Prison Architect (PS4) Review – I Shot a Man in Reno

Some genres are synonymous with the PC. They just demand a mouse and keyboard. The sim genre it is generally accepted as one of them. As such, porting these games to consoles is a tricky affair, with complex systems and charts that are difficult to follow on the TV when you’re slumped on the couch, and controls that require a level of precision and buttons that pads simply don’t have, it rarely ends well.

With this in mind, it makes Double 11’s superb port of Prison Architect to the PS4 and Xbox One all that more impressive. The fact that they managed to successfully bring Introversion’s prison management sim to consoles with reliable controls, while maintaining the look, feel and (most importantly) features of the original is a praise worthy feat indeed.

The basic premise of Prison Architect’s main mode is to build and maintain a prison. However what kind of prison you decide to build upon the large plot of land you’re given is entirely up to you. You can make the most authoritarian maximum security facility imaginable with grotty cells and high fences, or a penitentiary that has more in common with Butlin’s than Broadmoor, and everything in between.

Irrespective of how you decide to run your prison there are a few things that every prison you create will require; cells or a holding facility to house your inmates, a kitchen and canteen to feed them, and staff to look after them and make sure they don’t escape. All of these things need to be built and maintained using a limited budget, staff need to be paid or they’ll walk out and the prison needs to be kept in a good state or your prisoners will either riot or escape.

The first thing you need to do though is build the place. In order to do this you first create a structural frame, wait for the builders to complete their work, and then kit the completed structure or room out with the necessary furniture it requires for its intended purpose. For example a working laundry room requires a washing machine, laundry basket and ironing board to function. While a cell needs to be an enclosed space containing a bed and a toilet.

As you expand your prison you’ll gain access to more complex structures and rooms that require other facilities to be built previously in order to function. For example an execution chamber needs you to  have researched the Death Penalty, built Death Row and have a lawyer on staff before you can even think about where to place ‘Ol Sparky’.

Finally all your buildings and appliances require power and occasionally water to function. Which requires you to build generators and substations as well as linking up a grid which will provide light and power to the whole of your prison, as well as installing storage tanks and pipes to feed your shower rooms, laundry, and kitchens.

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Once everything’s built and your utilities are all plumbed in, you’re finally ready to run your prison. Setting the daily routine for your inmates, hiring guards and figuring out the best place for them to be stationed. Making sure your staff aren’t over worked and that your prisoner’s are treated in a fair and humane manner.

At least that’s what happens in an ideal world. But with the chapel on fire, prisoners rioting, and your guards all on the take, you start to think that maybe you weren’t hard enough on those good-for-nothing inmates.

All of these things can (and probably will) happen. If you’re prudent and clever you can actually build a liberal home of rehabilitation. But like most people that go into these things with high ideals, chances are that in the end you’ll wonder how you became such a monster. Though this wont stop you instructing your lawyers to figure out how you can legally house your inmates in smaller cells to save money. As a result of this though they’re more likely to riot, which means you need to start arming your guards, and treating your inmates less humanely. It’s a slippery slope.

As I said you can run your penitentiary pretty much any way you like, and every decision you make will have palpable consequences for life in your prison. This is made possible thanks to Prison Architect’s myriad of cleverly interconnected systems which all intertwine to make a game that gradually layers in new levels of complexity as your prison expands and evolves introducing new mechanics and challenges.

That being said you can tailor the experience to be as simple or complex, and challenging as you like. Almost every facet of the experience can be tailored to your needs from the outset. Including how much money to start with, the proclivities of the Warden running your prison, what level of inmates you would like to house, and much more besides. You also have the option to skip the building phase altogether and simply get to work ruining running, one of ten prefabricated prisons.

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However the best way to get to grips with Prison Architect’s numerous systems is to play through it’s surprisingly gripping campaign mode. This sees you working through five episodes with an overarching plot that successfully teach you everything you need to know about building and managing your prison while spinning a rather bleak tale of murder and corruption.

For a genre which demands a mouse and keyboard Double 11 have done an admirable job of making the game’s fairly complex controls work on a pad. Refining the way rooms are built and cutting down on the amount of menus you need to open and even allowing you to construct prefab rooms which helps to make the experience easier to manage, and more immediate.

This is complimented by Prison Architect’s distinct visual style. Every element of the environment; from inmates, to staff, to furniture are easy to distinguish, and easy to select and manipulate. Which allows you to swiftly survey your facility and make any necessary adjustments with only a few button presses.

Though the graphical design has a certain cartoony charm to it, by comparison the sound design is relatively rudimentary. There’s very little music, instead making use of ambient noises to create a sense of atmosphere, as your inmates bicker, guards stomp down the corridors and the whirring and clanking of construction workers create bustling soundscapes which encapsulate life in your prison.

Channeling the spirit of Bullfrog’s Theme series Prison Architect is a marvelous game regardless of which platform you choose to play it on. Its myriad of smart, interwoven systems combine to create a challenging, tense and enthralling experience that both fans of the genre, (especially those that remember its heyday in the mid 90s) and newcomers alike should definitely check out.

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