By Andrew Dodson on August 12, 2013 at 3:31pm
I thought long and hard about whether or not it was fair to target "Prison Architect" for a review. The game is still largely in development - only an alpha. How can I put this half-made, indie game up against multi-million dollar, triple-A titles and rate them on the same scale? Well, this past Summer Steal sale, "Prison Architect" was selected as one of the official summer trading cards for the entire sale. Out of the hundreds of fully developed games available, a small indie game was the one that stood out and became one of the 10 coveted trading cards to represent one of the biggest PC sales of the entire year.
I figure if that little game can stand up against the plethora of developed and established games up on Steam, than I figure it can stand up to a review. “Prison Architect,” as the name implies, is a prison simulator. Like in any sim game, you’re given a big plot of land and a series of tools to use to turn that boring piece of green into a functioning prison. When the game starts, you have a day to build a holding cell and an office for your warden, find some guards, construct a mess hall, and if you have enough cash left, create some cells for your prisoners to live in. How complicated of a prison you make is totally up to you.
The game's graphics are very simple and cartoon-ish – something that seems out of place given the somewhat dark theme of it all. At the same time that they're cartoon-ish, they are also kind of gorgeous. They also become a signature part of the game’s theme. You’ll hear an alarm, go to the canteen, and watch two inmate killing one another with whatever weapons they were able to find there. The inmate sprites kind of just ... hump one another (okay, I don’t know if they’re actually fighting or doing ... something else), blood splatters all around them, and unless a guard intervenes, one of those inmates is going to be hurt or dead. And as entertaining as that may seem, it is not ideal to keep your prison running.
The tools are very simple to use. You can build foundations, walls, cables, and pipes. You designate areas to be used as different parts of the prison – offices, cells, kitchens, execution rooms, etc. – and they all have special requirements in order to be functional. For instance, a cell needs to be at least a 2x3 space with a bed and a toilet.
Its important to note that while you may have plenty of guards and staff, you can't directly control any of them. Eventually, you're able to set up patrol routes for the guards, but there is no clicking and sending them to a location. What you'll find is that most guards just hang out in the holding cell (which is only used for prisoners about to be transferred to a real cell) or out in the yard. I don't know if that was done on purpose or what but ... well, it's an alpha.
Another great tool at the player's disposal is the 'regime' tab. There, you are able to schedule your inmate's day. All 24-hours of it. You tell them when they sleep, when they eat, when they shower, when they work and when (if) they have any free time. Tinkering with that changes the mood of your prisoners (which can be good or bad) and can help your prison run more efficiently.
All that is fairly easy to figure out, but there is a great deal of strategy with the game that makes it an almost constant struggle. As you play (and restart when you mess up), you start figuring out strategies and the best ways to lay out your prisons. There is an huge community for this game discussing how to build the most effective prison, or in some cases, the prisons strange enough to be dreamt up by Dr. Seuss.
While I could go into detail about these techniques, I think it would be best to simply go over some of my early mistakes.
My First Prison
The very first prison I made was simple: an office building for the warden, a cell block with a holding cell attached, and a kitchen canteen. It was really nice. At 8 AM, the first load of medium-security inmates got off the back of the truck and were escorted into the prison. They were there for about five minutes ingame before they realized: “Hey. This place doesn't have any fences. Let's just leave!”
I didn't notice the escape riot until I found an unconscious guard in a pile of trash in a cell. Then I scrolled over to the side as eight men in orange darted away from the prison. It was only then that I realized: “Oh. I didn't build any fences.”
I watched them leave the prison property, and I couldn't even be mad. All I could think was: “Well, that's fair. Good luck to you, guys.”
My "Things Are Gonna Be Different This Time Around" Prison
My second prison was a much tighter ship. Big fences. Tiny cells. Bad food. I set the game to send me maximum security prisoners, so I figured these were the worst of the worst. I was going to make Guantanamo look like a Club Med. I lasted about two days. Two riots in one day, the first during the inmates' "yard time" where they spent an hour outside. The inmates killed the guards there with them and then beat one another senseless. The only thing keeping them from breaking into the main prison was a single wooden door that somehow stayed on its hinges. I'm very much assuming that was a glitch.
It's an alpha.
The second riot happened in the cell-block right outside the showers. I only had two guards left, and both were busy bringing people to the doctor's office or to solitary confinement depending on their part in the first riot. I didn't have enough money to hire any more. When the alarm sounded, the guards dropped what they were doing and raced over. Right outside the shower, there was a man that had somehow smuggled a clothes iron back to his cell (I do not want to know how he managed that). He was killing everyone. The two guards that remained were killed, and my prison descended into the reign of King Iron.
And so on...
That is basically how the game progresses when you start and go into it without looking up stuff first. You start figuring out how to more effectively use the tools the game gives you, and you find some hidden stuff in other game menus that gives you an edge. There is really no reason NOT to just get all the grants at the beginning of the game for instance. More money, less problems.
As has been mentioned before, the game is still very much still in development. There are things in game, like certain research-able upgrades, that clearly remind you that: “Hey, this isn't actually in the game yet, so don't bother with it.” The developers at Introversion Software have a real sense of humor about their half-finished product - something made clear when you watch some of the game's trailers. The weirdest and most constant bug in my game is my cooks' ability to phase through walls as long as they're interacting with food. It is a very odd superpower and one that has them running all around the outside of the prison in order to get back to the kitchens. Some other issues include the corpses of staff just being left behind forever after riots and guards cramming as many prisoners as they can into solitary confinement cells (which kind of defeats the purpose of solitary).
Another fun part of "Prison Architect" are the prisoners. There are some differences in sprites, but the real uniqueness comes in the prisoner's back story - which basically every one has. One of the perks of funding the game at a higher level is that you're allowed to add yourself into the game and write whatever back story you want to explain why they are in prison. Some back stories are short and simple, others are horribly spelled and awkward to read, and some (actually, only a few) are super fascinating to read. There have been more than a few times where I've clicked on an new inmate and gotten a chuckle about why they ended up in my dinky little prison.
So is "Prison Architect" worth it at this stage of development? Yes. Introversion Software is a completely independent studio, and in order to keep total control over this game, they need support from players. The game has its bugs and flaws, but it's an alpha. All of that will be fixed and smoothed over before they decide that the game is complete. $30 does seem a bit steep for an unfinished game, but even at this stage, it is a lot of fun. I purchased it on a whim and then did nothing but play it for about 10 hours straight. For about three days in a row. Its difficult, bizarre, and uncomfortable, but it's just different from other sim games. It will challenge you, and with each new patch, it will challenge you more. I see purchasing "Prison Architect" now as an investment. You get returns now with a fun game with the occasional amusing bug, but you also get front row seats to what will probably end up being the best prison simulator ever.