Prison Architect isn't a nice game. Don't let the basic, twee appearance of its world and its inhabitants fool you: while Introversion's prison building and management sim might look like old-school Theme Park, with human blobs moving about and busses dropping off and taking people away, this game is home to some truly dark deeds (much worse than some puking kids).
The core of Prison Architect comes from the sandbox environments you can choose to play in, letting you create your prison from scratch or maintain an existing one. This includes everything from building walls, fitting water pipes, and hooking up electricity cables, to installing TVs in cells, organising shakedowns, and listening to your inmates' needs. Chances are you've never built or run a prison (I haven't) so it's hard to say what's missing from the simulation, but there's an awful lot of depth here.
Staff across all aspects of the prison must be hired, guards must have patrol routes designated, generators must be powerful enough to cope with the site's electrical needs, prisoners need systems in place to help them cope, and on a very basic level there needs to be bins to put rubbish in. There's a lot to learn. In sandbox mode you can't win as such, but you can lose. There are numerous fail states, including but not limited to getting the boot if you let the prisoners riot for too long or getting the sack for taking the prison into bankruptcy.
Doing all of this from the off is a little daunting to be honest, so it's best to play through the included tutorial scenarios, neatly devised to tell a story at the same time. It was during the first of these that Prison Architect's dark underbelly first came to light. One of the inmates, imprisoned after brutally murdering his wife and her lover after walking in on them one night, has been sentenced to death. It's up to you to build the execution chamber and install the electric chair. At the end of the chapter the man is killed, and the whole thing feels pretty grim. This is certainly no theme park.
To be honest, even though this is a game entirely built around the idea of building and running a prison, I wasn't expecting things to be so unpleasant. If you come to this expecting Orange is the New Black's panty selling business, prepare yourself for something closer in tone to Oz. In another episode of the in-depth multi-part tutorial, there's a rather horrific shower scene, lessened only by the fact that you're looking at crude shapes wielding knives and spewing blood.
I came to Prison Architect aware of the PC original, but had never played it. Being a strategy game with a focus on construction (laying out plans for workers to build), I had concerns over how the experience would translate to a console controller. Thankfully Introversion and console port dev team Double Eleven have created a system that nearly circumvents the lack of keyboard and mouse.
Essentially there is a quick launch menu, with a different option mapped to the four directions on the d-pad. Choose one of these and you can then use a combination of direction presses and shoulder buttons to navigate the menus pretty sharpish. It's clearly not as good or the original setup on PC, but considering what the designers had to play with, it's been handled really well.
Prison Architect isn't a game you can simply dabble with. It's a full-on sim that will eat your time. The PS4 and Xbox One ports have been created with care, meaning console gamers won't feel too much like they're trying to play a PC game with two lumps of wood strapped to their hands. If you fancy a dark look inside the running of a prison, look no further.
Version Tested: PS4