Game Review: Prison Architect

September 26th, 2016 | by Alan Stock
Review of: Prison Architect

Reviewed by:
On September 26, 2016
Last modified:September 26, 2016


If you can persevere through the game’s poor useability, you’ll find a complex and compelling sim with many player stories to tell.

Prison Architect is a crowd-funded prison construction simulator by Introversion Software, taking inspiration from classics like Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. It’s out now on PC and consoles, with Android and iOS ports reportedly in development. ComiConverse brings you this review from our very own Alan Stock.

Game Review: Prison Architect

Game Review Prison Architect

Credit: Prison Architect

Stephen Welch. He’s extremely violent and unpredictable, imprisoned for mass murder. Serving a life sentence, he spent his days in permanent lockdown in his cell, in a Supermax security wing of the prison full of armed guards. Almost every day, Welch, who was immensely strong, would start wrecking his cell and trying to smash the door down. Each time the guards tried to restrain him, he’d manage to severely injure or even kill them – he could even withstand a tazer hit. However strong the security, or however his many needs were catered for, Welch would still randomly start trouble. After over ten guards had been killed in one week thanks to Welch, the prison warden made a controversial decision and authorised lethal force if things got out of hand again. The next day, Welch beat an armed guard unconscious and stole his shotgun before shooting another guard dead. He escaped to the yard where a sniper in an overwatch tower opened fire and put 5 bullets into him – at last ending Stephen Welch’s reign of terror. Problem solved – but was that extreme measure the right approach?


Game Review Prison Architect

Stephen Welch after another rampage. Credit: Introversion Software

This question was one for me to ponder later – because I was the warden who authorised lethal force after Stephen Welch resisted all attempts at containment. See, although Prison Architect is essentially about building a prison, it’s as much about managing the prisoners and all the associated problems which can turn your well-laid plans upside-down. Whilst being a fun game in its own right, it also provokes some thought about the difficult job that penal systems face – where financial and institutional needs can steamroll over moral issues. It’s up to you whether your prison will be a liberal place full of reform programs, a relaxed timetable and comfortable living, or an oppressive regime with tiny cells, constant prisoner searches, sniper towers and armed guards.

Game Review Prison Architect

Money is tight so grants give you some much-needed cash to get your expansion plans up and running. Credit: Introversion Software

A short campaign introduces you to the basics of prison construction and crisis management with premade prisons and a simple storyline. After that, you’ll be playing sandbox mode – starting with a bare patch of land, some workers and a government loan – and you’ll need to construct a basic prison before the first inmates arrive. This is a private prisons enterprise, you need to be profitable, so you have to start off small (unless you turn on unlimited funds). But the government pays you for inmates in your care and there are grants available to fund expansion. Eventually your prison will evolve from a single shared holding cell and canteen with a fence around it, to multiple wings of individual cells, full of facilities for staff and prisoners surrounded by high walls and dog patrols. As you progress you can unlock research options giving you access to more room types, staff and micromanagement options. It’s up to you how to evolve your prison, although the grants do provide some direction rewarding you for developing your prison in certain ways. You can technically play forever, a prison grading system and re-offending rate give you a way to judge how effectively you’re doing your job. Game Over occurs under a number of conditions – if you fall into too much debt, or there’s too many escapes in a short space of time, for example. Just building a prison isn’t enough – if it doesn’t function well you’ll be for the chopping block pretty soon. Brilliantly, if you fail from too many deaths during your tenure, you are incarcerated in your own prison!

Game Review Prison Architect

Fire is a great disaster to tackle – you get to control the little firemen who drag hoses through your whole prison. Imagine the consequences of walls burning down or trapped prisoners inside. Unfortunately it very rarely happens in the sandbox mode which is a bit of a wasted opportunity. Credit: Introversion Software

Construction has a nice amount of freedom, rather than being forced to use pre-set rooms, you are able to lay out your prison however you’d like – using a zoning system to designate rooms and placing the necessary objects inside. Your workers do the drone work – dutifully ferrying materials around the map and building and demolishing as required. You also need to support rooms with utilities like electric cables and water pipes, although this often feels like busywork. After playing for a while, the importance of good planning becomes apparent. It’s often simply unaffordable and unfeasible to rebuild areas already in use.  Bad decisions with room placement early on can come back to haunt you later. As you gain experience, you’ll learn what works effectively and figure out more efficient layouts. There’s plenty of room for experimentation though – as evidenced in the other prisons you can download using the games’ prison sharing tool.

