It must be train simulator season. No sooner have I finished reviewing Train Sim World 3, another one pulls up to the station. Train Life: A Railway Simulator is an effort more concerned with management and a wider world than authenticity and accuracy. With a lenient attitude, Simteract are looking to make a name for themselves in the simulator genre and this effort does show a lot of ambition, if a little rough around the edges.
Operating trains in Train Life: A Railway Simulator are a lot more casual than some of the other simulators. Whilst you do have a variety of locomotives to run, they all obey the same control scheme. As someone who does occasionally wobble under the intricacies of different machinery, it’s nice to know the simple act of moving is a uniformly controlled act. The triggers influence the throttle whilst brakes are applied using the shoulder buttons. It translates pretty well, although I do find coasting to be an impossible task. Throttle control is simply not analogue and level ground doesn’t keep a train’s speed stable.
As such, I hop on and off the throttle to maintain speed. Whilst it does give me something more to do in the cabin, it does feel like micromanagement that doesn’t need to be there. The other controls are pretty intuitive. You have a radial menu to get through most of the options but the important things have been mapped to the controller well. Pressing down switches the reverser, circle activates the emergency brake. Things are kept simple and Train Life: A Railway Simulator is definitely delivering a more causal approach.
The career mode is the bread and butter of Train Life: A Railway Simulator and this takes on a very free-form structure. After being shown the ropes in a series of tutorials, you name you company and hit the rails. From there you can pick up contracts for freight, passengers and postage. It’s a shame these can’t be accessed at all times. I found myself starting a new company just to revisit some of the basics. It also becomes clear that, whilst these are very good at walking you through station procedures, you’re sometimes left to your own devices on how to find them. Navigating my way to a particular service centre felt clumsy without a hand guiding me in.
Completing contracts earns you money and experience with the latter leading to more rewards. It can be a lengthy, engrossing experience as you move from job to job. You can hire staff and buy new locomotives to bolster your coffers. Having more drivers allows them to generate revenue in the background.
Completing jobs for cities levels them up and results in better rewards like lower refuelling costs and better pay. Not all of these operate passenger services with coal mines and power plants having their own specific cargo to carry. There’s plenty to dig into and you can be as expansive or as narrow in scope as you want. It’s nice to have that scope and there are moments where you feel like part of a clockwork system. Having to be weary of other trains at crossing points gives the game a rare element of danger, even if the traffic on routes is understandably slim.
For a more guided experience, there’s over twenty scenarios you can run in a variety of different vehicles. There’s a mix of freight and passenger routes that do cover most of the world map. Some of these can be accomplished in as little as fifteen minutes, although I find the timing requirements for these tasks to be fairly strict. Arriving late doesn’t fail these missions but it does dent your XP reward. I find these scenarios are a good way to see most of what Train Life: A Railway Simulator has to offer and allows you to build up money for your company without having to dive immediately into the grind.
In general, Train Life: A Railway Simulator is a lenient experience. Speed limits have to be obeyed but there is a grace period before fines start to be handed out. Derailing a train can fail a mission but you have the option to reset at the scene of the accident, rather than restart. The heads up display is usually good at letting you know of upcoming hazards and signals are easy enough to understand.
Whilst your GPS is good at displaying a route, I’ve had instances of them failing to populate and switches that are close together can often result in winding up on the wrong track. It’s best to keep your eyes peeled and checking the map to anticipate junctions. At stations, every facility is marked rather than just the ones that will be worthwhile on your route. Pick-up points are given this brown arrow that doesn’t always stand out in dull weather. I’ve had a few too many moments of inelegantly backing up to traverse a missed switch. The leniency allows for it but I just wish the game was better at signposting when I was about to do something stupid.
Visually, Train Life: A Railway Simulator looks fine. Vehicles are rendered well, although their cabins can look a little simple. Despite being a condensed equivalent of Europe, the variation from town to town lacks a little character. I don’t quite get the same digital tourism I would get from other train titles and that’s a shame. I do occasionally see some interesting buildings or architecture but the wide expanse of the countryside doesn’t quite pop as it would in Train Sim World 3. Weather is done well with rain realistically pouring down cab windows and fog can be quite dense. The accelerated day / night cycle lets dawn and dusk shine.
I feel that’s where Rail Life: A Railway Simulator‘s best moments come from. Managing your own empire whilst covering thousands of miles of European terrain can be entertaining. The controls are aimed at a more casual audience and I do appreciate that when moving from one vehicle to the next. It’s a pity it’s not as polished as it could be and the potential nuisance of glitches and bugs certainly dampened my experience. However, it is offering something I haven’t seen on rails before and there’s a relaxed vibe to the whole journey.
+ A lot of Europe to explore.
+ Simple control scheme across all vehicles.
+ Lenient when it comes to obeying laws of the railway.
- Whilst it tries to be accessible, there's still a lot to explain.
- The big world can sometimes feel lifeless.
- Lacks some authenticity when it comes to cab designs and routes.