The venerable railway engine, especially the steam train, is more than just a mode of transport. The industrial revolution was, in large part, possible due to the advent of the locomotive and its ability to connect the country, matching production with consumption. Over the next hundred plus years, it was a key part of the national communications picture, slowly overtaken by the motorways and by airfreight, but there are still plenty of things that are easier and cheaper to move by rail.
Railway Empire, the 2018 release published by Kalpyso, has been ported over to the Xbox from its native environment of the PC and has been available for a good number of years. The new Japan DLC offers a new environment, new campaigns and new challenges for veteran and rookie railway bosses alike.
For the uninitiated, Railway Empire takes the basic 18XX genre staple of trying to turn a profit from connecting cities and manufacturing sites in order to make your railway business as successful and profitable as possible. The map, defaulting to the mid-western US, is dotted with farms, mines and cities which all have needs and outputs.
You begin the cycle with a small amount of capital and some tasks set for you, such as connecting a certain number of cities together or delivering a certain amount of a specific type of cargo. You’ll put down railway stations which have a radius in which they will ‘hoover up’ produced resources. These are then delivered to cities on their network.
Cities that receive the right resources will grow larger and therefore offer a bigger market and more passengers, making you more money. As things get more complicated, you’ll need to set up parallel rails so that two trains can pass each other, setting up a complicated series of signals.
Over the campaign you’ll also hire staff and research projects, and have to overhaul your network of trains as newer and faster trains become available.
At its heart, Railway Empire is about maximising profits and reducing your initial outlay as much as possible. Building stations, tracks and everything (except signals) costs money and you don’t get paid in advance, though some tasks or goals will pay you a bonus for carrying them out. Building uphill, through mountains or over rivers will all increase your costs of your track which can escalate fast, leaving your bank balance as flat as a pancake and meaning you’re left just waiting for the income to trickle in to put you back into the game.
There are also many other ways to play the game beyond the campaign, though the campaign offers the most structured experience with the in-built tutorial. You can take on a specific challenge in the eponymous Challenge Mode or you can just play as you wish in Free Mode. Alternatively, you can play in Sandbox mode and not worry about money and just treat the game as a sort of animated “train set”.
The Japan DLC adds a whole new playground: the island nation of Japan. There are two environments, with northern and southern Honshu, giving you two distinct maps to play your railway games out on. There are campaigns available in each one as well, starting somewhat later than the US start of 1830, based around the Emperor’s decision to industrialize Japan (think the era of ‘The Last Samurai’). You can also choose to start later on with a modern Japan in 1900.
Japan is beautifully rendered with its complex outline; its mountains, rivers and cherry blossom trees are an ever-present visual for the game. The visuals extend far beyond this, with new graphics for the people of Japan and the buildings too. You’ll see a blend of men in suits, peasant farmers and even geisha girls. There are also rickshaws running passengers in the streets.
The building architecture is a bit more restrained but still has some nice period details here and there. The sound has a blend of Japanese music and some of the voices have been rendered in Japanese sounding accents, though playing on some settings you’ll find all your competitors are still Americans! You’ll also find a huge number of new resources to pick up and deliver, including rice and sake which helps to give the game its ‘local colour’.
Japan starts with a very different set of engines and challenges as a relatively late adopter to the railway. The country is replete with mountains and rivers and expanding out can cost a lot of money unless you are very cagey and very careful.
Railway Empire, in general, has its other challenges too. A port from the PC, the game is tricky at times to control with the Xbox controller, with the zoom controls often ending up giving you an awkward angle to view the action.
There are also some visual niggles such as it not always being clear what resource is being produced in a settlement. With no tool tips this can make life difficult and requires looking at some wikis to get a feel for which icon means which resource. You’ll also likely need to get out your map of Japan, unless you know the place rather well as it’ll task you with connecting or building from a specific city, and I for one had to look up where Kyoto is!
The game’s tutorial is decent but struggles to explain the complex process of setting up signals, which is a key part of the game and you may find yourself turning to a YouTube video to find out what it actually needs you to do!
Still, these are really all just issues from the series as a whole. £10.74 isn’t a bad price point for a DLC package that adds two very large maps and lots of new content for the game, though it’ll not likely attract anyone who hasn’t played the game before.
If you’re a fan of the series and want a new challenge or have a real interest in Japan, then you’ll find the natural challenges of the new map a fun brain-teaser along with four different campaigns. If you’re new to the series, then you may wish to start with the vanilla Railway Empire, unless your Japanese geography is pretty good!
Head to the Land of the Rising Sun with Railway Empire – Japan on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One