App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
User Interface Rating:
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Designing and managing prisons doesn't sound like it would be a particularly fun premise for a game, yet someone made a game about it anyway. Prison Architect: Mobile has you manage pratically every aspect of building a correctional facility you can think of to an astounding level of detail. It may not make for the most feel-good experience out there, but nevertheless, Prison Architect is one of the finest management sims out there.
A prison of your own design
Prison Architect plays a lot like your typical management sim, à la Sim City or RollerCoaster Tycoon, only instead of planning a city or running a successful theme park, you're in charge of creating a prison. In doing so, you are able to make decisions like whether or not you should have armed guards, educational programming, lockdowns, solitary confinement, etc. All along the way though, you need to make sure you're bringing in enough prisoners to turn a profit and continue to grow your facility.
On top of all of this macro-management, Prison Architect demands that you spend a significant amount of your time drilling down to nitty-gritty stuff. Things like utility hook-ups, assigning room usage, and even manually directing guards and staff around your facility are part of your responsibility. If this weren't enough, there is also a whole bureaucratic structure to contend with as well, which can grant you additional funds or access to new programs and facilities for your prison.
Career in corrections
To keep you from getting immediately overwhelmed by all of Prison Architect's minutiae, the game offers a campaign that introduces you to many of the game's systems. It starts with a basic overview of the controls and then gradually provides increasingly open-ended objectives for you to accomplish. As an added bonus, the campaign contains a surprising amount of story, which is pretty compelling to boot.
If you download Prison Architect for free, you'll only have access to the game's first campaign chapter and a time-limited version of the game's Sandbox Mode, which lets you build your own prison from scratch. This provides more than enough game to know whether or not Prison Architect is for you or not, but it still feels like an incomplete experience unless you pay to unlock additional chapters ($2.99 each) or the full game ($14.99).
Not fully locked down
Watching and toying with the crazy amounts of moving parts in Prison Architect can be fun, but the sheer ambition of having so many systems running at once (particularly on mobile) shows. The game is definitely subject to some slow-down when lots of things are happening on screen, and the game can be quite power-hungry. Playing for even short stretches can drain your battery significantly and make your iPad feel unusually warm.
Prison Architect has its fair share of usability issues as well. There are some minor visual bugs, but–more importantly–the game's touch interface can feel quite unwieldy at times. There are some useful features to combat this, like a giant undo button and the ability to pause the action, but there are still some times where you'd like to have some more precision than the game currently offers.
The bottom line
It's hard to look at Prison Architect and not be impressed by it. Even with some of its techical issues, it's one of the most fully-featured management sims I've ever played. It's a game that somehow creates fun in an extremely dour and complex setting, all while handling its sensitive subject matter with remarkable grace.