Thrillville: Off the Rails
On paper, the Thrillville series is a great idea. By taking the theme park management of Bullfrog's 'Theme Park' and adding in a fully 3D park to wander around as well as a huge selection of ride-based mini games to enjoy it sounds like everything is setup for a great little game. So it's somewhat unfortunate to find that the end result is less than the sum of its parts.
While there's nothing wrong with a bit of ambition in a game there are times when Thrillville: Off the Rails could have done with deciding exactly what kind of game it wants to be. On the one hand we have the park management end of things where a confusing and counter intuitive series of menus and information screens try to allow you to meddle with the finer points of park management, anything from ticket prices to advertising campaigns. Then on the other hand we have the mini games, a varied and enjoyable collection that are by far the highlight of the game. Attempting to hold the whole thing together is the theme park itself where you can wander around interacting with customers and generally surveying your domain.
The single player game puts you in the role of park manager. Your aim is to ensure the guests are kept happy, schmooze visiting critics and generally ensure your park's reputation is maintained. The better you do the more thrill points you're awarded and the more of them you win the more new parks you're able to take control of.
For a game based around running your own theme park it's a shame that this is by far the weakest part of the game. As management sims go this is one of your more basic offerings, and it's telling that almost whatever you do it has little real reflection on your park's success or failure. Your time is much better spent completing the various missions that present themselves; these can range from converting a sceptical newspaper critic or recruiting new staff, to building a particular type of ride.
I assume that the developers were hoping people would spend most of their time exploring on foot, designing and managing the park based on comments from people they meet. However, by providing a handy list of missions complete with a 'warp' option to take you directly to the person or place in question the need to actually spend time wandering in your park is significantly diminished leaving you running the game almost entirely through the menus. It's almost impressive that the horribly designed menus still provide a far quicker (albeit less visually interesting) way to get from objective to objective than walking around the park yourself would.
Of course half of the fun of theme park games is the placement of the rides and stalls themselves, and in this area Off the Rails gets it right. It's easy enough to pick a new attraction and drop it into a space in the park; your only limiting factors are the available space and power. You'll need to keep an eye on what your visitors want to ensure you continue to provide the kind of park they want but most of the time as long as you make sure there's enough of the basics like drinks stalls around then you can pretty much do what you want.
Best of all, once you've built a ride you get to play it as each one turns into its own mini game. There are fifty of these mini games and considering the normal hit or miss ratio of these things the mini games in Off the Rails are impressively well done. Covering as many of gaming's traditional bases as possible the collection sees knockoffs of arcade staples like Offroad, Gauntlet and 1942 as well as entries into the fighting, racing, FPS, puzzle, flying and platform genres. In a nice touch you get the chance to design your own tracks for the racing games and while the actual interface is a pain to use the end results can be highly entertaining. Helpfully you can play all these games from the main menu outside of the actual game, while this is great because they're by far the best part of Off the Rails, it does mean there's less need to bother continuing to play the park management side of things after you've seen everything it has to offer.
While it's easy to be critical of the dull bits to give Off the Rails some credit it does seem to realise that most of the fun comes from the mini games because it integrates them into the campaign at every opportunity. From staff training via rhythm action dancing or rubbish hovering games to puzzle based ride repairs and high score challenges set by guests, the game does its best to find any excuse for a mini game of some sort at all opportunities.
Of course it's not all mini games; for some people the main attraction will be the roller coasters which can be designed from scratch or bought off the shelf. The interface for coaster design is similar to that for the race track creation and is just as flawed, perhaps even more so considering the added complexity offered by a coaster. How much time you spend on this will depend on your patience and how much fun you get out of riding your creation upon completion. Personally I'm not really sure where the fun is in 'virtual' coaster riding but the success of games like Roller Coaster Tycoon indicates I may be in the minority there.
Thrillville isn't the best looking game ever to grace the PSP, in fact at times it looks downright sloppy. There's a real sense that the PSP version was probably the least cared-for as framerate issues and some painfully long loading times prove to be a continual bugbear, especially when you consider the lack of graphical bells and whistles on display in the first place.
Thrillville: Off the Rails is a strange double edged sword of a game, as a collection of mini games it's probably the best on the PSP, so good in fact that the theme park management elements you're forced to keep an eye on actually become an irritation after a while. If it had abandoned the design and management side of things and just concentrated on being an interactive theme park we'd have been talking about a much higher score. As it is, much like the theme park employee who spends their working day looking forward to lunchtime so they can have some fun, Off the Rails is stuck being a boring management game set in a really enjoyable theme park.