It’s hard to find a survival game with an original premise these days. Dinosaurs? Done. Alien worlds? Done. Zombies? Done to (un)death. But how about a survival game where you pilot a steampunk freight train through a surreal transdimensional nether realm? That… that sounds interesting.
It was that intriguing premise that led me to check out the recent demo of the co-op survivalbox Voidtrain offered as part of Steam’s Next Fest. And let me tell you, this was one truly terrible demo.
My time with Voidtrain had a rocky start as the character customization screen greeted me with perhaps the ugliest video game character I’d ever seen. You think New World‘s character models are bad? I’ll never complain about them again. This was the sort of mind-breaking horror H.P. Lovecraft tried to warn us about.
I wondered if the randomizer had just created something horrible through a tragic accident of RNG or if the character models in this game are just that bad. Turns out the answer was “both.” The randomizer had spit out basically the ugliest character possible, but even after I adjusted every possible setting, my character still looked like the wicked witch from any random fairytale (I was going for “stylish Victorian socialite”).
Alas I do not have any screenshots of the original horror the game unleashed upon me; the image in the header is my improved version, believe it or not. That’s the best-looking character I could make in this game.
Thankfully the game is played in first person anyway, so I didn’t have to stare at my character’s unfortunate features for long. I headed off into the tutorial, led along by a goofy, tongue-in-cheek narrator. I wouldn’t call the game’s humour laugh-out-loud-funny by any stretch, but it did have a certain cheesy charm.
On a routine maintenance mission, your plucky engineer encounters a strange laboratory, and after flipping the wrong switch, you find yourself sucked into a bizarre void realm inexplicably crisscrossed by train tracks. With a single trolley car to call home, your only choice is to go forward.
Here’s where the traditional survival gameplay kicks in. You have to salvage materials from the void’s floating debris to upgrade your train and craft new equipment (I assume — the demo didn’t include any actual equipment crafting).
There’s no gravity in the void, so you can simply swim through the air to get wherever you want to go. Your engineer, being a sensible sort of person, remains tethered to your train at all times. This prevents you from getting lost, but also means you can’t venture too far away from your train.
Once again, moving slowly but steadily forward is your only option. You can even keep your train running while you’re out and about and gather as it moves, so long as you keep its speed low and keep up a good pace yourself. The tether means your train can’t ever leave you behind.
And that’s… basically it. The demo took me 90 minutes to finish, but it felt like much longer, and in all that time, I did almost nothing but float around picking up sticks and bits of scrap metal. Resources are scattered pretty far and wide, so it takes a long time to gather enough materials to craft anything.
I realize that patience does tend to be a virtue in these sort of games, but this definitely felt slower than most. After a while I started to feel like this was less a survival game and more a time management sim. It takes so long to do anything that you want to constantly be in motion. Set your crafting stations to work, set your train to roll forward slowly, and gather as you go, pausing occasional to do more crafting. It was, to be blunt, very boring.
Near the end of the demo, things got a little more interesting. I encountered a very fascist-looking abandoned base, where I found a revolver and used the facilities to add an extra car to my train. Infuriatingly, after an hour of scrabbling for the slightest scrap of wood or metal, I found the base was full of crates, boards, and other random detritus, none of which can be collected or interacted with.
Shortly thereafter, I caught sight of another train in the fog. Finally, some excitement, I thought!
And there the demo ended.
I swear this demo feels calculated to be as off-putting as possible. A long and tedious tutorial is one thing, but including nothing but a long and tedious tutorial — and making sure to cut people off the moment it looks like something interesting will happen — takes some real gall.
The teaser at the end of the demo promised puzzle islands and enemy trains. Its Steam page showcases strange creatures of the void and talks about minigames and NPC crewmembers. The screenshots showcase colourful, diverse environments. None of that is in the demo.
There wasn’t even any combat, not really. There some leeches that latched onto my train to slow it down, but they were easily slain. There was this one flying fish that nibbled on my train a few times, but it didn’t seem to do any damage, and it fled the moment I started taking pot shots with my revolver.
There weren’t even any classic survival elements on display. I had what looked like a hunger meter, but nothing at all happened when it ran out. Maybe it was disabled for the demo, but I didn’t encounter anything that looked remotely like a source of food. Maybe it’s one of those things where being well-fed just gives you a buff?
I still think there could be a good game here. Lots of games have bad tutorials and then get better. But whatever virtues Voidtrain might have, they were absent from this demo. I’d still like to see more of the game, but I’d be really hesitant to spend money on it now, in case it doesn’t get better after the opening 90 minutes. I want to encourage developers to offer free demos more often, but in this case they really would have been better off showing nothing at all.