The Train: Episode 1 review
Mixing genres is always a fun way to spice up old formulas. Star Wars blended fantasy-style magic and swords with a space opera setting, while Blade Runner melded film noir with futuristic robots. Now The Moonwalls have done something similar with the first episode of The Train for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The setting is an intriguing mix of totalitarian, 1984-ish future with fantasy magic; a world in which a man named Martin must take a train to see his long-distance girlfriend, Isabell, deep in the heart of a police state. It is an adventure filled with danger, intrigue, and a plot twist or two, but alas, also with clunky controls, terrible grammar, and only sparsely developed characters. There’s a lot of potential for a great story here, but the series has a long way to go from this debut effort.
In The Train, magic entered the world due to an accident with a giant particle accelerator in 2012, throwing everything into chaos. Soon a charismatic and powerful mage took over and declared himself Emperor, and through many years of tyrannical leadership, he has since turned the world into an Orwellian nightmare. What makes Martin’s journey so potentially dangerous is that the Emperor, in a paranoid effort to ensure his continued rule, has outlawed the practice of all magic other than his own. Martin is a “painting mage”, or someone who can draw objects into existence and take objects from existing paintings. This will make him a wanted man if anybody discovers his abilities, and in the first scene some police officers begin searching the train for renegade mages. Martin concludes he must escape, though how the police could possibly tell he has magical abilities is never fully explained.
Ironically, Martin remains on the train for no more than 5-10 minutes of playing time, covering only two locations to explore. The rest of his journey is a mixture of travel by car, teleportation, and a brief trip on top of a second, different train. Why the series is called The Train isn’t at all clear yet, but perhaps something was lost in translation, as the English localization for this game is definitely lacking. Upon its initial release, the translation was so bad that at times it was impossible to even tell what the characters were trying to convey. The developers found a new translator upon hearing early criticism, and while the resulting text is certainly improved, it’s still far from perfect, so we get moments like a policeman telling you to “stay put on your sit and wait”, and a blade-wielding urchin warning you to “stay on the knife distance.” It’s commendable that The Moonwalls reacted so quickly and are continually striving to improve their game, which hopefully bodes well for future episodes, but lines like this do still tend to take you out of this opening installment.
Even with the improved translation, the characters aren’t really fleshed out very much. One of the first people you meet, who more or less becomes your travelling companion for the game, greets you by threatening you with a knife. Fair enough, as this young woman is wary, homeless, and meeting Martin for the first time. But then why does she trustingly give Martin her knife after about seven sentences of dialogue? The relationship between these two forms the basis of the game, but it never really develops past the two of them irritating each other, like an oddly written buddy movie.
Other characters appear, but often very briefly and without much personality to speak of. One mysterious figure hints that they know Martin from somewhere, then disappears for the rest of the game, while another reveals himself to be a member of the anti-Emperor resistance known as the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. This is all the development you really get from these characters. There’s a plot twist of sorts that strongly implies there’s much more to Martin and his knife-wielding companion, but this comes right at the end and is really more a promise of developments to come than anything else. For the most part, the individuals in this debut episode come off as fairly two-dimensional.
This lack of depth might partly be a result of the graphics as well. Each character has a single pose and expression, and nothing else. Martin’s face never moves even a single twitch throughout his harrowing journey. While the game’s art budget was likely limited, this has a negative impact on the connection with the protagonist. I understand why a random police officer doesn’t emote much, but was it really that impossible to draw a few more versions of Martin’s face depicting varying states other than a neutral one? Granted, a particular character takes her hat off at one point revealing a slightly different look, but even her expression remains static throughout.
Otherwise, the visual presentation is simple but well drawn. You’ll travel through apartments, train stations, and parking lots, all of which are depicted with convincing artwork. Even on a small screen like the iPhone’s, it’s never difficult to see what an object is. Despite the lack of facial expression, the actual character models aren’t too shabby, and some close-ups, like when you’re dialing a phone or picking a lock, add even more detail. The limited color palette does detract from the effect somewhat (Martin’s square-pattern shirt is so close to his skin tone it almost looks like mesh), but overall the graphics do their job in displaying the dilapidated and unpleasant world Martin has to live in.
Interacting with this world has its ups and downs as well. The game is presented from Martin’s perspective, and each location has a single direction you can face, though you can use a “virtual analog stick” in the bottom left corner to scroll around the screen and see everything in front of you. This stick is essentially a permanent circle that you can press the center of and “tilt” in the direction you want to scroll. It’s a neat idea, but imperfect, as often the screen will randomly skip around jarringly even when your finger hasn’t slipped. Interacting with objects and characters or going through a door to the next location is done by simply tapping on them, and your inventory is accessible by tapping a briefcase icon. When an exit from a location is behind Martin, a new icon appears which, when tapped, moves Martin backwards (a feature that didn’t exist when the game launched originally and caused no shortage of frustration). There is also a scroll icon that gives you rather brief dossiers on Martin and the other characters he meets along the way. Some scenes, such as when Martin has to pick a lock with a screwdriver, involve manipulating objects by dragging them across the screen, but these are few and easily figured out.
Puzzles are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them are fairly logical and satisfying, while others are so simple as to barely be called puzzles at all, such as when a man asks for food and you’ve been carrying around a sandwich since the game began. Still others are just plain confusing. At one point you play through one of Martin’s memories as he talks to Isabell, and the only thing you can do in this scene is talk to her. She tells you she had a wonderful weekend and asks for a kiss, but tapping on her mouth just earns you the exact same dialogue, complete with about five seconds of loading each time. What you need to do relates to the orientation of the iPhone itself, but the lack of any kind of tutorial makes this action a highly unintuitive one. The game’s website mentions that you may need to change the iPhone’s position to get through some segments, but this really needs to be conveyed in-game to be useful. It’s a fun idea, but it’s so obscurely executed that its novelty is lost in the frustration it takes to solve it. Perhaps the intention was to draw out the game time a little longer, as the episode only takes a couple of hours at most otherwise. And getting stuck elsewhere in this game is unlikely, as it includes both an optional hotspot indicator and a hint system that gradually provides advice when asked.
The one place The Train causes no frustration whatsoever is the music. The score is an epic orchestral piece for the intro, then becomes a grungy, dark, moody piece with a bit of techno added for the first scene. This clearly sets the grim atmosphere of the game and the tracks are long enough to avoid ever getting too repetitive. The only odd thing here is that the current track resets every time you finish a conversation with someone. Sound effects fall into the same high level of quality as the music. Everything from sirens wailing to doors opening and closing sounds great, nicely helping to establish the setting far better than the game’s other elements.
As rough as The Train is at times, it’s worth noting that it used to be considerably rougher, as the game has been updated by the developers several times. The enhancements have added some nice graphical touches like a brief close-up of an item when you first add it to your inventory, and has also fixed other, far more critical issues, such as a confusing movement interface and a save system that didn’t make clear if you’d successfully saved your game. This is an excellent attitude to take in an ongoing project like this and gives me sincere hope for future episodes. There are some deeper problems with this debut episode that even quick fixes can’t cure, but despite the shallow nature of the characters in general, the plot twist is quite intriguing and makes me genuinely curious about where the series will go from here. If The Moonwalls are willing to learn from the experience, then future episodes may just deliver the engaging story they clearly had in mind when they began. The Train: Episode 1 is a shaky first offering, but it’s got a great setting with a lot of potential. Call me an optimist, but I honestly can’t help but be intrigued about the further adventures of Martin the painting mage.
It’s clear from this debut episode that The Train has potential, but it also has a long way to go to reach its intended goal.