We’re now three games into the Densha de D series, and first impressions imply this one’s going to be less about sliding trains around a track and more about playing a game of spot the difference. You see, Climax Stage offers no grand revamp of anything, no unmissable sign we’re about to play something that’s meaningfully different from the previous entry.
And that’s exactly the sort of not-change I hoped to see. Densha de D has been a real joy from the very beginning, so why go breaking something that’s already unique and liked for what it is, just because it “should”?
That doesn’t mean this playable retelling of chapters 12-19 of the Densha de D manga is nothing more than a minimum-effort reshuffle of the same old furniture though. Additions are subtle but definitely present, the game content to tweak what was already there rather than senselessly reinvent an already round wheel: everything is just that little bit shinier, just a touch more polished and detailed. The cutscenes somehow continue to improve upon their already wonderful foundations, with lots of dynamic shifts across the “page” and creative mixing of traditional art and animated 3D scenes. While you’re playing, Climax Stage is happy to cut to a perfectly framed dramatic camera angle as you pass through an otherwise quiet station, no doubt drifting across the tracks as a shower of sparks light up the rails, your opponent either close behind or about to pull some impossible stunt that helps them catch up. In any other game where two vehicles were trying to reach the same goal at high speed these temporary visual shifts would be superfluous at best and distracting at worst, but here, in this setting and infused with this level of intensity, it’s all part of a high-stakes duel between two rivals, a thrilling reminder that your always just one corner away from overtaking and winning the battle.
A new driving view has been created to help you feel more like the kind of person who takes a train for a high speed spin across a stylised Japan’s eternal Eurobeat-soundtracked night than ever before. In addition to the standard first person camera, where you essentially see the track from the train’s point of view, there’s now a more “realistic” driver’s-eye take on the action to choose from as well. This is positioned just off to the side and framed by the windscreen, offering a slightly more accurate representation of the view from the front seat. It’s a simple but effective trick, the cabin interior tilting and pitching (while your own view helpfully remains locked on the track ahead) as you speed over brightly coloured bridges and past softly glowing industrial lights.
These nocturnal cityscapes contain an entire rail network’s worth of new track types to worry about. You now have to navigate winding single-lane stretches of track and concrete-lined underground sections, both of them forcing you to keep tight control of your speed around the corners. There are wide multi-lane segments to navigate as you pass through larger stations and other areas, both leaving you with mere seconds to decide which line you want to be on as the track splits off or snakes around central platforms, the tight curves threatening to derail your train as you go.
The returning standard and rear-end multi-track drifting techniques help you take these challenges on at high speed, both dramatic slides as enjoyably ridiculous and exciting as ever. There’s also a new tilting mechanic for one of the more modern unlockable trains, allowing you to take these bends in the track without drifting or slowing down, and a fun “Lightning Full Notch” move for the main “hero” train too, pushing that ten-notch mascon all the way up to twelve. Cleverly this isn’t activated by poking a new “turbo” button to achieve the desired effect but by expertly manipulating the train itself: you need to briefly apply the brakes while going fast to shift your train’s weight to the front, then quickly hit the accelerator again to effectively shove yourself forwards using your own inertia. The implementation of this feature in particular quietly demonstrates Densha de D’s train-nerd credentials, avoiding an easier and more arcade-like action in favour of an exaggerated take on some basic real-world principles.
Any concerns that this feature represents a shift in tone towards stony-faced realism are swiftly demolished by the game’s fourth stage. This pits you against a diesel train, its choking fumes filling the starting station with a thick layer of smoke—although this fossil fuelled detail is soon pushed aside by the stage’s real highlight: flying trains.
Yep, you read that right. To get ahead your opponent takes several shortcuts that makes multi-track drifting look positively ordinary, deliberately “flying” off the track at certain high spots so they can land on the lower parts of the course, cutting huge corners in the process. It’s absurd in a way that leaves you with a smile plastered all over your face—and best of all, you can do it too once you know where to “leap” off (thankfully you can only perform this manoeuvre at very specific points, so you don’t have to worry about pointlessly throwing yourself off the track), impossibly sailing through the night sky before landing back on the track in a shower of sparks before speeding away like this is just something every train can secretly do.
Climax Stage isn’t done yet either, as the following and final stage introduces not only heavy view-limiting snow, but also a unique and unexpectedly un-Densha de D-like concept: coming to a full stop mid-duel and then going back along another track to reach your destination. And you have to do this four times to win (pay close attention to the railside signal lights and your surroundings in general—it’ll help a lot). The entire stage may be about a million miles away from the high speed drifting action the series has always done so well but the one-off nature of this change only makes it all the more interesting, the game asking you to do things you’ve never done before in an environment that looks nothing like the others.
This third entry in the series seemed to be noticeably more challenging than the games before it, to the point where I wouldn’t recommend picking this as your first Densha de D, but it’s still a fantastic game—and one made even better by all the bonus extras tucked away in there too. As usual you can play as any of your rivals once you’ve beaten them, but it’s also possible to unlock a generous quantity of music and trains (only available for use after you’ve cleared a stage with the “canon” train) from past games by either booting the game up with Lightning Stage/Burning Stage in the disk drive, or using the setup tool in conjunction with the soundtrack CDs (official digital downloads work too). You’ll need to search for “ClimaxStage 色々追加ツール(32.4MB)” on this page to locate the setup tool. Once your music has been officially recognised by the game you can then select which track to play during a battle, and that means you can listen to Sands of Time as often as you like, which if you’ve listened to Sand of Time before you’ll know will probably be all the time.
It’s a fun game and a fantastic sequel, refusing to change anything that already worked, while still adding enough to surprise and test anyone who’s been following the series since the beginning. It may be a parody, but Densha de D’s definitely not a joke.
Climax Stage’s official trial and numerous patches for the final game (do download the patches, they make a real difference) are available here: http://www.jinushi.info/den_d_cs.html
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