I am not, nor have I ever been, John Henry. The closest I come to being a “natural hammerin’ man” is when I still shovel my driveway by hand. But I’ve been fascinated by his legend since I first learned about him from that old LP in my mom’s record collection.
Unrailed! lets me become a virtual John Henry. It’s a multiplayer-focused arcade game about building a rail line a few blocks at a time. It’s also about the futility of trying to do so. Whether you’re playing alone or in local or online co-op, you’re eventually going to fail, and the train is going to crash. The question is how far you get before the train crashes for lack of track.
You start off with a procedurally generated world full of trees, rocks, lakes, and…yetis? Maybe. I was too worried about the route and the supplies to focus on whatever that was lurking in the snow. You’re given a hammer, a pick, and a bucket, and you need to use them to acquire lumber and ore to create track. If you have the ax, you simply need to stand near a tree to chop it down. Same with the pick; stand near some boulders and you get your ore. You then have to carry them back to the train to generate the track, which you then place in front of the train.
The problem is that the train moves by itself, so you obviously have to stay ahead of it. Managing your excavation and building provides the bulk of the gameplay, but there’s plenty to consider. Chopping down trees to clear a path through a forest can take a long time, especially when you also need to get the ore necessary to build the track. You can opt to move around the forest, but that requires a lot more resources.
If you do decide to go through, you’ll need to chop down room on either side of the track to make sure you can move alongside the train. Otherwise, you’ll be unable to supply the train as necessary or put out the inevitable fires. Your train is not very well built, it seems, and occasionally bursts into flames. If you don’t use the water bucket to put out the fires, the train will be destroyed and your game is over.
What’s amazing about all of this is just how intense the gameplay gets despite the slow pace of the train. It moves at a crawl, but it sure doesn’t feel like that when you’re running low on resources or are being blocked by camels, penguins, or even your playing partners. Getting the right items to where they need to be becomes a hilarious lesson in futility. I can’t recall having so much fun with frustration.
Unrailed! comes with numerous options to help you deal with the frustration. Varying difficulty modes allow you to play for quite some time before things get too frantic. You’re also able to play with checkpoints that make it easier to progress (or revert back to when you fail). And although the point of the game is to get as far as you can in one sitting, you’re able to save progress if you have to quit playing. That save point is erased once you restore, but you can create another as you move your way towards…well, let’s just say Unrailed! takes you places that most train lines won’t.
You’re able to improve your train as you progress—store more materials, add various cars to help you hold more water or pass through obstacles, pause the train’s movement for a few moments, etc. With procedurally generated levels, you’ll never know exactly which upgrade you need. Changing weather patterns (snow slows you down) and day/night mechanics (you can only see the immediate area at night) will also affect gameplay. It’s this uncertainty and the need to work with what you have that makes Unrailed! such a joy to play.
Also, the blocky graphics fit the action well. The levels just look like the kind of thing where you’d need to mine and chop materials, and color is used appropriately to help you identify what tool to take where. The music, on the other hand, feels somewhat generic. It’s fine, fading nicely into the background, but isn’t what we’ve come to expect from games with a railroad theme. I suppose some may see that as a benefit.
All of this comes together to create a game that’s a real joy to play, especially in co-op. Whether you’re more in line with John Henry or the steam drill (or even Frankenstein’s monster, if that’s what you pick as your avatar), you’re going to have fun with Unrailed.