I knew I’d have to spend longer playing Planet Coaster than most reviewers once I realised just how long I was spending simply lighting my park – but that’s all part of its charm. Planet Coaster is the game that RollerCoaster Tycoon World should have been.
Touted as a spiritual successor to Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, and with good reason, Planet Coaster from Frontier Developments gives the theme park simulation genre a right good kick up the backside. Unsurprisingly, Planet Coaster is developed by the same team that brought us Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, and since parting from Atari they’ve not only developed, but published the title. The game went through an alpha and a beta phase that could be accessed through buying the game during those stages – much like Frontier Developments’ other contemporary release Elite Dangerous. I’d kept my eye on Planet Coaster for a while as it rode through alpha and beta, and so couldn’t wait to see how the final product has turned out.
Theme park simulators are so ingrained into video game culture that you feel like you’ve played them all. In trying to think of titles I’d previously played, it was hard to single any particular one out. I certainly remember playing Theme Park World; back then I was amazed I could walk around my park and go on rides. Now, every guest has a name – which you can change – and you can see where they’re going, how they’re feeling and what their thoughts are on your park. You’re essentially an overlord for these theme park guests, and if they hate your park there are various ways you can kill them. I mean, if that’s the kind of person you want to be.
Planet Coaster ships with three main modes – Career, Sandbox, and Challenges. I spent most of my time in career whilst dipping into sandbox when I wanted a more relaxing experience. I felt Career would give me a better look at the game, especially to see how Planet Coaster teaches and guides you into micromanaging everything in your park. After this review though most of my time will be spent in Sandbox, creating my probably terrible vision for a theme park. But all three modes give enough to satiate any style of play, whether that be setting goals for the entire park, having complete freedom, or completing challenges throughout your journey.
Planet Coaster‘s career mode presents you with a partly built park and a scenario in which you must hit certain goals, such as make X amount of money, or building a roller coaster meeting particular requirements. You’ll be rewarded out of three stars for every scenario you complete; a very mobile-esque career, but the constant strive to get three stars motivates you to keep going.
You’re never directly taught how to do things in career mode. Instead, the game presents you with problem or challenge and expects you to figure out how to deal with it. While that can be frustrating for some players, learning all the mechanics and systems in Planet Coaster without being directly taught them through tedious tutorials worked really well for me. There are those moments where a new problem suddenly surfaces but you don’t know what to do about it, so you’re searching for a menu that might help, and in a way that’s the joy of management games: problem solving. Eventually you learn what to check for first, what isn’t profiting, what’s best closing until income is more stable, etc.
Obviously with a name like Planet Coaster, building rollercoasters is an integral part of the game. Rollercoasters have an excitement, fear, and nausea rating; if you’re in the green on all three that’s a good coaster you’ve got there. You’ll often be given rollercoaster-based scenarios, such as building a coaster with “at least 5.0 excitement, at most 4.0 nausea”, and then you’ll be left to test and retest it until you figure out the correct balance to meet its requirements. It may sound tedious, but rollercoaster building itself is pretty intuitive in Planet Coaster. Obviously, the first one I built was a monumental disaster in that guests were essentially vomiting violently while fearing for their lives – evidently not an ideal situation for my park guests to find themselves in. But through the use of heatmaps showing you the most vomit/fear-inducing areas, and being presented with live numerical information, you’re slowly guided into making better coasters. There are plenty of different types of rollercoasters, too; you’ll find something to fit most looks and themes of the park you’re going for – from an albatross or pelican, to a mine train, and there’s even one where your guests have to stand. Yup, a rollercoaster that you stand up on. No, thank you!
Some scenarios are pretty basic; others require a bit more management to hit all three stars. I discovered that achieving a high scenery rating can annoyingly be accomplished by simply saving up a certain amount of money then just placing six clocktowers. I’m not necessarily looking to make a beautiful theme park in these scenarios as I don’t want to get too attached to them; I just want to get the three stars, save the park, then move on. Some of the scenarios are better than others; one starts with no rides or shops unlocked, so you have to research practically everything. Scenarios where you have to pay off loans result in creating a highly profitable park and then just sitting there waiting for the loan to pay off.
There are plenty of scenery objects to play with in Planet Coaster, and you’re afforded a great deal of control on how they’re placed. There are some pre-built blueprints, such as a pirate harbour or a sleeping dragon’s nest. You can build using custom pieces too, and there are plenty to choose from; no two parks should ever look the same. With shops and facilities, you’re given the ability to place a basic plan and completely customise it, giving you further control on the overall look of your park. Again some of the developer blueprints look nice, but there are perhaps too few – there are plenty of pirate ones, but for sci-fi not so much. Frontier Developments do say more blueprints are coming in later updates to Planet Coaster, however.
If the in-game blueprints don’t do it for you and you don’t quite feel up to designing your own, there are thousands of user-created ones you can access through Steam Workship. You can have a browse for a blueprint, download it, and then place it all without ever leaving the game. Similarly, the ease of uploading your own creations means the Steam Workshop for Planet Coaster already has 28,235 items and counting. If you’re looking for a theme park management game with longevity, then this is it.
Sandbox mode gives you free reign to build a park however you like by giving you unlimited cash. Thanks to the lack any money management worries, it’s much more relaxing than the other modes – and Planet Coaster’s soundtrack benefits more from that. It’s a fantastic soundtrack that reminds me of all kinds of things; there’s a feel of Brian Eno in there, along with a sense of older Bon Iver stuff to name only two. There’s also the option to play your own music through in-park speakers, which adds an extra sense of personality to the park. My cave entrance that I’ve spent many hours just lighting is soundtracked by Jon Hopkins’ Immunity (Asleep Version). At least, it will be when it’s finished because I don’t want to get overly tired of that track. I have a vision for a park and it’s that exciting feeling of knowing it’ll take ages but you’re so hyped about building it. The game continues to inspire idea after idea, and thanks to Planet Coaster‘s excellent mechanics and systems, you know it won’t stand in the way of building exactly what you envision.
Planet Coaster does have its share of issues, however. There are annoying pop-ups; in my case constantly telling me about litter, that no amount of bins and janitorial service would seemingly rectify. The game crashed on me a few times (don’t tab out while the game is autosaving on the fastest simulation speed). The camera can also be a pain to navigate sometimes, but at the end of the day all of these issues are barely even minor blemishes on what is otherwise an excellent simulation game. Planet Coaster gives you such an incredible degree of freedom in creating what you want that any obstacles just become part of that meticulous process of building the perfect park. You’ll undoubtedly spend hours trying to get everything at the right angle; making sure everything is smooth and perfect, persevering through the hiccups that befall you because, at the end of the day, that’s how a great simulator game should feel. You want the theme park you envisage, and to be corny, the only limit in Planet Coaster is your imagination.