Densha de D Rising Stage: Wake me up before I go-go

This violently orange disc contains five battles to run through, covering chapters 20-31 of the gleefully daft train-drifting manga. Visually little has changed since the previous entry, and that’s absolutely fine by me: this is stylish, gorgeous, hot-blooded locomotive action made all the sweeter by the entrancing sounds of Japanese Eurobeat.

The same suite of extras make a welcome return too, the Rising Stage add-on tool (search for “RisingStage 色々追加ツール(38.8MB)” here if you need it) granting in-game access to a heap of excellent music from previous Densha de Ds and related albums once the program’s detected your official physical or digital purchases (it’s a much easier process than it may sound here—literally just a couple of clicks), while popping in the previous Densha de D game CDs more than doubles the number of trains to drift with. As always these are just for post-clear fun, and give no advantage (or disadvantage) compared to playing through Rising Stage purely as it is.

As similar as much of it may seem, there is one big change lurking in the wings: an entirely new drift. Every train can now perform single track slides, skewing their train across just one rail at any time, sparks flying and speed boosted even in the tightest places.

Needless to say, this changes everything. 

Rising Stage allows you to drift through forested single-lane segments, narrow stations, and winding routes spaced too far away from everything else for the series’ trademark multi-track drift to work. It’s even possible to slide side-by-side with an opponent, both of you taking the same bend at the same time, inches apart. You do have to be careful though, as there’s far less room for error when using this new mode of attack. Multi-track drifting is pretty generous as far as the direction’s concerned—so long as the two rails stay the same distance apart and there are no obstacles between them then you’re usually safe—but that’s not always the case with these more precarious slides. You really do have to match the curve of the course at all times no matter how wriggly it may be, and as you can do this in much tighter spaces there’s also a far greater chance you’ll collide with the trackside scenery, even when you do technically get the drift right.

It takes some practice but I do love this new addition. It’s an exciting technique that’s easy to pull off (just press up before pressing your usual drift button), quick to punish casual, inattentive use, and opens up a world of possibilities that truly weren’t there before.

As with every other game in the series the events you slide through are duels, not races: the aim is to have you play along with the story or manufacture a particular event, rather than just be the faster of the two drivers (sometimes, anyway).

Which would usually be fine, if every sodding duel this time around didn’t take an age to play through—almost or even over thirty minutes from opening cutscene to finish in most cases—and then had the irritating tendency to stuff every actual progress-making change you’re supposed to make in the dying moments of the final section.

Rising Stage’s third battle is the absolute nadir of this patience-testing gauntlet: it’s very long, and it’s also possible to cross the finish line first… and still lose, because you didn’t actually do the right thing at the right time (this happened to me at least twice). It’s entirely fair to say that this is not the first time in the series this has been possible, but now we’re four games in and the battles are consistently longer than ever it does feel a little different. If the series is going to keep being this scripted then it needs to skew said scripting firmly in the player’s favour—to stick closer to the spirit of the manga rather than the letter. The lead up to the part that actually matters in this mid-game “battle” is so long I literally—and when I say literally I mean “I actually went and did this for real” here—set the train going at an average speed (so it wouldn’t derail in my absence), went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea, got some biscuits from the jar to go with it, sat back down, leisurely dunked my way through a couple of chocolate covered Hob-Nobs, ALT-TAB’ed out of the game to write this section up in my notes in disbelief (Rising Stage doesn’t pause when it loses focus), and then finally took a proper look at the game and realised that not only was the duel still going, but I was still in the lead too—and I still had a good ten or fifteen minutes or so of this to sit through before we got to the part where anything I did actually had an impact on the story.

When taken as one part of a multi-entry whole, this is just an unfortunate blip in an otherwise wonderful series—but it sure is one heck of a blip, and it has the unfortunate side effect of making you painfully aware and overly wary of every other minor snag you encounter afterwards. The happy streetlight-diffusing fog starts to lift, and you notice exactly how many times you’ll be screaming down the track so fast the needle of your speedometer’s twisted way past its natural limit… only to watch your opponent, over and over again, suddenly gain an impossible burst of speed that lasts just long enough to put them, down to the millimetre, exactly as far ahead as they were before. Every unexpected hiccough—and even eight patches down the line the game still feels a little wobbly on its feet from time to time—leaves you afraid you’re about to suffer through another day’s worth of torture, losing a twenty to thirty minute battle in the final ten seconds to some random bug or finicky win condition, over and over again. With the formula so very well realised on the first go and pretty much set in stone by the second, it’s not unreasonable to expect the games after that to start paying some serious attention to the finer details, like “maybe we should make sure the player actually gets to do something meaningful within the first five minutes of this duel”.

Aiming to capture something as ephemeral as an experience, a mood—especially one based on someone else’s work in a very different medium, something that is itself a fond parody of another series—was never going to be an easy task, and I’m still more than a little stunned Densha de D ever managed to pull it off at all, never mind carry on for four games before dropping a clanger of this size. But a clanger it is, and a clanger it didn’t have to be.

Here’s hoping the driver doesn’t fall asleep at the mascon the next—and currently, final—time around.

Further reading:

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