Review: Prison Architect

While it stumbles out the gate with a few bugs, Introversion's Prison Architect is a solid and brilliantly-well designed management simulator.  A polished game design with a newly-added story campaign mode round out the game we're familiar with from Steam Early access, and the only real complaints here are a few mechanics it doesn't explain well and few minor bugs.  Nonetheless, if the management simulator genre is of interest you than this is definitely one you should consider picking up.
Review: Prison Architect
Date published: Oct 8, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Prison Architect is a management simulation game developed and published by Introversion Software which just recently released out of the Steam Early Access System.  A couple months past a year ago I cast a critical eye on Prison Architect, somewhat classically now held up as an example of an Early Access game done well, so the question with it now being released, has it been released in a good and complete format, or do we have another game hurriedly rushed out of the door to release to placate fans now that the return on investment has been had ages ago?  Well, fortunately for us, in Prison Architect's case, it is the former, though it still has a few minor flaws that hold it back from perfection.  No doubt a relief for many a fan who was waiting until release to get it that it's been released complete.

Since this is a follow-up to the Early Access review, I'm not going to get into too great a detail about mechanics, except as is necessary to elaborate my points.  You can read said review in the link above for the more general strokes of my thoughts, because the central gameplay is much the same.

Architect 101

Probably the thing least unchanged thing from the Early Access versions is the core gameplay - the actual building aspect.  As the name implies, the central role or conceit here is that you are the architect of a prison, designing one with the various facilities you need to keep everyone happy and the "murdering everyone" factor as low as possible.  To this end, there's a variety of facilities - cells of course, security rooms, canteens with kitchen for food, offices for specialized employees whom 'research' new stuff for you, and so on and so forth.  It all fits together well, and there's a natural progression in the creation of a prison that works quite well in the grand scheme of things.

That's actually probably the genius of Architect's design: like the Tycoon games of old, there is a natural and intuitive escalation of the game mechanics across one play that lends itself to a handful of development curves according to different play styles, which hits both of the two fundamentally-difficult check-boxes to hit with that - you either create a stronger progression path to which there's often just one really successful way to play, or you develop many that are weaker.  Since Architect has a few fundamental approaches and some depth of variety in ways to monetize your prison, you have several viable ways to excel at the game, and you can choose the one that fits best to your given style of play.

The Mentor Factor

The set of single player scenarios that the game fashions as a "campaign" are one of the biggest adds to the game from its humble alpha roots, and one with mixed success, but success nonetheless.  When I originally played the game for purposes of the Early Access review, I came to it with a single tutorial, now the first mission, ostensibly showing me at a very cursory glance the very basic mechanics.  The game improves upon that with a handful of such scenarios now, but the reason I hesitate to call it a campaign is it is still fairly short.  The only reason I ended up not completing it is that the final mission is ostensibly the bridge to the sandbox mode and is itself pretty much a sandbox, and perhaps it speaks to some sort of hidden destructive tendency of mine, but I can only go so far into the sandbox mode before I start intentionally dicking with things because that conflicts with prisoners are the more entertaining part of the game for me, as that essentially acts as the Litmus test of whether you really have designed a good prison with adequate guard coverage and kit.

This progression of scenarios does a much better job of taking you through the steps of that progression, and presenting you with the various options for monetizing the prison than the game did previously, much to its credit - however, many mechanics are still left out.  Most of them are things that have been added to the core mechanics more recently.  While these things are advanced play, it would still behove the game if it is going to use it's campaign to tutorialize, to be thorough about it.  A glaring omission is how the game at one point tells you to hook up CCTV cameras to be able to watch over areas in a jail you had to reclaim from a massive riot and fire, but then omits telling you that you have to hook up these cameras to a monitor to be effective - indeed, the objective completes even if they're unconnected, which I imagine would leave newer players rather confused as to why they cameras aren't working when they even fulfilled the objective.  There's also the lawyer specialist now, whom enables the death row progression.  The final mission of the campaign basically hands you the execution chamber, without explaining that to unlock it you need to do Death Row research, which, since you had bureaucracy's "research" previously explained is not the hugest thing in the world, but still seems like an oversight nonetheless.

One thing that I can understand that isn't in the tutorial but still seems like the game selling itself short, is how detailed you can get in the find tuning of the prison mechanics.  From the quality and variety of food you serve your inmates, to the regime they follow, to the fact that you can set separate daily regimes for each of the four security levels of the prisoners, you can get into the micromanagement of the game in an almost silly degree.  This definitely is getting into the kind of thing that it's probably best to let a player fiddle with and discover for themselves is likely a good idea, but it seems remiss of the game to fail to even at least point the existence of those details.  I had a few people I was talking to about the release of the game from Early Access and its inevitable review whom did not realise you could have separate regimes for different security levels for instance.

That said, the story presented with the campaign is rather neat a framing device, though not all that deep in terms of narrative.  The game description made claims to being like a Bullfrog game but there isn't any dark humour on offer here, and so it comes off as a typical PR name-drop.  No, rather, the story is a rather formulaic take through prison system corruption and other tropes, and it does it decently enough for a framing device, but it's not going to win any story of the year awards.  Nonetheless, as a tutorial section, with some glaring omissions already noted, it works very well.  It is not bad, it just feels like it needs expansion to really teach a new player to the game.  The campaign feels more like it's made towards existing players, as it makes assumptions of things you wouldn't really know about unless you had already been playing Prison Architect for some time.

