Crumble, Fumble or Triumph?
There is the blackball mess that is Reign of Kings, while others like Besiege have done far more in a year than that "strategy simulation" title. Is it really the pit of death in terms of early access? Not really. While some developers associate more with their player-base and fan-base (look at Stonehearth), there are others that do nothing to fix it at all (look at Minimum) and are only focused on the dollar bills, and really, that is sadly how things work in this day and age.
Developers are human after all, not a launchpad for insults and death insinuations. It's money that comes first for some and the game itself next. While Introversion may not have been the most likely candidate to lead the charge by not only delivering it's promise 3 years later, but they did it with style and substance that has not been matched really by titles of it's genre or titles in early access at all.
We have seen what developers with time can develop, and on the other hand not so much. Since Prison Architect's first store page release, there were 3 Fifa games developed in that time. And none of those 3 footy games have changed drastically. Compare Prison Architect to it's first ever alpha test - and you see minute differences along with grandeur improvements, that are nothing like it's 1.0 official release. And how is the gameplay? Well...
The Strategy Experience
Prison Architect is in a small way Sims meets Banished in 2D/Pixels style, though the two games as mentioned do spread the thin in this strategy epic. Yes, 'epic'. The game starts the player off with zero knowledge about how the game starts - and treats them to a 'campaign' of around 5 chapters. Through the campaign levels you understand some basic fundamentals, such as utilities: pumping water through to the toilets, having electricity to cover the lights and the electric chair; so on and so forth. But the game shines when you truly grasp what is going on and plan step-by-step about how you're going to build your epic prison.
Similar to Tropico, you can either be a harsh ruler towards your prisoners or treat them like humans and still get screwed anyway (the latter happened too much to be justified). And that's what makes it so interesting and fun - it is unpredictable. It's similar to how many times you replayed FTL because you were so close to a ship or to a sector; replaying a Metal Gear Solid mission to hit an S-rank -- Prison Architect leaves the player with endless amounts of choices that throws intimidation out of the window. It leaves breathing space for the player to simply start a new prison again because they messed up or to try to build what they were thinking while playing beforehand. And that's what makes it interesting, albeit not being the root of how the game goes.
The game is ultimately a strategy-simulation building game, and is a fantastic one at that. The reviews on Steam, albeit quirky and funny, never really hit the core ideals of the game and that is like Banished and to a degree, the Sims franchise (building), it's satisfying when everything opens up and you get to orchestrate every thread. Every single thread.
Prisoners can often be troublesome, and are the root and cause of tearing your hair out. At the same time, they can oftentimes be hilarious thanks to the ability to name a prisoner - a purchase option that allows players to create zany characters.
The core of Prison Architect is simple enough that most players who aren't inundated or have never exercised on the tracks before may simply find too gruesome or tiring. And it is jarring, especially at times when the micro-management aspect of the game rolls into play. There is simply so much to do on-screen and off-screen that you find yourself trying to keep track of what you were before. And that works to Introversion's benefit. When the game revolves around the player that makes them immersed in a game by simply putting the player in that moment and position of the game, they've done something special. You truly believe that in the next hour you're going to build a cell block where the cells are big enough to fit a mob king, but simply stop because you realize that he's just too much to handle!
'Aesthetically pleasing' is a combo used too often, and in this case, really comes off as fresh and unique. The game delivers on every ounce, and is surprisingly intense when your worse fears are played in front of you (that hasn't happened to me but I may have jinxed it).
For most people, the "fun" doesn't really happen until about 10-20 minutes into the game because during the first few moments, you're trying to build the foundation for your prison. And for some it is tiring. For others, it is engaging. It's similar to the building in the Sims, a game in which I will say had it's building aspect hit right on the nail. It's all about construction, building it the way you want before the prisoners roll in. Don't have enough cells for 8 prisoners? Cut it down to 4 or 5, and drop a few into some holding cells.
After that, there's even more waddling to be had. You get to build recreation spots for your prisoners, yard to help them exercise, a common-room for them to have fun, a workplace for them to make your prison money, and also a death row chamber for when the fun is over. For the prisoners of course, not the player. And there's interesting dilemmas throughout the game, and choices as well. At the same time, the game does have grants which gives the player 'tips' and a quest to aid them into building the prison. Oftentimes you will need to use them but the onus is on those who don't.
Prison Architect is a game that once you understand the basics, love the strategy-simulation genre (or building) and put time into it, you will not put the game down. Hours will fly past you and you find yourself in a deluge of prisoners just waiting for lunchtime. The game does take its toll and feels a tad bit repetitive here and there, but the beauty is that there is so much that one can enjoy out of this game. There is the escape mode for those who are a little tired of the building (similar to Escapists) and is fun as well. For what it's worth, it's a damn good game and I highly recommend playing it than watching it.
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