There is something deeply appealing about playing with trains. They go exactly where you tell them to, yet can still behave in unexpected ways to keep things interesting. Railgrade from developer Minakata Dynamics is a great railway management sim game with some fun quirks. While it doesn’t go as deep into its mechanics as other games in the genre, it manages to be entertaining throughout its lengthy campaign.
Mastering the careful balancing act of cost versus efficiency is at the heart of Railgarde, which casts players in the role of Administrator for the dubious Nakatani Chemicals corporation. A recent arrival to the company’s space colony, your role is to manage the resources at sites and make sure everything is running smoothly across the planet. That means setting up increasingly complex railway systems to deliver materials, energy, and goods where they need to go.
The game is light on story, which isn’t a surprise considering the genre. There are small nuggets of interaction with other Nakatani Chemicals employees, but they are mostly there to establish the late-stage capitalist dystopia that the game is set in. What is there is enough to help Railgrade stand out from other railway management sims, at least for several hours. The humour is deeply anti-capitalist, with references to how the corporation has absolute control over its workers and is effectively keeping the player hostage until they are allowed to return home to Earth.
Once you click past the snarky comments from other employees, you are free to tackle your latest assignment from your corporate overlords. Each level has a different objective and different resources available to help you complete them. Early levels are focused on introducing mechanics such as how to supply power plants with the materials needed to create energy or how to keep the city’s population growing so you have a healthy supply of workers to assign. There is some necessary handholding during these stages but it soon opens up and allows players the freedom to play however they want.
That freedom is where the game really shines. Many of the stages are simple enough that you can complete them with very basic setups, but experimenting can reveal some fun circuits and settings that can boost efficiency. At its core, the game is about moving materials from Point A to Point B and potentially on to Point C, but there are countless ways to accomplish that. You can build a straight track with a single train, for example, but a more efficient use of your time and energy is probably to create a circuit or loop with trains travelling around. Once you’ve mastered them, it is deeply satisfying to watch your locomotives move around the map.
Completing objectives faster can earn players more Vouchers from Nakatani Chemicals, which are used to unlock new music tracks, licenses for resource buildings, and train types. These are largely optional but can bring a bit more variety to the game, particularly in its waning hours. Some of the train engines you can unlock will move faster or be better at tackling inclines, which comes in handy as the maps become more treacherous. Being able to vary the music is particularly welcome; while the initial song isn’t bad, you’ll want some variety if you’re going to invest more hours into the game.
The early hours are easily the best, with each stage feeling different and the objectives fresh. Later on, you’ll start to recognise patterns and be able to guess how best to tackle each mission before you even start. That repetition is unfortunate because it causes the game to lose steam just when it should be picking it up. Still, there are several hours of play here that are engrossing enough to justify the game’s relatively low price. Fortunately, the mechanics are straightforward enough that you can pick them up again after a long break.
The visuals and music caught us off guard during our playthrough. The animations look sharp and the environments have more variety and texture than we expected. The music feels like you’re at a nightclub that can only play royalty-free tracks, but it works to keep the game from feeling too generic throughout. There is a surprising amount of polish here that, perhaps, wasn’t strictly necessary considering the simple concept, but it made watching our trains move around the environments surprisingly satisfying. Touchscreen fans may be disappointed that it doesn’t offer any functionality whatsoever, but performance-wise we didn’t run into any issues, with decent load times and no frame rate problems during our playthrough.
The biggest downside of Railgrade is that it overstays its welcome by several hours. Late in the game, levels become repetitive and more of an exercise in time investment over real challenge. This is where slightly deeper mechanics or a more engaging story might have helped; either one could have saved the game from petering out the way it does. For players who like to experiment with systems for maximum efficiency, these levels might be more interesting. For everyone else, though, there just isn’t enough to keep you coming back for more.
If you’re a fan of train management sims, there is plenty of content in Railgrade to justify the price. You’ll probably get a good ten hours or so into the game before it starts to feel repetitive. There are plenty of missions to tackle, with some optional levels if you’re after more Vouchers or just fancy a different challenge. However, despite the polish on the environments, even the most ardent genre fan will likely lose interest in the game before they complete every objective.
Railgrade doesn’t try to recreate the railway management sim game, but it polishes and bolsters what is there to become one of the better examples of this niche genre. The story, light as it tends to be, pokes fun at late-stage capitalism without it becoming the sole focus of the game. It falls short of greatness due to repetition and a lack of depth in its later hours, but there is still more than enough here for resource management sim fans to not feel like they’ve been taken for a ride.