Game Review Prison Architect

In this riot aftermath, one gang member is still fighting with a fork stolen from the kitchen. One time, I had a max security prisoner who went on a fork rampage, killing a chef and the guard that came to help, and then smashing in the kitchen door and making a run for it. He managed to stab several more guards before they finally brought him down. Credit: Introversion Software

Prisoners and staff are controlled by the AI, although you can select staff and move them to specific points RTS style – useful for quelling trouble. Guards automatically do jobs like unlocking doors, escorting prisoners and subduing unruly inmates. Patrol routes and a deployment map can be researched to give you greater command over their movements. Prisoners, on the other hand, can’t be directly controlled – they follow the daily regime you’ve set out. And as you might expect, they aren’t all well-behaved – fights will break out, escape attempts may be made, and contraband flows around the prison (often a shocking amount when you first discover it). Prisoners all have needs, a long list including hunger, hygiene, safety and recreation. If you aren’t meeting those needs, they get angry – which can quickly escalate to rioting with the wrong trigger. If you don’t put down a prison riot fast it’ll spread and then you’re in trouble – although you can call in riot police and paramedics to help. If you completely lose control the National Guard will turn up and shoot everything in sight in a grimly satisfying Game Over you can watch. Prison riots are exciting events even if they do end up wrecking half your prison.

Game Review Prison Architect

A riot kicks off. Through my harsh regime I managed to quell riots before they got too out of hand. Prisoners can even take over parts of your prison during riots and will steal weapons from guards, meaning using lethal force to regain control is sometimes the only option. Credit: Introversion Software

Riots aren’t the only way prisoners can rebel against the system. You can’t get complacent or careless, if you aren’t vigilant, prisoners may take advantage of that. I learned this the hard way in a good example of the emergent scenarios in the game. I’d built a large 40-man dormitory to save on costs, which I only allowed minimum security prisoners to occupy – thinking they were unlikely to be much trouble. My trusting nature was thrown in my face when I was alerted to a mass escape – the entire dormitory had worked together over a number of nights and managed to dig a long tunnel reaching outside of my walls where they ran off to freedom. By the time I found out it was already too late. The easy life was over – I cracked down hard with patrolling guard dogs, metal detectors and regular searches of that cell. It’s just one example in Prison Architect of how the prisoners work towards their own ends and require thought beyond simply building rooms for them to live in.

Game Review Prison Architect

You can see the epic tunnel stretching from the dorm toilets near the bottom out beyond my perimeter wall at the top. Sneaky blighters. Credit: Introversion Software

The game’s style is light-hearted, with cartoony visuals and an element of black humour. But Prison Architect has a darker side to it – it shrewdly makes you consider issues of prison management in the real world. A key point I took from it was how easy it is to dehumanise prisoners. Although each prisoner has a bio, unless they are special in some way – like max offenders – you probably won’t know or really care about them – they’re simply a commodity grinding their way through your system. From a planning point of view you take the bigger picture – you may start focusing on efficiency and profitability without considering what effect it would have on the prisoner’s lives. Whether you cater to their needs fully is up to you – and it’s entirely possible to ignore them entirely if you run a tight enough ship. In my biggest prison, I wanted some variety and more money so I started to take only maximum security prisoners, whom you get paid more for. A number of them caused massive fights regularly and overall unrest in the prison. To deal with it I hired armed guards, placed sniper towers over yards and put CCTV and metal detectors everywhere. In the end, I quelled the trouble but as a result all of my prison was suppressed – more unhappy and less likely to engage in reform programs. Although only a small quantity of the prisoners were the problem, my solution had affected every inmate – now living under an oppressive regime, constantly being watched with armed guards everywhere. I found that really interesting, it may just be a game but it raises some thoughtful insights into social issues in prisons.

