Prison Architect Launch Impressions

There’s probably not much point in me telling you about Prison Architect in general. I mean, it’s been publicly playable in alpha form since the days when people spent their nights huddled around fires, fearing attacks by saber-tooth tigers, and once per month sacrificed an hour-long video update to the great YouTube deity. If you have any interest in it, you’ve probably watched quite a lot of it, or read a lot about it, or just played it for yourself.

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It might surprise you that I haven’t played it. I’ve covered the alpha update videos and enjoyed watching them, and I’ve been keeping track on the game’s progress. But, except for 14 short minutes back in early 2013, I hadn’t actually played it.

Basically, it looked interesting, and Introversion one of those rare studios who always produce games worth attention. Uplink is still the quintessential hacking game, Darwinia is – for all its flaws – a genuinely gorgeous pseudo-RTS that evokes Cannon Fodder, and DEFCON is hilarious backstabbing fun which will make you want to punch your friends. And frankly, the best multiplayer games make you want to punch your friends. Forget Grand Theft Auto: it’s ChuChu Rocket that inspires real-world violence.

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Unfortunately, the game doesn’t let you set up a “Scared Straight” programme to scare kids away from playing ChuChu Rocket with their friends.

I gave Prison Architect a cursory glance two years ago, saw the fundamental building blocks of the game, and then decided that I’d actually rather wait until it was “done” before playing it. I didn’t want to deal with bugs and changes and rough edges and re-learning the game as features were added and altered, because it looked like something I’d enjoy. I figured I might as well treat myself to the finished version instead.

So yeah. There’s probably not much I can tell you about Prison Architect, per se, that you don’t already know.

However, there are its SECRET LAUNCH FEATURES which, uh, were actually announced before launch, so I guess they’re not that secret. I figured that my best angle for an article would be to try out these two new modes – the campaign, and the Escape Mode – for a couple of hours, and then write up some early thoughts on how they worked, just in time for launch. I decided that on, ooh, probably Sunday night. Maybe Monday morning, while finishing up the Skyhill review.

Then I played Prison Architect for 13 hours, which is why you’re not reading this at 5pm on Tuesday to coincide with the game’s launch.

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Can’t sleep. Must build laundry. Must employ prisoners.

I haven’t spent a great deal of time with Escape Mode, so let’s take a look at the campaign first. This puts you in the shoes of an assistant Prison Architect, tasked with various little missions within ready-made prisons undergoing problems. The first, for instance, teaches you the basics of constructing buildings and rooms, and setting up your power supply – all, rather bleakly, to execute a man who turned himself in after murdering his cheating wife and her lover. If you’ve played the alphas, you’ve played this mission.

That bleakness might (justifiably) put a few people off, and despite its cutesy look, Prison Architect doesn’t really shy away from these moral issues. That said, it doesn’t presume to judge you and your opinions on either prisons or the death penalty; that’s the only occasion when you’re forced to assist in execution, and the game itself lets you decide what sort of prison you want to build.

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What a happy way to start a game.

You can focus on concrete walls, regular guard posts, daily shakedowns, harsh punishments, and a shoot-to-kill policy. Or you can focus your money and attention on reform and education programmes, counselling, and therapy, and try to make sure that your prisoners aren’t going to reoffend by choice rather than by fear.

I’m not trying to say that one is right and the other is wrong, although inevitably some of my own feelings have bled into those last paragraphs. Basically, prison as an institution for reform and/or punishment is a really complex issue, even without contemplating the death penalty – and wisely, it’s an issue that Introversion haven’t taken a heavy stance on. It’s up to you how to run your prison, and there are upsides and downsides to both angles.

Anyway, I digress. Get through that execution and you’re thrust into three more tutorial-ish prisons, each with their own problems. One starts with a fire that may or may not have been arson. Another is undergoing a full-blown riot, and needs to be fully secured before you can start rebuilding. The fourth, contrary to the bleakness of the first mission, is all about reform, and winds up being rather more heartwarming than that initial experience. And then the final mission puts you back at the site of the first prison, now demolished, and tasks you with building a brand new facility to replace it.

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Look upon my works, ye mighty, and laugh at the fact that I thought a jail door was important for the kitchen.

