Prison Architect Alpha Impressions (PC)

Prison Architect is presented in a cutesy style. The aesthetic here is bright colours and characters that are reminiscent of various cartoons, creating quite an innocent appearance. It’s quite pleasant to watch and simply oozes charm and character.

It is surprising, then, that the opening tutorial has you build the necessary facilities for carrying out a death sentence. Then as you transfer the inmate in question to the cell you built next to your shiny new electric chair, it shows the double homicide of which the death row inmate is guilty. Then it has a guard and priest debating whether or not it’s fair that, if the prisoner had committed this crime a hundred miles north, he would merely be serving life in prison instead of a death sentence.

Welcome to Prison Architect, a prison management game that seems to want to make you think about more than just how to arrange your new cell block. The tutorial will teach you the basics of building and give the above example of some of the more unique events that you’ll encounter whilst playing the final game. Further events of this kind are yet to be implemented in this alpha, but from what the developers have said they will be of a catch ’em all nature, awarding you with a polaroid that represents the event whenever you complete one.

[drop]Beyond basic building, the tutorial doesn’t provide too much information as far as actually designing a prison goes. This is delivered via grants that will give you objectives and the money required to complete them, such as building a holding cell, canteen, kitchen, showers, yard and hiring some staff to start off your prison. From there you’ll be tasked with increasing your prisoner capacity to 15 by building a proper cell block, as well as building some offices for a warden and an accountant.

Building is simple enough, though at the moment it has a few bugs and oversights. First, you place foundations in the dimensions you desire. Your workforce will then make their way over to build the foundations, leaving you to place a door in one of the walls. Once the door is built, the building is complete, but your work isn’t done. You still need to split it into rooms if necessary, provide electricity by connecting it to your power station and, if you’ve built anything that requires it, your water pump station.

The problems right now come when trying to add to something you’ve already built, even when it’s still foundations (before you’ve placed a door), you can’t add one row to your building to fine tune its size as it just won’t let you place it. When you append a room onto a previously built building, you have to place a door that faces outside for it to become an actual room, even if you don’t want one there. Naturally, this is an early alpha so things like this are very easily excused and even expected, but they should still be mentioned.

It can take quite a bit of work to get a full cell block up and running, particularly if you’ve already got prisoners in other areas of your prison who will make a mad run for freedom if they’re given the opportunity. It doesn’t seem to get dull, though, as you tend to approach a building in stages and once you’ve finished your fancy new cell block that houses 40 prisoners and has showers, a medical ward and a common room, the feeling of accomplishment is huge. Building a large facility is an equally large commitment and that’s a good thing, as it requires serious planning, whether it’s ensuring you don’t let any prisoners escape or making sure you have the funds before a large project.

[drop2]Once your 40-prisoner cell block is finished it’s almost a shame that you have to let inmates use it; they’re only going to mess up the place. Whether they’re fighting and getting blood everywhere or they’re kicking in their toilet because they’re a bit bored, controlling prisoners promises to be quite an… interesting affair, at least once the AI of your guards has been improved as they’re a bit brain-dead right now.

Guards have a bad habit of just wandering off after you’ve told them to go somewhere, even if that somewhere happens to be a large hole in the wall through which prisoners can escape. In fact, I had two guards miraculously stay near one such hole to guard it whilst I waited for a wall to be built in and they just stood there as a prisoner ran between them into the wilderness, presumably too busy comparing the size of their batons.

As you might expect from an alpha, the game is a bit rough at the moment and many features are still yet to be implemented, but what’s here is certainly a promising start. Once switches for prison doors are implemented and we get different classes of prisoner that require stronger security measures, not to mention a tightening of the AI for both staff and inmates, Prison Architect will most certainly be worth picking up.

Right now, the minimum price is $30, which is somewhere around £20 or €23, and that’s a bit steep for what’s available at the moment. Whether or not it’s worth the asking price is dependant on how much you desire to either play the game right now or support the developers.

If you do buy into the alpha now, you’ll be able to vote on and put forward ideas to the developers that may end up in the end game if enough people like them. That’s always satisfying if that’s your kind of thing and evidence of it happening is already obvious, with fog of war currently being implemented for the next patch after being suggested by a player last week.

If you’re only interested in playing the alpha, you may want to wait until there’s a little more here considering the relatively high price. It’s understandable if you don’t want to wait as this is definitely a superb management game in the making.

You can buy into the Prison Architect alpha over on the official website.



  1. I paid the money for the Alpha without really having to think about it, i saw it as an excellent chance to allow a developer like Introversion to concentrate on their content whilst the community helps annihilate the bugs and help provide a sense of structure especially in these embryonic stages.
    Introversion always struck me as a studio with fabulous ideas that never quite lived up to their true potential, this one could be different.

    • That’s definitely a good way of looking at it, yes.

  2. Looking forward to this one. I’ll wait until it’s finished though, havent got the time or energy to play a buggy version of a game!

    Any one bothering to read this article would probably be interested in a game called FTL: Faster Than Light. On Steam now.

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