There is something deeply compelling about playing with trains. They go exactly where you tell them to, but they can still behave in unexpected ways to keep their interest. Railgrade, developed by Minakata Dynamics, is a great railroad driving simulator with some fun features. Although the mechanics of the game are not as deep as other games in this genre, they manage to be interesting throughout the lengthy campaign.
Mastering the careful balance between cost and efficiency is at the heart of Railgarde, in which players take on the role of the administrator of the dubious corporation Nakatani Chemicals. Newly arrived in the company’s space colony, your role is to manage the resources at the sites and make sure everything runs smoothly across the planet. This means building increasingly sophisticated rail systems to get materials, energy and goods where they need to go.
The game has a light storyline, which is not surprising given the genre. There are small bits of interaction with other Nakatani Chemicals employees, but they are mostly here to create the late-stage capitalist dystopia in which the game takes place. What it has is enough to help Railgrade stand out from other railroad management sims, at least. during few hours. The humor is deeply anti-capitalist, with references to the corporation having absolute control over its employees and effectively holding the player hostage until they are allowed to return home to Earth.
Once you get past the snarky comments from the other employees, you can get on with your latest assignment from your corporate overlords. Each level has different goals and different resources to help you complete them. The early levels focus on introducing mechanics, such as how to supply power plants with the materials they need to produce energy, or how to keep a city’s population growing so you have enough workers to assign. Some hand support is required during these stages, but it soon opens up and gives players the freedom to play the way they want.
It is in this freedom that the game really shines. Many of the steps are so simple that you can do them with very simple settings, but with experimentation you can discover some fun patterns and settings that can improve efficiency. At its core, the game is about moving materials from point A to point B and possibly point C, but there are countless ways to do it. For example, you can build a straight line with one train, but a more efficient use of your time and energy is probably to create a chain or loop with moving trains. Once you have mastered them, you will have great fun watching your locomotives move around the map.
By completing objectives faster, players can earn more vouchers from Nakatani Chemicals, which are used to unlock new music tracks, resource building licenses, and train types. They are mostly optional, but can add a little more variety to the game, especially during sunset hours. Some of the engines you can unlock will move faster or handle grades better, which will come in handy as the maps get more and more treacherous. The ability to vary the music is especially welcome; while the opening song isn’t bad, you’ll need some variety if you’re going to spend more time playing.
The early hours are by far the best when each stage feels different and goals are fresh. Later, you will begin to recognize patterns and be able to guess how best to complete each mission even before it starts. This repetition is unfortunate because it causes the game to lose steam just when it should be gaining momentum. However, there are several hours of play here that are fun enough to justify the relatively low price of the game. Fortunately, the mechanics are simple enough that you can return to them after a long break.
The visuals and music took us by surprise during the playthrough. The animations look crisp and the environments are more varied and textured than we expected. The music feels like you’re in a nightclub where you can only play royalty-free tracks, but it works to keep the game from feeling too generic. There’s a surprising amount of polish here that may not have been strictly necessary given the simple concept, but it made watching our trains move through the environment surprisingly satisfying. Touchscreen fans might be disappointed that it doesn’t offer any functionality, but in terms of performance, we didn’t run into any issues, with decent load times and no framerate issues during our playthrough.
The biggest downside to Railgrade is that it’s delayed by a few hours. At the end of the game, the levels become repetitive and more time consuming than actual challenges. A little deeper mechanics or a more engaging story could help here; any one of them could have saved the game from fading away as it is happening. For players who like to experiment with systems for maximum efficiency, these levels may be more interesting. However, for everyone else, it’s just not enough to keep you coming back for more.
If you’re a fan of train driving sims, Railgrade has a lot of content to justify the price. You’ll probably be in the game for a good ten hours or so before it starts to feel repetitive. There are many missions to complete, with some extra levels if you need more vouchers or are just interested in a different challenge. However, despite the polished environments, even the most ardent fans of the genre are likely to lose interest in the game before they complete all the tasks.
Railgrade doesn’t try to recreate a railroad management sim, but it polishes and maintains what it is to be one of the best examples of this niche genre. The story, as light as it is, satirizes late-stage capitalism without becoming the sole focus of the game. It lacks grandeur due to repetition and lack of depth in its final hours, but there’s still more than enough here for fans of resource management sims to not feel like they’ve been rented out.