A-Train’s heavy-duty simulation is a rare sight indeed

Artdink’s A-Train series is one of those franchises that has always been huge in Japan, but which has never really made a huge impact over here in the west.

It’s understandable to an extent; they’re very Japanese games, built on not only the Japanese model of public transport and how that contributes to urban growth, but also the general Japanese enthusiasm towards the concept of trains. But that’s not to say we’ve never seen them over here; Maxis released the third A-Train game in the west, and we’ve seen a couple of others since, including A-Train 8 on Steam and A-Train: City Simulator (also known as A-Train 3D) on Nintendo 3DS) — and some of the others were accessible enough for westerners to play.

A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism

It seems Artdink is up for another go, though, because A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism has arrived on Nintendo Switch today — and there’s an extremely substantial free demo on offer for those who aren’t sure if this sort of game is for them.

Having not really played a game of this type for many years — my SimCity heyday was back in the ’90s — I thought it would be interesting to give A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism a go, particularly because I’d never come into contact with the previous installments of the series. So I fired up the demo.

Several hours later, I was still playing, and I think I was having a good time. I had certainly learned a lot of things!

A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism

In A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism (A-Train hereafter) you take on the role of the owner of a train company. You have been tasked with making use of your business and its assets to drive growth in the region, and thus it’s up to you to build railroads, make sure passengers are getting where they need to go — and that tourism hotspots are getting the attention they deserve.

In the demo scenario, you’re given an objective of attracting a particular number of tourists to the region over the course of several years, as well as growing the overall population of the city by a certain amount. To that end, you have a number of assistant characters who talk you through the various ways in which you can drive growth in the region — and the things you need to be keeping an eye on in order to run a successful business.

It would be easy for a game like this to either throw the player in at the deep end and expect them to just get on with it — the original PC releases of A-Train played like this, working on the assumption that you would have actually read the hulking great manual that came in the box — but not only do modern gamers have exceedingly limited attention spans, manuals are also something of a forgotten luxury.

A-Train can’t do much about the former issue — if you’re easily bored and require constant stimulation, this game will not be for you, particularly as its 3D graphics are best described as “just about functional” at best. (I recommend turning the horrendously flickery real-time shadow effects off immediately.) But it does solve the latter issue in a couple of ways: firstly, by providing an extensive interactive tutorial hosted by your assistants, and secondly by including a comprehensive in-game electronic manual that you can refer to at any time.

The tutorial is positioned as your endearingly ditzy secretary learning about the ins and outs of how the train business works, but it’s paced in such a way that you’re gradually introduced to the various important concepts in the game one at a time. There is a lot to learn, yes — and, more to the point, a lot of financial jargon to get to grips with — but the game does a good job of highlighting the most important things you should be focusing on to begin with, and then making some gentle suggestions as to how you might want to expand your efforts once you feel a little more comfortable.

To begin with, all you’ll be doing is building a few stations and extending an existing train route to reach a tourist destination. After a couple of hours, you’ll have likely developed the confidence to experiment a little more with the things that are on offer to you — and almost certainly have made a few mistakes along the way, too.

And there’s a lot to experiment with and discover, even in the demo. There are various ways you can arrange your lines to ensure that your trains run efficiently (and don’t run into each other!) — including setting schedules, branches and all manner of other fun things. You can set up a freight business, which provides income and helps both you and the surrounding businesses construct things more quickly. You can connect to surrounding towns, or attempt to improve the existing infrastructure in the area in which the scenario unfolds. You can even research new types of transportation, including trains that are better equipped to go up mountains, or go beneath ground as subways.

Although the game is initially daunting and remains that way for quite some time, the gradual introduction of all the game features over the course of the tutorial feels like a gentle, graceful introduction to everything A-Train is expecting you to take responsibility for. As you take the time to get to know each area of the interface and what it allows you to do, you’ll discover that the fundamentals of playing actually aren’t all that complicated — what matters more is how you apply the toolset you’re given effectively in order to create a successful, productive and profitable business.

Probably the best thing about this Switch version of A-Train is that everything is presented in a very friendly manner. The excellent character artwork — which is the work of Etrian Odyssey character designer Yuji Himukai — helps draw you into the experience with a friendly face, and the dialogue complements this.

A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism

The fact that your secretary seemingly gets overwhelmed with a sense of panic at the exact point the average newcomer will start having second thoughts about what they’ve got themselves into shows that the designers are well aware that A-Train is a complicated and potentially off-putting game — but that if you have a bit of courage and put in the time and effort required to understand, you’ll have a fun and rewarding time.

At this point in time, this is probably all that I, personally, can say about A-Train, since I’m still learning things — and, moreover, I realised I added an extension to my train line that none of my trains will ever be able to reach, so I need to fix that at some point. But the important thing at this point, I think, is that I want to learn more; what I’ve experienced so far was enough to pique my interest, and that says something important about A-Train.

Yes, outside of the character designs, A-Train is not a pretty game, and that will immediately put some people off — but it was ever thus in the good old days of management sims. What’s truly important in this type of game is the underlying simulation and how straightforward it is to engage with that simulation. And from initial impressions, it would seem that this new A-Train game has both of those aspects sewn up pretty nicely.

Have you tried the A-Train demo? Let us know in the comments or via the usual social channels!

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Pete Davison
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