Fun for all the family.
Whereas simulation games have a reputation for being a little dry (or not even actual simulators), theme park simulations are arguably some of the more entertaining in the genre. Rollercoaster Tycoon held the gold standard for theme park games in its heyday, but after the recent sequel disgraced the franchise beyond belief, only Planet Coaster has carried the balloon in its stead. That is, until now.
Parkitect was created by a tiny team of just two people – three if you count the sound designer. And considering that, they’ve accomplished something wonderful. From its 2014 Kickstarter to the two-and-a-half-year Early Access phase, it’s been a while coming – but it was worth the wait. This plucky upstart truly relives the glory days of theme park sims.
What I didn’t expect is that the campaign mode of Parkitect would be the highlight. There’s a surprising amount of scenarios to sink your teeth into – 26, in all – which will keep you going for hours. Each one is loosely themed, ranging from fantasy to Western or simply picturesque woodland, and has unique objectives and level constraints or advantages.
An early stage is set on an abandoned airport, for example, on which you have to build your park within the narrow physical space of the runway. But rather than feel constricting, these limitations force you to get creative, and the challenges are all the better for it.
What’s also enjoyable about the campaign is the churn ‘n’ burn factor. Most missions encourage you to have finished up your objectives by the end of year one or two, so you don’t have to truly think long-term. It doesn’t matter whether your layout is the most efficient, if you’re plunging yourself into debt or if your park looks shoddy – you’ll be moving onto the next one soon enough anyway. All that matters is whether you tick those boxes. Whereas this way of thinking may go against those who like to play the long game, you’re still welcome to carry on running your park long after the objectives are completed, should you get attached to it.
Parkitect takes park management seriously, going another step beyond its peers. Sure, you’ve had to hire janitors and engineers in other park sims, but have you had to cater to them with staff rooms and improve their skills through training centres? And you’ve built balloon stalls and hotdog vendors to nickel and dime your visitors, but have you had to build an elaborate stock distribution network out of underground service tunnels, delivery staff and specialised paving? And have you dealt with the aesthetic repercussions of these networks, and had to block their visibility with trees, fences and shrubbery?
What’s surprising about this extra level of depth is that it’s anything but a chore. On paper, this busywork may sound menial but in practice, it’s rarely dull or unmanageable. Rather, it enriches the experience by providing more to think about than simply plonking down some rollercoasters and raising their prices as high as you can get away with.
There’s the occasional quirk, like how in the earlier campaign missions your guests will complain about there not being enough high-intensity rides when you don’t have access to the research or funds at that stage to create any. But on the whole, some extra care and thoughtfulness will let you successfully fill out your park metrics and reap the benefits in park popularity and visitor happiness.
Unfortunately, there’s one important mechanic which drags the experience down. I get frustrated in park sims sometimes by building my own rollercoasters, and Parkitect is no exception. In fact, it’s particularly egregious, with a steep learning curve and fiddly controls. Elevation is a major culprit of this frustration, going down into eighths of a metre – which makes it really awkward to line everything up properly.
With practice, ride design becomes less of a daunting task but it’s never entirely smooth, with matching the station height at the end being the most annoying task. This has led to me having to significantly rethink designs or simply abandon them altogether. A more user-friendly approach would have made rollercoaster building the joyful and rewarding experience that you’d hope for.
Alleviating this problem somewhat is Steam Workshop integration, a real boon. If you’re not confident enough yet to build your own rollercoaster from scratch you can simply use a premade one. While far from exhaustive, the Early Access period has already birthed a variety of user-created designs spanning a range of sizes, costs and intensities. Hopefully the full release – and the regular community coaster design competitions – should foster an even larger selection able to suit all needs.
Visually, Parkitect is very simple with basic geometry and details, but it’s nonetheless bright, colorful and charming. This was a great decision – it runs on practically anything. I tried it out on a cranky old laptop with an integrated card, and with a few of the settings dialled down it ran smooth as butter. This is a significant advantage over Planet Coaster, which looks great but needs at least a low/mid-end gaming system to run properly.
The user interface looks a little outdated or workmanlike in places, but this is only a minor quibble. What’s important is that it’s generally functional and does a good job of presenting all of the information you need. The heatmap function, in particular, is excellent, showing the exact levels of decoration, trash, noise and more across every area of your park.
If Parkitect’s small but obviously dedicated team can refine this already impressive offering over time – particularly the hostile track design mechanics – it’ll be absolutely essential. As it stands, Parkitect is already without a doubt one of the best theme park games in years.
[Reviewed on PC]