Unrailed! is a cute-looking action-strategy/resource management game for 1-4 players co-op or versus via same-screen play or Xbox Live. Sounds great doesn't it? Unfortunately there's nothing cute about its difficulty curve. The aim is to source materials (wood & iron), make train tracks and lay them in such a way as to guide your little train to the next station – sounds easy huh?
Visually Unrailed! is basic, colourful but pleasing to the eye. You can choose from a selection of teeny-weeny LEGO-like characters to play as, the scenery is easy to understand (trees to get wood from, rocks to mine iron from and areas of water to get… Ahhh you guessed it!) and there are some basic additional effects such as mist, rain, night-time and snow which look kinda awful, restrict your view and movement and are just there to distract, hinder and annoy you. Talking of annoying things, the info panel in the top left of the screen provides useful information but obscures the players' view too darned often. They really should have made it transparent, or at least given you the option of changing its opacity or position.
One thing that won't annoy you are the various tunes (each level has its own) which are catchy as hell, and I guarantee you'll find yourself humming / whistling them.
At the start of the game the basic train has the engine, a water wagon, a wagon in which you deposit the wood and iron and a manufacturing wagon from which you collect the finished sections of rail to lay in front of the train.
The game adds a huge amount of customisability by making various additional wagons available which will add perks such as; extended capacity, upgraded crafting (faster manufacture of track sections), auto processing of any nearby commodities, dynamite manufacturing (our favourite), the ability to pause the train, efficiency boosters for both nearby wagons and players, a wagon that shows the way, one that lights up the night, and thoughtfully even a "ghost" wagon that allows you to pass through the train from one side to the other (very handy in tight areas.)
Basically, you name it, there are wagons to aid your progress, and the advanced engines that pull the train actually go slower when you upgrade - yes, upgrading your locomotive in Unrailed! means it goes slower! All these upgrades and extra vehicles cost bolts, which are earned by completing levels and also can be found tucked away in a level - but naturally you're going to have to hack through trees or rocks or build a trestle bridge to get to them - nothing really comes easy in Unrailed!
Unrailed! would appear to have been designed to be played with a mouse & keyboard from the start, and nothing about it makes me feel that it's been optimised for play with a joypad controller. This is key when simple tasks that can be done in a flash with a mouse take several seconds to clunkily do with an Xbox One pad.
It soon becomes apparent that although when playing solo you get given a very efficient robot to help you, he'll only do whatever you tell him to via a control wheel mapped to the Left Trigger, but nothing much else, so you need to keep an eye on him in case he gets stuck or leaves your axe or pickaxe behind. He will also plonk things down smack-bang in the way and grumble if you bump into him when dashing to save the train – it's a lot like having kids. It really feels like the game is designed to be played by 3 or 4 human players, who will need to be working in perfect harmony to get beyond the first few levels. This was confirmed the first time I actually managed to get a game going with 2 other players, as they seemed to know what they were doing and we had a lot of fun until one had to leave… A game that was fun and going well with three soon becomes an impossible, stressful task for two.
Unrailed! has a replay mode, so you can see where things went wrong, and right. You fast-forward through uninteresting bits and it even shows you constructing your train – and undoubtedly choosing the wrong wagon - if you're anything like me.
I was absolutely flabberghasted to see that save games can only be loaded once! This means you get to a point, save the game and if you continue from that game it's immediately deleted, so you get one try at each station checkpoint and when you fail (and you will - frequently) it's most likely that you're heading back to the very start. Some might call this 'hardcore gaming,' I'd call it downright miserly, and seems extremely mean on the part of the designers considering the overall difficulty level as a solo player. I can't help feeling that it's more likely to make people quit in frustration than persevere.
Okay so if you've got this far and are wondering why I don't just stop whingeing about the difficulty and play multiplayer, well Unrailed! online players seem to be marginally rarer than rocking horse poop. Other than the one single occasion I found 2 other people to play with (both reviewers) I've never managed to get anyone to join an open lobby, and I've left the game sitting there for hours on end at various times of the day. I even started an Xbox One Unrailed! Club (the UNRAILED Survivors Club) but no one has joined yet, so if you do happen to buy Unrailed! please join up because I really love the game but seem to have hit a wall that I can't get beyond playing solo. (Note: all are welcome, microphone optional because you can communicate via the emote icons selectable via the triggers on a wheel system, although this obviously isn't as good as voice communication.)
Unrailed! can be a LOT of fun, but as a solo game it just gets too hard far too soon. The game is much better with two players but again gets too hard a bit too soon. It comes alive with three or four players, and produces regular moments of panic, frustration and laugh-out-loud hilarity in equal measures. "So play it with 4 players then" I hear you say, but sadly, unless you're lucky enough to have a family full of gamers and 4 controllers I'm not sure where you're going to find them. One thing's for sure, Unrailed! is one of those games that attracts plenty of helpful advice from 'backseat gamers'… Party games are great, but thanks to a certain virus the world isn't in a party mood right now, but gamers the world over are, and as I said previously, it's odd that Unrailed! has yet to be discovered - on Xbox Live at least.
It's a shame that Unrailed! is just too hard as a solo game, because I could imagine a game this addictive lasting for years if it had enough content. The simple graphics (and trust me this game really is all about the gameplay, it's co-op gaming at its finest) and level layout lend themselves to a construction mode, which could supply fans with endless user-created landscapes. Sadly few will ever see beyond the first few levels, and discard Unrailed! long before the end of the line.
Special thanks to Mark at Renaissance PR for the review code.