We’ve talked at length at TheXboxHub about sim games and how they translate over from the PC to our home consoles. We’ve reviewed plenty in our time too, but more recently I’ve had a fair few come my way. So it’s with some trepidation that I say Prison Tycoon: Under New Management is now out on Xbox. A new release it may be, a new game it is not.
Put simply, your aim is to rehabilitate as many prisoners as you can whilst tending to their other needs and preventing any scrapping or attempts to escape. This version of the game includes the Roll Call and Maximum Security DLC packs, which bring with it more prisoners, rooms and features such as Twitch integration.
When you first dive in, Prison Tycoon: Under New Management will hold your hand to an extent, chucking information at you in bite size pieces and offering grants as a reward for achieving objectives. These are simple first steps, and guide you around the many different tasks you’ll need to master to get a full understanding of the game. It’s fair to say things get off to a slow start, but they never really pick up either. In fact, as I’ve been writing this paragraph I’ve checked back in with the prisoners and nothing has really happened.
This is a game which is very similar to Two Point Hospital and the like, in terms of structure and style. The menu layout and UI immediately reminded me of the reimagined hospital classic. Sadly, navigating them isn’t quite as smooth and seamless in Prison Tycoon: Under New Management.
To be blunt, the layout is dull and clunky. For example, when you are trying to navigate room options you’ll need to choose from several options in a sub menu. However, trying to figure out whether you need to move the thumbstick or the D-Pad to get to where you need to be is a bit of a lottery. Even when you do, it feels like some of your inputs don’t register from time to time. Getting out of the prisoner management menu is also a faff, simply hitting B won’t let you exit. Instead you need to bob around other menus to break free. What results is a painstaking process which feels like a fundamental issue due to you needing to go through the same thing numerous times to effectively play the game.
This isn’t just limited to menus, room building also falls onto the wrong side of being user friendly. Getting setup is straightforward enough, but then trying to edit your room, or move items within it turns into a right faff. I never figured out how to move an item, I had to delete it and create a new one from scratch.
I ended up just doing the bare minimum with my room layouts, because if you make them larger than needed they end up feeling empty anyway. The only saving grace is the ability to clone rooms and save fiddling around, however you’ll still need to hook them up to the electricity grid.
Even if you fill them with stuff, they still feel too big. It’s something I can’t put into words well enough, but when you play it you will see what I mean. The dullness stretches to other rooms too, because there are very limited animations and character to each of them and the goings on within. As a result your prison feels pretty lifeless, even the announcer only bothers to chirp in at the start and the end of each day. And he isn’t even that funny.
I say day, but at the end of each evening a month has passed, and you’ll be provided with the obligatory performance review of your prison. There is an option to speed up the action to make things run a couple of times faster than usual, but even at this pace it feels too slow. It needs about another five settings up to really get things moving.
As you expand, your prestige level will move up, unlocking new items, rooms and other perks too. It kind of just happens and I found no clear target to hit in order to level up. This is about the only sense of progression you get in the game unfortunately.
Prison Tycoon: Under New Management is a bit of a conundrum because there’s lots to build and do, but it seemingly has very little consequence. For example, there’s no sense of pressure or feeling that you’re losing control. Forget official visits, roaming vermin or unsatisfied inmates en masse (although prisoners also can’t complain about their conditions I suppose). Occasionally prisoners will fight, try to escape or get sick, but after a few seconds the issue is resolved, or you can simply assign them to where they need to go. Instead I dialed the speed up to full pelt and just sat and watched as things ticked over with no difficulties. I have to admit, it wasn’t long before I got bored.
It’s odd, because a lot of things happen without needing much intervention from the player. But others, such as assigning staff a room to work in, or ensuring prisoners receive medical attention after a fight, do. The balance feels off, and as a result things don’t flow so smoothly.
There’s no notification stack either, so if your attention is needed somewhere, it’s not immediately obvious. Instead you’ll need to keep an eye on the hovering symbols above the heads of those in your prison, as well as remembering to assign and unassign people.
That’s not to say that the game is easy peasy. No, in the regular or “Maximum Security” mode you will need to carefully manage your finances. If you run out of money, it can be difficult to claw your way back into the black. And no, there’s not an option to take out a hefty loan to help you turn things around.
Not only that, but you need to pay equal attention to your utilities, such as electricity and water. If you run dry, your prison will encounter all sorts of problems. The only real difference I noticed with Prison Tycoon: Under New Management is the fact you’ll need to hook up every room to an underground electricity network. Otherwise it plays like any other sim.
The other way to play is sandbox mode. This works in the same way, but instead you have unlimited cash at your disposal. It means you can play around without worrying too much about the consequences. This is definitely the more enjoyable way to do things, but to be honest I had very little desire to play more than I had to thanks to its slow, monotonous pace.
What doesn’t help is that you can only ship in two prisoners a month to begin with. If you want more before the month’s end, you’ll have to pay a hefty cost to transport them, which feels like a strange decision. And in sandbox mode you aren’t even able to bring in any extras until the following month. Just as your population is growing, inmates reach the end of their sentence and are up for parole, so your population feels capped to a degree.
Whereas in other sim games it doesn’t take too long before you begin to feel swamped by visitors, in Prison Tycoon: Under New Management it takes an awfully long time to get going, and even when it does there’s no real sense of becoming overwhelmed.
In terms of looks, right from the title menu Prison Tycoon: Under New Management looks really dated. You can immediately tell this isn’t a new game, or a game specifically designed for an Xbox release. It looks as if it could be several years old. You can build your prison in five different locations, but this doesn’t do much to diversify your experience other than a change in background environment.
The loading screen is long and jagged and when the prisoner does pop up in the main menu, he looks incredibly dated. Right down to the blurry tattoo on his arm which you can just about identify as a snake. It’s not pretty. I also encountered an odd situation where everything seemed to be ticking along as normal, but time did not move forward. Despite potentially discovering the secret to eternal life, I had to restart the game to get it running properly again.
To borrow a quote from the excellent Peep Show, after a few hours I wanted to break out of the prison that Prison Tycoon: Under New Management had become for me. Yes folks, I didn’t have a great time with this one.
Fundamentally, Prison Tycoon: Under New Management suffers with repetitive, monotonous gameplay that makes it difficult to enjoy. As a result, it pales into insignificance when compared to its rivals.
Prison Tycoon: Under New Management is on the Xbox Store