Prison Architect first made its appearance back in September 2012, and has had its fair share of publicity both good and bad. Introversion Software independently crowdfunded the game by pre-orders raking in close to 8000 sales in just two weeks, but Prison Architect has also been slammed by the media for trivialising and misrepresenting the issue of mass incarceration. All this publicity seems to have been good for the game though, as it has now sold over 1.25 million units as of 25th September 2015.
The essence of the game, if it’s not already clear from the title, is that you are in control of the architecture and day to day running of a prison. At its core this sounds extremely dark and slightly sadistic, however the graphical style with it’s artistic sprites and cartoony graphics, and the top down style gameplay lightens the tone and gives character to the game. After over 3 years in development Introversion Software is ready to bring the alpha stage of Prison Architect to an end, let’s see what they have in store for us.
The game begins with a sweeping shot of a prison, as prisoners awaken your workmen complete the construction of a new cell block. The camera slowly panning around the facilities required to run a prison before ending on an inmate speaking with a priest. This is when you meet the CEO, who looks strangely familiar but I just can’t put my finger on it. He tasks you to construct a building that will house an execution chamber, yes; it throws you in at the dark side of prisons right from the start. Then again it is a prison that you are in charge of not a summer camp so I think its best this way as it gets the dark side of things over and done with . This acts as a tutorial which introduces you to the game mechanics alongside snippets of the story told through cut scenes with the sprites and Polaroid pictures depicting more detail in the scene. I was impressed at the way this style of storytelling complemented each other, merging simple and crisp cartoon sprites with the more dark and detailed Polaroids.
Once the switch has been thrown on the poor soul, you are off to another of the detention facilities in the game, which at this point is currently ablaze. The story continues by introducing new inmates and develops throughout this second act linking back to the condemned inmate and expanding the arching story. When I realised that the story in the second act linked back to the first I tipped my cap at the developers as it gave the story more depth. This same style of story/tutorial gameplay continues through the following missions explaining all remaining aspects of the gameplay. I found this style of easing you into the game rather refreshing, as it was teaching you the game mechanics while giving you a little bit of freedom during the process of learning game.
You are the Prison Architect, planning and creating a fully equipped prison is the aim of the game. Although as part of the game I found that I was also having to take control of the day to day running of the prison also. I doubt this would lie under the Architect’s job description in the real world but it works in the game. I was having to take into consideration the mental state of the inmates and ensure that their needs are catered for to create and maintain a tranquil and successful prison. Failing to do so could lead to the prisoners fighting with guards, rioting or even escaping. I fell victim of numerous breakouts when I was expanding a cellblock to allow for a larger number of inmates and the workmen removed an existing cell wall before completing the construction of the new outer walls. This was down to my own failing rather than any of the game mechanics and generally ended up with the majority of my prisoners making a break for it – attempting to escape with my guards chasing them with their batons.
Using the tabs located along the bottom of the screen you can access any of the required commands to fulfil your role as the Prison Architect. Once your orders are given they are carried out by the relevant staff, all of the construction and furnishing of your prison is complete by workmen, your prison is kept clean by janitors and patrols are completed by guards. The guards are used also for more advanced actions such as detaining inmates, searching their cells or in the worst case scenario the use of aggressive force to maintain order in your prison. Through the warden upgrade screen you can unlock further specialisations for the guards including dog handlers and even armed guards. Again this takes a step back from reality as these would generally be put in place before a prison was put into operation but as a game mechanic it allows for progression and gives you the ability to evolve your prison.
Once you are done and dusted with the campaign there is also a sandbox mode, which allows you to create a prison from scratch. I enjoyed this as it gives a series of objectives through the guise of grants to supplement the income of the prison. The grants generally give an advance payment to assist with any required tasks and a further bonus upon completion, which was nice as normally you are only rewarded after completion of an objective. The grant system also scales in difficulty as you progress through them with unlocking more difficult and advanced grants as they are completed. I did spend the majority of my time playing the sandbox mode, as I prefer being more creative and starting from scratch in a build (not that any of my prisons were designed particularly well although they were at least functional).
I did notice while going back and replaying some of the campaign missions that there are further Polaroid pictures scattered around the prison that either I missed first time round or were not present on my initial play through. These pictures act as an in game collectable that show a detailed version of the events that are being acted out by the simple in game sprites. They can and can be unlocked through the progression of the story or by completing certain actions within the game. Again I cant sing my praises enough about how well the Polaroids assist in the story telling of the game, bringing a bit of darkness back into the game, which has been removed by its cartoony graphics.
As an extra, Introversion Software have included an escape mode which essentially throws the whole game on its head. If you meet certain fail criteria like forgetting to feed your prisoners and having them die on you, or selecting the option in the extras menu it changes the terms of the game and places you inside the prison that you have created. The first time that I realised this was possible was when I accidently blocked my prisoners from getting to the canteen and they died of hunger. But it was too late I was already sacked, convicted of Criminal Negligence and thrown into the prison that I helped create. The main objective is to escape; you are able to walk around, pick fights with other inmates and guards, obtain contraband and dig tunnels from your cell. By causing trouble you build up reputation points, which allow you to recruit other prisoners to join your crew. I managed to get a decent sized crew built but it all ended in tragedy when I punched an armed guard and it broke out in a full scale prison riot with all of my crew being wiped out. Prisoners in your crew can help you to dig your tunnel and cause further trouble. If your own character is knocked unconscious or killed, you can take control of another member of your crew.