A campaign that’s basically a tutorial system is normally an incredibly dull and irritating affair that leads to frustrated shouts of “Just let me play!” but Prison Architect actually manages to avoid that fate. There are a few “You have to do this right now” moments, but you’re given more and more freedom as the missions go on, and you’re rarely locked out of doing whatever you want. You have goals, and the game gives you advice, but it’s up to you to do it. Or just to dick around, or to make the prison run a little bit smoother in other ways to make life slightly easier. Whatever.

If you don’t want to leave that third prison – if you want to try out some different policies, upgrade security a little more, set up some further education – you’re more than welcome to, even when the mission itself is “finished.” While you can speed through the tutorial parts of each mission pretty quickly and move onto the next, each one also has a plethora of bonus objectives that can easily keep you there for an hour or two more. Which is probably why I ended up spending 13 hours with the campaign, and I’m still messing around with the final mission because prisoners are so demanding.

Bizarrely, this mostly makes me think of games like Rollercoaster Tycoon or Theme Park. You build your park to complete your mission, but… well, hell, why not build another rollercoaster? And you could really do with redesigning the pathways, actually, as they’re not too efficient. Maybe a garden over there would look nice.

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My second attempt was maybe slightly less shit.

And, well, that’s probably why I spent 13 hours with Prison Architect when I just meant to play a couple of the missions to get to grips with how it worked and what the campaign offered. It’s very “one more turn”, except that it’s not turn-based. I continually promised myself that I’d stop playing once I’d just completed this next little goal I had in mind, and then I noticed that my income was a bit low, and I should really re-arrange the guard paths, and the prisoners are really getting upset about the lack of a multi-faith chapel, and now the canteen is running out of space, and…

I like it quite a lot, basically. Quite a lot indeed, and enough to override the few concerns I still have at this early stage. There are a few bugs and UI oddities sticking around – a Holding Cell told me it had “no Canteen accessible”, when what the game actually meant was that my prison wasn’t completely closed off and prisoners would make a run for it instead of going for lunch. It’s also a complete pain in the arse to redesign or rebuild an area that’s already been constructed, so I’d strongly suggest you think five or six steps ahead of your immediate goal.

In addition to this, certain aspects of the game are explained pretty poorly (particularly phone taps, snitches, and various other forms of intelligence gathering) and a few strategies seem a little too good. Sticking some K9 units on patrols in thoroughfare areas got me an awful lot of contraband (although not even close to all of it), and barring the odd fight breaking out, I’ve yet to have issues with escape attempts. And, yes, my current prison has hit that tipping point of most strategy or 4X games where things are running pretty smoothly and I’m just building more stuff for the sake of it, or delving into huge amounts of micromanagement to eke out more efficiency. You can follow one of your 90 prisoners around manually to see if he’s likely to be up to no good and then order his cell tossed, but it’s usually far easier just to search the entire block. You’ll piss off a few people, but I haven’t had any really negative consequences from this yet.

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Escape Mode is actually more fully-fledged than I thought it would be, but it’s definitely not a reason to buy the game.

I’m not too worried about the challenge aspect, though, as the game’s crux – the sandbox mode – should mix things up a bit. Particularly if I use the Gangs and Random Events functions to make sure things go wrong at the worst possible moment. And if I opt only for maximum security prisoners. Perhaps even if I go full hardline and post armed guards everywhere. I shall have to experiment, and I’m rather looking forward to it.

The Escape Mode, on the other hand, isn’t something I’m quite so keen on. This should hardly come as a surprise because Prison Architect a game about building a prison; indeed, Escape Mode tucked away – as though it’s slightly ashamed of itself – in the Extras menu, so it’s quite possible to miss it. This puts you in control of a new arrival at your prison (or any prison on the Steam Workshop, and you can even have it select a random one for you) who has to use reputation to recruit a squad and up your stats before making your breakout attempt. And, er… well, it works, but it’s hardly The Escapists. In all honesty, it deserves its place in the Extras menu. Being able to explore and try to beat your own prison’s security is a nice touch, but it’s most definitely an extra.

This isn’t a review, as I’m nowhere near done exploring Prison Architect‘s labyrinthine designs, but as someone who’s basically gone into it fresh, I’m finding it hard to escape. Those 13 hours were anything but hard time.

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Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.