It takes a while to really get going in Prison Architect, not because of its difficulty, but because if you want to make a decent amount of progression within the game you need to have a good start, and that takes a while. You start the game with 24 in-game hours to build a basic holding facility, simple stuff so that when the first batch of prisoners arrives they don't immediately just amble off into the sunset.
It took more than three hours for us to get an acceptable start, and even then we were still unhappy with some of our choices; it's a learning process in which you don't truly realise mistakes until it's too late to take them down without restarting the game or putting a severe dent in your funds. However this isn't necessarily a bad thing, while it may be slightly infuriating to start over and over and over again, you at least get a sense of how Prison Architect will play out.
You're time-limited on many different things, and if you don't meet your deadlines then you could end up with a slew of conundrums on your hands. You can request grants but they come with their own set of objectives that you need to meet without spending too much. And while juggling time and finances you need to make sure all operations within the prison are running smoothly. It's a system in which everything within the game relies on something else, thus if one thing goes wrong and isn't fixed immediately then it won't be long before the rest of the system falls out of sync. There's a lot of spinning plates.
With an unforgiving building management game it could be difficult to keep players invested, yet Prison Architect isn't just a prison management game, it's a full-on prison simulator. You'll encounter fights, smuggling, and even complete riots. During a riot the game will turn from prison-builder into a prison-siege simulation, during which you must direct a team of riot police through your facility, incapacitating any violent inmates while firemen deal with any blazes that might well be tearing through your prison.
You can also turn Prison Architect into a prison-break puzzler via its new Escape mode. There you can give your Prison to other players to try and escape from. Escape mode gives a whole new meaning to your prison, instead of building a bare-minimum set of walls to keep a bunch of AIs in place, you're constructing a concrete labyrinth to contain your friends. It's a smart way of adding some incentive when designing prisons, and it pushes you to test your creativity while incorporating some form of online community aspect (however it's hidden away and not expanded upon very well, which is frustrating because there's a lot of potential here).
It's interesting to see such a dynamic shift in a game that seems reasonably simple on the surface, and it definitely keeps it from going stale as quickly. Even the building aspect of the game has its own unique feel due to who you're building for. In other building games you'll be catering for guest and their money, or citizens and their happiness; whereas in Prison Architect you're catering prisoners, and you don't look after them well enough you may find a few of your staff members complaining about stab wounds, or there might be fire-related "accidents" suddenly appearing across your facility. That said, while you may be trying to keep them stable (not rioting at the very least), you don't have to pamper them. Sure you can give them sizeable cells with TVs and entertainment to keep them from going on the rampage, or you can resort to good old fashioned violence and oppression to keep them in line, but the true goal is to keep your prison running, and the how doesn't matter so much.
Aside from the sandbox and Escape mode, the game also comes bundled with a Campaign, which doubles as a tutorial for the first few missions, and then throws you in at the deep end with a full-scale riot. It has an interesting story and may change the way you treat your pixelated prisoners, but as with Escape mode it's never truly expanded upon and is more or less there as a tutorial to help players get acclimatised to the UI and where everything is located. The game focuses mainly around its sandbox mode and it feels as if other modes were bolted on the side to bulk it out a little, which is a shame both additional modes have a lot of potential.
While it may be a unique twist on a well-established genre, Prison Architect isn't without its flaws. The teething issues at the start may act as a learning curve, yet it can be frustrating to slip into learning by trial and error, and without any easy way of undoing mistakes, a perfectly enjoyable build can come undone too easily. Finally, while Introversion released multiple alpha builds of the game and took their sweet time over calling it finished, some minor glitches still managed to slip through.
Overall Prison Architect is a very good game, and it brings new ideas and a new setting to a tired genre. The innovations offered herein keeps the game fresh and reward player investment, even with its tough challenges and a grim atmosphere.
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