|August 25, 2015
Do you like old trains? Fan of gritty Westerns? How about United States history? All these things set the stage for a very challenging simulator and strategy game in Bounty Train.
The story of Bounty Train follows Walter Reed, whose father was co-owner of one of the biggest railroad companies in America. In 1861, Walter’s father dies, leaving his partner in charge of the construction–and set to build a long route all over Native American lands. In order to get his inheritance, Walter has to stop that from happening. Luckily, he and his four siblings each have an 11% share in the company, adding up to a majority. All he has to do is find them and convince them to join his cause… but that’s not as easy as it sounds.
To get around the United States (and, soon enough, the Confederate States), Walter has access to a small train. It’s slow, can only carry a little cargo, and has room for Walter, two crew members and a single passenger. Depending on the random roll, the starting cash you get, plus the fee you can take for accepting a passenger, is often just enough to hire those two crew members and get some very cheap cargo to take on your first trip. From there, you’ll buy the license to your very first stretch of rail line, and be on your way.
Hopefully your crew is strong, because the first time you leave, the game will take the opportunity to introduce you to combat. What happens is that bandits will interrupt you on your route. If you don’t pay their fee (usually a ridiculous amount), you’ll enter a battle. You can direct your crew members, and even any passengers, to stand in different cars and to shoot at specific enemies as they chase you, or you can let them do their own thing. Crew members generally have a specialty, and you can click to activate their special ability for a few seconds, but these have very long cooldowns.
However, you do need at least one character to shovel coal if you want the train to keep moving. If you have a crew member up there, you can also control the train to some extent. It has a main throttle with a special boost valve that you can use on occasion, as well as an emergency brake. It’s generally good to move fast and try to get away from enemies rather than try to kill off every single one, but if you go too fast you can damage your train, especially on turns. Also, you can blow the whistle, which scares enemy horses and throws them off for a couple of seconds.
Besides keeping your characters and train alive, since both are expensive to heal, you also often have to protect your cargo. This isn’t a problem with, say, steel, but there are a lot of flammable cargo items like oil, cotton and tobacco. Weapons are the worst because they can cause a massive explosion, but they’re also one of the most profitable items. Every city has different buy and sell prices for each cargo item, so it’s worth analyzing your prospects any time you start a journey. You pretty much have to make a profit all the time, since even if you don’t get attacked, the coal to move from city to city is a constant cost.
It’s a good thing buying and selling cargo isn’t the only way to make money, because it’s not that profitable. Taking passengers can help, but the real money is in requests from each city. When you go to city hall, you’ll usually find several requests, either to take specific items to other cities or to go out and bring things back to the city you’re already in. These quests don’t give you the money until you’re done, and there’s a penalty if you don’t do them in a certain amount of time, so you do have to consider carefully whether they line up with where you’re going. Still, the cargo in these missions is free, and you’ll make several times more money doing them than anything else, so it’s more than worth it.
If you somehow manage to make all the right moves, keep from losing much in battle and conduct great business, you might be able to scrape up enough money to upgrade your train. There are of course more cars that can add to your cargo and passenger capacity, and each new car also adds to your crew size. But some are armored, or come with cannons or gatling guns. Plus, if you spend the big bucks, you can upgrade your engine. That will allow you to take a heavier load without being slowed down, or possibly even reduce the coal cost driving around.
One of the cool things about Bounty Train is the historical context. Shortly after you start, a news message will appear announcing that the first state has seceded from the Union. From that point on, certain cities will fly the Confederate flag, allowing you to gain and lose reputation with both sides. I haven’t really figured out what reputation is for, but it’s cool to see things like Abe Lincoln being elected and so on. As you might expect, some events, such as ports being closed, will cause big changes in item prices.
In case the things I said above didn’t make it clear, this game is really, really hard. Not just because making money is a slow crawl–with enough careful thought, you can eventually make a pretty sound plan–but also because of the combat. Quite often I found myself retrying the same battle five or six times just to get through, and I sometimes had to give up on saving my precious cargo despite knowing that I’d lose money on the trip because of it. Although the combat is one of the more exciting aspects of the game, I came to dread being attacked. It’s probably a bit of the realism of a simulator game, but I would have liked to see some lower difficulty levels.
It is, of course, perfectly possible that that will happen. Bounty Train is still in Early Access, and although it looks pretty polished all around, the developers appear to be ready to add a lot more. Hopefully they fix the strange bug where enemies that get hit by the train just slowly pass through it as it continues on down the line. Still, that was the only thing I noticed, and as far as Early Access games go, this game is pretty tidy. There is one thing that concerns me, though–it’s already $24.99 USD on Steam, and their answer to whether it’ll be priced differently before and after Early Access is simply “Yes.” Hopefully that doesn’t mean it’s going to be too expensive to succeed–I’d like to see this game live up to its potential.