Early Access Review: Prison Architect

Prison Architect is a building sim game developed and published by Introversion Software.  It has been something of a darling of Early Access for some time, the example given that the indie games in Early Access can, in fact, actually be good.  I know, that idea may seem silly, but it's true, and that certain reputation that Prison Architect has is well earned.  It is a good game even as it stands now, and its only been improving through the development of the Early Access program.  It's mature enough now that I put to pen an Early Access review, but if and when it does release, we'll put a full proper review at that time as well.

The interface of Prison Architect is strong and intuitive

I suppose I started my Banished review the same way, but that's for good reason - the interface for any kind of builder sim is where the game design is either made, or broken.  A building simulator which makes it difficult to be able to manage all the information being simulated will end up being at best a very frustrating and flawed builder.  Prison Architect is not that.  The interface is clear and to the point, with all of the information needed at any given time given in summary on the general UI and the more detailed information when available in an easy-to-get-to menu.

These advanced metrics mostly unlock as you progress and gain additional staff.  For example, the detailed financial reports for a prison become available when you unlock and hire an accountant, the detailed prisoner information becomes available when you unlock and hire a psychologist.  You go through this progression as sort of a pseudo-tech tree, tasking your first hired specialty staff member, the Warden, to unlock these various things through the tree.  (The Warden is available from the start, incidentally.)  It progresses at a fair clip provided you're performing well, and there's a lot of neat and thematic things you can unlock along the way.

There are a variety of rooms and other construction and it all makes sense

The other progression through the development of your prison is adding additional facilities, such as a medical center, yard, individual cells, and so forth.  As your prison expands you'll even find yourself adding armouries, dog kennels, and CCTVs, to be able to house maximum security inmates without it all going sideways.  The function of each of these rooms makes sens and they all fit together like a well-designed puzzle, and that really is the hallmark of a good management sim.  There's nothing extraneous, and nothing that seemed to me to be particularly janky or gamey.  It's there, it makes sense that it's there, and it functions how I expect it to.

Additionally, as you go on to making your prison more efficient to keep the prisoners happy you can add quality of life facilitates, and again, they're sensible: paving roads gets people along quicker, metal detectors allow you to detect people trying to bring contraband into the prison or cells, canteens keep people fed with good food, and so on.  Most of these facilities aren't really necessary to run the prison (with the exception of the shower and canteen) but they're not extraneous either: they have very clear purposes and they make sense in the context of the prison.

Placing underground utilities can be problematic

All of this kind of falls apart just a little when you get to the underground aspect of the building, however, because it can be difficult to properly build underground.  There's two things that go underground: water pipes and electrical wiring.  The problems here are two-fold: first of all, they are both drawn on the same level (as opposed to SimCity 2000's separate layers for water, subway, etc) They draw over each other if placed on the same tile, and while you can try to avoid placing them on the same tile eventually you'll find yourself in situations where you'll have to. As well, when demolishing underground construction, if they're on the same tile you'll demolish both.

The second problem after this shared-tile one is the fact that you can't hook up two different power systems, so you have to keep the systems separate. As your prison grows you will run into a situation where some construction with built-in power such as metal detectors will end up hooking up two adjacent grids up together and then that's those whole grids offline until you can disentangle them. While you can avoid this with very careful planning, when you have to plan around the bad design of a game it's not difficulty, its, well, bad design. And trying to keep track of where the wires were underground that shared spaces with my water pipes were brought up memories of doing the old TSR gold box games with my pad of grid paper - because that's exactly what I ended up doing.

Prison Architect's presentation is strong

What makes that underground issue stand out so much to me is that the presentation in the other aspects of the game is so strong. It has the same sort of dark humour to it at times as Theme Hospital did, though it doesn't have it as pervasively as Theme Hospital did. It makes a big deal out of the tragic back-story of the prologue prisoner you're executing, for example, only for the finality of that to be that execution and "alright, next prisoner please." It's subversive in that Monkey Dust black comedy sort of way and I rather dug it.

This is actually where one of the other missteps I feel the game made is, however. There is an option to buy a DLC to include your own prisoner in the game and this has two specific problems to it. First of all, these biographies aren't copy-edited, so they appear typos and all. Secondly, it still procedurally-generates the crime the prisoner is actually in the prison for, so you can have an intricately and well-woven short story of murder for hire in the biography just to have them in the prison for a parking violation or something else similarly silly in that context. Both of those undermine the theme of Prison Architect in their own little ways, though they're hardly game-breaking.

There's some bugginess that will need ironed out and some of the prisoner bios are really quite silly in Prison Architect, but beyond those relatively petty gripes it's a wonderful management sim in the same league as Theme Hospital. Unquestionably recommended.</p>