Game Review: Prison Architect (+Escape Mode) [Double Eleven]

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ESRB_M
Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Nudity, Sexual Content, Violence

Release Date: August 16th, 2018 (Nintendo Switch, Mobile, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Genre: Strategy, Action, Adventure
Publisher: Double Eleven
Developer: Introversion Software / Double Eleven Limited

Construction and management simulation (CMS) games used to be my jam back in the day, especially the business management simulators (see the games with “Tycoon” in the name). While my gaming tastes have evolved over time, I never pass up a chance to grab a highly touted game in this genre, which has included the absolutely fantastic Stardew Valley and Game Dev Tycoon, with the latter in need of a Nintendo Switch port. With that said, CMS games are much better suited for PC, as they have proven more challenging when using a controller on consoles. This extra challenge continues with Prison Architect, which has recently been ported to Nintendo Switch with all previously released DLC included in the initial package and seeing the new-to-consoles Escape Mode being paid DLC. Does Prison Architect serve its time on the Nintendo Switch well or should it be kept in solitary confinement?

PrisonArchitect_Switch_Screenshot02First and foremost, even a veteran of the CMS genre is going to have a steep learning curve. While the story mode serves as a tutorial of sorts, there is so much under the surface that does not get properly explained and the player will likely screw up their first attempt of a prison in the Architect mode. Personally, I created things too small in my first attempt and then when I had to expand, it just became an issue. After that, one of my foundation builds glitched and never got completed, which happened once or twice during the story mode as well. In the end, it was still early enough where the expansion could have been fixed, but the glitch caused me to just start all over on a new file and even with what I learned from the first save, it was frustrating. The difficultly also comes from the fact that as the player’s prison grows, they will need to keep an eye on all the different reports and happenings, which can be overwhelming as the menus are a bit convoluted and hard to look through with a controller.

With that said, there is a LOT of content in this small $30 USD package. Alongside the Prison Architect beef of the game is the Prison Warden mode, where the player becomes the warden of one of a few, selectable, premade prisons. Also included are the World of Wardens mode, where the player can dive into community created prisons, the two DLC packs, and the Prison Stories story mode mentioned above. Prison Stories is essentially a five-part tutorial with a surprising, yet welcome, interconnected story that is shown through dialogue via phone calls and actual cutscenes. I had never seen anything like this in the simpler games of the genre (Stardew Valley being an exception, with its RPG elements) and was taken aback at how in-depth and interconnected each story was. The fact that the story is pretty solid and keeps the player invested in what boils down to a tutorial is a major plus.

PrisonArchitect_Switch_Screenshot05Then, for an extra $9 USD, players can pick up the Escape Mode DLC. The game just kind of throws the player into this mode without much of a tutorial or an explanation of the mechanics, which leads to the player making mistakes early on while trying to learn the new scenario. Once the player feels out the mode though, it turns into a fun experience. In fact, it may be the best mode in the game, despite being limited to premade, community prisons, or the ones the player has made. I would have preferred each new save to have a randomly generated prison that would give Escape Mode a sense of unpredictability. As it is, this mode could get boring quickly after multiple playthroughs.

In the end, the only big and noticeable issue is the controls. Not only are these types of games not meant for a controller, not a single CMS game has managed to make using a controller anything above bearable and just good enough to be usable. There is also the fact that there is no touch screen support. That is not to say that having touch screen support would solve the inherent issues of not playing on a computer, but it would at least allow for easier menu navigation. For example, there could be a row of icons at the bottom of the screen when the touch screen option is turned on that is related to whatever menu is “open” at that time. Not only would this have been a quicker way to get to key icons, it would have been more akin to how these types of games are presented on the PC. Alas, developers rarely take advantage of the unique ways they can present their games to individual consoles in exchange for a more general presentation that is quicker and easier to port to multiple consoles.

WHILE YOU ARE HERE: Check out the fantastic track-by-track feature that Seasonal wrote for us about their new EP.

Conclusion

While some of the graphics have not aged as well as one would hope, the core gameplay is addictive and will keep players coming back whenever they get the itch to work on, or escape from, a prison of their choosing. With a bevy of options in this small, reasonably priced bundle, Prison Architect is a great foray into the CMS genre for anyone who is willing to try it. Even though navigating the game with a controller may leave something to be desired, it is not that big of an issue when you account for the portability of this version. There is a lot of content here, and it includes a bit of everything to appeal to any and every gamer. Now go build the prison of your dreams…or nightmares. (Ryan Williford; Gaming Editor)

8/10

Review copy provided by Double Eleven.

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