A-Train 3D: City Simulator Brings Micromanagement to New Levels

A-Train 3D: City Simulator Brings Micromanagement to New Levels

If 2013's SimCity didn't scratch your itch, this latest installment in ArtDink's long-running series just might... If you can handle its tremendous depth.

We're witnessing a bit of a revival thanks to Cities: Skylines, but really, the whole "management sim" genre has seen better days. (And no, we can't completely blame the recent SimCity misfire for this situation.)

That's why my ears perked up when I heard Natsume planned on localizing the latest from ArtDink's long-running A-Train series. Maxis published one of these games a few decades ago, back when the company grabbed titles similar to SimCity for release outside of their home territory—like Yoot Saito's SimTower—and really, anything with '90s Will Wright's approval at least merits a brief investigation.

Truthfully, I've always been curious about the series, if only because it's been able to thrive as a niche within a niche within a niche. A-Train isn't about simulating a city; it's about simulating a single element of a city—one that's completely wrapped up in Japan's commuter culture. And Natsume bringing this 3DS chapter over feels more like an act of goodwill than an attempt to rake in the cash—this is probably going to be one of the few articles you'll read about the game, simply because its non-Japanese appeal barely registers a blip on our industry's radar. (It also doesn't help that the mass transit systems in play here will be completely foreign to most Americans outside of those who live in the few places where train travel is viable.)

If you're unfamiliar with the series, A-Train enlists you as the CEO of a transportation company, and provides a number of scenarios in which certain goals must be met, like making a certain profit or laying down the requested amount of track in the time provided. Where SimCity nearly acts as a "god game" with how the player can terraform the land, set loose natural disasters, and destroy active buildings at will, your role in A-Train doesn't come with the same sense of empowerment. Essentially, you're running a business, and while the expansion of said business can influence its city's growth, everything comes at a cost. Since you're not the god-king mayor of the city, for instance, building anything on the standard tile of land means you'll first buy the land itself, and you'll often have to work around established buildings and settlements that aren't going anywhere—I guess eminent domain isn't really a thing in Japan?

A-Train's been extremely prolific over its 30-year life, and, coming to it as an outsider, I'm not really sure how different this version is from what came before. But if you told me this 3DS installment exists as a culmination of everything the series has offered to date, I'd definitely believe you; the sheer amount of ways you can tinker with the comings and goings of rail-bound cars isn't just surprising; it's staggering. And while developer ArtDink can safely assume most players already have some A-Train experience under their belts, this 3DS installment still includes an exhaustingly thorough tutorial that explains the full extent of your train management capabilities. I'd normally bristle at something like this, but here, it's absolutely necessary (and optional, to be fair). And if you want to simply learn how to play A-Train, you're in for a slightly long commitment; don't be surprised if you hit the fourth or fifth hour of instruction and discover there's even more options at your disposal.

One you learn the basics, A-Train plays out very much like 2003's SimCity 4, probably the most complex and demanding game from Maxis' series. While you'll be doing plenty of building and planning, the majority of the game involves making dozens of minor adjustments to maximize your profitability. If you can think up a way to alter an aspect of the mass transit process, believe me: A-Train makes it possible. Since each train and station lists its profits and losses, you can reduce the number of cars, change the schedule, and even shut down stations at peak hours to save money. And since you don't have a SimCity-style board of advisors nudging your efforts in any direction, A-Train often encourages sitting back and watching your trains zip along as you think up ways to make their duties more efficient. It's this more passive quality that makes A-Train incredibly relaxing, but if you'd rather move things along, you can speed up time and watch the hours pass by in seconds.

Laying down railways for your trains often makes for the most difficult, time-consuming task in A-Train, mostly due to the many complications involved. You not only have to work around established structures; you also have to keep future expansions in mind, especially when placing a second set of tracks alongside your first. In my game, I eventually ran out of space to keep these two tracks running parallel to each other, so I had no choice but to send one of them of in another direction, where it would eventually meet back up with the main line. Instead of screwing up my efficiency, this diversion allowed me to expand service to a formerly untouched part of the city, which opened my line up to a ton of new riders. And the trains moving around on your map don't amount to simple, canned animations: they obey a set of fairly realistic rules about where they can and can go, and when you're realing with multiple trains and crossing tracks, you'll also have to make sure there's no chance of collision.

Really though, this is just the tip of A-Train's iceberg. I haven't gone into the differences between commuter and freight trains, or the vital role shipping—and building various depots along the line—plays into making a profit. ArtDink knows the speciality audience they're catering to with A-Train, and the developer definitely has an interest in keeping this small-but-dedicated group happy. Honestly, A-Train isn't going to appeal to everyone; it's a dry, relaxed game focused on fastidious micromanagement, with graphics that don't look much better than SimCity 2000. But if you're willing to sink some time into it, you may find ArtDink's brand of management simulation strangely compelling.

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