The horn blows. “Coming out,” drones a voice over the PA. The massive gate retracts, letting those inside the Early Access prison see just a bare sliver of the outside world—a world where finished games roam free, frolicking through the verdant pastures of Steam.
A lone prisoner turns to the others. “It’s my day,” says the prisoner. “I’m getting out.” Some cheer. Some don’t move at all. Others drool on themselves. “It’s been a real honor serving with you other Early Access games,” says the prisoner. And then he walks through the gate, out of the prison where he’s spent three years—finally, a member of society.
Yes, Prison Architect—one of the earliest of Early Access games—”officially” releases today after a three-year incubation, which I guess means it’s time for a review. Surreal.
Go directly to jail
Prison Architect is a builder game a la Theme Hospital or Space Colony except, you know, with prisons. Your job as CEO is to take in a steady stream of criminals and feed them, house them, and (hopefully) rehabilitate them for release into society.
I hope you’ve read up on your Foucault, because there’s a ton of work to do. Building the prison will, of course, take up most of your time—laying foundations for cells, common rooms, kitchens, showers, and filling them up with everything from beds to billiards tables.
But there’s more to a prison than concrete walls and cots. You’ll also need to hire guards and lay out patrol patterns, coordinate work programs, watch for escape attempts, set prisoner schedules, set up programs to treat alcoholism, assign jobs to prisoners, occasionally quell riots or put out (literal) fires, coordinate release schedules, start a work program, and I could keep going.
Prison Architect is overwhelming. Like some other early Early Access games (looking at you, Kerbal Space Program), Prison Architect seems to have started with an already-pretty-comprehensive list of features and then added and added and added until at final release there’s an insane amount of stuff to do for anyone approaching the game fresh.
The campaign, newly expanded for the complete release, helps alleviate some of these issues by acting as part-story, part-tutorial. It’s a five-chapter compilation of stuff you’d see in Sandbox mode, but given a narrative framework and a guy who’ll call occasionally to say “Hey, maybe you should build a Laundry,” or some such advice. Chapter One loads up automatically when you initially launch Prison Architect, and it will take you through the basics (and beyond) before you brave Sandbox mode.
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