Porting PC simulation games to consoles is fraught with danger, with systemic complexities and control issues abound. Thankfully, Prison Architect manages to avoid most of these pitfalls, and serves as an exemplar of how the genre should make the transition in future.
In the game's main mode you'll be presented with a large plot of land and tasked with building and maintaining a prison atop it. The form that prison takes is totally up to you - you might make a maximum security facility with four wire fences, or something a little more relaxed. Regardless, there are a couple of things that you'll definitely need.
You'll definitely need a cell or holding facility for your inmates to live in, you'll definitely need a kitchen and a canteen to feed them, and you'll definitely need staff to look after them. All of these things will need to be bought and paid for using a limited budget, and will also need to be maintained long-term. That means paying your staff daily wages, as well as cleaning and repairing your buildings.
You can also decide what style of prison you'd like to run. Do you want to rule with an iron fist, forcing your prisoners to stay locked up in tiny cells for hours on end? Or perhaps you'd prefer to build workshops and classrooms so your inmates can learn skills for when they're released?
These are both viable strategies, but to carry them out you'll first need to construct the required buildings. This means plotting out structural skeletons, allowing time for them to be built, and then filling them with furniture. Once a building is complete it can have a specific purpose tied to it – such as 'laundry', 'cell', or 'office' – cluing your workers into what it's used for. However, if it doesn't contain the requisite fittings, it won't do the job that you assign it. For instance, if your laundry doesn't have a washing machine, it won't work as a laundry.
Speaking of which, both buildings and utilities require power. This means you'll have to construct and maintain power generators, while also sending complex tunnels of copper wire throughout your facility. Some fixtures - such as the aforementioned washing machine - may require water, so you'll also have to build pumps for storage and pipes for transportation.
Once you've got your water and power sorted, it's time to start thinking about the day to day needs of your prison. Which kitchens will service which specific cell blocks? How many guards will you need, and where will they be stationed? What routine will your prisoners follow? How will you ensure that your staff don't become exhausted? What are you going to do about the sudden influx of contraband? How are you going to stop your chapel from constantly catching fire? Do you realise that the inmates are rioting because of your blatant incompetence? Ahem.
We could very easily continue, but you're probably getting the idea – there are lots of systems in this game. Thankfully, they're flexible, cleverly intertwined, and intuitive. For instance, if your income isn't high enough you might decide to accept twenty more medium security inmates to increase it. To support this influx, you could build an elaborate new cellblock with all the trimmings so your prisoners live like penal princes.
Conversely, you could get your lawyers to do some slightly questionable legal work so that you can house your convicts in smaller and dingier cells. However, this means that they're more likely to get angry and riot, so you'll either have to give them fancy amenities as placation, or invest in some heavily armed guards as pacification.
In this way, all the title's systems come together to make a game that is, in a word, complex - but it's a pleasant complexity. Whenever you think you've mastered any given mechanic, another will pop up in its place to provide a new and interesting challenge. It's also an incredibly modular complexity, as you have complete control over the conditions governing each game. For instance, you can choose how much money to start with, what sort of Warden you'd like to employ, the types of prisoners you'd like to house, and much more. These options accommodate for just about any playstyle, and allow you to match the difficulty to your skill level perfectly. You can even skip building a prison altogether, and simply run one of ten premade options that the game provides.
Another way that the title tries to ease you into its intricacies is the Prison Stories campaign mode. This surprisingly involved feature sees you playing out a series of scenarios which teach the basics of prison design and management. The five episodes are wrapped up in an unexpectedly gripping story, and provide a fantastic way to come to terms with the sim's many mechanics.
Unfortunately, there is one rogue element which will stop this from being a smooth learning experience: the game's controls. When it comes down to it, this style of simulation really ought to be played with a mouse and keyboard. The need to constantly move the camera around combined with the intricacies of construction mean that you're often left fighting your controller. With that said, the developer has done an admirable job of making it as bearable as possible, and you will eventually acclimatise.
This process is aided by a remarkably clean visual style. All the furniture, environments, and characters are clearly distinguishable, meaning that you can quickly survey your facility and immediately know what needs attention.
The sound design is similarly rudimentary. There's no music to speak of, but the game makes good use of ambient noise to create a satisfying sense of atmosphere. As you zoom and scroll your way around your prison the subtle sounds of inmates bickering, staff working, and construction create beautifully bustling soundscapes.
Prison Architect is a fantastic simulation game. Its clever systems combine in interesting and intuitive ways to create an experience which is tense, challenging, and engaging. Niggling control issues aside, the title is a terrific example of how a traditionally PC-only genre should be ported to consoles.