The first thing that you’ll see when turning on A-Train: All! Aboard! Tourism is a super cute anime girl batting her eyes at you as she welcomes you to the tutorial. It’s a bright, fun start to what looks like a charming, colourful little city builder simulation. About 20 minutes later you’ll find yourself getting a lecture on accounting and balance sheets. Now, it has been many years since I completed a course on accounting at university (no, it was not my degree, I was doing a masters in marketing at it was mandatory for people who didn’t have an undergraduate in commerce), but I’m almost certain that lecture came right out of one of my textbooks. “What kind of hellish bait-and-switch is that?” you may ask. Well, welcome to A-Train. It has always been like this. And it’s far from being hellish. Even if you’re not a fan of accounting, this thing is wonderful.
Artdink’s series has been kicking around for a little over 35 years now, but rarely localised out of its native Japan into English. The 3DS predecessor to this one did get a localisation, but it was released with so little fanfare that almost no one knew it existed. The same goes for this one, and it doesn’t take you long to realise why that is. This is not Sim City. It’s not even Cities: Skylines. Nor is it Railway Empire, and while it might look vaguely like what a “big-budget” Kairosoft simulator would look like, in using a similar cute and anime aesthetic, there is no guarantee that a Kairosoft fan is going to get much value out of this. To summarise bluntly here: this thing is niche as niche gets, because it’s a genuine simulator with no holds barred, whatsoever.
In A-Train your job is, in theory, quite simple; connect people, towns, and suburbs via transportation networks (not just trains, either), and also facilitate the freight between those cities so that buildings can be constructed more quickly and towns will grow. You’ll also have secondary goals (as the game’s subtitle suggests, tourism is a big one), and all of this is in service of the ultimate goal; run a successful, lucrative transportation business. What you won’t do is build the cities themselves. You’ll just watch as they spring up around your transport hubs, just as in the real world. Now, there are plenty of other games that have worked with this exact same concept in the past. Railway Empire on the Switch does it itself, and it’s good fun. The point of difference for A-Train is that that description is not even scratching the surface of what you’ll actually have to manage.
You’ll need to deal with local government and achieve their own objectives for the regions that they manage. You’ll also have to keep an eye on taxes, be strategic about where you buy land to build your networks (property prices, after all…), and you’ll even have to deal with the stock market and shareholders. A-Train isn’t so much a simulation by abstraction, as 99 per cent of other simulations are. Most games streamline the less entertaining side of urban planning and city management to allow you to be creative and watch your work grow as though it’s a concrete flower garden. A-Train genuinely feels like an introductory course to actual urban planning, and underneath that adorably charming aesthetic lies something surprisingly cold and academic.
Without a doubt, this is not an experience that most people would enjoy. Even those that usually enjoy simulators may well struggle with this one. I’ve seen how people get into the likes of Cities Skylines and Planet Coaster and that Jurassic Park builder game; as data-driven as the genre assuredly is, most people don’t want to interact with the data. They want to get simple, mostly binary feedback on whether it’s a good idea or not to place a building there or not, and then get back to the task of amusing themselves with being creatively silly or carving out their vision for a utopia. And that desire does make sense. The ultimate reason that most people play video games is for a combination of wish fulfilment and escapism, and those games I mentioned are the simulation genre’s take on both wish fulfilment and escapism. A-Train isn’t for those people. A-Train is for people who find city planning to be inherently interesting. It’s for people who actually understand why an inadequate transport system has left (for one example chosen totally at random) the city of Sydney as a soulless husk. A-Train is for the people that go out there and actively pressure their politicians for bullet trains, understanding that while they cost a lot to construct, there is a reason behind why countries like Japan and China invest so heavily in them. While A-Train itself hasn’t implemented Smart City theory as a mechanic – yet – A-Train is for people who can actually understand what I mean by “Smart City” without having to click on the link there.
On top of that, A-Train is for people that also like anime aesthetics. You can imagine how small the space in the intersecting circles of this particular Venn diagram is, but that doesn’t mean that A-Train lacks value. For people who do enjoy this stuff, or who, after pushing through the tutorials realise that they are discovering that they find it all fascinating, A-Train is so much more than a game. It’s a hobby unto itself. This is a game with so many permeations and complex strategic decisions to make (with so much data to back it up) that you can lose yourself within the thing, in its entirety, for months. The closest actual comparison point to A-Train is probably SEGA’s Football Manager series, in that it’s most certainly for people who see the work side of the game to be inherently interesting. We all know how committed some people become to the Football Manager series. A-Train’s the same deal.
It’s worth noting that while A-Train has a level of complexity that’s second to none, unlike Football Manager, there is nothing wrong with the presentation of the game. It’s simple, certainly. But it’s also charming and gorgeous, and has some features that are absolutely magnificent in drawing you deep into the work that you’re doing and your successes in doing so. At any point, anywhere on the map, you can zoom all the way down to an “on the ground” perspective… and remember that we’re talking about map sizes of many towns and cities being linked together here. You can freely walk around, watching the people wander about on their day, and you’ll even spot cute little details that help to give the space a sense of life. As you can see from the first-play stream I did a couple of days ago, coming across little carp flags fluttering in the wind was a delightful little touch. In addition to skipping around on foot, you can also ride any of your transport vehicles, and get a first-hand feel for how the stations are being used and how in-demand they are. Sometimes all the data in the world can’t compare to getting a direct on-the-ground feel of what is going on, and being able to do so comprehensively in such an aesthetically-pleasing way more than outweighs the relatively primitive presentation in terms of raw graphical detail.
Another tick in A-Train’s favour is that while it might have an incredibly dense learning curve, the tutorials do an incredible job of on-boarding players in such a way that they’ll learn all the concepts and features, without overwhelming them with too much complexity up-front. Other developers need to pay attention to this game’s tutorial system, because it’s second to none and it’s explaining far more challenging things than just about any tutorial that manages to get it wrong.
Finally, there’s a basic truth that if you can get on top of a complex game like A-Train, then watching the fruit of your work is all the more satisfying. Watching relatively modest towns eventually become metropolises of high-rises and busy streets means more when it took a thousand right decisions to get there than ten. We often talk about emergent storytelling; the idea that playing the game is the story, and narrative comes from the little “gaps” that you fill in for yourself from what you see and do in the game. A-Train’s developers understand this more than any, and your sense of ownership and accountability to the health of the little digital towns that rely on your transport network will be such that every highrise, every successful tourist trap, and every defeated rival forms part of a rich narrative tapestry. To compare to Football Manager again; just as taking a semi-pro team all the way to the top of the EPL is a story you won’t soon forget, so too will be that time that you successfully built a station that services more people and with greater complexity than Tokyo Station itself.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb