Video Games Review: Prison Architect (PS4, 2016)

Don’t let Prison Architect‘s cartoony exterior fool you for a moment — it hides a brutal, complex simulation reminiscent of Bullfrog’s Theme Park and Theme Hospital heyday. It will frazzle you with its many systems and disgust you with the deeds of your inmates. But you will not be able to stop playing.

Prison Architect reflects its old-school inspirations in its various modes of play — you can build a prison of your own from the ground up or your can jump into an existing one and try to keep it afloat. You’ll need to manage every aspect of your prison from making sure each building has water and power, outfitting your cells to give your inmates a certain level of comfort and balance their needs and wants accordingly and organising the odd shakedown to strip your inmates of any improvised weapons they might have stowed away

You’ll also need to make sure you’re properly staffed up with guards, medics, janitors and builders, and that your equipment can bear the load of your ever-expanding prison. You’ll even need to make sure you’re placing bins around the place to help keep the place tidy, lest your neat-freak inmates riot over lousy living conditions. It’s … a lot to take in.

Thankfully, the game has a handful of practice scenarios that serve as a tutorial. These sections are quite cleverly designed, giving you an overview of how to run your prison while telling emotionally affecting little stories. It’s here that Prison Architect first reveals its dark heart — the first story involves a man sentenced to death for the slaying of his wife and her secret lover following his walking in on them mid-coitus. You are to construct an execution chamber, outfit quarters for the man to reside in until his execution date, fit the chair and make sure that it is powered. The game tells you repeatedly that, regardless of your feelings on the matter, it is not up to you to decide whether or not this man dies. The courts have decided that he must and you have to make it happen. The tutorial segment ends with the man’s execution and the player likely feeling pretty forlorn about the whole thing.

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Real talk, in spite of this being a game in which you build and manage a prison, I wasn’t expecting the narrative behind the game to be as ugly as it is. This isn’t Orange is the New Black, this is Oz, played out with tiny figures that look like they’re straight out of a Zero Punctuation video.
While I was aware of Prison Architect‘s life as a Steam Greenlight title on PC and know many people that have played it before, I’d never gotten around to it before now. My primary concern was if the game’s strategy sim controls, so well suited for a keyboard and mouse, could be replicated on a DualShock 4. While it’s not without some occasional hiccups, developers Introversion and Double Eleven (the later of whom built the PS4 version of the game) have crafted a console control scheme that works surprisingly well.
You use each of the four directions on the D-Pad to call up a series of menus and use your L2 and R2 buttons to scroll through the options quickly. Not as effective as the keyboard and mouse arrangement on the PC, but a decent alternative that is easy to figure out and manipulate.
This isn’t the kind of game that you can jump in and out of at will. Prison Architect, like its genre cousins, is a time sink and a great one at that. These console ports have been built to keep console players from feeling like they’re wrestling with a PC game that doesn’t want to co-operate. For those who miss the days of Theme Hospital and Roller Coaster Tycoon, and can’t bring themselves to go back into the Dwarf Fortress nightmare, this is the game you’ve been waiting for.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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