Unrailed! is an exciting co-op game where the only goal is to keep a moving train from crashing and burning. After a full year in Early Access, the game is finally seeing its big debut — and it couldn’t be more of a delight to play.
Unrailed! does a superb job marrying utterly simple gameplay with stressfully high stakes. As you move across an endless number of procedurally generated maps, you must build tracks in front of a train that never stops crawling forward in order to get it safely to the next station. You’ll spend your time chopping trees and mining iron around the map to construct tracks and clear pathways for the train to move through, in addition to lugging around a water bucket used to put out fires when your engine overheats. Though there are only a few tasks to carry out, there is a great deal of finesse and teamwork needed to develop your railroad successfully.
I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
If you’re playing with friends, you’ll likely use only two buttons: One to dash, and one to pick items up. The minimal controls are truly easy enough for anyone to pick up, though the game itself is far from being easy. Certain mechanics are designed to send you up the creek without a paddle fast, which is the real bread and butter of Unrailed!’s hilarious and rousing multiplayer mode. Obstacles on the map can trap your characters on either side of the train if you don’t destroy them or calculate a workaround ahead of time, rendering you helpless as your locomotive moves towards peril. The train also picks up speed each time you reach a new station, and this creeps up on you subtly. You’ll cruise smoothly for quite a while with good teamwork, but before you can even realize it you’ll be sweating to keep the tracks going down fast enough.
In between the rounds that begin with every new station, you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade or purchase new cars for your train. You can buy upgrades that allow you to do things such as craft tracks more quickly or convert one resource into another, and purchases can be made with bolts found on the map or collected from completing in-game challenges. The upgrades are certainly helpful, and fortunately, they never manage to cheapen the difficulty of the game. No matter how you swing it, the train will always get faster, and the stakes will always get higher.
There is one caveat to this — sort of. With four bolts in the bank, you can buy yourself an upgraded train engine that will slow things down a little bit. However, purchasing a new engine advances you to the next biome and presents you with all new challenges. For instance, the desert biome overheats your train more frequently, and the arctic biome causes your character to move at a painfully slow pace. Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get worse than having to put out fires on your train every thirty seconds, you’ll be thrown into a frozen hellscape and forced to trudge through the tundra.
Best Enjoyed with Others
Unrailed!’s voxel art style upholds the game’s simplicity, with no real details scattered around the map to catch the eye. Though the maps themselves are painted in bright colors, the objects you pick up are small and lack vibrancy, making them pretty hard to spot a lot of the time. It’s easy to lose sight of the wood axe, pickaxe and bucket, especially when these tools are camouflaged between gratuitously mined resources still waiting to be picked up off the ground. Even picking up resources can be a challenge — more than half the time, you’ll pick up wood when you meant to grab iron, and vice versa. It’s hard to tell if this design choice was intentional or just a result of the map’s scale, but either way, it adds a minor layer of difficulty that adds stress to the game’s urgent nature.
The game is definitely best played with others either locally or online, but there is a single player mode that pairs the player with a bot. The controller’s bumpers have emoji wheels that allow you to command the bot to do things such as transport resources, fill water or mow down trees or rocks. These same emojis can be used in co-op mode, though they serve only a novel function if used offline. Taking the extra seconds to cycle through the emoji wheels and dish out orders can take some getting used to at first, but once you get the hang of it, the bot is actually a fairly efficient partner.
For co-op play, there is a Sandbox, a Versus, and an Endless mode that supports up to four players. Sandbox mode opens up all the train upgrades you’ve ever purchased in the game so far, and it’s good for practicing which different railcar combos work best in which biome. I’m not sure there’s a draw to the Sandbox mode other than for practice, as there isn’t a creative aspect or anything to do aside from playing the game as normal. Versus mode splits the screen into two different views of the same map, and two teams compete to get their train to the finish line as fast as possible. I enjoyed this mode when playing with four people, but unfortunately, it’s much more of a sprint than a marathon. The game ends and declares a winner after only one station is reached, rather than continuing on to see who can last longer without crashing. I wish Versus mode offered an option to compete within the parameters of the game’s Endless mode, as the basic race can get repetitive after only a couple of rounds.
An Essential Couch Co-op Game
Repetition as a whole may be a concern for some people, but I find Unrailed! to be an excellent party game despite its simplicity. There may not be a story, a large selection of railcar upgrades or even much complexity and depth to the gameplay, but there doesn’t need to be. It’s a little barebones, but it’s also a game so approachable your grandparents could pick it up and play with you. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that, though, as this game is guaranteed to test the strength of all your relationships. It deceptively requires a great deal of quick decision-making, communication, organization and even an elementary level of strategy at times, and it can certainly be stressful when the heat turns up. Friendships may be severed in the process, but this game has exciting cooperative gameplay, simple mechanics, and a great deal of replay value if you introduce it to different circles. Unrailed! is essential to absolutely anyone who loves arcade couch co-op games, and I will undoubtedly be playing this for years to come. All that’s left now is for you to grab a friend and go. How long can you hang on?
***PC code was provided by the publisher***
- Basic yet challenging
- Exciting co-op gameplay
- Controls are easy to pick up
- Limited versus play
- Not much complexity