Densha de GO! has always been as encouraging as it is exacting, and if anything this latest game in the series (also available on PlayStation 4) is even more so, making a real effort right from the start of its colourful intro to feel welcoming and accessible regardless of any feigned disinterest in the subject at hand. The game’s omnipresent mascot-assistant, Futaba, is inexhaustibly chirpy and the fresh colour scheme that compliments her cute illustrations and tireless “You’ve got this!” attitude all point to Densha de GO! Hashirou Yamanote Sen caring more about you being here and having a good time than it does about trains – and there is no game that cares more about trains than this one does.
This happy celebration of Densha de GO!’s two loves – its players and its trains – even manages to permeate the game’s loading screens: If you’re not being shown a brief snippet of information on one specific type of locomotive accompanied by a lovely image of the same during these brief lulls in the action then you’ll be looking at an easily digested bit of advice on a gameplay feature or even a full description of what a single button – even something as simple as the windscreen wipers – does. Every moment it can the game is making an effort to reach out, to show you something you might like or offering quick refreshers just to make sure you’re still feeling comfortable and confident in this environment.
And there really is a heck of a lot for you to do: You’ll need to keep track of the ever-changing speed limits and your current speed, make adjustments ahead of time for an upcoming change of speed limit, know when you’re supposed to sound your horn, when to dim your lights for the benefit of another train coming from the opposite direction, when to turn the wipers on or off, make sure you pull into the station smoothly (these are passenger trains after all – nobody wants to be thrown about after a hard day at work), pull into the station on time and then stop in exactly the right place – all of these tasks are tricky enough by themselves yet more often than not you’ll have to keep a multitude of incoming problems in mind all at once, making split-second decisions that more often than not will have a direct impact on the other split-second decisions arriving moments later. Let’s use speed limits as an example: They’re simple enough to understand – don’t go any faster than you’re currently allowed to – but what do you do when you see a change in that limit coming up? Are you going to maximise your speed now and run the risk of throwing passengers around with a sudden hard brake or even forcing the emergency ones to automatically kick in if you don’t get under the new limit in time, or are you going to brake slowly and smoothly, potentially making yourself avoidably late for the next stop if you misjudge the timing? On top of all of this you need to keep in mind that the train you’re currently driving isn’t a viewport with a few gauges at the bottom but several tonnes of high-speed metal pushed along a set route by a combination of engine power, inertia, and occasionally gravity – high-speed metal that might be travelling over wet or snowy tracks while stuffed full of tired commuters – and take that into consideration as well. Playing Densha de GO!’s a lot like juggling plates in a hurricane, and it’s so incredibly satisfying when you get it right – and the game knows you’ll get there. Find yourself staring at a ranking screen filled with abysmal Ds after plucking up the courage to attempt a more difficult track and only managing to make a real mess of it? Without hesitation the game labels your performance as “First time driver: First encounter”, as if this was nothing more than a stepping stone to the eventual driving mastery Densha de GO! is so sure is heading your way – and it’s going to cheer you on for as long as you want to try.
On a technical level the graphics are most honestly described as adequate, offering a visual experience that is neither especially remarkable for the host hardware nor harmfully deficient in any particular area. In portable mode your surroundings have a definite shimmer to them, with many fine details lost to a haze that isn’t as far off into the distance as you’d like it to be. It is noticeable when playing, but when displayed on a Switch’s 6.2 inch screen (or the even smaller Switch Lite) held at bent-arm’s distance the issue is diminished to little more than “a bit of a shame” rather than something you should actively avoid seeing, and in terms of raw playability the game feels no less responsive than it does when played docked, although even there you’ll still find Densha de GO! stuttering a little should you pull into a busy station packed with waiting passengers. There’s no doubt the PlayStation 4 version looks better but this Switch port is not so much worse that anyone with their heart set on some Nintendo-based train gaming should give up and go Sony. Besides, Nintendo’s console has a cute little gimmick up its sleeve: When playing in portable mode it’s possible to tap the screen to more directly acknowledge various notifications (all alternatively handled by a jab of the X button). It’s not especially practical to do so, but having a more tactile option is still a nice little detail to play around with.
Densha de GO!’s on far more solid ground once you accept its visual sufficiencies and start playing. There are two main modes to settle down with: Home and Arcade. Arcade is as straight-to-the-point as you’d expect, asking you to pick a course from a sizeable list split into groups by the length of their route (with handy icons letting you know the general level of challenge as well as the weather conditions and expected passenger numbers before setting off), then the difficulty, then set off on your journey. Helping you make these quick brushes with train driving as easily understood as possible are a whole host of visual markers for acceptable speeds and stopping distances, and special sections of the track (or the easily-missed workmen/train fans you pass along the way) that you should’ve sounded the horn for briefly glow green if done in time and red if you don’t, creating a clear and instant visual link between the exact place you needed to be aware of and what you needed to do as you got there. The light button also has a faint glow around it when it needs to be temporarily shut off for the sake on an incoming train driver’s eyeballs too, again making a potentially woolly measurement of skill easy to judge without outside assistance. On top of all that once you’re done you’re shown not only where you picked up your sparkly yellow stars for doing well but also when you can pick up even more next time around too. You never have to suffer the awful feeling of being told you could’ve done better but being left with no idea where you went wrong because the game is always keen on making that as clear as it can.
