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Review: STATIONflow

15 Apr 2020

Some games are very difficult to review effectively. You have to leverage a lot of different ideas and notions, a lot of conflicting artistic visions, the depth of what the story is trying to achieve and how well it delivers on themes, and so forth.

Other games are… well, the sort of game you can review in two sentences.

Take a Tetris variant, for example. You don’t really need to go into a lot of detail about how that game plays; it’s enough to say what the variant is trying to accomplish and then whether or not it works. Simple, two-sentence reviews, which do cover all of the necessary information but also threaten to sort of put those of us who do review games out of jobs. They’re a mixed blessing.

Why bring all of this up here? Well, at its heart, STATIONflow is exactly that sort of game. It belongs to that general category of sims that are all about making a functional individual entity, like a high-rise building in Project Highrise or a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Big Pharma or a hospital in Two-Point Hospital and so on. While the details may change, the core elements of the game remain in place just the same.

So the question becomes whether it’s any good. Which, at least theoretically, can be answered with a single word… but I’m still going to make you read the rest of the review first. You know how it is.

Developed and published by DMM Games, STATIONflow releases on April 15th on Steam, the version which was played for this review.

This is a Blue-Line Train

As with most of these games, there’s no real story mode to discuss; the story is entirely based on what you experience as you play. You’re developing your own narrative as you hack together a functional metro station, then find something going wrong with it, then you make it work again, and so on and so forth.

At its heart, the core of STATIONflow is just that. You are trying to build a metro station that people can use to efficiently and quickly get to their trains or to their exits. That’s simple enough. It’s made even simpler because unlike a real metro station, you needn’t concern yourself with messes or slow sign repainting or anything like that. It’s entirely abstract and all you need to do is provide the facilities, signage, and connections between entry points, train tracks, and so forth.

It all sounds relatively simple. Connect platforms to the tracks. Use stairs or elevators to move between levels. Place important items or buildings off to the sides. If you could lay everything out wholly based on your own choices, in fact, the game would be tediously easy… but fortunately for the gameplay, that’s not the case.

See, you can build all the connections you want, but you don’t get to choose where the train tracks are or where the entrances are. Instead, you have to work around the existing ones… which are also revealed and added over time. At the end of each day, you get an evaluation and more points toward leveling up accordingly. As you level up, you gain access to new tracks, new entrances, new passenger types, and new facilities.

So you could have a perfectly planned-out set of entrances… only to find that they don’t work at all with the new entrances that just spawned on your level up. Oh, and now that those new entrances are present, you will not just lose out on experience but on your basic income if you don’t connect them and open them up by the end of the day.

Moreover, each new type of passenger brings a new set of problems. Tourists require information boards or all of the well-placed signs in the world won’t help them because they don’t know where they’re going. Senior citizens need information and restrooms and seem to live for being cranky. Handicapped passengers can’t use stairs at all, which means suddenly the flow that worked fine needs to change because you’d built everything around staircases that not everyone can use now.

And each new set of exits or trains need new signage. You need to think about the route you’re creating, and how wide the pathways are, and whether the signs are clear enough. Oh, and you also do need to still make money along the way…

In other words, it’s exactly how these management games always work. You’re trying to balance the escalating complexity of the scenario with the greater opportunities afforded to you, and things are going well when you take your hands off the wheel and everything flows decently. It’s that sort of fun. You’re grimacing and trying to figure out how to make everything work, and then it does and you can just feel that sense of accomplishment as everyone is marching along happily.

Well, not the senior citizens, those people always seemed mad at my stations. Out of the way, old man.

The leveling system is a particular point of pride. It always feels like advancing to the next tier is an actual reward, like you’re getting new toys and opportunities, but also like you need new tools to deal with the situation. But they’re always the right tools, and you can almost always understand how they’re supposed to be incorporated into your overall setup. Plus, there’s always the fun question of whether you should tear down what you’ve built (meaning turning some things off until everything is ready) or build around what you’ve already made, which means things keep running but you’re building a house of cards…

Like the better examples of its genre, it is at once anxiety inducing and oddly relaxing when you make it come together properly. Sometimes it’s going to make you want to tear your hair out as you try to figure out where to put connections and stairwells and elevators, but when you’ve got it done and you’re watching everything tumble along there’s a simple and undeniable comfort.

Please Exit the Passenger Area Efficiently

Management games like this rely a lot on having clean, comprehensible graphics, since everything that’s happening involves manipulating details within a confined playing space. STATIONflow has picked an aesthetic of almost board-game-like minimalism, falling into a carefully considered point just to one side of being too simplified. You see your station as a series of colored points and train tracks suspended in space, with simple controls to move up and down in levels, to view the grid-like layout that anchors everything, to see where the signs are pointing and so forth.

The fact that it falls just on one side, though, is a good thing. Visually, the game does wind up looking very much like a board game in a digital space, with the passengers represented by little meeple-like models gliding along and occasionally hopping up and down in anger. The buildings like diners and restrooms aren’t detailed, just voids and areas. And yet it works, because you can quickly zoom out and see what’s happening based on fields of color, movement, where people are getting angry.

Everything is simple, clean, and supports its aesthetic perfectly. It’s a hypnotically beautiful game to watch in motion, seeing all the ebb and flow of a station as an abstracted set of tiny figures.

This is helped substantially by the fact that the game also has one of the most easy and comfortable soundtracks ever. Obviously, games of this type usually feature simple looped tracks that emphasize a mood, and it’s difficult to explain why STATIONflow’s ambient tunes work so well. They’re not the sort of canned music you’d expect to have piped in or even energetic, just an upbeat and subdued set of tracks. But they work wonderfully well as mood pieces, encouraging you to think about your station and feeling like just the sort of music you’d want to hear as you’re assembling a complex puzzle.

Then again, “simple but fitting” is kind of the target in the first place, isn’t it?

Doors are Now Opening

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably no longer need that one-line review I teased at the very beginning. STATIONflow is an entry in the genre of managing a fixed facility, and it works. If you’ve played one of these games and liked it, you’ve probably played a lot of them, and this one does what it sets out to do with grace and aplomb.

The converse, of course, is that if you’ve played one of these games and didn’t care for it, this is not going to be the one that convinces you otherwise. It is, in that sense, the sort of game that is almost immune to reviewing; it will delight exactly the target genre audience and can be comfortably ignored by people who don’t care about the genre. Simple and straightforward, yes?

But that’s not a bad thing. It leans in on exactly what it wants to be and makes its gameplay comfortable and fun with a nice look and a solid soundtrack. So it’s the sort of game that fans of management games will look at, perhaps shrug about, and say “I can’t believe I’m buying another one of these” as they click through the purchase.

And they’ll have fun with it. So, hey, good times for all.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by DMM Games for PC. Screenshots courtesy of DMM Games.