Ever wanted to design the best prison ever? Me too. I’ve been a huge fan of institutional structures since I was a bored college student and started to consider why my school was designed the way it was, why banks look similar, and why government buildings all have the same vibe. I’m also a lifelong fan of sim builders like Sim City and Roller Coaster Tycoon, so the idea of a prison sim was a perfect match for me.
Don’t be fooled by the cartoon, static graphics and aesthetics of Prison Architect (Introversion Software, MSRP $29.99) because this game is deep and forces you to consider every aspect of running an institution from staffing and design, to cash flow and security. Moreover, there is an interesting moral element that creeps in while playing. You may find yourself questioning your actions given that you get to know bits about the inmates and population of your prison. I thought that I might be the exception to this observation but a quick google search revealed several discussions about self-righteous prison builders and conversely, humble or caring governors that go out of their way to make life as comfortable as possible for the inmates. It’s a strange, yet welcome tangent to allow the player to connect with the populace, when most “builder” games focus on the ever competing triangle that pits design, imagination and economics against each other. Roller Coaster Tycoon certainly asks you to make your guests happy, and later iterations of Sim City want you to care about your city dwellers, but not to the extent that you question your morals in Prison Architect. Furthermore, those games rarely introduce narrative subplots that compel you to re-think your design and economic plan.
While the minutia will stick with me longer than the actual game, that’s no fault of the game developers; I’m at the mercy of the controls and I can see how this game is much more suited for a PC environment. It’s the classic console gamer conundrum. When Prison Architect was first announced, I hollered for it to come to consoles for all the reasons in my intro, but it’s clear that a mouse and keyboard schema would work infinitely better than dozens of submenus controlled by D-Pads, thumbsticks, and shoulder controllers. It’s incredibly difficult to make your way through the tutorials that aim to introduce you to all your options, but compound the information deeper than a Guinness Book record winning cake of a 1000 layers. It’s lot to remember, use, and adjust. Thankfully, there’s nifty pop-up menu in tutorials to guide you to the important areas. But once you get to sandbox mode, you’re on your own and good luck!
Most of my colleagues love this game for sandbox mode, though I preferred the direct action and objectives of the tutorials. Sandbox mode allows you to take an empty field and build the prison of your dreams… and, well, do whatever you want to the inmates, and your staff. Said colleagues would have fun creating the most insane riots, and hallways that act like obstacle courses reminiscent of American Gladiators, only here, inmates and guards die with almost no one ever surviving, save the player and the smile on his or her face for creating the ultimate place of doom. That said, I can’t begrudge my comrades for their imagination. I’ve enjoyed plenty of car chases in GTA just to outlast the cops, and built crazy rollercoasters in Roller Coaster Tycoon just to push the nausea limits of the park patrons. The police always catch you, and the guests always throw up. It’s an expected reaction, but a great exercise in imagination and escapism. Prison Architect is no different in this respect. It’s a game that allows you some escapist fantasy while questioning your morals, assuming you can get past and grasp the rich mechanics the game has to offer. It’s fun and a great addition to the genre.
Despite my own cries for a console version, I’d steer clear of it, and instead, seek it out on Steam. Despite having a review copy, I’m jumping ship to Steam to further create the inescapable, post-apocalyptic prison of my dreams, which thanks to the Steam community, also includes a lot of fun mods. If you’re lucky, you won’t be sentenced to anything that stems from my imagination. Game on.
Rob McCallum is an award-winning filmmaker, documenting subjects like video games, heavy metal, fanboy fanatics, and more. His work has garnered press attention from NBC, CBS, CBC Radio•One, CTV, WIRED, /Film, Destructoid and has appeared in dozens of film festivals. Known for out-of-the-box thinking and fierce determination, McCallum has raised over $170,000 via multiple crowdfunding campaigns and contributes his opinions to various online blogs and sites. His obsession with all things Jim Henson is hard to understand but most people forgive him for his deep love of Masters of the Universe and Ducktales. For more information, please visit RobMcCallumFilms.com
(Please note that for this review Game Source did receive a review code/copy/product for the game from the Public Relations Firm, Developer and/or Publisher responsible for distribution to the press. This review was first posted at yourgamesource.com on 8-15-16)