Running a prison.
Introversion’s Prison Architect is the perfect example of Steam Early Access working well. The game, in which the player has to build and run a prison, launched on Steam Early Access what seems like ages ago in a very bare bones form. Then, over time and with a lot of work from the developers and feedback from the ever-growing community, Prison Architect was improved, polished and expanded upon until the developers deemed the game worthy of a full release on Steam late last year. It is this slick version of Prison Architect which has now made its way onto the home consoles.
As I hadn’t actually looked at the game since the very early days of Steam Early Access, I must admit to being quite interested to see how far this management simulation had evolved during its journey onto the consoles, and I have to say that I was impressed by how much there was to the game. The big concern for gamers when it comes to this style of game, a game that was predominantly designed with keyboard and mouse in mind, is always the controls. So let’s get this out of the way quickly, the controls work almost seamlessly. Using a controller to assign construction and delve through menus works incredibly well, with the only slight flaw that I found being that I kept accidentally placing objects in the very beginning. Getting accustomed to the controls is essential, as they are not especially intuitive. But it doesn’t take long before the player will be knocking out prison cells and chapels without even thinking.
Which is handy as the player will need to spend plenty of time thinking in order to successfully run a fully functioning prison. Despite its cute facade and being overrun by blobby little sprites representing both prisoners and staff, Prison Architect is an incredibly deep and complex game. Jumping straight into a new game and starting your own prison from scratch, or even taking over the running of a pre-designed prison, is a fools errand for anyone who hasn’t played the game before. In no time at all, riots will break out or the prison will run out of money and everything will go to hell.
This is where the Prison Stories come in, both as a campaign mode of sorts, and an in depth tutorial teaching the player everything they need to know for running a prison. These stories start simply, with basic objectives that are fully explained so the player knows what to do. With each subsequent story, the player will have to draw on their previous lessons along with learning new ones. On top of this, each story offers a human side to prison management by focusing on a tale of prison life. For example, the first story tells of a man who is on death row and the player has to build a room containing an electric chair for his execution. Through simple cut scenes, which are nicely detailed and offer quite the contrast to the blobby gameplay, each story is given depth and presented for the player to enjoy. These stories, and indeed the back stories for prisoners in the other modes, can get quite dark and mature at times, but it all adds to the flavour of the game.
So, through the stories, the player will be well versed in all aspects of building and running a prison. The basic construction is fairly straight forward, with players dragging out blocks of foundation before partitioning off the various rooms that they require, and furnishing them with the essential items needed to fulfill their functions. From cells and kitchens, to offices and laundry rooms, there are plenty of different types of room to build.
But, of course, none of these rooms will even get built without hiring construction workers to complete them. Management of the staff is an important aspect, and the player will find themselves not only hiring construction staff, cooks, janitors or prison guards, but will also be responsible for the likes of setting patrol routes. Maintaining enough staff to keep the prison clean, keep the prisoners in line, and keep them happy is a juggling act with budget limitations, but essential nonetheless.
Another side of the management which can be quite tricky is the provision of water and power. Power lines and water pipes are all laid underground within their own view, and players will have to make sure that every faucet is attached to a water supply, and every room has access to the power lines. As the prison grows, players will find themselves having to improve their power and water supplies to cope with the need.
And keeping the prisoners happy is arguably the most important goal of Prison Architect. Players can monitor the happiness of the prisoners, and even see in which areas they could improve. For example, if prisoners are disgusted by the state of the prison, hire more janitors. If they are in need of spiritual guidance, maybe a chapel would help. If they are lacking entertainment, try putting some radios in the cells. There is a lot of tweaking available, and of course the budget has to be taken into account, but keeping the prisoners happy is the key to preventing all out chaos.
The last thing you want is for the prisoners to riot. It is at this point that the player will have to get help to restore order. Bringing in the likes of fire crews to deal with a fire involves the player taking control of of these squads and sending them in the right direction. Dealing with an influx of contraband, in contrast, involves a relatively simple search of the entire prison. As you can see, there is an awful lot to running a prison. And that is without getting into managing the budget and actually making money from your prison, or starting programs to deal with the likes of substance abuse. Building up and running a successful prison from scratch is quite the struggle even with the help of the tutorials. Taking some of the sting out of this, players are able to download prisons built by other players and have a go at running them, or even share their own prisons if they think they are good enough.
There really is so much to learn in Prison Architect, but it is constantly fulfilling and satisfying when things go well. From the stories teaching the basics, through starting your own prison from scratch, to trying out the creations of other players, it all works incredibly well. There is a lack of management games on the consoles, so Prison Architect really fills a gap in the market. Besides this, it is a well polished and thoroughly entertaining addition to anyone’s game library.