Don't Spare the Rod

Another big addition to the game with this release version compared to the version I previously reviewed are a plethora of "random" (procedurally-generated) events that can occur - essentially the disasters of city-building sims.  While before you could have riots as a result of letting your prisoners be unhappy for too long, you can now have more random incidents of violence, prisoners whom start fires in the kitchens, violence between rival gang members, and the like, with the risk of that naturally rising as you go through the various higher-security-level prisoners.  This keeps things dynamic, and even in a stable prison you can't get too complacent, which was a complaint of many a person playing the Early Access version of the game.  Developments aren't limited to prisoner things however, as you can also have natural disasters of a sort as well.  Perhaps a section of wall will collapse and you will have to act quickly to prevent escape attempts.  All in all, you'll have to keep a wary eye out, and as such, even a stabilised prison isn't something you can leave unattended for a while.

A poignant second prong to this addition is you can now actually lose the game by more than extreme overspending.  For instance, if a riot gets big enough, or a smaller riot goes on long enough, the military will intervene and sieze the prison, essentially ending the game for you.  It certainly makes dealing with those larger skirmishes with gangs in big prisons much more thrilling and important both, as well, since if those get out of hand you can have that proverbial Sword of Damocles rather quickly (but not unfairly quickly) looming over your head.  You also have the option to tell your guards to be weapons free, which makes the armed guards prioritze guns over arrests, to put down particularly violent riots (or larger conflicts before they become riots, if you're a harsh warden!)

The Presentation Makes the Game

It is very easy for management sims to get the depth and complexity down just to be betrayed and bogged down by a very cumbersome UI, but to it's credit, as I said in the Early Access review, Prison Architect does UI very well.  Everything is no more than a couple clicks away, despite the complexity of the game, and I never found myself having a hard time getting to something quickly when there was something going down, which assuredly makes those situations easier to deal with.  There never was a time when it felt like the game was fighting against me, which is the nails in the coffin to many a simulation game.

The planning aspect is the addition to the management formula in Prison Architect - allowing you to think ahead in your prison design by laying out the basic format of rooms, buildings, or even the whole prison if you want, before actually breaking ground.  It updates dynamically as you do build, and as such doesn't become a feature that is as much of a chore as an addition, so it makes things easier and smoother without being a time sink.  I found myself using it for buildings at a time as that was kind of the point of equilibrium there in my forward planning between "planning ahead" and being able to work around needs as they arose, but that is subjective preference obviously, and as I said, you could plan your whole prison that way from the very start if you felt so inclined - and if you're not interested in it, you don't have to use it.

Of course, the UI is just one part of that proverbial puzzle, and the art style used in Prison Architect is quite unique in games, to the point where some others, such as Rimworld, have essentially emulated it.  Love it or hate it, it is quite unusual to say the least, and it does a very good job of doing exactly what it has to do - quickly conveying the various people, rooms, and events at a glance.  Indeed, a game with higher visual fidelity would probably get a bit too over-saturated with effects trying to do the same, and that becomes a way in which that art style works in the game's favour.  It also has about as many visual options as a 2D game can really offer without them being vestigial - everything you need is in there, which is nice.  Shame to think I've actually grown use to that NOT being the case given the usually-woeful options present in Unity by default, but Prison Architect is just fine in that regard.

These cells have a few cockroaches

That all said, Prison Architect is unfortunately a release that still has a few problems: some of them bugs, and some of them just design flaws.  None of them are game-breaking, or I wouldn't be recommending the game, but they are frustrating nonetheless.  For instance, if you create a foundation directly adjacent to an existing building to expand upon it, your workers will tear down the facing wall in that direction, and as such everyone has a big escape the first time they do that, I think, except those forewarned by friends beforehand.  There's also some weird graphical glitches, with items sometimes appearing on top of walls or notifications getting "glued" to the wrong things, as well as the occasional shadows that look quite out of place because of how the game generates them.

The biggest bugbear here is the Worker AI - since it seems to be formulated to find the closest item for the closest building project, most projects end up being constructed piecemeal as items are ordered in, and it has the same problem as Spacebase DF-9 did in that there is no real game mechanic in place to override game behaviours if you want to prioritise finishing a particular building, for instance.  It's by no means as bad as Spacebase DF-9 since your workers are generally smart enough not to get themselves killed, but frustrating nonetheless.

Another big thing in the design peculiarity department is that the game will instantly launch into the last prison you were playing.  Convinent for most, I imagine, but if you are - as an example - having difficulty with getting the game to run properly (as I initially did trying to get it on the two of my monitors I wanted it on), it means that there's no path to get to the graphics engine settings without going through the game proper, which in turn means someone having graphics display issues is not going to be able to fix them properly within the game.  An oversight at the best, and one I'd like to see fixed.

While it stumbles out the gate with a few bugs, Introversion's Prison Architect is a solid and brilliantly-well designed management simulator.  A polished game design with a newly-added story campaign mode round out the game we're familiar with from Steam Early access, and the only real complaints here are a few mechanics it doesn't explain well and few minor bugs.  Nonetheless, if the management simulator genre is of interest you than this is definitely one you should consider picking up.