Game Review: Train Valley: Console Edition

Often, a game comes my way that I have heard nothing about, didn’t even know it existed and when I play it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t know it existed and wish it would’ve stayed that way. Sometimes, a title comes up for review that I didn’t know about and it really comes as a wonderful surprise as to how good it really is. Train Valley is a puzzle-strategy game from developer Flazm and publisher BlitWorks. But which side of the good/bad coin does it fall?

“Build railways, manage traffic and stay accident-free. Play in Europe, America, Japan and USSR in 1830-2020. Complete the story mode from the Gold Rush of 1849 to the first manned spaceflight, and then explore the random mode. Management. Construction. Trains. Welcome to Train Valley!”

Now, Train Valley was released back in 2015 in the world of PCs. I mean, they’re on Train Valley 2 already and have been since 2019. But this is the console version that has only just been released and I’ve been playing the Xbox port. So then, what exactly is Train Valley all about? If I told you trains, would you be surprised? Taking place in five counties around the world (this version includes the Germany DLC) and over two centuries of the age of the train. What you have here is a puzzle time-management game where all you have to do is get a train from one place to the other. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, if it were really that simple, it wouldn’t be much of a game. Played on a grid, you don’t control the trains directly, as in you don’t drive them. You place new pieces of track to connect two or more stations. Each station is colour coded and the trains will want to get to a station of a different colour. As an example, you have a red station and a red train at that station. But the train wants to go to the blue station. So you build a track from the red to the blue station and let the train go. Easy… until you get more than two stations, multiple tracks joining together, crossings, junctions and numerous trains all wanting to go to different places at the same time. This is where switches come into play as multiple stations mean multiple routes and you don’t want the trains crashing into each other.

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Then add on that each map will throw up various problems to overcome. Maybe there will be an uncrossable lake in the middle of the map, limiting where you can place track pieces. Maybe a real-world event will hinder you, like World War II. Then you have money to worry about. Building train tracks is not free and you start each map with a budget, so you’ll want to keep trips short by using as fewer track pieces as possible. This can be a bit tricky if there is something in your way, you can go around it and use more money and track, or go through it and uses even more money paying for demolition but have a shorter journey. Pick your poison. Run out of money and it is game over. You can earn more cash by successfully getting trains to the right station in the quickest time. The faster the train, the more money you get. Still, rushing can lead to some pretty nasty train crashes and you really do need careful planning, especially when things get increasingly more hectic with more stations and more trains. This is where the whole puzzle element comes in. You can’t just throw down track pieces and hope for the best, thinking is key here and planning is very much a requisite.

Control-wise and you can really tell that Train Valley was designed for PC play. Moving a cursor around a screen for a game like this, with a mouse, is always preferable to using a gamepad. Things can get a little fiddley too because you are playing on a console. There are action options in the top-left corner of the screen and you select them via the shoulder buttons, scrolling to the one you need at any given time. This is slower and more clunky than just whizzing to them with a mouse pointer. The actions are; switches, for changing the direction a train goes at a junction. Track pieces… for laying the tracks. Demolition, for removing any pesky scenery in your way or any misplaced track. Station release, to send a train out from a selected station. Finally, a train action where you can stop and turn a train around, in case you send it the wrong way. When the action heats up, flicking to the action you need in a pinch is pretty much impossible. Still, you can actually pause the game and still select the action you need, build track and so on. This does take some of the sting out of the controls and, as it turns out on later levels, it is pretty much a must to pause and then carry out an action, the game was designed very specifically for you to use the pause… a lot.

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There is another issue that definitely caused some problems. It’s really fucking hard to see where your cursor is. It is tiny, even when playing on a big screen TV. Again, this is further proof that this was originally designed to be played on a PC with you sitting a few inches away from the screen. But console players don’t do that, they sit back in a comfy chair, several feet away from their TVs. I mean, just go and look at the pictures I used in this review, all of them taken from the Xbox version that I have been playing. Have a quick game of ‘spot the cursor’ in each of the screengrabs. Seriously devs, if you read this, make the cursor bigger on the console version as it is pretty much impossible to spot. Especially when things get hectic.

