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TAKE THE J-TRAIN
A Tale Of Three Japanese Railway Games
BILL WOOD | MARCH 7, 2022
Train simulation games are in a bizarre class all their own, even RPG nerds refuse to touch them. Throw in a language barrier and you're reaching a whole new level of geekdom. But hey, this self-professed nerd enjoys a good challenge, so why not write up another article about my new favorite gaming genre?
If you haven’t read my analysis of Dovetail Games' Train Sim World 2, you may want to check that out here first. This new article provides a quick rundown of three Japanese-based train games, Japanese Rail Sim: Journey To Kyoto, Railfan, and Densha De GO!!: Hashirou Yamanote-Sen. These titles are skewed more toward arcade gameplay than TSW2's sim-oriented approach, but they are based on real-life rail lines, and all provide unique gaming experiences.
JAPANESE RAIL SIM: JOURNEY TO KYOTO (PS4)
Despite the word “sim” in the title, Japanese Rail Sim is anything but. It’s basically an on-rails FMV train ride, giving you a limited set of controls (accelerate, brake, horn) to service a certain number of stations within a certain period of time and within a certain stopping distance. Japanese railway services are notoriously efficient, so you’ll have to hit these station stops as accurately as possible, keeping in mind the various curves, grades and speed limit changes along the way. Your ultimate goal is that perfect "0 seconds/0 cm" stop... it's tougher than it sounds.
Before we delve further into the gameplay, it's worth mentioning that JRS is the only game out of the three that is available domestically. You can purchase it directly from the PS Store and be playing in minutes, whereas the other two games require a method of playing Japan-only titles, either by importing the disc or by creating a Japanese PSN account. JRS is also the only game presented in full English, making it the easiest and most convenient to play. You can switch over to the full Japanese version of the game via the option settings.
JRS gives you two authentic Kyoto lines to navigate, Eizan Electric Railway's scenic Kurama and Eizan lines. These two share many of the same stations, so you’re really only getting one-and-a-half lines, but you can travel both route directions. There are plenty of highlights along the way, the journey through the maple tree forest is particularly stunning as you travel from dense urban streets into remote forest thickets. Meeting certain objectives unlocks information about the various locales, which is great for travel enthusiasts like myself. The sounds inside the train are fantastic, with authentic bells and horns, and announcers regularly calling out stops in both Japanese and English.
Now the not-so-good. JRS costs $60 on the US PSN Store, which is absurd for the limited amount of content this game delivers. I might actually recommend this game at a lower price tag, but I haven’t seen a sale since the day it was launched. Second, the video content appears to be drastically upscaled, with heavy compression, low resolution, and a low frame rate. If you’re into JRS solely for the viewing experience, you may as well save your cash and stick to YouTube as there are plenty of 4K/60fps videos which highlight these exact railway lines in greater detail.
Finally, JRS is waaay too easy. This may be a positive for those who simply want a relaxing train driving experience while touring Kyoto, but if you have any level of gaming skill you’ll unlock everything and earn the Platinum trophy within a day. After that you can go for high scores and "0/0" S Ranks on all of the stops… and that’s about it. My advice is to set the Timetable Mode to "Professional" in the game settings before you even get started, even this isn’t remotely difficult but at least it will make things a bit more challenging.
Despite these drawbacks, I enjoyed my time with JRS quite a bit. I appreciate that the devs focused on a remote region of Japan as opposed to Tokyo for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately the limited content, poor video quality and lofty price tag make it difficult to recommend to anyone except the most devoted train enthusiasts.
RAILFAN (PS3, import)
Like JRS, Railfan is an on-rails FMV train experience, giving you a very basic set of controls to command passenger services. But that's where the similarities end. Railfan's three distinctive train lines—Chicago's CTA Brown Line, Tokyo's JR East Chūō Main Line, and Kyoto's KER Keihan Main Line—easily eclipse JRS in terms of sheer content. Surprisingly, Railfan's video frame rate is much smoother than JRS. The game features multiple camera options, including a unique aerial view. There are even rudimentary weather effects, which JRS is lacking. It's astonishing that a late-gen PS4 title could be outdone by a sixteen-year-old game running on dated hardware, but perhaps it should come as no surprise as Railfan was developed by the same folks who brought us the Densha De GO!! series.
There are three modes for all three Railfan lines; Mission doubles as a tutorial, Train Tour allows you to experience the routes as you please, and My Collection lets you view replays, train data and such. Completing all Mission objectives for a line unlocks bonus options for that same line in Train Tour. My Collection's demo replay even allows you to take pics of oncoming locos and add their data to your collection, it's trainspotting meets Pokemon Snap.
I found Railfan's Mission Mode to be the most challenging of the three games covered here. The speed limit/traffic safety meter can get congested, I found myself so preoccupied with managing the various safety icons, speed changes and traffic warnings that I rarely got to check out the scenery. Such is the life of a rail driver I suppose, and there's always replay mode for that. The initial tutorial missions are dead easy, but the final missions—which require you to drive the entire line while keeping a decent timetable with the speedometer pinned to the limit—are very tough. Kyoto's final mission—which lasts nearly an hour with no option to save your progress and only three restarts—will definitely put you to the test. Fail the last stop with no restarts left and it's all the way back to the beginning!
