Railway Empire review (Switch)

Kalypso’s Railway Empire, after previous console releases for the Xbox One and PS4, has arrived at the station for the Nintendo Switch. Time to see how it fared during the journey from its PC origins to now being available in a handheld version.

Genres that are traditionally associated with the PC don’t often make the leap to consoles, let alone handheld. Yet, if done well, they’re a joy to play. I really enjoyed playing XCOM and Civilization on the PlayStation Vita and was glad to see games like Cities: Skylines and Railway Empire being announced for the Switch as well. After all, Nintendo’s handheld/console hybrid is certainly lacking in its sim/strategy options outside of its vibrant indie community.

Cities: Skylines suffered from performance issues on the Switch, which was sad but hardly surprising considering how it’s a game that can even bring a decent enough gaming PC to its knees. Railway Empire relies more on open expanses and less on the intricate details that a city offers, so I was curious to see how it would run on a Switch.

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Railway Empire can be played through a campaign mode, which slowly teaches you the ropes while also regaling you with stories about how the age of trains came to be and how they conquered the known and unknown world. It’s an interesting backdrop with pieces of information to help give character to what is otherwise a fairly “dry” sim that’s all about the economics of crossing vast distances by rail while managing all the associated resources.

While on the surface you could regard Railway Empire as a game where you just lay town tracks to help people and goods get from one city to the next, there’s a deep simulation model behind it all that forces you to factor in many facets of the business that play a role in your success. You can connect your railway network to a brand new city, but if you only have the resources for a single track lane then this severely limits how many trains can travel between that new city and your existing network.

This doesn’t have to be a big issue if the city is close, but when covering vast distances (which contributes to the dilemma of not having enough resources) then careful planning and investing is in order. You’ll also have to manage a few economic factors, determining which resource gets produced where and how it gets transported around the map. Before too long, it’s likely that you’ll get to a point where you’re laying down “emergency tracks” just to help out a particular city just because you initially put down a different solution and now it’s too late to go back and change things without causing even bigger problems.

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Railway Empire, by nature, gets better the longer you play it as it gives you the tools to learn from your mistakes. Some of these also come about as you face off against competitors, and you’ll learn not everyone plays nicely. You can be a good guy and just invest in new technology to try and get an edge, or you can actively try to hurt other entrepreneurs in their efforts by painting a bad picture of them in the media or even target them directly with attacks on their train or a financial takeover through the stock exchange.

The campaign is a pretty involved affair where there is a lot going on at any time. Railway Empire also offers other modes of play, including a sandbox mode where you can create the train diorama of your dreams with large portions of the world already available to you. The inclusion of the Mexico, Crossing the Andes and Great Lakes DLC packages with the Switch version makes this even better.

Although somewhat confusingly named, there is also a “free” mode – which sounds like “sandbox” to me but roughly translates to a mode where you’re not affected by the wheelings and dealings of your competitors but still have to contend with the economics of the business. I found this mode to be a great way for trying out different ideas for building my empire, which were beneficial when dealing with competitors that weren’t playing fair in the campaign mode. If you feel like you’re hitting a wall there, consider sharpening your skills in the Free mode for a while before going back. A great stopover between “free” mode and the campaign setting are the game’s scenarios, which as the name suggest throws predefined challenges at you that also help you build your know-how.

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After almost two and half year (since the original PC release) with tons of DLC and patches being added to the game, Railway Empire’s foundations feel solid as a rock and they translate very well to the Switch experience, which is as intricate as you want to make it. The controls have been well adapted from the PC version, and I never played any of the console versions but I assume they acted as good training grounds for this one. What doesn’t translate over as well are the visuals, because even though Railway Empire isn’t the best looking game out there (even within its genre) it’s not difficult to notice the hit that the visuals take when you zoom into the villages and cities or go alongside a locomotive. Things fare a bit better in the Switch’s docked mode, but it’s worth pointing out that the actual building experience is quite seamless even in handheld – and it’s impressive to zoom in and out of the landscape and see your empire grow.

If you prefer playing on a big screen then I’d recommend getting one of the existing console versions or even the PC one, but if you enjoy “PC-centric” titles like this and regularly travel then it’s a perfect travel companion to scratch that strategy itch – one of very, very few on the Switch.

Score: 7.5/10

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