Don’t be fooled by the toonish art style and blocky characters – Prison Architect can be a scarily complex game with some surprisingly dark undertones. Amongst the constant downpour of indie titles, it has long stood out for its unique subject matter and way of handling various management tasks and simulations, having entered alpha way back in 2012. A final version wasn’t released until last year – read our review of it here – but now, with the help of Double Eleven, Introversion Software has finally brought its baby to PlayStation 4.
As with any native PC game making the jump to consoles, the one thing players are often most keen to know is how well it handles in lieu of a mouse and keyboard. Without that version of the game to compare it to personally, it’s hard to fault Prison Architect’s transition onto Sony’s latest system. The Dualshock 4 has more than enough inputs to house various functions comfortably, whether you’re setting guard patrols or laying the foundations for a new cell block.
Of course, some of that finesse PC gamers are so used to is lost between switching platforms. Although the shoulder buttons and sticks team up to allow accurate camera and cursor control, it isn’t quite fast enough to select small characters and objects without some difficulty.
Still, this does little to impact the game itself, in which players plan, construct, and expand their very own prison complex. Your responsibilities go way beyond simply building structures, however, as you monitor prisoner welfare, contain riots, and balance your books. Needless to say, drilling down, there’s a bewildering spread of statistics to pore over and systems to engage with.
Prison Architect isn’t without its frustrations though Introversion has done a spectacular job in attempting to simulate the intricacies of the prison system while making it feel fun and engaging.
To help ease in new players, the developer has put together five scenarios dubbed “Prison Stories”. Each one is its own self-contained mission, accompanied by a loose narrative thread which helps connect each tutorial to the next while adding some flavour. Although somewhat limiting, they serve as an ideal learning tool and even allow for some minor experimentation.
That said, during our first few hours of play there were a couple of hair-tugging moments caused by unclear objective parameters or when important information had been relegated to a small line of dialogue.
Once you pick up on how the game’s interweaving systems work, they soon become ingrained. For example, when planning a new building, fitting it with proper plumbing and electricity becomes a second nature, as will the placing of walls and doors.
Prison Architect’s biggest challenges and rewards stem from carrying out a careful balancing act. We’ve started to reach that stage in our playthrough where finance becomes a critical factor, as does the behaviour and satisfaction of inmates. When the game heaps one catastrophe upon another things can get hairy, though crisis management and the sense of relief that comes with successfully handling dire situations is what keeps Prison Architect engaging.
Having already spent a hefty chunk of time with the game, we’re still only scratching the surface. With one last Prison Story to go, the stabilisers are slowly falling away as we prepare to build and run our own slammer from scratch. Even further down the line are newer features such as World of Wardens, allowing players to upload and share their own designs, as well as the ‘All Day and a Night’ DLC, which adds eight new wardens, eight new maps and eight new plots to build upon from scratch
With games like this, the best way to play is always with a keyboard and mouse, hunched over your desktop computer. Even so, it’s hard to argue against how well Prison Architect holds up on PlayStation 4 despite the limitations of using a gamepad. By and large, it’s exactly the same product, only tweaked ever so slightly to embrace a new audience. And, while we’ve yet to fully immerse ourselves, the journey so far has been insightful and fun despite a couple of bumps in the road.