If I'm being honest, I didn't expect to like Prison Architect this much. I'd reviewed its second cousin, The Escapists, enjoying that game's slick soundtrack and confident 8-bit graphics, but never falling in love with The Escapists escape-the-room shtick.
Despite near identical top-down floor plan visuals, The Escapists and Prison Architect are different species entirely. Prison Architect is a deep, deep sim builder with roots reaching into in-depth reporting, logistics, staffing, top-to-bottom construction, and emergency countermeasures. I'm only four-fifths through the tutorial, and, while ramping up slow and steady, I'm already staring at so much on my plate.
Most TV fiction doesn’t depict the prison-industrial complex in this depth. I'm almost 100 percent certain there's a better term for it than "prison-industrial complex," but it's all I got at the moment. There are bureaucratic levels extending in every direction. There are tech and research trees that cover everything from the obvious, such as security, maintenance, and death row, all the way to the not-so obvious, such as routing the prison’s income into an offshore tax haven, or getting a psychologist on payroll, or running educational reform programs.
The real hook for me, however, is the storytelling. I had no idea it'd be like this. I mentioned that there's a five-part "tutorial," but that's only part of the deal. Yes, the tutorial is a gradual introduction to all things Prison Architect, but it's a story mode, too. Looking at the visuals, I didn't expect a whole lot of narrative to be going on. I thought it'd be more like SimCity, with a pat on the butt and a "Good luck, kid" to send you on your way. But no, there's some drama. And drama on a level that has games like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami to thank for some of its brazen nature. Prison Architect's story mode has a shank or two hidden up its sleeve. I mean, it seems obvious, considering the source material, but there's murder/death/kill, mob boss family ties, corruption running up and down the spine of the prison system, and who knows how deep this rabbit hole goes?
I'm working on the architect part of the simulation. A tweak here and a tweak there and I'll have it figured out. But, for instance, the game wants you to click-and-drag out the floor plans to large rooms, like common rooms and kitchens, but it requires more nuanced borders for each individual cell. There are plenty of quirks like that, all of them deliberate, but some of them taking a little getting used to. Like how you can't just place a chair and move it a few feet to the left to make room for a bed. You have to, essentially, put in a work order for that chair to be moved, then you have to wait for an available workman to make their way over to the chair to physically move it. Watching each individual workman lay a foundation or erect a wall is great; it's awesome watching them swarm a job site to put up a new structure. It feels a little silly, however, when nobody can lend a hand to the smaller jobs, like rotating that garbage bin, or moving the staff room's pool table a smidge to the right.
I'm dealing with a full-on riot right now. Most of the initial rioting--and the fire in the west cell block--has been handled, but smaller uprisings keep popping up. I'll need to hire more armed guards and station them around the complex. Nothing quiets a prisoner quite like a round of buckshot. As it stands, my on-site doctors are the busiest at the moment. It's difficult continually locating and repositioning my riot guards on such a huge campus, but I'm looking forward to the conclusion of the law-and-order story that's had far-reaching consequences for me and my prisons.
Prison Architect should not be this good. Not at first glance, anyway. The game doesn't screenshot well. The commonplace top-down view looks like clipart at worst, or a do-it-yourself D&D dungeon creator at best. Yet the depth of this simulation is staggering. My head is full. There’s still so much to learn. I haven’t even been turned loose in sandbox mode yet. But I've got a long ways to go. I've got 40 deaths on my hands today, and there's still a lot to do.
Prison Architect is out today, Tuesday, June 28, on PlayStation 4. My full review will be written up within the next two weeks. But you can check out our PC review (GN score 8.8/10) or our Xbox One preview from four months ago if you want to get the gist of it now.