Prison Architect Review - Incarcerated

Published: July 1, 2016 9:00 AM /

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Prison Architect feature

Prison Architect was originally released on PC on October 6, 2015, and quickly gained a reputation as a primo prison simulator. The game has become an indie darling with its incredibly deep gameplay, an interesting premise and smooth as butter execution. Now, Prison Architect is coming to PlayStation 4, a transition that simulator games have historically not done very well with. However, Prison Architect pulls it off with aplomb. The controls are about as efficient as you can get with console sim games and the only feature that doesn't make it's way to the Playstation 4 is mods, for obvious reasons.

So Prison Architect tasks you with running the most efficient, and profitable, penitentiary. Everything in your prison can be managed from the food the prisoners are eating that day, to the materials of your buildings to receiving government grants for completing certain objectives. 

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There is a story mode that will help ease you into the chaos, though. There are five story chapters in all, the first of which involves building an execution chamber for a man who has been sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and her lover. These little story bits provide an extra flavor to the world that gives you good justification for what you are doing and why. I do wish the free building prison mode would have had some more specific prisoner interactions in it because they made the story mode that much more interesting. The stories even tie into each other in the later chapters to create a sort of mob drama within the prison that you are trying to run that helped make the game far more engaging than your typical simulacra. The story will give you around five to six hours of gameplay if you complete all of the optional objectives.

The visuals also separate Prison Architect from the pack. Featuring cartoonish bobblehead figures that add some much-needed levity to the experience of running a maximum security penitentiary. They also allow individual prisoners to stand out more. Instead of a pack of near identical semi-realistic prisoners you get a lot of variety and expression out of the little cartoonish quirks of each of their appearances. 

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Once you get through the story, it's on to pure prison management, but there are some extra modes here too. You can use the World of Wardens feature to download other players prisons and try your hand at keeping order, or upload your own creation if you so choose. There are also a series of default jails that you can jump straight into with the Warden mode. These prisons all provide unique challenges and gameplay styles, and each of them has a unique gimmick. It's often great fun to just sit back and marvel at these involuntary megalopolises in motion. For instance, one was an idyllic sort of prison cottage that I have a hard time believing would receive government funding. The idea there was to keep your prisoners happy through good conditions rather than brute force and focus on reform over punishment. Another was a state of the art facility that was as secure as it was expansive and much more focused on punishment and maintaining order with an iron fist. 

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There is a dichotomy that permeates the whole of the Prison Architect. When constructing your own prison in Architect Mode, many of the choices you have to make will reflect that duality. Half of the unlock tree focuses on guards, security, the legalities of cracking down and things of that nature. The other half focuses on education, prison conditions and reform programs. I had a tendency to concentrate on running my maximum-security prison with an iron fist. Mostly because setting up guard patrol patterns, building armories, and shaking down prisoners was much more interesting to me. 

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However, that's not the only focus of Architect mode. You will have to be continually expanding to be able to accept more prisoners, which will give you a larger daily income, and complete government grants which will give you massive payouts. The government grants are limited though and more function as a good blueprint to starting an efficient prison that a long-term revenue stream. With both the story mode and government grants in place, you will have a decent education in place to start your prison, but there is much much more to learn. The level of control you have over your prison is insane, and the number of interlocking mechanics in play with each other is a spreadsheet nerd's wet dream.

The controls you will be using to manage all of this take a little bit of learning but once you know how to navigate the menus it's an absolute breeze. Honestly, the only problem I had with the controls is that it can sometimes be difficult to select smaller objects due to a joystick being inherently less precise than a mouse. The four major menus construction, prison running, emergencies, and reports can be expanded by hitting their button on the D-Pad, which greatly reduces the amount of time you have to spend cycling through menus. Anything you need to access is a few button presses away. The only area where menus become bloated is in the construction section. Once you've unlocked a significant portion of the things, you can build it can sometimes take longer than optimal to get to a specific object you're looking for. 

Overall, if you like sim games, or are just looking for a good time sink on your PlayStation 4, you can't go wrong with Prison Architect. The story mode will ease you in, and then you'll find yourself dumping time into managing your prison or downloading and managing the creations of other players. If you're into this game, Prison Architect will grab you and refuse to let go for hundreds of hours, locking you into an enjoyable prison sentence of your own design.

Prison Architect was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Steam, Android, and iOS.

Review Summary


Prison Architect is a great simulator that made the transition from computers to console admirably.

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| Staff Writer

Reagan Cox is a writer living in Kansas. If you can’t find him playing games or in the woods then he’s probably listening to records like the dirty hipster… More about Reagan