While I waited the brief few moments for Train Valley’s 442MB download to complete, I’ll have to admit my expectations weren’t exactly sky-high. I’d already done some digging and seen plenty of people complaining it wasn’t a tycoon game. In fairness, other than featuring trains it never looked like one to begin with. All I had to go on was a twee little game about overseeing trains on tracks.
Which, to be fair, is precisely what it is. It’s great though. What we’ve got here is a pure puzzle game, merely using the train ‘tycoon’ theme as a trapping for time management. Each level starts off much the same as another, typically with two train stations separated from each on a map. Your job is to lay the tracks connecting them by just dragging and dropping the track pieces, managing the network and basically making sure things don't go boom.
Periodically you’ll hear a choo-choo and a train is ready to leave a station. You can then click on it to send it out, whereby it gradually builds a head of steam on its journey. Once it gets to the end you’re given a stack of cash which decreases depending on the length of time the journey takes. Using that cash you can lay down more track pieces, which you’re going to need to do because more train stations keep popping up. At the end of each year you're also hit with a tax bill so bankruptcy is also a very real prospect. You'll be managing basic finances as well as track layouts. Certain map tiles are more expensive to build on than others as well, so you'll need a fortune if you want to build through Stonehenge.
Soon enough you’re managing quite a few trains simultaneously, frantically changing junctions and laying down additional tracks. The problems also become layered as certain train combinations roll out. For instance a train could leave the blue station bound for the red station, while a train bound for the blue station could also need sending from the red. This involves constructing some impressive train networks to keep things ticking along smoothly, avoiding the collisions which can become an all too familiar part of the gameplay.
Get everything perfect and it all just slots into place. Before you know it feel like the Fat Controller dosed up on Pentazemin, entering this zen-like state of traffic control. Train Valley can be an extremely tricky game, but if your layout is efficient it becomes far, far easier to manage. Casually linking two stations without much thought is a recipe for disaster.
One disappointing aspect of Train Valley is the element of randomness with which train stations can appear. In some ways this is more dynamic, but it can be infuriating for a train station to crop up right in the middle of a well placed track. If you’re not keeping an eye out this can be devastating for the trains out on the track, particularly you’re focusing on a different area of the map.
Much of Train Valley’s fine balance comes from the ability to pause it. Without this it would be a panic-inducing mess. The catch is that you’ve got to set everything into motion at some point, but it gives you breathing room to fine-tune your signals. It won’t take long for your ears to prick at the ding-ding of a train ready to leave. Quickly hammering pause you can scope out where it is, where it needs to go to, and whether you’re ready for it depart yet. You can hold off on trains departing for a little while, but after waiting too long they will eventually be forced to leave, so there’s pressure there to trains out as quickly as possible.
Over the course of the four chapter campaign, each consisting of six levels, you make your way on a journey through time, from Europe in the 1830s all the way up to Japanese bullet trains in the 21st century. This lends a nice visual flourish as you progress but it also means the development of faster trains, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Overall I’d have to say Train Valley is one of the more enjoyable puzzle games in recent years, combining logical thought with time management, all at a pseudo-relaxing pace. There’s faults sure, and I did fail with alarming regularity, but each of these failures came with the caveat of learning a bit more about the level. There’s certainly a question mark to be raised over the more random elements, such as where train stations pop up, or bridges and tunnels appear. These aren’t things that can be accounted for and it sometimes feels a little unfair on the player, but you did eventually learn to expect and even predict where these changes will happen. For the £7 price of entry, and looking at easily 15 hours of gameplay, puzzle fans can't go wrong.