Minecraft’s ascendancy from relatively humble beginnings to true global phenomenon is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that giving players the right set of creative tools makes for genuinely great gaming experiences. After following its development on and off for a number of hype-laden months, I was excited to see if Planet Coaster was able to succeed in this regard.
Like many people my age, I was a huge Rollercoaster Tycoon fan back in the day. Theme parks are a natural fit for management/builder games, and given that my younger self was terrified of thrill rides they functioned not only as a creative outlet but as a source of vicarious enjoyment. As such, the news that many of those involved with the original RCT games were working on a spiritual successor for modern hardware was certainly very exciting, with my anticipation fuelled both by nostalgia (the dangers of which I discussed in relation to the Dead Rising remaster) and the fact that titles like Cities: Skylines had renewed my interest in the genre.
I managed to hold off on purchasing the beta (as a rule of thumb I don’t buy during Early Access) but by the time the full game launched to a hugely positive reception the hype quickly proved too much. I hardly ever pay full price for a game at launch (shoutout to r/patientgamers) but this time I just couldn’t wait. 30+ hours later, I am pleased to report that I do not regret the decision in the slightest.
Before I break down further my thoughts on this game, I feel it’s important to mention that I only really played the sandbox mode. I looked briefly at the ‘career’ mode expecting to find a tutorial, but stopped playing when I realised that it was frustratingly absent. Apparently the management side of this game is lacking in depth (there’s been a lot of chatter about this on the forums and the subreddit) compared to how Frontier marketed it, but as I’ve always preferred the creative side of things this isn’t something that I took umbrage with, regardless of how fair a criticism it might or might not be.
The selection of tools that the devs have included is generally pretty good. There’s a fairly hefty catalogue of scenery and building objects (both in generic and typical amusement park themed flavours) for you to play with, allowing for some pretty deep customisation once you get the hang of things. The terrain editor, too, works very well: creating imposing mountain ranges for your coasters to weave in and out of is as simple as holding down the mouse for a few seconds, with yawning chasms and vast bodies of water equally simple to implement.
There are a few frustrating design decisions, such as scenery parts and building parts following different positional rules that can make fine-tuning their placement kind of tricky, but when everything works as intended it’s a hugely satisfying system. It’s easy to lose hours at a time to something as minor as the way your rocks and flowerbeds are laid out (such is the level of detailed customisation that this game allows for), and it’s all set to some of the most wonderfully atmospheric background music I’ve ever heard in a game of this genre. Combine this with some truly beautiful visuals (the night time ambience is a joy to behold) and you’re able to produce some genuinely great results.
What I’m trying to say, I think, is that if you’re looking for the kind of blank canvas that really lets you take your time, working from the ground up to express yourself down to even the most intricate details, you’ll find a whole lot to love here. You get out what you put in, which is a fine ethos on paper but unfortunately manifests here as something of a definitive ‘right’ way to play if you want to enjoy it. If you – as a great many were, it seems – are looking for a nuanced theme park simulator with fleshed-out management mechanics, by all accounts you’d have more luck elsewhere.
As big a shame as this is, though, I honestly have a pretty hard time caring. I’ll openly admit that I’ve fully bought into the way it seemed the developers wanted players to approach this, and spending hours and hours building what I think a theme park should look like is proving immensely enjoyable. Similarly to Spelunky, there’s a real sense of incremental progression: every park I’ve worked on has been better and more complex than the one before it as my familiarity with the building mechanics grows, and my current project doesn’t use any premade buildings at all.
I can see why some people might be a bit disappointed in the lack of depth, and given how the game was marketed it is certainly far from perfect in its current state. On the other hand, however, it’s only been out for a couple months and there’s already been one big update: if this level of developer support continues over time then I don’t doubt that we’ll gradually see it morph it into a more complete product. Even now, though, I’m having an absolute blast – and if you go into it with patience and a few big ideas then I’m sure you will too.