Train Valley is a rather fun “rail management simulator” for PC, spanning over 200 years of train technology and 24 levels of lovely, hair-pulling frustration.
It’s one of those games that you’ll either love or hate: you’ll keep on coming back to it, time after time, to see if you can better yourself; or you’ll break your mouse in frustration within half an hour and never load it up again.
The premise is simple – you’re a Railroad Tycoon-esque floating force of nature who is, simultaneously, responsible for deciding where track gets laid (yes, yes, the service yard, very good), and switching tracks to get trains to the right stations. Trains and stations are colour-coded so you can easily see where they need to go and you can stop, restart and turn trains around to help you avoid crashes and such. Each train has a value that will decrease as time passes – making it important to get trains out as soon as you can – and there are annual taxes to be paid out of your accumulated funds, which makes it incredibly easy to go bankrupt if you’re not paying careful attention to your bank account. Laying and removing track costs money, as does calling additional trains (though you get a greater reward for delivering these), so you need to be economical and clever with your track layout, trying not to make a mistake.
Making mistakes is easy because laying track is often quite tricky. If, like me, you don’t really see the point in zooming in on these kind of games, and prefer the fully zoomed out, top-down view so that you can glory in the knotty mess of track that you’ve built, you’ll struggle to lay track quickly without having to bulldoze one or two missteps in the process. Each time you start a level, one or more stations will appear, but beware: after the first few levels, stations spawn in during the game – sometimes right over track you’ve built, demolishing it for you (though at no cost) and royally screwing you over if you’ve got a train running along that track at the same time.
Each level spans several decades (though these pass very quickly) and has three objectives that include making a certain amount of money, not stopping trains, not delivering trains to the wrong station, spending a certain amount of money and, unsurprisingly, not crashing trains. While these objectives aren’t required to progress to the next level (as long as you don’t go bankrupt, you just have to wait the required amount of time for the level to end), leaving them uncompleted feels enough like failure to make you go back and try again. You can change the speed of the game (and the trains) at any time so you can buzz through the early years of a level or make the later even more challenging as faster trains rampage around your track causing madness and mayhem. Fortunately (for me, at least) the “restart” button is only two clicks away. I used that button. A lot.
Train Valley seems to delight in randomisation – from the spawn order of stations (they always appear in the same place, though) to the trains (as the years tick by, quicker trains will emerge but you’ll still get some old slower models thrown in) and, most annoyingly, level layout. The graphics are delightful (think papercraft Brio sets) but the layout of the terrain isn’t locked and you’ll occasionally get a nice big rock, a few little houses or an epic statue parked right where you want to lay your first few pieces of track. While this may not seem like too much of a hassle (just go around it, you fool!) when you’ve got a limited budget, three possible stations and no way to know which one the first train will want to go to (or, for that matter, come out of) spending even more money building a longer track or demolishing the offending articles will only bankrupt you faster. There were some levels that I restarted before even laying a single piece of track.
Completing most levels doesn’t get you points – instead, you get your little train passport stamped for each objective you completed. If you don’t complete any, no stamps for you but you do still get to move on to the next level, regardless. Once you’ve gotten through the four “Classic” stages (Europe, America, Russia and Japan) – each made up of six levels – you can always try playing the “Sandbox” mode. I, however, like to call it the “Practice” mode. You can choose from one of the levels you’ve already unlocked in Classic but, this time, you choose which stations to spawn and you choose when and where trains spawn, too. This is absolutely great for those players who just can’t seem to work out the best layout to nail all three objectives but, for someone looking to expand upon the (really rather short) main game, it’s a huge disappointment.
Unfortunately, while Train Valley is great fun in the early stages and can provide hours of rewardingly challenging gameplay, disappointment is the only abiding feeling I have after playing it. Each stage covers a different time period, has new terrain and introduces new engines and there are a couple of levels with a little more variety than most (having to tactfully weave your track between buildings, dealing with an extant track that shoots out a train every now and then and so on) but you get the feeling that it’s going… nowhere. The difficulty curve is almost non-existent: there’s no drive, no ultimate goal to keep you playing, and no real reward when you complete all of the levels (unless you count getting that level in the Sandbox mode as a reward) – there’s not even an online scoreboard. It’s really the only thing missing in the game but it makes it feel a little thinner than Train Valley really deserves to.
That being said, if you’re in to train games (or rather challenging games) and are something of a completionist, you can’t go wrong with Train Valley – there’s plenty to be excited about including engaging (if frustrating) gameplay, simple mechanics and really lovely graphics. For everyone else, go “Sandbox” build yourself a nice track, open up all those stations, crank the speed up to x4 and see just how many trains you can handle (seriously, it’d make a great party game).