Prison Architect 2 preview: a management simulator that I don't want to escape

Screenshots for Prison Architect 2, coming from Paradox Interactive and Double Eleven in 2024.
(Image credit: Paradox Interactive, Double Eleven)

I've always been a bit of a micromanager with a megalomaniac complex, and that kind of personality vibes really well with good old-fashioned strategy simulators. From The Sims and The Wandering Village to Tropico and Against the Storm, I just like to have the opportunity to build unique social environments with truly creative challenges. I'm a benevolent overlord, though. I like to try to make my underlings content in the world I shape for them. Because of that benevolent streak, Prison Architect has historically broken me. 

Prison Architect 2 wasted no time testing the limits of my convictions to be a merciful warden. It did by giving me all the flashiest 3D tools I could ever want, right alongside a storeroom full of instability that I did not.

Prison Architect 2 reaches upward in 3D

Its not exactly a penthouse suite, but it is a room with a view! (Image credit: Cole Martin/Windows Central)

Prison Architect has undergone quite a few aesthetic changes since Introversion Software originally rolled it out more than a decade ago. The original version of the game primarily featured a top-down view of a 2D pixelated prison, limiting the ways players could expand their complex. That didn't stop creative wardens from creating some sprawling behemoths, though. In 2019 Introversion sold the Prison Architect IP to Paradox Interactive, who tapped Double Eleven to produce DLC content. The publisher and studio would then partner up again for Prison Architect 2.

Prison Architect 2 breaks out of the 2D limitations of its predecessor in what is undeniably the largest jump in graphics for the series. The move to 3D doesn't just open up character and environmental design to more aesthetically pleasing visuals. It also fundamentally changes gameplay, allowing players to take their massive prison complexes up, instead of just out, for the first time.

Building up your prison is easy enough; it only takes a staircase to convert a rooftop to a whole new floor of potential prisoner housing, while drag-and-drop pre-built rooms make it possible to add necessary amenities quickly. While there aren't time requirements for building your prison, letting your inmates sit without things like showers or enrichment activities can lead to disastrous consequences. 

If you're prone to leaving the game sit at 4x speed while you're carefully crafting a detailed and thoughtful common room, this can become a problem. I found this out the hard way when I dropped the camera down a floor after spending far too long on a classroom, only to find the 1st-floor shower room covered in blood and nobody to tell me what happened.

Who spilled this red paint? The shower is not for doing arts and crafts! Silly prisoners. (Image credit: Cole Martin/Windows Central)

Like any good strategy simulator, Prison Architect 2 features both a single-player campaign and an open Sandbox mode where players have more free rein over the state of their prison. Campaign missions are crafted in such a way that they feel more like tutorials than actual stories, with each mission focusing on certain needs of the existing prison population. Players build on the starter prison to meet the requirements of the mission and collect a cash reward before moving on to the next.

After completing some main campaign missions, side missions become available. These side missions come across like skill checks, giving you access to the mechanics you practiced within the main missions and challenging you to build your own prison from scratch with a limited budget while meeting related challenge requirements. While it does feel tutorial-heavy, it is an excellent opportunity for players to learn to navigate the 3D prison environment, build tools, and adjust to the UI. 

The skills learned in the campaign can then be used to challenge yourself to build even more advanced mega-prisons in the game's Sandbox mode. Players have control of nearly every setting in Sandbox mode, though it is worth noting that some of those options do disable achievements. 

Spending a little more time in the slammer

Blood stained uniforms do not wash themselves. (Image credit: Cole Martin/Windows Central)

Originally penciled in for a March 2024 release date, Prison Architect 2 has seen multiple delays since its original unveiling. As of writing this preview, it's expected to launch in September 2024, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the game given even more time on its sentence to work on stability. The preview build that was made available to me struggled with seemingly constant crashes, despite running on a PC that exceeded the minimum specs list. 

An error would shut the game down to the dashboard every time I completed a campaign mission, and another known bug would cause the game to become unstable in the Sandbox mode during longer play sessions. While I'm certainly not issuing a scar or reviewing a final product, I do firmly believe that the version of Prison Architect 2 that I have been hands-on with as of late is a product that needs more time to cook. The existing bugs and instability alone would make me question the need for an extra delay. However, in Prison Architect 2's case, those concerns are bookended by a recent parting of ways between the developing studio, Double Eleven, and the publisher, Paradox Interactive.

In a post on the Prison Architect Reddit, Game Director Gaz Wright shared that Double Eleven had officially handed over development to Kokku, a team that has historically worked as a support studio for titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Double Eleven began working collaboratively with Kokku in August 2023, with Kokku taking over completely in January after Double Eleven and Paradox Interactive were unable to come to an agreement on post-launch support for Prison Architect 2. Both Double Eleven and Paradox Interactive's press statements spoke highly of the other firms involved when announcing the split.

Double Eleven's vision for Prison Architect 2 was nothing short of ambitious, and that charm and creativity managed to show up in some of the best ways. The foundation they have built for Kokku has paved the way for a robust and engaging management simulator with a world of expansion opportunities. It just may have to spend a little more time in the pokey for full rehabilitation of those stability issues, though.

We all start somewhere. (Image credit: Cole Martin/Windows Central)

Prison Architect 2, developed by Double Eleven and Kokko and published by Paradox Interactive, is currently earmarked for a September 3 launch on PC, Xbox Series X|S, and PlayStation 5 consoles with a price tag of $40. A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of this preview.

Prison Architect 2

Prison Architect 2

Build and manage your own mega-prison, now in 3D! The classic prison management simulator returns this fall in a brand-new installment with an array of ambitious new features.

Preorder or wishlist: $40 (GMG) | $40 (Xbox)

Cole Martin

Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.