Prison Architect: SimCity 4 Goes to Prison.
So, last year, we reviewed a strange little game called Prison Architect, which was like if SimCity 4 was swallowed and spat out by the corporate prison system. It was a good game.
This year, the game was ported and released on PS4, and I was given the chance to not only have a crack at the game, but the opportunity to see how well I would do as the head of my own incarceration wonderland.
After some bumpy moments leading to my staring at my word processor screen with drool dribbling out the side in not-so-subtle contemplation, I found that I, too, thought it was a good game. I mean, who doesn’t want to be in charge of a corporate wasteland of incarcerated convicts, in charge of their ultimate fates and destinies? As a long-time SimCity and Civilization player, I grabbed the game by the horns, jumped in, and hoped for an experience just as good. Or, if not that, then at least close to the same tone.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Prison Architect is a really hard title to hop into if you’re used to PC sims. The developers were kind enough to make controller shortcuts to make just about everything easier, including dragging and zooming in and out, but it has the usual controller problem of not being nearly as sensitive as a mouse, nor as convenient as mouse controls. You move your cursor with the Left stick, cancel jobs by clicking R3, and you can zoom in and out by pressing the trigger buttons. The zooming is clunky and slow, and doesn’t feel fluid, with a split second delay before it actually gets to the zooming. The D-Pad is used to get into your menus and sub-menus, of which there are plenty, and with so much depth and customization that it made my head spin. You can design the look and feel of your prison however you want, and the developers really tried to make Prison Architect reflect the name, as well as make it as comfortable an experience as possible for console gamers who might not be used to doing everything with their mouse. The UI has even been changed to be more convenient for controller users, but the text is often very small and hard to read unless you’re fairly close to your TV.
Unfortunately, this approach to accessibility doesn’t always work. Sometimes I end up accidentally getting out of a menu or have the wrong item selected because my cursor goes over the wrong object: I can’t tell you how much of my time was spent fumbling with the menus and items because my finger would slip on the D-pad or the game simply didn’t like that I had a bed selected when the cursor was near a wall. Selecting items is finicky and particular, and until you get used to it, you’ll want to pound your controller into paste. There’s also a slight delay when you select things, which adds more fun to the proceedings.
At least 40 percent of my playtime consisted of me struggling with this menu system. After the difficulty curve, though, you adjust okay. You can even pause the game to get your bearings, which was the only way I got anything done in a smooth, timely manner.
Then again, players who aren’t used to creativity and simulation sandboxes like these have the option to do the multi-stage tutorial, which doubles as a story mode. Prison Architect has an absurd amount of content, so it’s a good way to ease into the game and figure out how it works. Unfortunately, I’m notoriously impatient, so I played a little bit of the story mode, wanted to get to the sandbox, and hopped into the main game mode with both feet.
The story mode is a nice touch, and good for new players, but I feel that this sandbox is where Prison Architect truly shines. The feeling of exploring the menus and options (which are all very well-explained), creating your own facility from scratch, and micromanaging like crazy are really satisfying. The console-specific Prison Warden Mode is…well, it’s SimCity‘s scenario mode, just with a prison coat of paint. It’s not a bad coat of paint, but for veterans of the genre, this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, especially if you grew up playing SimCity like I did.
Still…there’s that niggling thought in the back of my mind that this isn’t how the game was intended to be played. The sandbox feels like an extra add-on to the main story missions, while the story missions feel like they’re supposed to be the true meat of the game. The story is carefully crafted, characters are well-written and sufficiently kind / dastardly as their role allows, and there’s plenty of shade being thrown at the exploitative private prison industry. That said, the story mode also tends to drag, and might not be the best option for either veterans of the genre or impatient types like me that just want to play with their sandbox.
Okay, so, bottom line: If you like SimCity 4, and want a sandbox with a bit of teeth to it, you can’t go wrong with Prison Architect. It’s a deep, fun game that will keep you occupied for hours, while having enough variety to never get boring. That said, if you can, play the PC version. The Playstation 4 Edition is a lot better designed than most games of this type, and the control scheme won’t exactly make you chuck controllers across the room with rage, but it’s still clunky, and nowhere near what a good mouse and keyboard setup can do. If you really need a new game for your Playstation 4, and you want something a bit more addictive than the usual PSN fare, then this isn’t a heinous console port, and you can definitely do far worse.
Prison Architect is ported to the Playstation 4 swimmingly, but due to the nature of the game, it’s hard to give this version a wholehearted recommendation. It’s still worth checking out if you’re curious, though, and the PC version is still around for those who didn’t pick it up already.
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One ; Publisher: Double Eleven ; Developer: Double Eleven, Introversion ; Players: 1 ; Released: June 28th, 2016 ; ESRB: M (For Mature) ; MSRP: $29.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.