could say the game is completely free of niggling bugs that plagued it in development, but it isn’t quite there yet. On one occasion I found my workmen somehow not able to find a path into a workshop I’d built. The foreman regularly came into the room to instruct prisoners on carpentry, but somehow the hapless workers couldn’t find their way inside to install wood saws! Granted, I can understand the reluctance to deliver serrated blades to convicts, but sadly this incident was just poor pathfinding AI.

Though Prison Architect allows you multiple ways to play and gives you goodies to unlock, it doesn’t offer the lifespan I’d longed for. The main campaign spans a brisk five levels, ending just as it has finished introducing you to the many room types and tech trees. When you’re playing in sandbox mode, there just isn’t that much to spice things up beyond continuously expanding your prison till it fills the map. Once you’ve dabbled with everything that looks interesting, there’s little motivation to start afresh. I was bemoaning my short sentence on Prison Architect when I was hoping for some hard time.

Yes, your honor, Prison Architect is a little rough around the edges. Yeah, it’s had plenty of issues during it’s early access period, but it came from a hard background, having to crowdfund its development up from nothing. With plenty of rehabilitative testing, the full version of this game has plenty of fun features, and provides an in-depth simulation experience with a learning curve that doesn’t overwhelm you. Give it a home on your hard drive and the chance to re-integrate itself into your Steam library, and you’ll have hours of fun. I rest my case!

Final Verdict: 4 / 5

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Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Introversion Software; Developer: Introversion Software; Players: 1; Released: October 6th, 2015 ;

Full Disclosure: A copy of Prison Architect was provided to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.

Jonathan is HeyPoorPlayer's token British person, so expect him to thoroughly exploit this by quoting Monty Python and saying things like "Pip, pip, toodly-whotsit!" for the delight of American readers. He likes artsy-fartsy games, RPGs and RPG-Hybrids (which means pretty much everything at this point). He used to write for Sumonix.com. He's also just realised how much fun it is to refer to himself in the third person like he's The Rock or something.
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