There is something oddly attractive about trains. I’m not one of those enthusiasts who spends hours and fortunes playing with miniature or simulated ones, but I do enjoy travelling in them. Turns out there’s some pleasure to be had from owning a whole lot of them, and being responsible for all the logistics from station and tracks to maintenance and warehouses.
Set in the end of the XIX century, Railway Empire puts you in control of your very own train company right as the the rail industry is growing at an astounding rate. In charge of laying down the tracks and creating new routes throughout America, you are responsible for connecting cities both big and small to points of interest around the country, creating one huge complex network of transcontinental supply and demand that would make Jack Welch proud.
As the head of the company, Railway Empire gives you all the tools needed to create the rail network of your dreams. Tracks are laid between stations, maintenance areas assigned, sidetracks and signals demarcated, and routes established, generating one vast simulation of the train industry. Featuring a comprehensive research tree, you have access to several advancements originated in the hundred years Railway Empire takes place in, from mail carriages to the first passenger express Super Hudson trains.
The locomotives themselves are wonderfully modelled, and the game was clearly made by fans of the thing — you can even change into an onboard camera and watch the journey from ground level. The graphics are not groundbreaking, but they can still be mesmerising — the way the clouds act as a ceiling when zooming in resemble a virtual miniature world, capturing the picturesque American countryside in a way the topdown tabletop view just can’t.
Unfortunately, there is not a single interconnected map of the United States — instead, the continental behemoth is divided into multiple large regions that must be played at a time. While those areas are quite big and often span the areas of several states, they do restrict gameplay — cities and resources are spread through a very big area, and the inability to zoom back enough to see them clearly often becomes frustrating. More than once I had to pan around the map looking for a specific city, as the game offers no indication on the minimap of where they are located.
This is a small snippet of the game’s biggest problem: the UI. Railway Empire’s interface is absurdly obtuse, making even the simplest of actions ridiculously complex. Everything requires multiple clicks on icons spread all across the screen, and the game suffers a unique mix of displaying too much information and simultaneously showing nothing of importance — after nearly a week spent with the game, I still have no idea how to cancel a established train route between locations, leaving me with several unused ones created by accident that I must endure until I find a use for them.
Similarly, the game’s tutorial is an interminable series of loud monologues that take too much time to complete while unclearly stating what must be done, leading to a sizeable portion of the early game being spent in confusion and uncertainty. Once you come to grips with the game, it becomes rather simple, but it is still a monumental failure in UI and tutorial design — I fear when I stop playing this game for a month, I’ll forget how to properly play the game (which should be a preposterous claim on the strategy genre).
However, Railway Empire is undeniably fun. There is something oddly compelling about being in charge of everything, and the game smartly puts you in charge of everything. From tracks to villages and even business development in cities, you can eventually expand your grubby capitalist hands from coast to coast and shape the future of the whole country. That wonderful understanding of the freedom and creativity inherent to the strategy genre is utterly celebrated by the developers, and the end result lifts Railway Empire from the grasps of obscurity.
Unfortunately, the camera goes against that principle hard enough to justify its own paragraph. Utterly restrictive, laughably limited, and inexplicably limited, the camera in Railway Empire straights up detracts from the experience. I had to bug the game in order to take some of the screenshots on this review, as the absurdly restrictive views are so restrictive they straight up cut off half the train on the maintenance screen and prevent you from seeing the very thing the game is all about.
All those caveats aside, Railway Empire is a satisfying enough experience for any strategy fan with even the remotest interest in trains — or train fans with a passing interest in strategy. It offers campaign and scenarios with tasks and objectives alongside a sandbox mode that allows one to build the network of their dreams, catering to most players. While the lack of a single level going from 1830 to 1930 might displease some, the end product is a capable and accessible title in a very scant genre, and Railway Empire comes off as a passionate — if not exactly flawless — title.
Encourages creativity and freedom
Deep simulation includes employee management and corporate espionage
Makes trains fun
Sound design oscillates between annoying and good