Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Prison Architect - Impressions

I grew up in a place where along all the major highways there were three things, corn fields, cow pastures and prisons. So when I booted Prison Architect up for the first time and saw the bleak, untouched field for which I was to build my glorious monument to incarceration, I knew exactly what was up.

This title has been, still is, and may always be in Early Access on Steam. That’s fine with me, I got my money’s worth. I picked it up over the Steam holiday sale for cheap. Currently on Alpha Version 28, I ended up putting close to 24 hours in over three days. If you’re not familiar, Prison Architect is a play on the Dwarf Fortress style strategy, management, builder genera. If you’re still confused, don’t worry, my knowledge of Draft Fortress is purely academic. Basically, you've been given some money and land to build and run your own prison. A very simple building interface helps you design walls and buildings and a Grant system acts as a quasi-tutorial (there is an actual tutorial, but I am man and need to instruction) giving you more money for designing basic structures like showers, canteens, kitchens and cells. You cannot directly control your workers and guards, but only assign them rudimentary things like build this wall and guard this certain area, though the latter is only available after some research.

So that’s it. The charm honestly comes from the details. On my first run, I had no idea I could stop having prisoners dropped on my front door step like abandoned, homicidal puppies. So every 24 game hours, they kept arriving. I built a holding tank for those without a cell sweet cell, but my funds couldn't keep up. Soon my holding cell was flooded with prisoners. At first they were all wearing orange jumpers. Then, as fights began breaking out, some changed into red jumpers. I had no idea what was up with this. Are they Star Trek fans with a death wish? Are they covered in the blood of their enemies? My god the humanity. This went on for about 6 hours (real world hours). A constant stream of prisoners I had no room for, who’d clog the holding cell, beat the hell out of one another and my guards, die, repeat. I had just finished expanding my morgue when the riots started.

Calm before the storm.
The fighting broke out in the canteen, but quickly spread to the cells and common room. Blood everywhere and my single janitor was woefully behind in his duties; no Christmas bonus for him. Soon my guards and doctors were dead. Then I found the “call in riot police and medics” button. Saved! This move seemed only to embolden the rioters. I put the whole place on lock-down, which apparently kept the riot police from entering the prison. My psychiatrist died here (I was kind of hoping he’d join the inmates and go all Scarecrow, but alas). Once I finally wrestled control (burned all my funds to do so) I went to the wiki page for help. At one point during this recovery, I had 25 prisoners awaiting solitary confinement. They were just waiting for solitary rooms to open up! The wiki helped so much. The red shirts weren't covered in blood, they were maximum security prisoners. Apparently I can control what prisoners come into the prison (min, normal, max) and where they sleep, eat, defecate, play and brutally murder one another. Maybe I should have played the tutorial…

No matter, my second prison runs as smooth as urine down the drain of my toilet-less solitary confinement cells that now rarely see use. I've made an execution room as well. I have no plans to use it, but I want the inmates to know it’s there, so I put it off the canteen, with no door hiding it. This is where the game shines. Mechanically, the inmates are no less happy or threatened by the electric chair sitting right next to the pudding cups, but it makes me feel better having it there. My way of telling my cruel digital jailbirds to keep their shit together! The game accomplished a personality all its own. This despite simplistic, graphics. Don’t misunderstand, the game looks good, but some may be put off by the lack of “hardcore realistic graphicz bro”. On the matter of technical crap, in 24 some odd hours of game play, this Indy dev alpha did not crash once. I cannot say the same of Dragon Age Inquisition.

I made a third prison as well that uses the game mode where money is no object, design at will. Superb.

Prison Architect is developed by Introversion Software and is available on Windows, Mac and Linux directly from the developer’s website or through Steam.

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