Home Mode offers a more obviously long-term challenge, with three ways to play: Driver’s Track, Daily Roulette, and Free Play. We’ll get the more straightforward two out of the way first: Daily Roulette is exactly what it says on the tin; completely randomised everything, resulting in a route that could be anything from dead easy to incredibly tough. It’s a great mode for those with a few spare minutes and a nonspecific train itch that needs scratching, and also the perfect constantly refreshed challenge for anyone able to exhaust the game’s formidable selection of hand-made content. Free Play is equally descriptive: Pick a train, pick a (compatible) route, adjust the time of day, weather, and passenger numbers to your liking, then off you go. There are no scores or grading in this mode, this is purely about driving a train of your choice wherever you like (within the established rules) just because you want to.
As the name suggests Driver’s Track is presented as a series of train routes, with each “stop” a playable challenge set over a specific segment of track in a specific train, earning unlockable bonuses along the way (these challenges are marked with a small present box). These challenges give you a small selection of tasks to perform over the route, such as “Arrive at the final station with less than 20 seconds remaining” “Toot your horn for the train fans”, “Stop within 5m of the stop sign at the station” – all basic good train driving behaviour – with each then needing to be performed a set number of times before the end of the journey to clear (arriving on time once over the course of a route is easy enough, but being asked to do it consistently two or three times is a much stiffer challenge). Some challenges remove the short list of specific mission requirements entirely and replace it with a gauge instead, showing your distance to the station (and therefore the end of the mission) in yellow and another section (hopefully green) showing how well you’re currently doing. Personal anxiety levels tend to go through the roof here as you’re not being judged on a neat checklist of defined jobs but your driving over the entire route, mistakes and misses actively counting against any good work you do. To help you achieve these goals all Home Mode styles of play display an extra set of on-screen icons letting you know exactly what to press and when to do so, which in turn only makes good train driving standards (and high scores) come even faster and with even less head-scratching than Arcade Mode’s already generous levels of support. Whatever the challenge you’re scored afterwards based on how well you did in all the usual things Densha de GO! cares about – not braking too hard or too fast, observing the speed limits, etc. – which the game then issues you an overall rank from D to S for – do well enough and you may unlock some secret missions and additional rewards.
Densha de GO!’s just so much fun. It is about trains, but it’s mostly about the joy they bring, and the joy you can get from driving them. It’s a game that’s happy to give; it wants you to see and do all it has to offer, constantly pushing new little morsels of real-world train knowledge and practical experience your way, gently easing you in to the differences in handling and layout (it’s true – two trains can look and play in very different ways) until you struggle to remember a time you didn’t know how to drive a Japanese train or what Shibuya station looked like from the inside. And that’s when you not only see but really start to notice what’s passing you by, rushing past an interesting building you first spotted in the distance or noticing the bright greens of the foliage growing at the side of the track – railways are interesting places to be around, a unique mix of the high tech, the reliably old, and the downright forgotten all contained in one continuous trip.
Now then we do sadly have to mention the import barrier here because there is one and it does matter. While the game isn’t impossible to play if you can’t read the language – click through the Japanese-only menus and you’ll no doubt find yourself driving a train to somewhere in some mode – you will lose not only access to your task lists and all that gladly-offered help eager to point you in the right direction but almost all of the acknowledgement of a complicated job done well too; the cheery audio messages, the screen-filling titles you’ve been awarded, the exciting messages of unlocked extras and new secrets to play – all gone. Fluency isn’t required by any means – phrases are uncomplicated, short, and any unfamiliar words are easily found in online dictionaries – but some basic Japanese reading ability goes a very long way here. It’s a lot like playing an RPG in a language you can’t read: You know the second option down in the first menu is some sort of healing item, but you won’t know what it’s called, what it’s really for, or why it sometimes doesn’t work. Characters – whatever their names are – will seem pleased when you defeated… whatever that was, but you won’t know why you were there, exactly what you did, or if anything you’ve done has been worth the effort anyway.
But if you can get over that hurdle then you’ll find this new Densha de GO! a long-term source of joy packed with lots of different modes and even more ways to alter those to suit the way you want to play today, whether that’s a demanding challenge, a casual drive, or anything in-between. I cannot recommend the game strongly enough whether you’re a fan of trains or not (you will be after a few hours with this in any case) – just take that language barrier into account before you buy.
[Japanese Switch version tested and reviewed]