Review: Prison Architect

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I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and goes “I want to build a prison today.” Penitentiaries just don’t have the same feel-good appeal as cultivating a city or a business, really. The developers behind Prison Architect clearly had this in mind the whole way through development, because every manner of mishap and tragedy that can happen in a prison can happen here. However, they wrapped it up in such a wealth of building options that you won’t even have time to question the ethics of your creations.

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Prison Architect drops you off on a flat piece of land with a road running through it, and expects you to build a house of corrections. You’re given an initial grant of money and some builders, and from that humble beginning you build cells, showers, kitchens, offices, power plants, laundry rooms, exercise yards, chapels, armories, morgues, classrooms… Honestly I don’t have enough space to list out all the facilities you can place. The big selling point behind PA that will become immediately obvious is that you can build EVERYTHING. No detail is spared in how the prison is simulated, and every phone booth and ironing board must be accounted for.

This incredible level of detail extends to your prisoners and the handling of them, as well. Each of your little ne’er-do-wells has a detailed rap sheet and biography, specific incarceration needs including security level, moods and interests, and a laundry list of stats that can be tracked. Of course, you can’t just throw such complex sims in a hole and call it a day (okay you can but it won’t end well). Your prisoners have a schedule to stick to that includes eating, showering, working, playing, and sleeping. You can edit this schedule to your heart’s content, even setting different schedules for different security levels.

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There’s still a boatload of systems I haven’t even touched on like advanced security and visitation and work programs and research, but surely you get the point by now. Understand that while all this may sound daunting, Prison Architect handles it in a very gentle way. Early on, prisons don’t need hardly any of the complex amenities, giving you time to unlock and familiarize yourself with them. You also have a huge list of options for customizing your difficulty, allowing you to even disable certain systems if you feel they make the game too complex. It’s a consideration that more in-depth sims should adopt, because it means casual players and experienced managers can all find a pace they enjoy.

It’s rare to find such a deep and detailed simulation that also allows you to dive just as far as you want, and at your own pace. You can tool along with a mostly functional prison just with the basic food and shelter services, explore additional systems at your pace, or go whole-hog in an attempt to build the perfect penitentiary. The 2D vector graphics might not be the most attractive but their simple lines and animations help keep the detailed interactions of your prison clear. Sound design is admittedly minimal, but it’s not much of a drawback when there’s so much more offered. No matter your skill or interest level, Prison Architect will find a way to capture your attention.

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