Morals! They make the world a better place when people have them and an absolute doodoo-fest when they don’t! Well in Prison Architect you are given the opportunity to suffer the consequences no matter which end of the morality pool you decide to dip your toes into.
You can choose to start your new career as a fresh-faced Warden via a lengthy five part campaign/tutorial, or you can jump right into building your own prison from the ground up. Either way I suggest you steel your nerves because those orange jumpsuits can smell fear and will make your life a living hell over a simple clogged toilet faster than you can call the death squa… I mean riot police!
So, grab your nightstick and slap on your slickest tweed suit because this prison construction/management sim is throwing a pop quiz in ethics straight at your face and it’s pass or fail only!
Surprisingly, the first place I encountered Prison Architect was through watching DanTDM YouTube videos with my son. So, given that he cut out all of the more gruesome aspects of this game I went in expecting a much less morbid experience than I got. Mr. Middleton makes videos for kids though so it makes a whole bunch of sense.
Watching a few of the episodes he made for this game I saw him struggle more than once with certain aspects so even before I bought the game I knew to prepare myself for a somewhat glitchy experience. I can safely say now though that I had no f#%king clue what I was in for with this game in both a positive and negative sense!
Let me start by saying that the campaign/tutorial and the sandbox mode are two very different beasts. I started in the most logical place with the campaign, but unfortunately the more I played it the more I hated the game and almost straight up dropped it for good. You get thrown right into the mess of things with prebuilt, overpopulated prisons where you are set up with tasks to help reform the prison and its occupants. Don’t complete your task fast enough and you’ll more than likely end up with a “riot of no return” on your hands. This made the gameplay seem overwhelming at best and downright impossible at its worst.
I decided to give it a shot at redemption though and booted up sandbox mode. Thankfully, that ended up being the experience I had been desperately looking for. Sandbox mode was the building/management sim I had been expecting and although disaster was ever looming, I found I could take my time to learn the many, many nuances at my own pace, as well as have more control over what sort of events happened and when. Which is exactly what I’d expect from any good game of this type honestly.
While I appreciated the few things I learned from the tutorial I definitely think there is a better way to go about teaching the players how to play. After absolutely crushing the heck out of running my own prison I was curious to go back to the campaign and see how I would fare with all my new found skills and knowledge of how the game worked. Big mistake. I still floundered mercilessly and it very quickly made me run back to my perfectly tailored prison in sandbox mode. I think combining a tutorial stage with the sandbox mode would have been a better way of going about it. There is a hint of it in there when your various workers will ask for things or offer you ways to improve the prison. This is not a game that holds your hand while you’re learning 90% of the many moving parts. Luckily though, most of it is not terribly difficult to figure out for yourself and the rest is just a quick Wiki search away.
After being beaten to a pulp by the campaign mode, stepping into sandbox was like a soothing salve on my very abused nerves and ego. The fact that you can virtually set up the standards for your own difficulty mode is kind of revolutionary. You are given a bunch of Warden types to choose from that all offer different perks, or challenges depending on how you look at it. Things like better tempered prisoners, more money from sold contraband, better guard dogs, etc. There is a huge list of events to choose from that you can either allow or not that’ll make things easier or more of a challenge. You can also choose how much money you start off with to build your brand spanking new prison.
I think if you are into management/sim types games and are looking for something other than a cute farming game then this will be a nice change of pace to try. However, enter the campaign at your own risk as far as I’m concerned. This game has an absolute butt ton of nuances and moving parts and not all of them are going to work like you think whether you follow the rules or not. I think the best idea would be to go into Prison Architect fully expecting somewhat of a high learning curve, as well as a few glitches here and there. Once I got the hang of the game I enjoyed myself, so don’t despair, there is absolutely fun to be had.