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Paper Train

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: IsTom Games
Developer: IsTom Games
Release Date: Sept. 26, 2019

About Joseph Doyle

Joe has been known to have two hands with which to both play games and write reviews. When his hands are not doing those, he will put books, musical instruments, and other fun things in them.


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Switch Review - 'Paper Train'

by Joseph Doyle on Dec. 11, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Step into the shoes of a conductor to control railway traffic. Halt and speed up your engines without causing them to crash. Get them through rocky canyons, amusement parks, spacecraft crash sites, holiday resorts, and other exotic locations.

The printing press, the internet, that app that allows you to read faster by putting one word on the screen at a time, among other things, are all things that have both sped up the proliferation of information and summarily made our world smaller and given us access to things we'd never have had otherwise. One of the most important innovations in this line of thinking in the United States was the locomotive and the Transcontinental Railroad, cementing the unity of the U.S. (messy as it was) and the ability to access the majority of the country feasibly. Paper Train embraces this American ingenuity and product of the Industrial Revolution, challenging the player to maintain the system by stopping, starting and diverting trains so they don't crash into one another. While the intent of Paper Train was certainly made to be simple and punchy, it unfortunately falls to its brazen simplicity and lack of variety.

As far as complexity goes, Paper Train is as straightforward as a puzzle game can be. You view the railyard from a top-down angle, and you're trying to stop, start, and/or divert the trains to have them all leave the screen without crashing into each other. The added difficulty is the scoring system, which is based on how quickly you can get all the trains off the screen, ranging from one to three stars, scoring similar to many iPhone games such as Cut the Rope and Dr. Mario World. Achieving three stars is done by pressing one of the shoulder buttons to speed up the game, thereby testing the player's reaction time with a reward of a perfect score if they can keep up. The actual gameplay involves tapping the buttons that correspond to each stop/start/track change point, indicated by little squares on the screen. The most notable thing is the convenience of using the Switch's touch-screen instead of the buttons.

The puzzle aspect of Paper Train is passable. The player can get pretty harried by the vigilance needed to direct the trains properly, but the gimmick gets pretty old pretty quickly. Sure, the different levels offer different track shapes and stop/start/track change points for the trains, but you don't feel like there's enough variation to keep the game fresh and interesting. While the intention behind this game is obviously to pass the time, it doesn't feel like it delivers on that front. It's functional and forces the player to think on their toes, but the monotony of the puzzles and gameplay is overwhelming.

The graphics of Paper Train are the strongest part of the game with a bullet… train. The entirety of the experience, from the title screen to the level select map and the levels themselves, evokes pencil-drawn schematics. The only two colors used (other than the UI buttons) are gray-blue and white, with everything set against grid paper, and the entire game is crosshatched. The best comparison would be with the children's book "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" meets architecture school. This design choice supports the gameplay, since the player is the guiding force behind the planning of the train paths, stopping, and starting, and even viewing the game from an omniscient, bird's-eye view of a 2D map of intersecting train tracks.

While the levels are largely homogenous in terms of look and feel, there are attempts to give each a feel of its own, including wind turbines, planes flying overhead, and more. While these attempts are largely ineffective, they're still fun and show that the developers attempted to instill variety in the levels. Overall, the effort put into the aesthetics is laudable, with the finished product being an extension upon the puzzle/omniscient planner aspects that the gameplay employs, although it sometimes feels a tad one-dimensional.

If you thought the levels in Paper Train were repetitive, you haven't heard the music. Electric organs croon sporadic chords and lines over a rattling standup bass and an 808 that chugs out soft beats, accompanied by heavily echoing woodblock accent beats. You hear one loop of the same song over and over again … for the entire game. I'll cut this short — it's not pleasant. The song does not have the universal appeal of the Wii Shop music. The lack of variety is unfortunately endemic to the rest of the game, what with the repetitive nature of the levels and one-sided nature of the graphics. It also doesn't match the feel of the game; the smooth music doesn't clash but also doesn't support the puzzle aspects of the title. While the piece would perhaps make for good menu music, to hear it for the entirety of the game seems short-sighted, and the developers could have been more intentional with some other tracks.

At the end of the day, Paper Train comes off as pretty flat. Sure, the game can get pretty hectic and pose a challenge, especially if you boost your way through each level to achieve three stars, but it's largely monotonous in difficulty, music, and play style. The art is cool and meshes with the gameplay and genre, but that isn't enough to save the game from being unengaging. The strongest feeling that one gets while playing this title is, "Why is this on the Switch?" Further, the fact that this game retails at $10 is pretty frustrating, especially when thinking about games for the iPhone that are cheaper and more appealing (hats off to you, Monument Valley). While I see the importance of having simple games on the Switch to pass the time on the subway, waiting at the doctor's office, etc., there are many other games that sate this desire. The overwhelming simplicity of Paper Train's design and its lack of follow-through is disappointing, causing the player's experience to grind to a halt out of the gate.

Score: 5.0/10

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