Train Valley really infuriated me at first, the clunky controls and tiny cursor being major problems. Still, the more I played, the more I got used to the controls and slipping into pause mode to take a breather and re-plan my strategy of getting the trains where they wanted to go. Honestly, after an hour or so, I seriously fell in love with this game. What looks like a ‘kiddy game’ soon becomes a really damn tricky puzzle title that will test your reactions and force you to use the old noodle a fair bit. More stations in later levels mean more tracks, more trains and more chance of a crash. Various obstacles make planning your tracks more awkward as the game progresses. Each level throws a new challenge and each level also has three bonus goals for you to reach too, which really adds a lot of replay value.

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Coming in with a £10 price tag Train Valley is a worthy purchase and it has kept me entertained for a good while. I do think that some players may find it a tad repetitive as all you are doing is getting trains from one location to another. But still, look at that price again and remember that this console version does include the Germany DLC, it’s a decent price point. This is a game that is very easy to understand but increasingly more difficult to master. Frustrating at times but also addictive with that ‘one more go’ style of gameplay that just pulls you in. But please devs, make the cursor bigger or give us an option to change it so it is more visible on the console version.

Available to buy now on everything and it is well worth a purchase.

Game Review: Slipstream

If there is one original arcade cabinet that I would love to own, it would be Atari’s Gauntlet. If I could own two original arcade cabinets, the second one would be Sega’s OutRun. One of the deluxe, sit-down ones with all the hydraulics. I adore OutRun, it was one of the classics that defined my childhood and a game I always made a beeline for whenever I was in an arcade. Capturing what made OutRun was damn great is a tricky thing to do, even now 35 years later. From developer Ansdor Games and published by BlitWorks comes Slipstream, an arcade racer that certainly has a very OutRun feel. But is it any good?

Slipstream is a racing game inspired by the visuals, music, games and cars from the late 80s and early 90s. It’s built on a custom game engine, with an authentic retro feel and unique graphics. The soundtrack, drawing from synthpop and jazz fusion influences, sets the tone for a race across a variety of exotic locations from all around the world, including cities, deserts, forests, mountains and beaches. Drifting and slipstreaming mechanics add depth to the driving gameplay, and the result is a challenging and exciting experience.

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Now, Slipstream has been out on PC since 2018 but it has very recently seen a console release with a few refinements. I’ve been playing the Xbox version for this review. First up, what do you get in terms of modes here? Well, in all honestly, you really do get quite a lot. I’ll go through the modes one by one.

Grand Tour is your classic arcade mode. Think how the original OutRun worked with you driving through various stages and coming to a fork in the road where you chose which course to follow. That is pretty much what you get here with the Grand Tour mode. Cannonball has you playing through five (or more) stages back to back. No selectable routes here, just you going from the start to the end of a long and continual run… a Cannonball Run if you will, as you try to be first across the line. Grand Prix sees you going up against various opponents through numerous races fighting for points. Whoever has the most points at the end wins. There’s also an upgrade system with this mode where you can spend your winnings on improving your chosen car. Single Race mode is pretty self-explanatory… it’s a single race, with you picking one of the twenty-five stages in the game. Time Trial is also pretty self-explanatory… it’s a time trial race. You vs the clock trying to put in the fastest time. Finally, there is Battle Royale mode. I’m sure you know how a battle royale works, as it is a very popular genre. You vs numerous opponents and whoever is at the back of the pack at the end of a stage is eliminated until only one racer remains.

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Anyway, six game modes are what you get here with Slipstream. For an arcade racer, that really is quite a lot to choose from Even then, there are variables and customisation that can be applied to those modes. There’s even a four-player split-screen mode. You can hand-pick which races you want to take part in, change the traffic density. Plus, if you’re a bit older these days and your reactions are not quite what they were back in the 80s, you can slow the game down via the use of a % meter. It’s a great idea as it allows you to set the pace of the game yourself and find your perfect comfort zone. In fact, in terms of accessibility, Slipstream spoils you for choice. You can adjust pretty much anything in the game. Screen shake, screen tilt when cornering, VHS effects and there are even various display settings like CRT, NTCS and pixelated graphics that can be changed to add a bit of 80s authenticity. Then there are the five different cars, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. You’re sure to find the perfect balance for your personal play style.

