My prison is a mess. Half of the inmates have escaped, the canteen is on fire and there’s a riot in the weights and exercise area. Also the guards want a new drinks machine, someone needs to be electrocuted tomorrow and I haven’t got enough money for an electric chair and the new kitchen I’ve just built, hasn’t got any doors. I am the worst prison architect in the western world and I need a holiday. But maybe I might have just one more try…and there is the essence of this game. You want to make your prison the best prison, but at what cost?

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Prison Architect does exactly what it says on the tin. You make a prison from scratch; designing it, building it, filling it with staff and inmates, before being left to run it. Simple eh? No is the defining answer to this question, because like similar sim type games, everything is complex and you’re left having to deal with all the minute details like power, water supplies, food and shelter. You’re forever having to balance the books and work out the fine line between prisoner needs and wants, to hard discipline and leading a dictator-like state behind bars. It’s up to you to choose your path.

It’s a sim game and in being so it feels very familiar from the moment you begin. It has a tabletop view of the whole prison area, and as you build you can see all the dorm rooms, kitchen area, yard etc. on your screen. You can zoom in with a press of the button and see close up a certain area, or you can go really close and follow a prisoner or guard or workman on their daily routine. You have an easy to use menu bar at the bottom detailing your construction, running of the prison, emergencies and projects. In these menus are all the sub menus you’ll need to build a room from the foundations up, to hiring and firing, to setting up an AA and drugs counselling group. It can all seem daunting to start with but those clever game developers have created a fun and interesting tutorial to the game called ‘Prison Stories”.

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“Prison Stories” is five narratives that weave a prison story from within your jail while teaching you the basics of running it. There’s one where you have to build an execution area for someone who has been sentenced to death for killing his wife, or another where you have to quell a prison riot and a hostage situation, and then clean up the mess. This is a brilliant way of teaching you how to use the game properly, but the stories themselves are really entertaining and absorbing. There are little cut scenes that go backwards and forwards in time to tell that story. When you have selected some building work to be done or are having some equipment delivered, you have the option to prioritise certain jobs and then you can speed up time. Be careful though because sometimes you can miss important events happening and before you know it you might have a riot on your hands whilst your concentrating on the new drinks machine in the staff room. Even though the look of the game is quite cartoony, the themes delivered in the “Prison Stories” campaign are very gritty and dark, almost like the HBO show “Oz”. You will have ethical decisions to make throughout this story, which can be quite disarming, and upsetting, which I guess is the point. I would wholeheartedly recommend playing this campaign all the way through before attempting anything else in the game, otherwise you might get too overwhelmed.

So once you’ve played that mode you can build a prison from scratch with your own design. You can hire who you want, make your own rules and change the world of prison reform. The other mode, which is good fun and has potential to even more enhance the longevity of this game, is World of Wardens. Here you can upload the prison you have created, and other players across the world can use your design and play it. Even better still is that you can download and play other prison designs from loads of players in the warden world. It’s a nice feature and hopefully will continue to grow in its popularity.

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The look of Prison Architect is very simple and cartoony, something which works well enough in this context, as the main focus is making the prison tick over as neatly as possible. It reminds me of one of the early GTA games in its appearance. The graphic comic book cell cut scenes are very effective and I really enjoyed them every time they appeared. The sound effects are again simple, but effective. The pieces of musical scores really work well in the campaign sections without being a truly memorable experience.

Overall I had a lot of fun with Prison Architect, but you need to invest a lot of time in it to get the best out of the experience. There were times when I felt a bit lost, or I couldn’t seem to do something right, something that the prison required to keep functioning well. I had a nightmare with the foundations for a canteen for a long, long, time. You need to able to juggle everything and be a good multitasker, but I guess if you’re a fan of this type of game you’ve got these skills.

Here’s the rub…I not sure that this game can bring in the newcomers to the genre. It tries hard with the campaign/tutorial to hold your hand, guiding you gently through, but there does come a point where you’re looking at a fire, a riot and food crisis and you ask yourself am I the right person for this job? I defiantly am not that right person…. but you could be and if you are there’s a lot of fun to be had running a prison.

Just avoid the showers.

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