Bounty Train Review: Early American Elitism
Release Date: May 16, 2017
Developer: Corbie Games
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Platforms: PC, Mac
Bounty Train is a curious game. It's a sandbox trading sim/adventure game/railway enthusiast entertainment piece that, while the positions are static and the routes are fixed, still manages to give the player a great deal of movement. It's a genre bending game with multiple story routes and an excellent way to generate micronarratives as you go. It's also one of the few games where you can lose during the tutorial levels, thus causing the game to shrug and go "Well, the game's over, but here, keep playing after the game over screen." But unlike other genre-bending sandbox sims, Bounty Train keeps a focus on fixed points instead of free exploration of the map, allowing the player to focus on things like the complex economy, resource management, and the interplay between various factions and characters, opening up in a way few games of its type do, and creating an entirely unique experience.
Bounty Train's story begins sometime during the Civil War with you and a busted-up locomotive with a cargo compartment. In order to get the majority shares of your father's railroad company and keep the business in the family, you must gather up your siblings, upgrade your train, and slowly expand your rail lines across the United States in an effort to achieve rail dominance and fulfill your father's dream of a transcontinental railroad. Along the way, you will tangle with bandits, get caught up in the Civil War, trade with natives, and engage with numerous dreamers, schemers, con men, and ne'er do wells along the great iron rails. But, lest that sound too sparse, you can also hire a team of hardened gunmen yourself and go after bounties, aid bandits, or smuggle contraband across the United States if you so wish, allowing a remarkable freedom in your quest to fulfill your father's legacy.
It's actually kind of relaxing at times. Travel is as simple as clicking on the assigned city, figuring how much coal it will take to get there and how much weight you can take with you, then hitting "travel" when you've worked out your route. Along the way, you might run into random events, but most of the time they're very well-defined on the map and you can route around them if you just want to focus on the other aspects. The other cool thing about this is that the events usually follow on storylines from previous events, so you get the sense that you're interacting with a living world. It's a pretty intriguing world, too, with people trying to involve you in get rich quick schemes and various conflicts all over the place, or telling you their life story before joining up with you.
In fact, a lot goes into the dialogue. Even the NPCs feel like full characters with backstories and personalities, from the person you have to run from New York up to Portland, all the way to the young woman with an abhorrent bandit admirer who gets angry when he's told "no" one too many times. The dialogue also allows a tremendous amount of branching in terms of paths, with multiple methods of completing the main quests, and even some of the sidequests depending on how you react to certain characters. Between this and the extensive quest lines and numerous trips back and forth to the various cities, it does a lot to make the player feel invested in the world.
Adding to the concrete details are both the variety of train components-- all based on real historical locomotives-- and the in-depth but surprisingly easy to understand economy that charts prices not just on supply and demand, but on the political climate, as the ensuing revolution causes various things to become contraband and prices to spike and fall based on the needs of the various cities. It helps root the game in a sense of history and place, and that accuracy helps sell the realism of the world, even if things are a little more simplified for the sake of gameplay.
But there are definite problems that need to be addressed. Combat is a kind of scattershot slog, a real-time with pause battlefield where you defend the train from a variety of threats by positioning your people so their field-of-vision cone reaches the enemies and then hoping for the best, occasionally hitting active skills or repairing the train as need be. However, the lack of movement range within the train means that positioning becomes more or less a static thing, as there are only so many optimal positions that exist. The other issue with this is that there's very little range in terms of combat, with a handful of options at most at any given time, the best of which seem to be basic ranged and hand to hand. The other issue is that eventually, when the train becomes overwhelmed in the early stages of the game (before you can upgrade to something a little better) you have to choose between letting your train get overrun by enemies or the train moving forward, making fleeing from the combats an unusually dangerous proposition as opposed to trying to fight.
The difficulty spikes in combat also highlight how grindy the game can get. After the initial tutorial stages, unlocking new routes and upgrading your train can take a lot of swanning up and down the East Coast trading and ferrying people, with quests and assignments not necessarily carrying the load. Highlighting this is the way that, if you aren't careful, there are a few ways to lose in the early stages of the tutorial, from getting stranded in a city with no money to getting killed on the way through a story mission meant to teach you the game, to simple bad luck in an introductory combat. It's frustrating to have to either restart the tutorial again and again or to throw up your hands and play the game in sandbox mode.
But these issues do little to detract from the true meat of the game, that being a fun trading/adventure hybrid. While the grind may get a little difficult to deal with at times, the result is still a fascinating experience, a free-wheeling trading adventure through early America that offers a decent challenge and easier controls than most trading sims, but with a learning curve that takes a bit to get used to. All in all, though, it's an excellent game.
- Trading game with relatively easy interface
- Incredible depth and complexity
- Great writing
- Can generate stories easily
- Can get grindy at the beginning of the game
- Combat kind of kills the game's pacing and rhythm