Prison Architect Alpha Impressions

I wasn’t expecting much from Prison Architect when I bought it with the latest Humble Indie Bundle. When I played the introduction mission I was mildly impressed by the way it presented the story and motivation of a murderer for which I had to construct an execution chamber. And then it won me over when I started building my own prison from scratch.

The Premise

Prison Architect presents itself as the first prison management sim, which is untrue since I can clearly remember a prison management game from some year ago, although from what I remember it wasn’t all that good. Since the game is still in alpha, there are only 2 game modes: a short tutorial in which you have to build an execution chamber for a prisoner and the free play mode, in which you get to build your own prison from scratch and manage it for an indeterminate amount of time.

The tutorial includes the story of how the guy ended up in this predicament (the double murder of his wife and her copulation partner) and his confession to a priest afterwards, complete with dialogue and nicely drawn snapshots of various scenes. I hope that this tutorial will be followed up by a full-on story mode, with various scenarios to complete (build 200 cells in 2 days, raise the literacy rate of the prison, build a maximum-security prison from scratch, take control of an almost bankrupt prison and turn the situation around, etc. etc.), of course complete with various prisoner life stories, like the one in the tutorial.

The Game

Let’s talk game mechanics. Before you start customizing your prison, you have a few options you can choose from:

The Main Menu

The Main Menu

  • Land size – You only get Small, Medium and Large
  • Fog of War – The insides of the buildings will be unknown to you unless you have a Guard or a CCTV camera in it
  • Continuous intake – If enabled, prisoners will be delivered daily forever. If disabled, you can refuse them.
  • Generate forests – Clusters of trees will be available
  • Generate lakes – It generates lakes. It is also experimental, being in alpha and all
  • Generate buildings – It generates random buildings on the terrain
  • Failure conditions – You can be fired if there are too many riots, deaths, injuries or go bankrupt

You then get some land and 2 spots reserved for deliveries and garbage near the Only Road (the game may be set in the South park version of Canada). You also get a few workers, who are the backbone of the many labors necessary to create your prison and a few starting supplies (bricks, pipes etc.). Then you proceed to lay foundation (brick or concrete), build walls inside the buildings, assign the rooms usage (cells, canteen, execution chamber etc.) and start filling them with objects (in most cases, the room won’t be usable unless it has a minimum size and certain objects present within it. For example, a cell must be at least 2×3, surrounded by walls and have a jail door and contain at least a bed and a toilet).

One of the most critical staff member you must hire as soon as you can is the Warden, with who you can unlock the research tree.

Prison Architect Research Tree

Research Tree

Then you research each position before hiring, the Accountant, Foreman and Chief opening up new research avenues, thus unlocking new rooms, personnel, upgrades and ways to expand your prison or increase revenue.

Before you can start accepting convicts, there are a few facilities which you may want to construct, before you have a riot on your hands. Cells are a must, a fence around the prison to prevent easy escapes, but also a kitchen and canteen, a yard for recreation and some showers. You also must provide utilities, like water for toilets and electricity for various appliances and lighting. These are the minimum in order to keep your prisoners in check and relatively well behaved.

Humble Beginnings

Humble Beginnings

There are some quest-like mechanics in the form of grants.

Plenty of grants

Plenty of grants

At first you can do only 2 grants in parallel, however you can unlock a third spot through Accounting. Grants give you money in 2 payments, one when you accept it and one when you complete the requirements (for example, build a basic detention center or unlock Education and have a number of inmates pass the program). As you complete grants, unlock the bureaucracy tree and take in more inmates, you unlock more grants which will progressively push you to add more features to your prison (workshops where inmates can learn to be carpenters and create items which you can sell, classrooms to give your inmates a basic education).

Room designation, staff hiring menu and object placement toolbars

Room designation, staff hiring menu and object placement toolbars

The game features multiple menus where you can view tasks in progress, the prisoners’ needs, the regime (schedule), the meal quantity and quality, programs for prisoners (cooking lessons, carpentry, education, drug and alcohol treatment, etc.).

Menus

Menus

Utility management

Utility management

Security and job deployments, including restrictive use of rooms

Security and job deployments, including restrictive use of rooms

Contraband map

Contraband map

Prison stats (unlocked after 10 prisoners are released)

Prison stats (unlocked after 10 prisoners are released)

The graphics, as you may have guessed from these images, is simplistic, however it suits the game. You don’t need complicated graphics to enjoy this game, because the mechanics, challenges and drive to continuously advance your prison take precedence aesthetics. That being said, being just an alpha, it’s possible that the graphics will improve with future updates; however I’m not expecting anything major.

The Conclusion

This is the latest game from British company Introversion, the creators of Darwinia, which was a praised title back in 2005 and was in dire straits for some years until it was saved by Steam and then catapulted by the Humble Bundle phenomenon. I found this out only after I bought the game, and I’m glad I did.

It’s a great title, a very well done simulator and it is the first game in a while which after playing for a few hours I ask myself “Has it really been that long?”. At the time of writing this, the game is still on sale with the Humble Indie Bundle and will remain so until September 23rd 9PM CET. I recommend buying this game, not only because it’s very good, even at the alpha level, but also because you’ll be supporting a company with a lot of potential and 13 year of experience behind it.

Don’t drop the soap!


I'm an engineer, currently employed at a financial software company. My interests include gaming, LPing and, of course, reviewing, but also game dev and graphics. Also, in the past I've dabbled in amateur photography, reviewing movies and writing short stories and blog posts. I am also a huge Song of Ice and Fire fan, but that's beside the point. Youtube Channel, Deviantart , Google + , Twitter

blog comments powered by Disqus