Prison Architect Review – Iron Fantasies (PS4)
I love simulation games. I always have. Anything that simulates real life in any way, from the most extreme and obvious end of the simulation spectrum, like Sims games, to the other end of the spectrum, with fantastical, yet similar-ish-to-real-life, RPG games (just like RPGs, I think my day job definitely has some sort of skill grinding mechanic to it). The more control an obvious-type simulation game gives me, the better. That’s why I highly approve of Prison Architect. I feel like I really am a prison CEO. And probably the nicey-nicest prison CEO these prisoners have ever seen (you get a bookshelf, and YOU get a bookshelf…EVERYONE GETS A BOOKSHELF!).
More Than Just Building Stuff
The name may lead you to believe this game is just building a prison. It is much more than that. You start by building a little prison, sure, but you also need to know how to run it. From choosing the inmates’ daily regime and meal quality (being mindful of maximum security inmates crossing paths while angry at your budget-friendly cafeteria slop), to deciding if you will offer general education classes, and thereafter, parole hearings for good behavior and educational advancement. The bureaucracy and logistics (which just happen to be two of my favorite menus in the game) are deep and intricate. You are the CEO and you have the power. After learning and mastering one power, you just get to unlock another. Pretty soon, you have built an efficient prison machine with strict schedules, income generation, and an unshakable security force.
One thing many people love about Prison Architect is the little biographies and stats for each individual inmate. They are all unique. You can see what family they have on the outside, what they are in for, how they are doing in your prison; all those kinds of things. One of the funnest things to do was sit back while my efficient prison machine was running itself, follow one inmate around, and narrate what he might be saying. Relax while I tell you the story of inmate Peters.
Inmate Peters seemed to be the only one taking the carpentry class. He dutifully sat there alone in an empty workshop while the foreman taught him. It was awkward. Then, skinny Peters would go back to his cell each night and stay up trying to talk the surrounding guys into joining him. Speedy was up all night too, but that’s because he was tweaking out. Looks like he wouldn’t be joining the class the next day. Wilson just told Peters to shut up and went to sleep. Okay, so maybe my prison had a contraband problem and no one was motivated to educate themselves. Whatever. It was fine. Speedy took the Pharmacological Drug Rehabilitation class eventually, and I hired some K9 guard units.
To say the game has a tutorial mode would insult what is actually a nice, lengthy campaign. It can be hard to discern the difference between a lengthy tutorial and an actually challenging campaign mode in this kind of game, with the two unhappily blurring into one another in some titles, but this one takes you on a nice subtle journey through all the controls available in the sandbox mode. It’s a pleasant challenge, and they’ve done a lot to give you a real story line. It’s even gritty and shocking at times. There are even cliffhangers!
Have Your Tutorial and Eat It Too
That’s what I like — if you want to learn how to play, it’s not just pushing X a million times to get through the instructions. It’s a healthy challenge with an entertaining narrative, fitting for a game about incarceration. While I liked and applaud the way they finessed the game into becoming cinematic for cutscenes (complete with “prison Polaroids” artwork to help the story along), I did not like how slow they can be in the moment. Watching the little prisoner sprite walk slowly across the map to the next part of the story, without being able to hurry him up or skip the scene completely, really made me stare at the ceiling in frustration at times, especially if I was playing that challenge over again and viewing that cutscene for the second time. At least just let us cutscene veterans hit circle to skip!
Having played the PC version when it was released, I can say Double Eleven did a nice job converting controls for console. They work with an expanding menu for each directional button. The time controls are fast by simply holding triangle and pushing forward or back. I never got frustrated with slow, clunky controls in the heat of the moment like you have nightmares about when anticipating a console release of a PC game. No one else has those??
Now Hiring Prison Architect: Must Have Eagle Vision
Moving on, the graphic design of the menus and game overall could have had some rethinking for console. The text is MICROSCOPIC. I advise you play on a 47-inch HD TV or larger, and perhaps scoot a bit close. I found myself absentmindedly using the “zoom-in” button to try and read small text, but alas, I only got to look closer at Inmate Smith walking in circles in his cell, while I was still clueless as to what that tiny, stationary, non-magnified number next to that icon said.
Another gripe: since the directional button menus are so fast, it became confusing as to which directional menu I currently had pulled up, since all the icons are blue and all of them use tiny text to “clearly” (read: not clearly at all) signify which function they were. I know they were all supposed to look like little blue prints (clever) but since the text was so tiny and there are so so many menus and menu options, it would have been nice to have a little visual cue to complement the nice use of quick console controls.
Apart from the campaign mode, there are the two sandbox modes: Prison Architect and Prison Warden. Prison Architect starts you from square one so you can really test yourself. Prison Warden lets you jump a bit ahead and pick a warden with a special modifier (like the doctor who does tests on the inmates via the water supply, making them all strangely calmer sometimes), and then pick a map. The map can be one of the cool pre-made prisons or a bare plot of land with interesting features. Hint: water features are a new landscape option in the console release. You can also change a few game modifiers to make it harder, including allowing gangs, which are more dangerous and hard to control.
Down to a Science
Prison Warden is what will offer me some longevity in this game, since I can mess around with how the wardens affect the gameplay, and how each map runs differently. I get bored easily, and I will say that I found myself unchallenged after I got the hang of things. Prison Warden can help with that.
I want to mention the pre-order DLC, All Day and A Night. I found the coolest parts of the game were the additional wardens, maps, and lots you get from it. I like when a game that lets you create your own stuff still comes with pre-made stuff that is actually pretty cool. It’s like they are saying, “Hey, I know you’re super creative and can totally come up with your own fun ideas, but here are these too.” Thanks, guys. Sometimes I just need to admire and enjoy the carefully groomed prison creations of others.
We like to have control in our games, us simulation-lovers. For me, it’s because I know I can’t control life. So I’m happy to dive in and control fake life. Plus, I have a general life-goal to never actually experience prison. Prison Architect satisfies a simulation need with a topic that is unique, and gives you lots of options to set up your dream prison. Dream prison? Sure.
Prison Architect review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on our review policy, click here.