Railway Empire is an interesting combination of RPG, puzzle, and resource-management. You build rail lines to connect towns to resources and meet goals, all within a broader historical narrative that teaches you about the history of railroads. The base game covers the United States, but optional DLC covers France, Great Britain and Ireland, and Germany.
I’m reviewing the Switch version, but the game is also available for PS4 and XboxOne.
About me and my play style: I have albinism. My visual acuity fluctuates between 20/100 and 20/500 depending on if I’m wearing contacts and how tired I am. I have color vision, but no depth perception. I also deal with eye strain if I have to focus too precisely for too long.
Visual Characteristics 4/10
(Contrast, Lighting, Tracking, Clutter)
The game tries to achieve a realistic art style, but that style makes visibility difficult due to the complex textures and low contrast. Train stations and resources do not stand out much from the background, particularly when zoomed out. Staying zoomed in is not an adequate solution because navigation is exceedingly difficult. Tracking is also very difficult when zoomed out as the resolution drops significantly when the game needs to load more of the map. The icons and station names do not scale at all, so they will be indistinctive unless zoomed in. There are button controls to manage trains, though, so tracking isn’t strictly necessary except for navigating the map.
The lighting is done in a standard daytime method. This lighting stays consistent, which is very welcome, considering much of the rest of the visuals are difficult to see.
To improve the game, I would like to see icons and text scale as you zoom in and out to make sure that the icons stay visible. The icons could also have colorful borders put around them to make them more visible. Additional effort to make the textures more distinctive would also likely help with navigation. There is a minimap, but it’s too small to be helpful at all. The map doesn’t even include icons or colors to tell you which dots are which.
In the menus, which is where much of your time is spent, there is a great deal of information presented. Think Rollercoaster Tycoon, but even more options to manage your railroad. This clutter is difficult to manage, and that clutter could be mitigated by better menu organization.
Accessibility Features 3.5/10
There are a decent number of options within the game, but most notably, there is no option to change font sizes. You can independently control the volume of all aspects of the game, which is very much appreciated. There are also a certain number of control customization options, but not full controller remapping.
Assist Modes 3/10
There’s no formal assist mode, but you can slow down the speed of the game. This may be helpful so you have more time to navigate the confusing menu system. There are also options to turn on tool hints, which help you place items correctly.
It would have been nice to have an assist mode that removed certain game mechanics to make a simpler game. Railway Empire has a steep learning curve, and varying difficulty options would be preferable. There is a sandbox mode and a free mode, but these modes still incorporate all of the game’s mechanics except for time limits and sabotage elements.
Non visual Cues 4/10
There are numerous impressive instances of non visual cues to indicate if a train breaks down and narrate next required actions, particularly in the tutorial, but they do little to improve the experience. The voiceover neglects to read text that describes controls, making the voiceover essentially worthless. Similarly, the auditory feedback may tell you that a train has stopped or started, but as it has no directional context, it also doesn’t provide much useful information.
I’d have liked to see the voiceover narrate the text on the screen exactly. Additionally, there could have been creative elements like assigning a button to travel to the origin of a sound, haptic feedback to indicate if you successfully linked tracks together, and an auditory cue to assist with placing tracks.
Decent Fonts 3/10
The fonts themselves are fine. Most of the text is in a clean sans-serif font, while titles are in a bold, lightly serif font. The problem is that the font is tiny. I always want larger fonts, but rarely is it as necessary as it is here.
Necessity of Text 0/10
(The higher the rating, the less necessary the text is)
There is absolutely no way to play Railway Empire without being able to read the control prompts, which are often hidden inside paragraphs of narrative text.
Handheld Play 0/10
Railway Empire suffers from the problems Ben mentioned in his article about Switch ports. The game came out a while ago on PS4 and Xbox, and it’s clear that there were no changes made to enable people to play in handheld mode. The menus can be very complicated, frequently requiring three simultaneous inputs (trigger, left stick, and A button) to make a selection. This is more difficult for me to achieve in handheld mode because of my grip. The text is also egregiously small in handheld mode.
Level of Precision Required 3/10
To get through the tutorial, you need to build your track in a certain way, but this is not communicated at all. I’ve already mentioned that building tracks requires the cursor to be exactly over the relevant connection. These aspects can be mitigated by the zoom function and slowing the game down, but maneuvering the camera and the track placement can be hard to do simultaneously as the tracks do not “stick” at all to help your aim. The necessity of simultaneous inputs makes everything quite difficult to pull off.
Controls and Depth Perception 2/10
As Railway Empire is composed primarily of menus, like any sort of tycoon game, the menus should be much more intuitive. The controls are not consistent between actions. Sometimes B is cancel, and sometimes B is confirm. It’s a confusing system that relies entirely on you reading the control prompts on screen. Depth perception isn’t an issue as the game is primarily top-down. You can zoom in to first-person view, but this view doesn’t help you, and the graphics aren’t much to look at.
Recommendation for visual skills needed for enjoyment
If you’re willing to put in the time, you could probably learn the menus if you’ve got 20/100 vision. Using the built-in magnifier isn’t going to work for menus that require multiple inputs, so you’d need to memorize a certain amount of the menus. To pick up and play this title in docked mode, I’d guess you’d need 20/60 or so. I didn’t feel I was able to play it enjoyably, so I’m guessing you need much better vision than I’ve got.
Overall, I do not recommend Railway Empire. The menus are such a problem, in a tycoon-style game, where the menus are the majority of the user experience. There are much better train-themed and tycoon games available.
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