Railfan was released as a PS3 launch title way back in 2006, and as such it has a very dated feel. There is no trophy support, no HDD install option. I miss the analog control that the other two games feature, managing a braking system with face buttons (Tokyo line only) just feels counterintuitive these days. Also, Railfan is an import title, which requires navigating Japanese text. Fortunately the game is fairly straightforward with English subs sprinkled throughout the menus (I find the Google Translate app invaluable for translating instruction manuals and important on-screen text). Because Railfan is an import title for an older system, it is becoming increasingly hard to find. If you're lucky enough to live near Akihabara, you may track down a used copy for under ten bucks, but getting my copy imported from Japan cost nearly ten times that amount. Finally, playing this game assumes that you still have your PlayStation 3 hooked up, if you even own one.
Once you clear these hurdles, you'll find a very enjoyable train sim in Railfan. There isn't a ton of replay value, but the routes are interesting and diverse enough to keep me coming back. I can't say it's worth dropping $90 and digging the PS3 out of the garage, but if you can find it on the cheap and you happen to have a PS3 within arm's reach, then Railfan is well worth playing.
DENSHA DE GO!!: HASHIROU YAMANOTE-SEN (PS4, import)
As mentioned earlier, Densha is not an authentic railway simulator. This latest chapter in Taito and Square-Enix's long-running series of train games is a console adaptation of a Japanese arcade game. It's brimming over with loads of quirky charm and personality; colorful menus, bubbly music and a cheerful assistant are here to guide you along your journey. The game constantly rewards you with secret paths and new content. In short, this game feels like one big celebration of J-train awesomeness, providing a challenging experience while never taking itself too seriously.
Densha gives you the lengthy Yamanote line to navigate, servicing popular Tokyo destinations such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara. There are other lines to unlock as well as an additional line exclusive to Arcade Mode, the Soubu line. The game's visuals are vivid and sharp, running at a steady 60fps on my PS4 Pro. Based on what I've read, the routes and stops are well-represented and accurate to their real-life counterparts.
The game's meat-and-potatoes is the console-exclusive Path of the Driver mode, which basically consists of a series of increasingly challenging mission sequences. This mode alone contains plenty of content, but there is also Roulette Mode (randomized daily missions) and Arcade Mode (what it says) to explore. Much like JRS, a "Double Zero" stop is your prime goal, but you also get bonus points for performing courteous actions such as dimming your headlights for oncoming trains and honking at waving rail fans along the route. You’ll be servicing many of the same stops repeatedly, fortunately the game's crisp visuals and varied mission objectives manage to keep things from feeling too repetitive. There are also quite a few trains to unlock, each with their own handling and control interface.
Densha strictly adheres to the mantra of "easy to learn, difficult to master." The initial stages do a terrific job of easing novices into the rhythm of the game, while the latter stages are a white knuckle ride (white knuckle for a train game anyway), requiring you to navigate a constant influx of speed limit changes with pinpoint precision while keeping mind the various courtesy actions along the way. Oh, and of course you'll want to nail your station stops precisely, down to the exact cm and second. As of this writing, I haven't achieved a Double Zero stop and I doubt I ever will.
Densha's drawbacks are more wishlist than complaint. You can only drive one direction of the circular Yamanote line, the counter-clockwise direction. I'm sure this is accurate to the arcade version, but a clockwise route could have added to the replay value considerably, even as DLC. There's also no night mode, but it's hard to complain when you have three day settings (morning, noon, evening) and three weather settings (clear, rain, snow).
Like Railfan, Densha De GO!! (lit. "Let's Go By Train!") is strictly an import title, meaning you won't find it on the US PlayStation Store. You'll have to either create a Japanese PSN account to purchase from the Japanese PSN Store (which can get complicated) or order a physical copy from an overseas seller. I bought my physical copy from PlayAsia. The good news is there is no territorial lockout for modern PlayStation consoles, so you can play imports to your heart's content. Densha also has no English language option, which is something to consider if you're adverse to navigating through foreign menus. Fortunately there are numerous online tutorials and help videos in English to help newcomers get the hang of things. In any case, it's not a complicated game to learn.
Of all the train games I currently own (which includes a Russian subway sim I haven't played yet), Densha De GO!!: Hashirou Yamanote-Sen is currently my personal fave based on sheer fun factor, it's just such a blast to play. Train Sim World 2 provides the best simulation experience and has the most replay value, but it’s poorly developed in areas and downright buggy in others. It's also inflated with what amounts to DLC overload, and while you definitely don't need every single piece of content to enjoy the game, the complete package will set you back over $500. Japanese Rail Sim keeps things interesting for awhile, but it's far too limited and pricey, not to mention it doesn’t even do what it does particularly well. Railfan is a better gaming experience than JRS, but it also requires a PlayStation 3. If you’re up for checking out a train game, you may as well clear the import hurdle and pick up Densha. It's worth it. - BW