By night I review video games, but by day I spend my hours tinkering away at TV’s and fixing them. In fact the TV’s I fix belong to prisoners who are in fact in prison. So when I saw Prison Architect being released for the Switch I immediately felt an affinity to the title albeit a pointless and insignificant one.
Prison Architect was first set loose on the PC in 2015 and received glowing reviews. After all, the management sim genre certainly flourishes on the PC. Roller Coaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital, and Zoo Tycoon are all much beloved titles I enjoyed as a youth, but does Prison Architect live up to their example?
There are two primary ways to play Prison Architect and those two modes are Prison Stories or simply start a “new game”. Prison Stories will have you fulfill specific requirements whilst also leading you from a loosely connected story. Honestly, Prison Stories best serves as a glorified tutorial. It only features 5 chapters and your hand is held quite tightly throughout. However there is a reason for such hard hand holding and that is the fact that Prison Architect boasts an amazing level of options and without a guide you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed.
Choices, choices, choices
This great selection of options is much needed though in a management sim as it is the core and life force of any title in the genre. When you begin to build your prison nearly every details has been kept in mind. Canteens, staff rooms, cells, solitary, reception, classrooms, chapels, libraries, padded cells, workshops, medical bays and many more types of buildings are at your disposal to develop a prison that will best suit your inmates.
From there you also have a wide variety of regimes and policies you can implement to sculpt prisoners into reformed members of society. Food quality, punishments, free time, work time and other tools used to govern your inmates. Will you rule with a compassionate heart or an iron fist?
Prison Architect’s greatest accolade also came across as one of its smaller issues. Even upon completing Prison Stories I felt overwhelmed when I jumped into creating my own prison from scratch. So I would highly suggest having google handy to get some help from other people online. However after sinking a few hours into the game the menus that were first tricky to navigate all became second nature.
Lack of Direction
After I cleared Prison Stories and had made two of my own prisons I soon noticed the biggest flaw in the game though. That flaw being a general lack of direction of what to do as you play. Roller Coaster Tycoon and the other games I mentioned above had a free play mode, but also had an extensive list of missions to take on. You had to clear each chapter by meeting specific targets by a deadline with specific conditions and handicaps placed on you. Prison Architect just doesn’t have this, as Prison Stories really is just a glorified tutorial. It is a shame as for someone like myself who would prefer a bit of direction in objective found it hard to find reasons to carry on with a prison I made after getting it running smoothly.
That is not to say that free mode lacks any types of parameters you can apply to your next game. You can choose from a wide selection of wardens which will affect your play time, difficulty, starting cash, toggle prison gangs, failure conditions and even choose from 30 prebuilt prisons. For those with a creative flair Prison Architect does offer so much and from browsing the 30 prebuilt prisons it is clear to the tools on offer allow the player to make such a wide variety of aesthetic choices for each prison.
Performance and Presentation
Visually, Prison Architect opts for a cartoony style which operates as quite the juxtaposition with its content as you house rapists, murderers, gangs and witness stabbings in the prison. It certainly is a charming visual and stylistic choice though and probably a wise choice as well. As the bright palettes help offset the depressing events that can unfold in front of your own eyes. I can’t say much about the music as there isn’t that much of it. There’s a few menu tracks, but mostly the sounds in the game just boil down to sound effects for events in the prison.
In terms of performance. at first I found Prison Architect to run perfectly on Switch, but as my prison got larger and larger I did start to notice some slow down. It was nothing game breaking, but no doubt it certainly was there and wasn’t gonna stop as it was all down to the size of my prison. I’ve also had the game crash twice, but thankfully it does auto save every five minutes by default.
One thing I must say though is that the crossover from PC to Home system was handled exceedingly well. I’m sure a mouse and keyboard are still the best control scheme for the title, but I felt like the UI worked exceptionally well with a controller and it felt far from being watered down neutered version.
The biggest feature that Prison Architect offers outside of its two main modes of play would be “World of Wardens”. In this mode you can upload your own prisons and download other players and take them for a spin. Players can then even rate your creation and you can see just what people think of your design. Interestingly enough Prison Architect even offers leaderboards which as a high score junkie I was glad to see. The scoring system is simple if people get killed you lose points and you score more points for prisoners that are released.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: A review code for Prison Architect was provided by Tinsley-PR.