The revival of quirky, themed simulators has been wonderful. From the two Two Point titles, to the Jurassic Park builders, and several theme park sims, sim fans have been spoiled for choice in recent years. Bandai Namco has now found an opportunity to play in the space for itself with Park Beyond. Having had some time with it, I reckon it has the potential to carve out a niche for itself.
It has its work cut out for it, though. Planet Coaster is a very well-loved and firmly established property at this stage, and Rollercoaster Tycoon is still readily available (and very playable) for people that are a little more nostalgic. Park Beyond will have to overcome a significant incumbency advantage held by the others, and that will require people to get past their first impressions of the game.
Those first impressions make it all seem very by the book. The focus of the game is on building thrilling rollercoasters, and the park management and selection of other rides, stalls and attractions seem like little more than a sideshow experience. That is exactly how the other theme park builders present themselves too. However, right from the start it does show that a lot of thought has gone into this experience. Though you’re limited in the kinds of rollercoasters you can build at first (it seems like there will eventually be a dizzying array of options though), the interface and toolset are some of the easiest I’ve grappled with. Usually, I just throw together basic rollercoasters because I like the park management side of things and it rarely matters how creative you’ve been with coaster design. You’ll get passengers and plenty of ride revenue as long as the ride achieves a checklist of exiting dips, troughs, and exciting turns. However, with Park Beyond I really did have fun coming up with twisting labyrinths of excitement. The toolset just makes it too easy and fun to waste on creating boring rides.
The other thing that will help Park Beyond stand out is the story mode. This has a genuine narrative with cut scenes and everything. Almost every other simulation I can recall playing might have a story or “career” mode, but that doesn’t extend far past some text pop-ups and a voice-over. Park Beyond goes well beyond that (that pun was too easy), and has characters and some light drama to go with the levels. You’ll learn how to play the game AND enjoy a story of sorts. You couldn’t ask for more, right?
Well, you could. While I haven’t completed this story mode yet (not by any means – this article is very much a first impressions preview), I could have done with it being slightly less in-your-face Zoomer in tone and delivery. I know that Zoomers are the predominant market target now, but surely Forspoken taught developers lessons about going too all-in with this approach to storytelling. Not that Park Beyond is anywhere near as aggravating as Forspoken, but I really struggle with this kind of story delivery and while I appreciated its presence, I could have done with less of its energy.
That story mode works as an enjoyable and accessible tutorial, though, easing you into all of the game’s many systems in a straightforward and well-paced way. Never fear, though, you can also leap into sandbox mode if you are a genre veteran, and the developers have not neglected this all-important side of simulations by any means. There you’ll find 27 maps available out of the box (or, at least, they are for this build), spread across several different settings and locations. That’s an impressive number and will surely lend plenty of longevity even once the story mode is done and dusted.
Unfortunately, it is too early for me to tell if the game’s particularly well-balanced. I do find that sim games can get a little too wrapped up in being creative and fun, but make it functionally impossible to actually lose. This is a difficult line to walk, as you want people to enjoy themselves, but if there is no risk of making bad business decisions, the game will fail as a simulation by default. The Two Point games are like that. I love them for what they are, and will often turn to them when I’ve had a long week and just want to chill. However, the simulators that I tend to really remember are the ones where I feel like I’ve succeeded as an entrepreneur. On early impressions, I think Park Beyond might hit a nice balance here, since it does seem like you can end up with your park going decrepit from a lack of money, but I also haven’t actually had a park fail on me yet. We’ll see how I go with more testing as I give the higher difficulties in the sandbox mode a go.
One final thing that I did note from my limited time with the game so far is just how much fun it is to ride the rides. This is an essential quality for any park builder, but Park Beyond is particularly joyful to do so, thanks to its lovely art style. You also get a real sense of excitement and speed from the faster rides in particular. Unfortunately, jumping on the ride also presents the only real bug I’ve experienced so far too – a regular park patron will also grab the seat on the ride that you’re on, meaning you then spend the entire ride watching them clip into and out of the screen. Devs, if you’re reading this, please patch it so that no one occupies the same ride seat that you are. It sounds like a minor thing, but the rides would be even more entertaining without this bug.
So far, Park Beyond is as whimsical as a theme park simulator should be. It is filled with character, colour and charm. It does have an uphill battle ahead of it to distinguish itself from the very fine competition that it faces in this particular niche, but I also think it’s got enough of its own going for it that it will do just that.
For people that are interested, Bandai Namco is running a closed Beta Test will be held from May 9th to 19th on PC. If you are interested, you can register here.