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Game Review Prison Architect

My final big prison, the high security, suppressive one – with a capacity of over 500 prisoners. This took me over 60 hours to complete and runs fairly smoothly and profitably, except for gang flareups. With over 100 hours of play, I’ve finally seen everything the game has to offer. Some players have built huge prisons with over 1000 prisoners. Credit: Introversion Software

What sets Prison Architect above its predecessors in the genre is that even once you’ve exhausted the vast number of room types and research options – there’s still plenty of engagement to be had. The prisoner’s behaviour keeps things interesting and there’s always ways to optimise, expand or restructure your prison to accommodate different strategies. Changing the type of prisoners you’ll accept can change the way your prison needs to be run. Some prisoners have special traits which make them a real danger, and others like snitches require protective custody. Random events can be enabled to keep you on your toes if things are going too smoothly – although in my opinion they should be more extreme as they’re usually easy to deal with. A great option to turn on is gangs, which create loads of problems for your prison – gang leaders can even appear who make plays for territory and punishing them can result in riots from the gang members. There’s loads of depth to be found in the advanced stages. However, gameplay does have a tendency to become a bit dry and stale, especially if things are running smoothly. Expanding your prison can become tedious and repetitive when laying out new cell blocks, utilities and supporting rooms. But once you’ve reached a point you feel you’ve reached the end, there’s an immense satisfaction to  just watch your prison running like a well oiled machine, or following individual prisoners through their daily routine, all of which you created yourself.

Gang members team up in fights and become a real problem when making territory grabs for yards and common rooms. Realistically, the gang leaders never get involved in the dirty work but pass on orders and recruit new members. If you don’t crack down on gangs hard they can overwhelm your prison – although turning them on is optional. Credit: Introversion Software

Unfortunately the level of quality elsewhere in the game doesn’t extend to Prison Architect’s useability. At every step of the way the game is undermined by a poor interface and bad player guidance. The interface is often unintuitive – confusing, inconsistent and with many annoying quirks. Although the tutorial campaign and tooltips explain some of what the game offers, it doesn’t do enough. Tasks which should be simple are often not explained. When things don’t work or you can’t do something, there’s usually no explanation as to why.  Many of the games depths and advanced features can only be fully explored or understood if you go online and start reading Wikis or forums. This is a real shame as the inaccessibility of the game becomes an incessant irritant to progress and interferes with your enjoyment. Although I don’t agree with player handholding in these types of games, there’s lots of information and systems you simply won’t be able to figure out yourself. The console versions have a more polished interface but still suffer many of these issues. There’s also plenty of bugs to be found even though the game has been in development for over five years. It’s an interesting result of crowdfunding – in traditional development a publisher would have stepped in to force the developer to address these problems. As a result there’s a huge amount of deep content in Prison Architect, but a lack of basic useability polishing, which would have helped a great deal and may well put less dedicated players off.

Game Review Prison Architect

Escape mode is a neat idea where you can load any prison – your own or downloaded ones, and play as an inmate and attempt to escape by causing trouble, stealing items and creating a gang. Although its shallow and flawed, it’s fun to see things from the perspective of the prisoner and creating chaos is a nice subversion from the game’s original premise. Credit: Introversion Software


Prison Architect: Conclusion

If you can get over these hurdles, you’ll find Prison Architect to be an addictive and absorbing game. It’s the new king of this style of simulator, helped largely by the dynamic prisoner behaviour and emergent scenarios that result. It’s brimming with extra content, like map sharing, a full mod system, and a prison escape mode. Whilst the campaign could be fleshed out and the sandbox could use some more player direction, you can easily spend days immersed in just one prison exploring all the content and expanding. It’s also a showcase for what can be achieved through prolonged development through crowd funding – and the passion that Introversion have for the game is clear with their interesting development videos on Youtube and fan requested features. Prison Architect may not be perfect, but its engrossing and a long awaited rebirth of a genre that’s been dead for far too long.


Have you played Prison Architect?

What are your thoughts on the difference between Prison Architect and other Sims style games?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Prison Architect
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If you can persevere through the game’s poor useability, you’ll find a complex and compelling sim with many player stories to tell.

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