Prison Architect Review

By Mark Delaney, 4 months ago
Rob Richardson had only been in my prison for little more than a month, but he was five and a half years into a sixteen year sentence, with time served elsewhere before he arrived at my new state-of-the-art privatized, for-profit prison complex. Leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend with triplets on the way, Richardson was just 18 when convicted of assaulting a police officer and perjury. He wouldn't see the free side of the fence until he was in his mid-thirties. By then, his two daughters and son would be adults themselves, leaving him a stranger in his own home. He didn't sleep some nights, he ate his meals alone and aloof from the other population. Isolated physically and emotionally, he took the time to sign up for my new inmate reform program to help himself kick his drug addiction. He eventually graduated from the class and was better off for it. But the program took just a few weeks. He still had more than a decade remaining on his sentence before he could again walk freely, if he could make it that far. Richardson's story is just one of hundreds unfolding at all times at my prison, and one of seemingly endless possible narratives the game can tell. Among its deeply involved systems and love-it-or-hate-it micromanagement, it is this attention to the human element of prison that stands as the game's greatest achievement.


Prison Architect is a top-down simulation game akin to the ages-old Tycoon games on PC. You won't be setting the price of popcorn or assigning mascots to certain pathways, however. Instead, you're tasked with overseeing all aspects of prison management. The developer, Introversion Software, truly has thought of everything in this regard, too. You build the prison from the ground up, lay water pipes and electrical wiring, hire staff like guards, doctors, and therapists, install surveillance and emergency countermeasures, and if you eventually have the prison running as it should, then you have to keep it that way. This is done by keeping the population of inmates fed, content, nonviolent, and within the walls and fences of the institution. Because you're also operating a private prison, the endgame is to also make money. The introduction to the game's many systems at play is extremely intimidating at first. Thankfully, this feeling of being overwhelmed is largely undone using the game's Prison Stories mode that doubles as a structured narrative and tutorial. Using simple cutscenes across several different scenarios, the game slowly breaks down all of its confusing menus and options into something that becomes more familiar. It even has options to quick-build rooms like cells, kitchens, dining halls, and so on. Still, after more than twelve hours with the title, it felt like there was more to learn in Prison Architect.

When they're in their cells, the prisoners are easy to control. Unfortunately, such is the case only a few hours per day.When they're in their cells, the prisoners are easy to control. Unfortunately, such is the case only a few hours per day.

Each prisoner has his own story, and though looking into them enough reveals the randomized system by which their backgrounds are decided, they still leave plenty of room for role-playing, or for players to fill in the gaps with their own conclusions. Criminal histories, sentences being served, personal schedules, likelihood that they'll be repeat offenders -- all of this and more is detailed to an amazing extent for each and every inmate, and you can have hundreds in a prison if you so choose. If you do have such a sizable population, you're only making it harder on yourself. While accepting more prisoners is crucial to make money, taking in more than you can control can lead to poor conditions, staff members in life-threatening danger, and, of course, Shawshank-like escapes. The entire game is a balancing act where you have to maintain all of these systems closely. Like other simulation games, you can fast forward time to work through certain periods or projects. Conversely, you can even stop time completely if you need to catch your breath. Riots are always a threat, and you'll see them often if your prisoners aren't having their needs met -- basic needs like food and a bed, but also family needs like phone calls and visitation. This entire review could be spent detailing just what the game offers, mapping out the many mechanics needing more than just a cursory understanding, so it may be most effective to put it this way: if it happens in prison, it happens in Prison Architect.

Full motion cutscenes in the story mode are absent and in their place are text bubbles and flashback snapshots that unfold in the game's story/tutorial mode. These stories, against the odds created by the cartoony presentation, actually hit with some emotional heaviness. The violence isn't so graphic but the consequences are still felt because we switch between what the character is doing in prison versus what got them there. One older man broke into a home where he killed his wife and her secret lover in cold blood. Another inmate held several prison staffers hostage, upset about the conditions of his imprisonment. These scenarios don't play out in such detail in most modes, only in the story mode, but the backgrounds are present in each and every inmate in the sandbox mode that you can piece their lives together and build the story together with the game.

