“Generally speaking, punishment makes men hard and cold; it concentrates; it sharpens the feeling of alienation; it strengthens the power of resistance.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Prison Tycoon: Under New Management – Overview
Prison Tycoon: Under New Management is a building and resource management simulator about creating a prison with a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Players must build the nicest prison, hire the best staff, manage the finances and daily goings-on and above all make sure the prisoners have all they need to make the most of the weird and wonderful therapies on offer and return to society. This review is based on V0.9.1.8
Developer: Abylight Studios
Released: 1st July 2021 (Early Access)
Available on: Steam
This game is being reviewed as part of the Indie Game Collective (IGC) Showcase.
Prison Tycoon Gameplay
Prison Tycoon begins by giving the player a choice of 5 biomes in which to build their prison: taiga, tundra, desert, swamp and tropical, each with its own set of pros and cons. For example, the taiga is well rounded and ideal for beginners whereas the cold tundra setting allows for better food preservation but has higher energy costs.
Once started there is a list of tasks called ‘grants’ that can be completed in order to earn extra money for the prison, these include taking on more prisoners and building specific rooms or facilities. While these are optional they provide something of a tutorial in the early stages of the game.
Building and Management
Fans of the genre will be right at home with most of the game’s building and management aspects, with familiar mechanics, controls and UI features. The UI in particular is very clean and easy to navigate. Players must manage all the things one might expect from such a game, such as finances, food, energy, medical supplies and water resources, staff promotions and workloads as well as security and maintenance.
The building is straightforward, players need simply select the desired type of room and assign a space, they will then be prompted to add any essential items and given a chance to add more frivolous objects too. As more facilities and objects (therapy rooms, activities, plants) are added to the prison its prestige raises in levels making new things available to purchase and build. Despite this building is quite limited and lacks the freedom that similar games such as Prison Architect afford the player.
Maintenance – The Cleaning is Never Done!
One of the biggest drawbacks of Prison Tycoon only comes to light after several hours of building and playing. Everything will be going smoothly for multiple in-game days and even months and suddenly, with no immediately obvious explanation, the maintenance just becomes too much for the staff to handle.
If an object or room becomes too dirty it is then unfit for use but even this is not enough to prompt a staff member to clean it. I found myself frantically assigning tasks to the maintenance team, who made up over half of the prison staff only for them to ignore requests or only partly complete the job. Setting the cleaning of a room as a task isn’t the end of it as each object in the room must be cleaned too and getting a bin emptied seems nearly impossible. At points of particular frustration with this, the game felt more like a caretaker sim than anything else.
Having prisoners incarcerated is how the prison’s revenue is generated. Despite a tooltip explaining that prisoners arrive every day, only two to three seem to arrive between each monthly report, where the option to accept new prisoners can be turned off or on for the following month. The main focus is their rehabilitation but daily logistics and events such as riots and escape attempts must also be handled.
In a move that draws on too many negative stereotypes to mention, every single prisoner has a disorder of some kind, these include ‘alcoholic disorder’, ‘sociopath disorder’ and ‘anger disorder’ to name a few. There are a variety of therapy rooms that can be built, and different therapies are more effective at treating certain disorders than others. For example, antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy) can be remedied with ‘VR therapy’ and alcoholism can be treated with ‘art therapy’!
On arrival, each prisoner must be assigned a cell and a therapy type. Rehabilitation seems very easy in Prison Tycoon and is almost always accomplished well before the prisoner’s sentence has ended! While the idea of a wholesome and therapeutic prison is well-intentioned and makes for an interesting game concept, little to no evident research means that the execution comes off as reductive, lazy and even potentially problematic.
Prison Tycoon Narrative and Styling
What’s the Story?
Prison Tycoon is set in the mid-1980s and has a loose and minimal overarching narrative that centres on the prison’s fresh approach and focus on rehabilitating the prisoners. Within this, there are brief stories about the individual prisoners and staff, a sentence or two about their crimes, interests or family for example.
Audio and Visuals
The game’s cartoonlike 3D art style is simple but vibrant and colourful. This is teamed with a top-down view to create an aesthetic reminiscent of Two Point Hospital. The music is the sort of generically cheerful digital fare that is often found in this genre of game (think The Sims). It soon gets repetitive but with a few volume tweaks, it fades nicely into the background and ceases to be intrusive. The sound effects are mainly ambient noises, both indoor and outdoor and are nicely implemented, helping to bring the environment to life. The ability to record custom PA announcements for things such as new prisoner arrivals or the good morning message is a fun and novel addition.
Prison Tycoon is a fun but very casual building and management sim with a jolly aesthetic. It has a more slow-paced, laidback vibe than some of its counterparts and does not offer much in the way of challenge. Unfortunately, its simple style means the various game elements lack depth, whether this is the building options and mechanics or the flimsy connection between mental health and criminality.
The game lacks the detail or creative freedom that often keeps people revisiting these types of games and the replayability sought by the biome options is made moot by the lacklustre experience. Prison Tycoon starts to feel stale much sooner than is reasonable for the price being charged and this is especially true when one considers the game is still in early access and suffers from long loading screens and crashes. In its current state and with so many more successful options available it is difficult to recommend this game.