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Prison Architect 2

Prison Architect 2 Preview: Fun but not without its flaws

We've had a chance to experience the management sequel months ahead of its planned arrival.

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Considering the times that we've burnt in the past by games debuting before they are actually ready, either in the form of lacking content or polish, it's hard to see Prison Architect 2 without big warning signs. This game has been delayed a multitude of times, and even seen its long-time main developer departing and its support studio stepping up and taking over full production responsibilities, all before the game has debuted and been put into the hands of fans. There's a lot of reasons to be concerned by this sequel, which is why I snapped at the chance to be able to go hands-on and test it a few months before launch.

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With launch now set for September 3, developer Kokku has months to continue refining and improving this title, which is why some of the clunkier elements and performance issues don't really bother me all too much right now. So let's get that part of the preview out the way to begin with.

In this early build, I've faced crashes, glitched NPCs, and become a little frustrated at times by the fiddly control scheme. And that's all in just a few hours of gameplay. Again though, I would absolutely expect the performance and issues to be ironed out in the coming months, and hopefully even the control scheme to be smoothed out as well.

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What concerns me a little more is the game's tutorial solution, which struggles to achieve its purpose. Prison Architect 2 teaches you how to play in mainly two manners. The first is the form of pop-up boxes with short video clips and descriptions that essentially serve as mini manuals for each core gameplay mechanic. They're informative, without a doubt, but they're also forgettable, easy to misconstrue, and once you close them, they're very hard to find and re-read. Thankfully, there is a more hands-on alternative that also serves a secondary purpose as the campaign.

Prison Architect 2's campaign is similar to other management and simulation campaigns, in that you have to work through levels of unique prisons and solve the issues that they are plagued with. For the first few missions, five of which I had the luxury to experience during this preview, the game teaches you how to use the basic construction mechanics, how to assign rooms, ensure security measures are met, how to hire employees and take on prisoners, build power cables and water pipes, all the core elements of being able to run a prison yourself without needing the game to guide you along the way. While this is a good premise theoretically, in practice, it leaves more to be desired, as effectively you take on a prison, do a few very minor tasks that require very little effort, and then move onto the next after 15 minutes.

Prison Architect 2 attempts to make this feel more rewarding by giving you a cash reward for completing these 'missions', where when you earn enough money you're promoted to a new rank. The main issue is that a set amount of money seems to be rewarded for each completed mission, meaning there's not really an incentive to do the best possible job each time, not that there is much room to do such during this early preview phase. When this all comes together, with the other tutorial systems in mind too, Prison Architect 2 frankly just does a bad job at explaining how to play the game, which will no doubt be a frustration for those less experienced with this genre.

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On the brighter side of things, if you can get past the tough opening phase, the game does start growing into itself and it's here that you start to see the brilliance and potential beneath. The management systems are deep and provide plenty of depth, the construction elements allow you to get really creative with your designs and styling, the security features add an extra layer to how you approach management by requiring you to determine whether each part of your prison is secure by having separate keys for unique doors, for example. Adding to this is a progression and levelling system that sees you acquiring upgrades and unlocking new rooms for your prison by earning experience for completing contracts in-game, which does wonders with keeping you busy. And this is all before talking about the biggest change in this game compared to its predecessor, the fact that it's 3D and no longer 2D.

While I do think that there was a certain charm with the 2D aesthetic of the original Prison Architect, there's no denying that the jump to 3D means the game is more detailed, feels more lively and immersive, and feels more natural to make complex prisons that consist of several floors. Sometimes the 3D focus does lead to a few clunky encounters, especially when you're attempting to be precise with your placing and construction efforts, but I think this will be forgotten about very quickly with a control scheme that feels a bit more intuitive to use and operate.

When you take all of this into account, as well as the fact that the game supports a Sandbox mode where you can let your creativity run wild, community features that let you access prisons created by other players, and even ways to mod the game and further enhance the experience beyond the official ways that Kokku will explore once the game has arrived and the focus changes to post-launch, it's clear that there is a lot to be excited for with Prison Architect 2. It needs the extra few months coming up to ensure it has the necessary polish and sheen before debut, but any concerns you had about the content and way this game has been developed can be put to bed, because there's quality and lots of potential with this management sequel.

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