As someone who used to commute via the tracks for the best part of ten years, I have never understood the appeal of train travel. But a train that can travel through time sounds much more appealing. The hardest choice then is deciding where to go first. I’d go straight to the dinosaurs and see them in all their glory. In Nostalgic Train, this time-travelling carriage is used on a personal journey to rediscover who the protagonist is after arriving in a town with amnesia.
Set in the fictional sleepy town of Natsugiri in Japan, Nostalgic Train features an unnamed protagonist. They wake up on the station platform with no recollection of how they arrived in this town. After a quick exploration, they discover the town is deserted. They are completely alone in this strange land.
With the sound of cicadas buzzing in the air, Natsugiri looks pleasant enough, and as you begin to explore, you start to piece together the story of this town. Split into seven chapters, they start with seemingly exclusive stories involving some of the residents; the child caught by the flow of the river unable to swim, the estranged daughter fleeing her abusive father or the new school teacher holding a dark secret. Each of these tales revolves around a key item that you need to hold onto and board the train with. Do this, and you can change the course of history. But be warned, the new outcome won’t exactly bring a positive conclusion either.
Nostalgic Train isn’t afraid to challenge you with these stories. Even the first story where you save a child from drowning has you questioning whether you made the right decision. The themes of loss, grief and tragedy occur throughout the story.
Later on, the train becomes far less necessary with which to propel the story along. You begin to piece together the mystery surrounding your amnesia, as well as what is going on with Natsugiri in general. As a story, it is a very good one; melancholic but well-rounded and with a good conclusion. How it is told however is another thing entirely.
Nostalgic Train is a walking simulator with very little else. The town and explorable area of Natsugiri takes less than a minute to run from one end to the other, with absolutely nothing you can interact with. The story progresses by running into spherical lights dotted along the floor. After hitting one, text appears on the screen. It will sometimes go into detail about what the protagonist is seeing or finding, and whilst it is well written, we don’t actually see anything change. For example, at one point, a message in a bottle is found or a swordfight occurs. Only there is no bottle to be found nor does any swordfighting actually happen. Everything is within these words; Natsugiri is a static world.
Perhaps this is made worse by the infrequent poor grammar or the fact that sometimes you can spend upwards of ten minutes reading what is happening rather than actually seeing it. This is a videogame remember, and our medium offers the most freedom. Nostalgic Train doesn’t use a single ounce of the freedom given.
Firewatch has its branching conversations. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has the horror sections. What Remains of Edith Finch has its interactions. Nostalgic Train simply lacks anything like that. Instead, it is go from A to B, read some text and then move onto C where more text awaits. At times it is reminiscent of Lost Odyssey and the stories from A Thousand Years of Dreams but even these had sound effects alongside captivating storytelling.
This is the Story Mode. Nostalgic Train also has a Free Mode which presents the same non-interactable town but without the story beats. Instead, there are Natsugiri Notes you can read that are found using the same spherical lights. These give a bit of real-life information as to what areas like this were like during the Shōwa period in Japan. Whilst a nice addition, you will have likely explored Natsugiri fully already during Story Mode. All these Natsugiri Notes then serve as are 24 collectibles and 24 ridiculously easy achievements.
Natsugiri is barely saved by the fact it is a beautiful place to explore. The shrine at the top of the hill, the quaint little shops and the stream running down to the beach, it is gorgeous. But it lacks everything else. You can enter the bookshop, but the coffee shop next door is off limits. Even the train itself and the station become redundant after the first hour.
If this were a book, I would totally recommend Nostalgic Train. As a video game though, it is simply devoid of anything to distinguish it as such. Many pessimists would already argue that a walking simulator doesn’t really gamify anything anyway, but they at least add other oddities in there to make up for that. Nostalgic Train paints a beautiful picture. It would just be nice to see it too.
Find your memories and identity in Nostalgic Train on Xbox