- John Bush
Review #526: Railway Empire (Nintendo Switch)
Reviewer: Akio Kahoshi
Developer: Gaming Minds Studios
Category: Simulation, Strategy
Release Date: 6.19.2020
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Buy Railway Empire from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
The Rise Of The Rail
Railway Empire is a railroad simulator that takes place during the steam era. What makes it more interesting than a standard simulator game is that it has both a five-chapter story campaign and twelve scenarios to conquer. The story covers the rise of railroads in America up to the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Each of the five chapters gives the player a different set of tasks to be completed within set time frames.
This is where the strategy aspects of the game come out, as accomplishing those tasks takes careful planning and use of resources. Focusing on completing a later task can lead to failing an earlier task, but failing to prepare for the later task can also be disastrous. Careful placement of railroads and buildings, planning routes, and building up towns are the keys to success.
The story is definitely what makes the game more interesting than other sim games with simple task-based campaigns, but that story has some execution flaws. Probably the biggest is the voice acting, which ranges from fairly decent to amateurish at best. While certainly not the worst voice acting I have heard in a game, it is clear the studio did not have a proper voice director or editor. Such simple things such as leaving in the actor’s breaths between sentences and the occasional lackluster delivery bog down an otherwise enjoyable story experience.
The Train Stops Here
At surface level, Railway Empire does not seem that complex. There are only a handful of railroad buildings, and while there are lots of trains there is also a “best” to use in any situation. The type of factory to place in a city is determined by what resources are nearby, and many of the higher level factories are limited until cities grow larger. But that surface simplicity hides the real challenge of the game: track placement.
Chapter one of the campaign teaches the basics of setting up side tracks and using signals, and these simple tools prove to be extremely powerful. Learning how best to segment tracks to maximize the number of trains that can use them, and how to best route these trains into the limited number of platforms at each station was a skill I continued to develop even as I finished the campaign.
Unfortunately beyond the core mechanics, the game does not explain much else. There were several more advanced railroad buildings never explained outside the tooltip, though after playing for a while I was able to think of ways to best use them. Instead of more tutorial-like explanations, the game often relied on pop up messages and videos that would attach to the map. These pop-ups were almost always ones I had read before and had to be cleared before I could interact with whatever they were over. This was a constant nuisance when laying tracks or trying to select objects. This leads into probably the biggest consistent issue of the game, the controls.
Carload of Controls
It is fairly obvious that Railway Empire is a game that was designed for PC. It has countless menus, to the point I occasionally had to pause to remember where a menu I rarely used was. As far as converting those keyboard and mouse controls to a controller though, the game is largely successful.
A wheel appears upon pressing the ZR button that lists many of the core functions split between a center and outer wheel, and you can switch between them with the X button. One annoyance here though was that each wheel was only half-filled with icons, and it seemed with just a little rework the developers could have fit them all on a single wheel without forcing the extra toggle. At the very least the most important menus should have all been together, rather than half in one wheel and half in another.
This is just one example of where the otherwise manageable controls just have instances that make them clunky. In addition to this, and the previously mentioned pop-up messages, there are other minor things such as trying to select something while a train is selected will not work. In fact, I often had the cursor whip across the screen to where the train was located instead. Even laying tracks, which the game handles fairly smoothly for the most part, is not without issue.
The button for clearing a single track direction point is the same as clearing the entire new track. More than once my cursor was just slightly off from a track point when I tried to remove it, causing the entire rail I had painstakingly laid to disappear. But as annoying as the controls could occasionally be, they did not make the game much more difficult to play. I cannot say the same for the game’s general performance.
One downside in most large sim games like this is that to get everything running smoothly on screen, the graphics usually suffer when zoomed in. That is definitely the case for Railway Empire. While not necessarily ugly, the buildings definitely have an unpleasant level of pixelation when viewed closely. The rest of the game does not look much better.
Even with these downgraded graphics, the game can get bogged down when too many objects are on the screen. This was more a problem in areas with lots of trees, but the frame drops were definitely noticeable. Though as this game does not require the quick reaction time of say an FPS or platformer the stuttering is bearable.
The three separate occasions where the game completely froze, requiring me to force close and restart it, were much less bearable. Thankfully the game autosaves every few minutes minimizing the amount of playtime I lost each time this happened. I also had another instance where the music in the game just stopped, again not returning until I restarted the game.
Overall Railway Empire is not a bad game. The story mode was decently fun, and the gameplay was interesting enough to keep me invested until the end. Unfortunately, a litany of small issues added up overtime to make it difficult to say the game is truly good. If looking for a railroad simulator that relives the time of the steam-engine, Railway Empire is at least playable. Just not much more than that.
Buy Railway Empire from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
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*A game code was provided for review purposes.