Some genres are synonymous with the PC. They just demand a mouse and keyboard. The sim genre 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, successfully bringing 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.
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 a 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 needs for whatever you want to use it for. 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. For example, an execution chamber needs you to first have a Death Row, have researched the Death Penalty, 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. 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, while also installing storage tanks and pipes to feed your shower rooms, laundry, and kitchens.
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, as you get you instruct your lawyers to figure out how you can legally house your inmates in smaller cells rather than build a new cell block to house your latest influx of prisoners to save money. As a result of this, they’re more likely to riot, which means you need to start arming your guards.
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 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 as challenging as you want, thanks to being able to alter pretty much every facet of the experience 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. You also have the option to skip the building phase altogether and simply get to work ruining–sorry–running, one of ten pre-built prisons.
However, the best way to get to grips with the game’s systems is to play through the campaign mode. This surprisingly gripping narrative mode sees you working through five episodes with an overarching plot that successfully teaches 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–even allowing you to construct prefab rooms–helps to make the experience a lot more easy-going and more immediate. This is complimented by Prison Architect’s distinct visual style. Every element of the environment–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 a few button presses.
Though the graphical design has a certain cartoony charm to it, the sound design, by comparison, 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 as you survey 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 hey-day in the mid 90s), should definitely check out.
Prison Architect was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Introversion Software/Double 11 | Publisher: Sold Out | Genre: Simulation | Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 16+/M | Release Date: October 6, 2015 (PC), June 28, 2016 (PS4, Xbox One)