Thrillville: Off the Rails DS Review

Last night, I had a dream.

In this dream, I had a theme park, and was the happiest man alive. I woke up every morning, brushed my teeth (of course), and whiled away the hours tinkering with cola prices, ride designs and hiring men in rhino costumes to entertain my guests. I didn’t make my staff call vomiting “protein expulsion” or wait until punters with heart attacks were safely off my property before letting the doctors declare them dead, hence claiming there’s no deaths in my magical kingdom. There were no strikes, no stockholders and no incomes to worry about. My theme park was a magical place, of joy and innocence, where nothing went wrong and everyone loved me, no matter what.

Upon waking from this horrible nightmare, I plucked Thrillville: Off the Rails from my DS, stroked my pristine and original copy of Theme Park and kissed the portrait of the Bullfrog programming team that hangs above my bed. If Theme Park is the hot dog (meaty, juicy, suspiciously addictive), Thrillville is candyfloss. It’s cute, cuddly and ultimately thin.

Sure, it has nice graphics. The colourful visuals and 3d splendiferousness look great on the DS, with sharp, clean menus and smooth animations. The spinning globe which acts as a hub connecting your various parks together looks particularly snazzy, and belied a genuinely unexpected visual flair. The default view while in a park is a top down, isometric-style camera angle, which focuses mainly on your in-game avatar, selected from a roster of cute characters at the outset. A small design flaw is that the 3d camera cannot be zoomed out further than the default, making it harder to get a wide perspective of the layout of your park.

The characters themselves, as well as your guests, are quite nicely animated, with some of the avatars possessing indisputable charm. Looking somewhat similar to the avatar characters of the recent MySims game, reviewed earlier in the year by Chris, the cute factor has been deliberately set to eleven. Another quite nice touch is the snazzy graphics involved in the various rides, as well as the sideshows, each of which is a mini-game in its own right. Clearly, a great deal of effort has been put into making Thrillville as nice as possible.

However, when it comes to gameplay, Off the Rails is as flat as a pancake. Firstly, your parks require next to no interaction to keep going. Only the most minimal of skill is required to control your finances, and the likes of ticket prices and staff costs entirely pre-set. Building your park has been simplified from the Theme Park standard of laying down pathways and placing rides and queues where they fit to simply plonking down attractions into vacant build plots. Rarely, if ever, will you have to scrimp and save to build your new ride, which almost never breaks down and never blows up. The game even takes staff control out of your hands, controlling handymen entirely automatically. It sounds sad, I know, but I used to take great pleasure in ensuring efficient and even vomit-sweeping coverage for my entire parks in Theme Park’s heyday.

This degree of simplicity even extends into the “missions” assigned to you as part of the flimsy storyline. Apparently, the Thrillville parks are under threat from a menacing corporate take-over. It’s up to you, the player, to heroically save the day and thwart their evil plans. Of course, this is achieved by playing mini-game after mini-game against the A.I., which often bares little if any relevance to what event is actually going on in-game. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the sheer lack of challenge involved in winning these mini-games means that the lack of skill required to set up and run your theme park is even more jarring. Casual gaming is supposed to be easy – but this easy?

As the game progresses, you move from one themed park to another, working your way up the corporate ladder to supposedly bigger and better things. The scale of things never really feels all that daunting, however, as your guests are nearly always guaranteed to love you no matter what you do. The sole motivation for building better rides is to gain more Thrills. Thrills are the second currency of the game, used solely to build rollercoasters. The coasters themselves are a set price, in terms of cash, but in order to make them truly exciting and “off-the-rails” (see what they did there?), you have to spend thrills upgrading them with loops and slaloms and all the rest. There’s a limited number of permutations, however, and as a game-play mechanic, it never really moves beyond a novelty.

Indeed, the same can be said for the entire experience. Thrillville never really seems to take off from the tutorial level, holding your hand and keeping you from having to deal with all the nasty numbers and statistics that theme park sim fans have come to expect. The emphasis is firmly on mini-games, short attention spans and the dreaded “family fun” factor. Compared to the seminal Theme Park (last time I mention it, honest!), there’s simply nothing to this game – like a soap bubble, it looks pretty and shiny, but try and play with it and it pops.

Go buy Theme Park (yeah, I lied).