When I was a lad (queue whimsical sentimental music) playing couch co-op/competitive videogames was part of daily life. I spent many hours laughing with or cursing at my friends playing classic games such as Speedball 2, Streets of Rage 2, Street Fighter 2 or Kick Off 2. I’ve just noticed there are a lot of sequels in that list, but that isn’t important right now. What is important is before the invention of the internet, playing games with another person in the same room was something you took for granted.
Fast forward to 2006 (even that seems like a lifetime ago) and the release of the Xbox 360 changed how I played games. Online gaming was a momentous occasion and changed everything forever! Yes, I’d played online games before like Phantasy Star Online on the Sega Dreamcast but being able to talk to someone with a fully integrated system like Xbox Live felt like something I’d never experienced before. Many years passed and now we take online gaming for granted, much like we took the couch experience for granted years ago.
Jump to today and developers seem to realise there was an opportunity to resurrect the golden days of sitting with your mate, whilst blending it with modern gaming. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Overcooked and Moving Out are all examples of cooperative gameplay designed to be enjoyed sitting next to a friend. Making a game like this is a bold move, because you are potentially cutting out a huge audience, but clearly the people making these games enjoy the experience of couch co-op as much as I do.
Why am I telling you this I hear you cry!? Well, playing Unrailed made me think of all the wonderful times I’ve played games sitting next to someone, as well as the pleasure/pain of playing some of the aforementioned games above. I’m not talking about THAT type of pleasure or pain before you wonder, but these games definitely have an element of fun and frustration, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
On the face of it, Unrailed is very simple. There is a train which has a starting point and you have to build a track to get it to the next station. Easy eh? Unrailed can be played with a friend or using an AI player to help you on your journey. There are a number of cute avatars to choose, so after selecting a gingerbread man, I was on my way.
The presentation of the game reminded me of a mixture of Minecraft and Crossy Road. The characters and environments are colourful with the blocky pixels looking very nice, especially as you overlook the world from an isometric viewpoint.
As soon as you start there are trees and rocks blocking your path to the next train station. There is a pickaxe to break rocks and a regular axe to chop down trees. These resources are used to build more train tracks and bridges to get across water. As you gather resources you load them onto the train so you can craft different items.
Whilst you and your partner are busy doing this, the train slowly starts to move at an almost agonising pace. What I mean by that is there is something about a slow-moving train about to run out of track or hit a tree which is more stressful than if it were hurtling towards it! Throw into the mix, the train gets hot and catches fire which means you have to get a bucket of water to douse the flames. Then add in bandits who steal your resources and throw them over a cliff when you aren’t looking and Unrailed can be quite a stressful experience. Plus, you and your partner can get in each other’s way which can cause some frustration. As I mentioned above, it is the fun/frustration couch gameplay which makes games like Overcooked and Unrailed quite unique. When you and your partner are in sync, you give each other a high five and move onto the next level. However, if one of you is off your game, then you inevitably end up shouting at each other and falling out. Forget about playing games on the couch, because you could end up sleeping on the couch if you say the wrong thing to your partner!
Playing with an AI character is easy enough, and you can order them to source new materials or build new tracks. However, to get the most out of the game, I would definitely recommend you play with a real person.
Each map in Unrailed is randomly generated and there are a few different modes to try.
Unrailed was a slow burn for me. I’ve mentioned that the pace isn’t lightning fast and admittedly I’m not the world’s biggest fan of puzzle games. Add to that the frustration I mentioned above, (which is by design rather than a fault of the game) and I wasn’t really enjoying Unrailed. However, much like the gameplay itself, slowly but surely, I started to get into the “one more go” feeling where I wanted to see how far I could get my train. Unrailed reminded me a bit of Lemmings on the Commodore Amiga. They have a similar graphical style, and you have to ensure the Lemmings/train get to its home before they die/crash. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then Unrailed will definitely provide you with some challenging fun.
Unrailed is available now for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One.
Review by Chris.