Everybody loves trains. They chug, bellow steam, and the refreshment cart serves delicious lukewarm tea. Trains are inherently fun. Children know it. Railfans know it. Rod Stewart knows it.
Railway Empire entails connecting cities with railroads, setting up signals, and both purchasing and upgrading trains along with their accompanying carriages. Nonstop train action – Railway Empire has that base covered.
The campaign starts in the dustbowl of 1830s America, with all the ensuing ‘plinky plonky’ music and western ‘horse and cart’ theming. Much later, the campaign extends to Mexico – it’s a shame there’s no opportunity to begin your railroad venture in a country other than America.
The basic aim is to connect cities, run trains and make a profit. It’s more complicated than that, though, especially if you want more than one train to run on a piece of track. This is where signals come into play. I initially found signals fiddly and I even had to start the campaign from scratch a couple of times. The good thing about a game from 2018 coming to the Switch is that there are mountains of YouTube videos showing you exactly how things work. Sure, signal behaviour could be more elegantly explained in-game, but there are resources out there to assist.
Everything you would expect in a comprehensive simulation is present. You can upgrade your choo-choos to better choo-choos – the upgrade tree is substantial, full of things to upgrade and buy. You can hire workers and extend your business by acquiring farms and factories, which bestow massive profits once their goods spread across the land. Cities soon boom, visibly benefitting from the train lines running through them.
It’s also possible to attack and sabotage AI opponents. I wasn’t too keen on this aspect. I want my train games to be wholesome. A throwback to train games of yore, perhaps. Transport Tycoon was almost entirely about sabotage. That, and UFOs.
The big advantage of the Switch version is the portable mode, which plays…fine. On a technical level, it’s excellent. Railway Empire looks way better than it needs to, boasting 3D trains, landscapes and cities full of intricate detail when zoomed in on, and a massive map to scroll around. Problem is, the Switch’s screen is a tad too small for such an information-dense experience. Text is on the small side, which in turn makes everything a little cramped.
Those who love a simulation and want to play on the bus or train will lap this up. It has excellent presentation and it’s both deep and strategic. Casual train enthusiasts may find it slightly harder to live with, however. Its PC roots are visible, and the controls struggle to deal with the limited buttons and constraints of a gamepad. The developers have done their best, but I longed for a mouse.
It’s also sometimes hard to see why some railroads are more profitable than others, and what you can do to improve the situation. Like the dustbowl, it also comes off as a bit dry. There’s a good attempt to add character, with an old-timey businessman character guiding the way, but it sometimes felt a little overwhelming and too dense. The free play mode addresses some of these concerns, with lots of options to edit, but it needed a bit more colour and more pizazz to reach beyond sim fans and train lovers.
Despite these reservations, there’s a lot to love in Railway Empire, and the ability to play it in bed seals the deal. If you lean into it and commit to its way of thinking and working, it shouldn’t leave you feeling loco.