Mini Metro ~ Review

With the recent release of the Switch port, Eye Moustaches gets on the hype-train to report on the PC and mobile versions

[reposted from Medium]

There’s a rhythm to public transport. The clacking of the train on the struts or the hum of the bus engine. So too is there a rhythm to Mini Metro, the game by Dinosaur Polo club in which you lay down routes and coordinate trains and trams inspired by real world metropolitan transport networks.

It has a rich, hypnotic soundscape that gradually fills out as you play. The clicks, pops and droplets (to name a few) that accompany new passengers and stations appearing on the map. The ringing of the lines as you mark out new routes, at first a low hum, but increasing in pitch with every new connection. The distinctive sound of each of your trains as they make their way from stop to stop, for some a low buzzing, for others a sound that calls to mind the chugging of a steam engine. The indignant beeps of passengers left waiting too long.

Is this “Game Feel” in action? If so, I suspect this may be the game-feeliest game I’ve ever game-felt, rich in lovely little touches (the ticking clock sound that plays after you adjust the game speed, sped up in line with whether you chose normal or fast, for instance) that make it both aurally and visually pleasing to spend time with. On my first session playing the game I’m ashamed to say I was utterly transfixed for I don’t want to know how long. It’s an excellent blend of aesthetics and gently taxing gameplay that makes it hard to put down.

As mentioned, it puts you in charge of a public transport network, albeit in a very abstract sense. There are no real menus, no advisors popping up to suggest you invest in a new type of carriage, no investment options at all really. Instead, you’re given new resources as a reward for reaching the end of an in-game week to complement the ones you’re given at the start of the run. Your staples are lines, trains to run along them, tunnels (or bridges) to cross waterways and additional carriages for your trains.

Stations are represented by nodes on the map in a particular shape and passengers as dots consisting of those same shapes. Both spawn in at random locations on the screen, your challenge is simply to get the latter to the appropriately shaped former with as little waiting around as possible. In Normal Mode, lines can be changed or reset entirely and trains can be deposited onto a new line as soon as they reach the next station on their current course. Both options can be helpful in a pinch if one of your stations is nearing capacity and its existing trains are full.

The different maps add in extra mechanics and variations of the core experience. In Osaka, for example, you’re given an occasional choice of two trains or a single Shinkansen bullet train which must be approached differently to get the most from it (it’s very fast, but this only really becomes apparent when it is allowed to run a long distance without stopping). In the first map (London) and a few others, you’re given the option to permanently make two stations into interchanges. This increases their speed of passenger transfer and instantly boosts the station’s maximum capacity, making them a handy get-out-of-jail free card. Other maps give you more trains to begin with or force you to make do with smaller trains that carry fewer passengers.

Upon losing you’re given the option to continue your run in Endless Mode, in which you can’t lose, but your priorities shift to increasing the efficiency of your network to unlock new upgrades, rather than trying to last as long as possible. The Daily Challenge offers a Spelunky-esque (or Dead Cells-esque as this is 2018) challenge shared by all players worldwide at once, as well as a glimpse at bonus maps and an experience of Extreme Mode (in which track and train placements are permanent) for players who haven’t unlocked it yet.

A screenshot taken in Endless Mode

Unlocking Extreme Mode, or the challenge involved in meeting the criteria brings up one of my criticisms of the game; it can be hard to improve your performance. The Daily Challenge scoreboard makes it clear that there is a higher level of performance out there, but damn if it isn’t unclear what it might involve. Ring roads, central processing hubs, circular lines, non-circular lines, circular central processing hubs, lines that hit literally every station on the board (shut up, that one actually kind of worked), complicated alternating patterns, I’ve tried them all with no major success. This is compounded by the at times opaque logic that dictates when passengers will board a train. Many a time I’ve watched in mild horror as a train I re-purposed to clear out a station in an emergency pulls out of that station half empty.

Perhaps the skill is simply patience mixed with a little crisis management? Could it be that there is no ideal setup? It’s certainly the case that the longer you play, both overall and in a particular session, the harder it becomes to ignore the sensation that you’re essentially in a fight with entropy itself as that relaxing wall of sound is replaced by the constant squabbling of passengers who have been waiting too long at their stop. It starts to feel futile as each crisis averted merely leads into the next one. For all of the liberties the game takes with real life transport systems in the interest of gameplay (passengers who consider two stations on the opposite sides of Manhattan to be equally preferable, your godlike ability to remodel entire networks in a split second and so on), I doubt Mike Brown, Transport For London Commissioner, has to contend with people opening up and then queuing at stations that aren’t connected to the network yet.

On the mobile version, there are also a few noticeable UI quirks that need to be acknowledged. Connecting and adjusting train lines is often a little fiddly, as is trying to place trains onto a new line without constantly zooming in and out. There’s also the strange decision to “hide” the buttons that delete an entire track (which on its own makes sense) by making you have to swipe them first. On my phone, due to their position on the right-hand side of the screen, this brings up the phone’s own menu (to go back or go home etc) which has to be dismissed to proceed. As I write this, the Switch version has been released and it will be interesting to see what the final verdict is on its controls.

Ultimately, Mini Metro may not be the most mechanically deep game, it’s difficult to see how to improve on your scores without just committing a lot of time to individual runs and some good fortune in station placement. This doesn’t take away entirely from the experience of playing it, these misgivings aside it is still a fun and at times mesmerising way to spend a few minutes, an hour or a couple of hours (don’t actually do this). There’s something really satisfying about watching the network you’ve pieced together in a constant state of flux as gradually, everyone (well, most of them) gets where they need to go.

8/10

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