Prison Architect (Switch) Review – Criminally Good
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, Android
Developer: Introversion Software, Double Eleven
Publisher: Double Eleven
Release: 20th August 2018 (Switch)
Prison Architect has a long history for an indie, being in Early Access for quite a long time before releasing on PC in 2015. After ports to almost any other platforms during the following two years though, the last thing on their agenda seemed to be bringing this giant prison management bundle to Switch. However, don´t be fooled by its art style, this game is definitely worth it if you never dipped into it.
Obviously, you´re taking over the role of a prison director. There´s no real story and only a handful of actually useful scenarios, instead, Prison Architect focuses entirely on the core aspect of every management title: Free-play. Almost bombarding you with dozens of systems, different prisoners and responsibilities though, every newcomer will feel intimidated by the huge amount of content packed into this tiny game.
To help, there are several little tutorials, trying to teach you the basics and some advanced stuff, while providing some neat little narrative frameworks. For example, to teach how to oversee the electricity, water and their respective cable systems (which you have to construct manually as well), Prison Architect presents you with a prisoner sentenced to death for murdering his wife. They´re neat missions, packed with enough humour to permanently stick with you. Honestly, a pretty good starting point to learn the ropes in a fairly short time, even though the whole pacing could be a bit faster. Unfortunately, there´s no real option to learn more in-depth mechanics without failing many, many times, making it a pretty intimidating choice for absolute beginners.
So once you´ve completed them, it´s time to start your own prison from scratch. Starting out with only a little piece of land, you have to plan everything, from the outer walls, the entrance, how prisoners should be transported when they arrive, where they should be arrested and so on. Everything important in real life is here as well, resulting in a giant amount of systems you have to oversee and plan accordingly. The option to draw a rough plan on the map isn´t there without a reason and immensely helpful to see how big you should construct every room before running into space problems later on.
Since it´s by far one of the most complex indie games I´ve seen, mainly because of its size. There are just so many stages your prison slowly goes through. Beginning with the basics like cells, cantine, security, a safe wall to lock those criminals in, water and electricity and a handful of other things. Those things have to be managed by you, starting with the delivery of the materials needed to build those things, to the building it and lastly, integrating the facility into your existing prison. Especially because every different facility has its own sweet spot for the space needed to get everything in there you need, building your prison with a certain foresight is a requirement.
Naturally, though, this won´t help you from failing … many, many times. After all, the prisoners will always find a way to punish your mistakes with riots or escape attempts. It´s actually surprising what a different work-flow is introduced by those different underlying mechanics for those criminals. They will rarely watch your mistakes but actively intercept, trying to get the biggest personal advantage. Combined with the delicate balance of getting more money for more dangerous criminals and vice versa, there´s a whole own meta-game alone for getting money without loading your prison with intimidating gorillas.
Prisons can easily grow in giant fortresses, due to the option of purchasing more land to expand. Obviously navigating over the growing map, as well as being able to quickly place and construct new things is a necessity and damn hard to pull off with a console port. In short, the PC is still the definitive version to experience this game but Double Eleven tried their best to make it work on the tiny Switch screen in portable mode, in contrast to the already existing other ports. The menus work surprisingly well, even though everything is basically a giant row of items you have to cycle through, which can often be a hassle. Additionally, the text can be quite tiny as well, since there are so many names,s descriptions, names and so on clustered all over the game. While its manageable in portable mode, console mode tends to suffer from too tiny objects or text throughout the game. Really planning out dozens of rooms can also be quite tiring since the joystick controls don´t provide a very fast way of navigation. Still, all in all, everyone willing to buy into this version probably expects these flaws and is willing to put up with them for the added portability, making this a pretty good port.
Prison Architect´s visuals, on the other hand, may not appeal to many people, personally it took some time until I could actually like it as well. It´s a minimalistic, simple approach to management, lacking many different textures, colours and impressive art. Instead, it´s an indie title through and through, focusing on a functional style rather than a fancy one. Instead, it conveys information about the room types, prisoner mood and more through them and its limited colour palette, which I can appreciate in exchange. However, under the hood, it has everything you could ask from a management title.
For 29.99 you may not get the very best way to experience Prison Architect but an amazing management simulator with a unique setting. Coming with dozens of scenarios, every previously released update and pretty much the complete package, it´s probably the very best game of this genre currently available on the Switch and if you can put up with a little hassle in exchange for the portability, you´re guaranteed to have a great time.
[A Review Code was provided by Double Eleven]