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As for how Slipstream looks, you can get a decent idea from the trailer and screenshots right here. Still, seeing a game on a blog isn’t quite the same as playing it on a big screen. The graphic style here is very late-80s/early-90s arcade. It certainly has the sprite scaling that made OutRun so damn gorgeous and fast. But then it also has a touch of Cruis’n USA mixed in too. The side-scenery flies by you at break-neck speed and the game’s racing is smoother than a Barry White album covered in melted butter. The cars even crash and flip in the air, just like OutRun. There is no falling out of the car and being scolded by your blonde girlfriend though… which is actually a good thing as it keeps the fast pace of the game up.

If you do crash or are not too happy with how you took a corner, there is a handy rewind feature. This is not something new as the Forza games have used rewinding for years now. Still, how it is used here is a little different. In Forza, you can spam the rewind and go back quite a way. Here, you are limited to one 5-second rewind at a time, you then have to wait for it to recharge before using it again. So you can’t spam the rewind feature and make things too easy for yourself. You have to think if it’s worth using the rewind for a crash, or will you need it later? Slipstream even has a (titular) slipstream mechanic. Get behind an opponent and stay behind them long enough for a speed boost. It’s simple and works well… as long as you’re not heading into a corner.

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Speaking of corners, there is also a drifting mechanic and if I’m being honest, this was something I had a slight issue with. I love drifting in an arcade racer and it does work here. But getting it to work in the first place is a bit fiddly. You have to release the accelerator, turn in the direction you want to go, tap the break and then back on the accelerator to begin the drifting. It’s just all a bit cumbersome, especially when things get frantic on the track. Your fingers have to work overtime on some of the more twisty tracks. I’d have much preferred a single button that started the drifting, or just a simple tap on the brakes as you turn. There is an auto-drifting mode where the car will drift when you turn and all you have to do is worry about the accelerator. But the issue with this is that the car will always drift, even when you don’t need it to.

Another thing is that is, I think some kind of indication of the previous routes you’ve taken would be great. As with OutRun, when you reach a fork in the road, you choose to go left or right. But you do kind of forget which route you’ve taken on previous runs (did I go left here or right?). When you reach a fork, signposts for which stage is next pop up and if those signposts had an indication to tell you that yes, you have been down that route before, you’d know you try the other route instead. Something as simple as a tick on the signpost to let you know that you’ve already gone that way would be great.

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The gameplay is as to be expected for an arcade racer. It’s all about going as fast as you can. Weave in and out of traffic and screech around corners. It’s simple but really bloody enjoyable. There’s a great selection of synthpop songs that feel like they’ve fallen right out of the arcade in the 1980s too. I’ll even put my neck on the line and say some of them are almost as good as the awesome OutRun soundtrack. Okay, so there is nothing as amazing as Passing Breeze or Magical Sound Shower but there are still some really great tunes here and tunes that compliment the fast and frantic gameplay perfectly.

Around £8 is what you’re going to have to pay for Slipstream, which does lead me to how I always finish my reviews. Is the coin you pay worth what the game offers? Honestly, there really is a lot of content here, for an arcade racer. So many different game modes and then you have the numerous variables and customisation options to tailor the game to your personal skillset, like three separate difficulty settings for each mode. The amount of accessibility options here is impressive and really opens up the game for anyone to pick up and play. You don’t have to be an arcade racer master to play Slipstream as you can tinker with the many options and create your own difficulty level. For under £8, there is a lot of game here and if you love the arcade racer genre, I recommend you get Slipstream on your ‘to play’ list ASAP. You can buy a copy for all systems right here.

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I’ve played a few retro arcade racers over the last couple of years and most of them try to capture that OutRun feel. Some have done well too. Slipstream is the closest you’ll get to being back in the arcades, circa 1987, without actually playing OutRun.