Another exceptional aspect of the game is in the way it lets you role-play your own character. Cast as warden of whatever prison you're overseeing, it's up to you to decide how the population will be controlled. Will you be a hardlined totalitarian ruling with the spirit of Machiavelli? Or maybe you're a true believer in prison as reform and you care for the inmates in a way unheard of in most institutions. There are several warden archetypes, each with their own boosts not unlike choosing a world leader at the onset of a game of Civilization. Each method has its benefits and detriments, so it's up to you to decide what your focus will be. When you've seen enough of a certain prison, you can download more from the game's already well populated offering of user-created content. Like other games with similar features, you can cycle through the list based on number of downloads, rating, and recency. This is really the bow on top of the game's gift to sim players. The story mode is short-lived, and some people might not want to build their prison from the ground up or may work quickly through the developer-created prisons available right away. The availability of hundreds more prisons means the longevity of the game is extended in a way that might as well be called endlessly.

It's not just human dilemmas you have to manage, but environmental disasters too.It's not just human dilemmas you have to manage, but environmental disasters too.

Where the game falters is in its user interface more than anything. With time, it gets easier to cycle through but the learning curve can be quite steep and none of the menus are aesthetically pleasing. The sound design is also quite minimal. Zooming in close on the prison allows you to hear the cacophony of inmates and staff interacting all day, and some rooms have specific sounds to them, like the flow of water in the showers or the clanking of meal trays in the kitchen. In full, though, the game's sound design lacks the level of commitment that is abundantly clear with its gameplay and character-building. The top-down presentation is the most effective way of managing the masses, but the cartoonish, Matryoshka-like character design is incongruous to the heavy adult themes the game does so well displaying.

Here's an example of what you could call the worst case scenario.Here's an example of what you could call the worst case scenario.

Prison Architect has just today come out of its Game Preview format. Unfortunately for me, that means none of what I've done in over a dozen game hours contributes toward any achievement unlocks and thus, at time of writing, I'm sitting at 0 for 0 gamerscore. The newly revealed list does offer a challenging mix of objectives that go to great lengths to make players experience all of what the game has to offer, from simply finishing optional objectives in the tutorial and story mode, to selling your prison at an enormous profit. All points on the prison spectrum are accounted for, too. If you want to enforce the death penalty, you'll be rewarded for it. Similarly, you'll pop gamerscore for treating your facility as a true rehabilitation program. Just as you should only check out the game if you're a fan of the genre, completionists should only bother with the game if they're interested in more than gamerscore, as it's at least going to be a time consuming list, if not downright difficult at times.


Not since an imprisoned George Bluth had an endless supply of ice cream sandwiches has doing time ever been so rewarding. Prison Architect is a deep offering of gameplay elements, interconnected systems, and emergent storytelling, all of which remain addictive for fans of such micromanagement. If all this sounds like more work than fun, you're probably right; this game just isn't for you. There were times when I looked at the game in my library and became stressed at the idea of playing it some more. Controlling a population of inmates who, by the basic nature of prison, don't want to be there, can feel like a second job. More often, though, I was amazed by the game's intense level of detail to the human element of being behind bars, and I walked away from the experience with an appreciation for such a stellar genre title. If you're a fan of simulations, Prison Architect is one of the best there is.
4 / 5
  • Deeply engrossing systems from a studio that has thought of everything
  • Emergent story moments and character backgrounds for all inmates
  • Deals with sociopolitical themes surprisingly well and maturely
  • Freedom to run the prisons in many different ways
  • Minimal sound design
  • Cartoonish visuals don't blend well with the subject matter
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent over twelve hours behind bars, trying to reform prisoners with a more empathetic approach, but occasionally had to call in riot control when things got messy. During his stint, he unlocked no achievements due to the game being in Preview form. A digital copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a lifelong gamer and current Assistant (to the) News Manager on TA. When not playing games, he can be found cheering for a bad football team, playing Batman action figures with his son, or going to concerts with his lover. Days where he does all of those things are his favorite.