"Best elevator pitch ever" was my response to a colleague's description of Bounty Train as 'Elite with steam trains' when we first heard about it. There's a game I want to play. Now, Daedelic's train management/trading/roleplaying/ gunfighting game has pulled up at the Early Access station. Keen to know if dreams can come true, I hitched a ride to hands-on impressions town.
In practice Bounty Train [official site] is closer to the shorter haul of FTL than Elite's grand sandbox opus, though clearly there's a great deal of shared DNA there. You're hauling cargo and passengers across a pre-civil war United States, fighting off bandits and trying to earn an honest buck which you then spend on train upgrades and new routes. As a train game, it doesn't go particularly deep. You can buy new or upgraded carriages, you need to have enough coal for your journeys, someone needs to be shovelling said coal into the engine if you want it to go anywhere, and someone needs to be repairing any damage. You get basic locomotive controls during bandit sections, plus a steam whistle to pull for the hell of it, but in this first public draft of the game there really ain't much to the train-driving side of things.
Primarily it's a trade simulator, with a loose quest structure that yields bigger rewards for goods cities have explicitly requested. Buy alcohol, oil or steel, ship it from Boston to Washington for a profit. Passengers on platforms may request passage to far-off towns too, though mysteriously a carriage can only carry one person, so you end up deciding whether to spend your earnings on more passenger carts or more cargo-carriers. The need for fuel, staff, repairs and health-recovery also cuts into profits, as does opening up routes to new cities. It's slower-paced and not quite so cruel, but you'll just about recognise the resource management bones of FTL or Out There underneath Bounty Train's 19th century skin.
The same's true of the real-time combat, which sees your train's crew fend of attackers with guns (or fists if they get close enough to board) while extinguishing fires and repairing damage. There's more focus on character classes and special abilities though: gunmen, grenadiers, mechanics, that sort of thing, although practice and upgrades can make them jack-of-all-trades. It's broad and simple rather than tactically complex, but you can hit Space at any point to give orders rather than frantically click about trying to set a guy on fast horseback as your target.
And... is it any good? Standard Early Access proviso first: it's nothing like finished, with a full release not planned until sometime next year, and everything is subject to change. But no, it's not very good. It lacks elegance and is cumbersome to manage, but it doesn't go deep enough into its chosen subject matter to justify any fiddliness on the simulation front. It's severely over-written too, reliant on long and characterless conversations which repeat dry, drab phrases many times over even within the space of a single game, and countlessly over the course of the many games you'll need to play to make significant progress. (This is a perma-death game, but also you can paint yourself into a corner by running out of cash. A combination of luck and learning sees you get progressively further: it's not anything like as brutal FTL, with success more dependent on careful use of resources than RNG, but there is some difficulty spiking in terms of the fights).
Fair enough, writing can be redone and irritations such as clicking through the same 20-odd screens of text every time you start a new game may well be made optional later on. Trouble is that combat in this initial release feels rickety and unsatisfying - these looping, tiny wars of hitpoint attrition rather than anything you particularly have to think your way through. Your crew lack personalities too, something that FTL found a way around with cuteness, appealing names and very visible skill improvement, but these guys are just expensive robots. The net result is I didn't care, other than that a bungled fight would affect my bottom line.
Margins, at least in the early game, are extremely tight: it's a huge deal to buy a new carriage, while buying, having space for and successfully exporting seven barrels of alcohol is major undertaking. This money-management, and how fights pervert it, is where the central tension comes from. That's OK, that might even be key. Long-term, a steam-powered trading empire is what I want, but right now it feels bitty and shallow, samey and only about gradual cash acquisition for gradual cash acquisition's sake.
I think the core issue is that it's not very exciting to own or be riding on a train. The train is barely a character in its own game, and instead wooden people and a handful of trading resources steal all the focus. I don't care about my train, it's just a graphic with a health bar that carries my stuff. It doesn't even play a role in most journeys, only appearing in the iron flesh if there's a bandit en route. You get an Indiana Jones dotted travel line otherwise, no choo-choo action whatosever.
So Bounty Train is really a trading game with increasingly irritating shooty-bang interruptions. I don't know what it can do to heighten the railroad fantasy, especially given that the rather sparse presentation suggests it mightn't have much budget to call on, but I think this, rather than stated plans to expand the number of cities from 15 to 24, is where it most needs to focus. You own a train! You drive it at high speeds while bandits on horseback try to board it! This should be thrilling! It isn't. It's just chugging from A to B to earn a pittance.
There are places it can go, I think. Adding a new carriage to my train feels very briefly meaningful, and I suspect I'd get a big kick out of buying a whole new engine (which requires some serious cash). I hope Bounty Train can play up that side of things more, with more carriage variety and a greater sense of loss if bandits manage to steal or destroy one. I want to be a TRAIN DRIVER, not a mere health-bar watcher and penny-counter. I don't think it's too late for Bounty Train, but priorities need to be reassessed if it's to have any hope of being a barnstormer. Lose the excess of lousy dialogue, make fights shorter and peppier, more dangerous and seat-of-the-pants rather than a clicky health point grind, make driving a train a central rather than peripheral part of proceedings.
There's a whole lot of track left to go, of course, and the devs claim much will be added in the months to come, including greater variety for its currently humdrum characters and cities. And, in Bounty Train's defence, it's launched in a far more complete-feeling state than many other Early Access titles do. It might feel a little drab, but it functions and it'll keep you busy for a while. I just hope the next months are spent on improvement as well as expansion.