Don't let the name fool you. While Loco Mania sure seems like a run-of-the-mill train simulator at first glance, the first North American retail release from Czech developer 7FX is geared more for puzzle fans than the choo-choo set. Yet even though this might not be what you're expecting from the box cover, the gimmicky gameplay about dispatching trains has an arcade hook that ought to reel you in. If not for a few issues with the cumbersome interface and camera system, as well as one noteworthy technical quirk, this would be a perfect time killer about riding the rails.
Railroading in Loco Mania is mostly just for show. Although you play a train dispatcher overseeing rail lines that resemble the elaborate setups slapped together by model-train enthusiasts, the theme is no more than skin deep. Since the only goal here is to get trains from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time, you might as well be directing freeway traffic or guiding mice through a maze. There is no messing around with different classes of locomotives, no setting speed records with the 0-4-0 Grasshopper, no hauling coal from Pittsburgh to New York City, and no playing the stock market for fame and fortune.
So Sid Meier's Railroads! it ain't. Instead of trying to forge a Jay Gould-style shipping empire, you guide generic US- or Czech-style locomotives and their cars from entry points on each map to set destinations. Everything is color coded, making it a snap to check out which train needs to go where as soon as it appears. A train with a green icon above its locomotive has to be directed to the green exit, a train with a black icon has to make its way to the black exit, and so forth. The few variations include trains that have to make station stops before being allowed to depart the map, trains that have to exit before a timer expires, and trains that can't stop at all because of loads of hazardous materials. A brief tutorial is included, along with the option of activating pop-up assistance through the first mission, but help isn't needed to grasp the simple game mechanics.
Still, Loco Mania is one of those easy-to-learn puzzlers that is deceptively tough to master. Getting trains to their assigned stations and exits involves navigating through labyrinths of looping lines interconnected with switches that route trains onto different tracks. You need to study maps and strategize before letting even a single train get rolling, as you have to plot out switches and maximize efficiency. One switching mistake means a lot of wasted time, because trains move awfully slow in reverse and you can only halt them in odd places by turning a signal red or moving a two-way switch. But you can't put too much time into planning, either, as trains share entry and exit points at the edges of maps. Spend too long micromanaging the travails of one train, and you'll wind up getting bogged down in traffic jams with trains trying to enter and leave the map on the same lines.
As far as game concepts go, this one is admittedly simplistic. Still, just try and stop playing. Maps gradually ramp up in complexity, providing a steady learning curve with the continual addition of more lines and multiple train stops. You can feel yourself getting more skilled at switching on the fly and determining routes. Addiction sinks in quickly, and you soon find yourself absorbed in plotting out the most time-saving routes and replaying maps to better your scores and times.
Drawbacks make Loco Mania jump the tracks on occasion. A runtime error on start-up made it unplayable on one test system, although a second machine ran the game flawlessly. The interface is an acquired taste. You get used to it, but the lack of a minimap, the inability to scroll the camera with the mouse cursor, and little problems like overly tiny signal lights make for clumsy navigation. Game modes are single-player only (although you can post scores and times to an online leaderboard) and aren't very imaginative. Time attack and time attack unlimited see you scoring points for getting trains off maps, with the only difference between the two being that the former has a victory condition while the latter has no set finish. Free run is essentially a sandbox mode. And check point is just a race against the clock to get trains off maps.
Lack of imagination is also an issue with map design. There are just 12 maps in the entire game, and all but the first are locked out until you start winning scenarios. So there's no room to skip around if you get stuck on a map or just don't care for your surroundings. Maps are wonderfully intricate, though. Many are so involved that it can take hours to figure them out, so you still get a lot of bang for your 20 bucks. You can't quite say the same about the game's pedestrian look and sound. Map scenery is comprised of generic desert plains, green hills, and snowy mountains drawn with a graphical engine that's three or four years behind the times. Trains are drawn from a small pool of bland locomotive and car styles. Audio effects are similarly limited. Trains don't make much noise at all, and the music sounds like something you could have heard in a JCPenney circa 1976.
Simplicity and quirks might get the best of Loco Mania eventually, but you can still count on wringing quite a few enjoyable hours out of it. While there isn't a great deal of depth here, the train-dispatching concept is a brain-twisting winner, and though the game itself doesn't always live up to the strength of the concept, it can be quite fun all the same.