Sean takes a look at the console version of Prison Architect and discusses how the adaptation to console and controller works well initially, but isn’t smooth sailing throughout.
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The privatisation of prisons and the creation of a “for-profit” industry out of criminal reform is a murky water of ethical and moral contradictions. With responsibility for the lives of people condemned by the state intermixed with the requirement to return and proliferate investment, it is a serious matter filled with potentially dark and disturbing turns.
One thing Prison Architect should be congratulated for is that it does not shy away from this at all, whilst not actually making it a part of any story, message or commentary. Instead it is as naturally inherent in the gameplay and the tasks at hand of creating, running and in some cases executing large-scale incarceration.
As a sandbox game, Prison Architect is an unwieldy beast of a simulator, taking cues from many great isometric-based construction games like Bullfrog’s Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. What this console version has been able to do is remove some of that complexity behind the game’s accessibility.
We ran a really interesting interview on the site that you can read at insertdisc.co.uk with Introversion and Double Fine, the Studio that also converted Goat Simulator for console, about the tasks and struggles behind adopting a menu system for a console.
Because when we look at ports of strategy games on consoles, this is really what we judge the game on. Do we get the same level of enjoyment and challenge from a game with a different or adapted control input and how much does that affect the game you are playing?
The answer is, initially, yes. The game functions as it normally does, the controllers are great for planning rooms and positioning objects. The menu systems are easily navigable, even if like me you get a bit too attached to using the bumper buttons on menu screens and have to untrain yourself.
And there is no doubt that the game is a direct port from its PC cousin. Nothing is taken out, transposed or even altered in any way. There are the five training “campaign” missions which teach you the basics of running a prison under various strains like riots, the need to build an execution chamber and rebuilding to cater (or blatantly ignore) the needs of your prisoners.
You can start from scratch, or from a pre-built prison. Including those featured in the World of Wardens community sharing area. Once you’ve decided your approach you can then adapt the difficulty to what you want and modify the game as you see fit for things like a fog of war or prison gangs.
And that’s it. You’re away and it’s intuitive, at least to start. As more complex things happen or situations arise that demand more response from you, the harder the game becomes to control.
Of course part of the difficulty of the game is the issues that come from such precise micromanagement but even with the sensitivity increased, the game moves at a pace and at a scale that the controller input finds difficult to cope with, compared to a keyboard and mouse.
The game also gets a tad glitchy. I’ve had to restart the campaign missions quite a few times because guards were getting stuck between doors and walls, rooms were having to be assigned repeatedly in order to register as the rooms I’d selected and, even if in some cases I was doing something wrong, there was nothing to suggest I was actually doing anything wrong.
For example, where I’d placed a kitchen in one room, the actual floor plan only had registered a tiny portion of the room as that, but the game had no way to tell me that was the issue apart from a warning triangle that had no context or anything to indicate the problem. Trying to install fridges took an age because, as the room was not complete, the fridges weren’t registering any power, despite being engulfed in power connections.
Then when it comes to things like selecting individuals to do certain tasks, creating groups and even positioning guards, it all gets a bit fiddly. It’s also the one drawback with the user interface that, despite everything being readily available and easy to navigate, some things are a bit too concealed in menus. For example, having to go in to a sub menu to find guard deployment when you could just hover over a cellblock or select an area and hit a hot button to request it. It takes you a little bit out of the action, even though it is still happening on the screen.
It’s a BAFTA award winning game and it’s easy to see why it’s been so successful. However it takes a lot of time and effort to get in to the nuances of its tools and even some time memorising where everything is so that you can react quickly should problems occur. It’s done very well in shedding the constrictions that mouse and keyboard game have when coming to console, as well as a complex menu system that’s been well adapted given its depth.
But the enjoyment comes from not only getting everything right, but also by securing the perfect equilibrium of harmony and balance in your prisoners. You begin to take their welfare rather personally. You react personally should they riot and you have to question your own ethics within this role play as to where you stand on the masses of like orange suited blobs with incredibly user created backstories that unless you investigate, you know nothing about. Are they dollar signs for the coffers or people in need of reform. Prison Architect gives you the tools and the sandbox to create your own answers to complex questions without leading you in any way, and although it doesn’t do it as smoothly or without logistical difficulty compared to its PC cousin, it does make the transfer to console very well and is an interesting game for the more hardcore of simulation players out there.
- Great depth in the micromanagment and moral conundrums the game presesnts
- Smooth and well ported
- Excellent UI Conversion
- Controller input a bit slow when acting out fiddly tasks
- High learning curve
- Occasional Glitches still encountered