Railway Empire 2 review

It’s difficult to say how good a fit Railway Empire 2 is for Xbox Game Pass. Like the majority of Kalypso’s compelling management sims (Tropico, Port Royale, and the often-overlooked Dungeons) it’s something that can make mere minutes fly by like hours – and it seems countless gamers are yet to experience this series’ delights, ergo pseudo time travel abilities, for themselves yet. By putting it on Game Pass, it stands a far better chance of reaching a larger audience.

But despite its surprisingly simple premise of connecting cities, towns, and businesses with railway lines to become an 1800s railroad mogul, Railway Empire 2 – like its predecessor – has a learning curve, and it’s highly recommended to play the hour-long tutorial first. You may be able to fumble your way without, grabbing a few easy achievements in the process, but chances are you’re going to overlook something important and consequently run into problems later.

The issue here is that Game Pass tends to be used as a ‘sampling platter’ – if something doesn’t ignite tastebuds instantly, it ends up being deleted in less time than it took to install. Backing this theory up are the achievement unlock ratios of just about any Game Pass title that isn’t immediately accessible. Perhaps it’s modern gamer sensibilities that are the problem. Or maybe an hour of somebody’s time to explain the basics is a lot to ask for. It’s hard to say.  

The tutorial is, at least, well-paced and is fully voice-acted with a gruff fellow explaining how to play. It isn’t a step-by-step guide, however, leading to head-scratching at times. Peculiarly, you aren’t ushered towards a single mode upon competition of the tutorial. There’s the slow-burning five-chapter globetrotting campaign, a wide selection of scenarios set in the US and Europe, and both sandbox and custom modes.

Online multiplayer features too, although we weren’t able to try this prior to release. It seems you can join and create games, set restrictions, kick unruly players, and generate codes for friends.

The scenarios and campaign chapters are oddly hard to differentiate. Both begin with a voice-acted introduction outlining your goals, and then provide a list of objectives. Around two hours (2-3 game years) are provided to achieve various goals – and because there are no reminders of looming deadlines, it’s up to you to manage and keep track of time. Save often! You also need to think ahead about how much cash you’ll need for future plans – spend too much on one task, and you may not have enough to complete the next project. A side hustle to earn money to complete the next leg of your empire may be in order too. There is flexibility to play as you see fit, right down to sabotaging the opposition.

Campaign/scenario mode’s tasks vary from connecting two cities and transporting X number of passengers, to transporting Y amount of goods (corn, sugar, beer, etc) to a certain location. Another recurring task is to expand the population of a town. This is where the building elements come in – it’s possible to build factories, open restaurants, and boost the general level of education with a library or museum. Despite these features, Railway Empire 2 can’t really be classed as a city building sim – the ability to place aforementioned facilities is often restricted.

The easiest thing to admire here is how streamlined the experience is for consoles. Like its predecessor, it feels as though a lot of time has been spent tailoring the controls to a joypad, using a radial wheel to intuitively cycle through options.

One of the biggest improvements over the original is simplified track placement, with most technical aspects such as signals taken care of automatically and parallel tracks placed effortlessly. It’s still vital to raise and lower tracks to avoid expensive tunnels and bridges though – if you aren’t careful with track layouts, your bank balance will shrink.

If something is wrong with your planning, an alert will appear – although a resolution isn’t always obvious. This, weirdly, makes the experience all the more compelling as you’re driven to constantly fix any issues that arise, all while expanding and keeping an eye on profits. If a line isn’t bringing in the moolah, you can either re-examine or scrap everything entirely – and all costs are refunded.

As you start to grow and spread, other towns and industries become within your grasp. Then before you know it, you’ve spent an afternoon connecting most of America. Indeed, if Railway Empire gets its hooks into you, it’ll serve you well – there’s a long research tree to unlock, and the scenarios are time-consuming.

Other improvements over the original are relatively slim, giving the impression the developers didn’t way to dilute or overcomplicate the formula. It’s a better-looking experience – if you zoom into towns, you’ll see the population of dustbowl America traveling by horse and cart while going about their day. The great outdoors includes plenty of wildlife, the shorelines are visually pleasing, and the trains themselves pack a lot of detail. You can even follow trains with an adjustable camera. The music suits the experience well, featuring catchy guitar and banjo riffs.

Railway Empire 2 is a better, more rounded, experience than its predecessor and it features some thoughtful touches that make playing with a joypad a breeze. If you have a passing fancy and an Xbox Game Pass subscription, it comes recommended. PlayStation and PC owners can also rest assured that there’s a lot to see. I put a good ten hours in before writing this review and didn’t even make much of a dent in the campaign. Returning passengers may feel like they’ve taken this trip before, though – only now the view out the window is more picturesque.

Developed by Gaming Minds Studios, Railway Empire 2 is out May 25th on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series, Xbox One, and Switch.