A train enthusiast’s dream, Railway Empire by Kalypso is now available to play on PC, Xbox One and PS4. We focused on the Xbox One version for the sake of this review.
The trains and transportation genre has long been popular in gaming. Before Sid Meier started his Civilization series, he created Railroad Tycoon. Years before Chris Sawyer started working on Rollercoaster Tycoon, he released Transport Tycoon. Both were incredibly popular back in the day (with release dates in the early nineties) and have seen several re-releases over the year.
Present day city builders include elements that allow you to tweak different modes of transportation, but it’s been a while since I played a railroad management sim – the previous one was Railroad Tycoon and that came on a pair of 720kb floppy drives, if I remember correctly. This made me eager to play Railway Empire, as everything I had seen up until now pointed to a spiritual successor to Sid Meier’s classic.
In many ways, it is. Railway Empire gives you the opportunity to lead a company from humble beginnings to a business empire that spans nearly all of North America. Taking place in the 19th century, you need to manage many facets of the business but will also have the opportunity to board your trains and enjoy the fruits of your labor that way. Because the game covers several decennia, you have access to several new technologies, locomotives and other developments that are relevant to your business as well – making sure the experience stays fresh throughout your campaign for domination.
During the nineteenth century, trains were on the rise as a method of transportation, especially in North America where the distances that needed to be covered were enormous. Tracks were being laid, stations were being built and trade routes were established. Railway Empire represents this period very well, as you’re not just responsible for tracks and trains but will also need to keep a keen eye out for the business side of things – building routes where they appear to be profitable.
As time progresses, the nature of the business also changes. From a simple need to transport goods, advancements in technology eventually allow you to comfortably move tourists and other travelers around the continent as well. There is a ton of detail that can be seen in the 3D models of the various trains, which I’m sure train enthusiasts will enjoy. The scenery isn’t as detailed with very few landmarks to keep an eye on, but you’re not likely to notice this unless you frequently switch to the on-board mode where you ride one of your trains.
Railway Empire allows you to micro-manage many aspects of your business, which you’ll have to track on a larger scale as well. Unfortunately things don’t quite scale up to a macro (transcontinental) level, as you’re playing on maps that represent certain sections of the US rather than the whole map at a time. As a result, it can feel like you’re not building a coast-to-coast connection, but rather a selection of hubs that eventually connect to one another.
In recent years, Kalypso has made the switch to publishing their strategy titles on consoles as well, but Railway Empire (if I have my facts straight) is the first title to get a simultaneous release on all platforms. Despite this, it does still feel like the game originated on PC – this is due to a user interface that is heavy with icons and things to click on. Having PC roots myself this wasn’t bothersome to me, but I could see other console gamers not taking to controls like this. On the other hand – if you enjoyed Tropico or Dungeons on console then you know what to expect and will certainly enjoy this game as well.
Railway Empire’s controls, regardless of the use of a gamepad, are easy enough to work with yet for some reason it always feels like a bit of searching around is required. Could be a case of my own intuition being wrong, but after close to a week or playing I’m starting to think that it’s more likely a user interface and/or tutorial that’s not as good as it could or should be.
These issues never stand in the way of Railway Empire being a ton of fun to play around with. Besides an open-ended sandbox mode, there are also goal-oriented challenges aplenty. Using these challenges to become comfortable with the game’s dynamics and controls, I eventually found that the more open-ended way of playing was the best way to scratch an itch that had been there for about 25 years. If you enjoyed Railroad Tycoon and don’t have access to a PC with Steam, this is your game.