My fiancée is often a good arbiter of taste when it comes to computer gaming. Not a gamer herself, she has often watched and engrossed herself in a story-driven game such as the GTA series or her personal favourite, Red Dead Redemption. However, the first time I talked about Prison Architect, I was met with “Why the hell would you want to play a prison-building game?”. This has certainly been a question on my lips ever since I picked it up as soon as I could within Early Access; and now that Version 2.0 has been released and active development has finished, I can safely answer. It’s bloody good fun.
It feels like Prison Architect has been around for a long time, especially if you’ve been waiting for it to leave Early Access. A pioneer of this funding system, it first appeared in 2012, and has been steadily developed ever since then. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly been burned by Early Access games about as often as I’ve been rewarded by them. That said, I am extremely glad I have been with Prison Architect since the beginning. Developed by Introversion Games (Darwinia, Uplink, Defcon), the studio has a pedigree for entertaining, graphically simple games, and this offering continues that pattern.
How you approach your first play is up to you. There is a campaign which will teach the basics, but which does also begin with an extremely controversial feature which is death row and execution. The Introversion developers were always very up front about their desire to have execution as part of the game, as fits reality, but were also keen to not shove it in your faces or glorify it. Indeed, the process you have to take in order to execute a prisoner is long and laborious, and does not happen lightly. It is also exceptionally rare. Once the campaign is finished, the rest of the game is sandbox: and this is where the game really shines.
On startup, you are able to get into the game quickly and efficiently. There is no Dwarf Fortress-style generation of worlds here – choose your details and go. You are able to choose an avatar to represent yourself, most of which have bonuses within play, as well as the gender of your prison. A female prison will come with extra needs, such as maternity suites and nurseries. You select the size of your land (although why anyone would choose anything other than large is beyond me, as expanding land costs a bucket load once you’re in game) and any extras, such as random events or whether you want the possibility of disruptive gangs within your prison.
Once you hit play, that’s it. No need to customise anything else; you’re in. You’re met with 8 workmen and a plot of land. If you need direction at this point the game comes with an excellent grant system which will show you where to go next with your building. The “Basic Detention Centre” grant will help you get the basics in place, with your kitchen, a large communal cell and some showers. A simple mouse interface works well for all building, with the usual rotation systems through middle-mouse clicking that most building games expect nowadays. From game start, you have 24 hours to get these buildings in place, although you can turn intake off immediately to give yourself unlimited time to build.
Intake is an interesting balancing act. You are paid for taking prisoners in, as well as a basic payment for each prisoner each day to keep the prison running. However, there are numerous categories of prisoner – minimum, medium and maximum security. The aforementioned death row is another category; as are two further categories you can define yourself as appropriate. This is a risk / reward system. Minimum security prisoners are more likely to avoid trouble, with the opposite applying for max. With this comes the downsides or upsides – you’ll get a lot more money for having maximum security prisoners, as they carry a much higher risk.
The prisoners themselves are given a Regime for the day, which is their timetable. You can specify when they should be at work in the laundry or kitchen, or learning within the classrooms, or locked up in their cells. If you want them locked up 24/7, go whole hog. If you want a utopia where everyone is given free reign all day, that’s an option too. It’s a very Sims-style approach where you can be a cruel menace if you wish to be. Let’s have a look at prisoner Maria Scales, who is a maximum security inmate in my womens’ prison. It’s 7:15am, and she’s gone from breakfast in the canteen to the shower block. Passing through metal detectors placed outside my canteen, a couple of her compadres are stopped and searched, with forks and spoons used for escaping confiscated from them. After a shower and a toilet stop, Maria heads off to her designated work slot – in this case, attending a reform class in the prison chapel. Prisoners have needs, and already Maria has satisfied her food, hygiene, toilet and spirituality need. It’s only 9am! While this is going on, the rest of the prison is abuzz with activity. Prisoners are cleaning, making number plates in the workshop, organising the library and helping out in the kitchen.
A new feature in v2.0 means that you can set prisoners who aren’t at work to be locked up helps avoid trouble. Gang members will never work, for example, and would just roam and cause trouble during work time. Now they’re shut away during these vulnerable hours, which is a good development choice. Once the church session is finished, Maria heads off to work in the prison shop. This is an important place in the prison. Prisoners earn wages throughout their work sessions, and the shop gives them a place to spend on luxuries which can then be traded with other prisoners for contraband (mobile phones, drugs, weapons) or other luxuries. Maria finishes that shift, heads for some lunch, then back to the shop. Once the shift is complete, she’s off for dinner then an hour’s free time in the yard, where the menacing red gang appear to be waiting to make a play on seizing control of the area. Bed beckons for Maria, but it’s been an eventful day around the prison with two drug overdoses and three assaults on guards. That evening, a group of prisoners attempt an escape, having dug out of their cell and under the perimeter wall, but were stopped by a warning shot from a sniper in a tower just around the corner from where they tunnelled out. That’ll be a stop in solitary confinement for each of them, then.
I find the characters of the prisoners to be a bit of a double-edged sword. Each character is randomly generated and some will come with traits, such as volatile (likely to start trouble at the slightest thing, such as a random search) or snitch (will be targeted by other prisoners and probably murdered). This can end up with some incredibly super-powered prisoners, some of which end up described as “Legendary” status as they are excellent at everything except behaving like a normal person. However, as part of the Early Access funding, players of a certain level were able to put their own names or visages in game. This is a huge immersion breaker and comes with a huge level of nonsense. It also means some things just don’t match up. In my male prison, I have Cecil “T3h P1r4t3” Harvey. Yeah. His bio, provided by whoever paid to write this rubbish as part of their backing, states that he has been jailed for pirating software. Fair enough. Except his rap sheet, which shows what he’s actually in for, says that he’s actually in for a double murder and attempted murder as well. It just doesn’t match up. I fail to see how they could make it match up, however, and would just prefer to be able to remove these “create-a-player” things from games on start-up.
However, that’s about all the fault that I can pick with this game. I have seen it develop and blossom since the beginning Early Access, many years ago, and can safely say that it is now a fantastic, fully featured game which is well worth your hard earned cash. Prison Architect is also available on consoles, iOS and Android.