Early Access Preview: Train Station Simulator

By Charles Ellis 25 Jan 2018 0

Why do we play management games? I sense for many of us it is not only perfecting systems, but also to create. Whether it is a prison, a school or even an entire city, the wonderful medium of gaming allows us, at our own pace, to express our vision about how the world could be. Games, at their heart, are about choice. Management games have a long history of bringing out the creative bureaucrat in all of us. One would think, given some of the extraordinary train stations that dot the world, from Berlin to London to New York, that managing a train station would be ideal fodder for the management genre. With a bit of imagination and creative mechanics, something truly special could be created. At present - it is after all in Early Access at the time of writing, Train Station Simulator is not that game.

 

Train Station Simulator promises the player the ability to create and maintain their dream train station. Starting with a single line, they must build and grow their station up to one worthy of the city. The player is able to lay track, provide facilities and employ staff to that end. The controls are simple and straightforward. The simplicity of the game and its graphics also means that performance is more or less flawless.

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Whilst the interface does a good job of staying out of the player’s face and letting them take a look at the game’s quite serviceable visuals, formatting and layout are poor. This is especially problematic when it comes to the all-important construction menus, whose orientation makes them quite unreadable. You get used to them eventually, but it is quite an unnecessary hassle.

Options for how the player begins their game are limited. The “campaign” consists of a series of missions ranging from 1970 to 2010, all requiring the player to build a station in 30 to 60 days with greater or less amount of cash. Other modes are similar, with no time limit, or a ready-made station. There is a helpful indicator informing the player how much time each mission will take. None are below an hour and a half.

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Every scenario takes place in the same city. What city this is, it is impossible to say. The buildings are French, the street signs are in both German and English and the employees you hire are American.

To be sure, there are indeed many neat elements of a simulator in Train Station Simulator. Hiring workers is just the start. The ability to place stops for various other kinds of public transport, including underground connections, bus lines and taxis. These are unexpected (but obvious) additions that do give the impression of being immersed in a wider world.

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Unfortunately, all these positive elements are let down by the almost complete lack of options when it comes to designing a station. There is, ultimately, only one basic station layout that is possible for the player. The lack of elements such as overpasses and underpasses to allow passengers to cross over railways to different platforms means that station design at its core is the same each time you play. The many layered platforms of, for example, Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof are impossible. That is the kind of station that would be fascinating to create. The options available in Train Station Simulator are almost comedically limited by comparison - it is not even possible to place turns in your train track. “Railroaded” unfortunately sums up the creative aspects of this game.

Gameplay, or lack thereof, does not help matters. The construction aspects, what there are of them, are interesting enough. But when money is tight and you need to rein in on spending, there is very little one can do but watch sprites move about and not spend money in your station. All the while, the money ticks down, whilst the money I receive is not made available until the end of the day. Combined with the lack of options discussed above, one feels one spends more time watching than playing. Matters are not helped by the game’s demands, through its quite arbitrarily changing timetable, for you to constantly expand, only making money problems (and the need to wait whilst you accrue more) only more pressing.

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Ultimately, the core of the Train Station Simulator’s problem is choice. The player does not have a choice in how they build their station. The requirements of the timetable mean they have no option but to expand quickly. A passenger having a heart attack on my second day means I must immediately hire first aid from the outset rather than taking things slowly. I have no choices, only demands that must be fulfilled. This is not what strategy gaming is made of. I honestly doubt this is the lot of the manager of a modest single or double platform station either.

It is obvious that Train Station Simulator is a labour of love. The nice touches, such as the ability to connect your station to the wider world attest to that. But train stations are some of the most magnificent centerpieces of urban architecture one will see in the world, and none of that magnificence comes through in this game. It is a great shame. There is much I would like to add to this preview, but I feel that that would cross the line from simply previewing a game to critique for the sake of critique. Suffice to say, as a person who is always impressed by good looking architecture and the ability to create complex systems, Train Station Simulator left this writer satisfied on neither count. With all sincerity, I can only hope that when the Early Access sticker comes off this game, this preview will have become hopelessly out of date.

Train Station Simulator entered into Steam's Early Access program on December 14th, 2017. At the time of writing, Version 1.0 is due sometime in Q4, 2018.

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