Building a business takes time. It takes money, patience, and a willingness to endure the lean times on the chance that you can one day enjoy returns on all your hard-worn investments. Transport Empire does a surprisingly good job of conveying these truths through the medium of a steampunk-esque railroad company. Unfortunately it doesn’t do this intentionally, or to enjoyable effect.
Gameplay is as simple as picking a contract, assigning a train, and waiting. That’s it. There are some elements of town and infrastructure development and upgrading, but essentially all gameplay decisions in Transport Empire boil down to “commit resources, wait for return, repeat.” This well-worn game design can feel repetitive if not done well, and Transport Empire simply doesn’t do it well enough. The game does little to teach you how your decisions could be more effective — the tutorial sequences are just machine-gun “click here, now click here, now you’re done” affairs. If there is any real strategic depth to favoring certain contracts over others, I couldn’t find it — and as build and contract times lengthened I was less inclined to go looking.
The nicest thing about Transport Empire is its visuals. The world map is pleasantly pastoral, though it is covered in fog until you gain access to new areas, and towns are colorful and well-drawn. The steampunk aesthetic is cool and the character designs are neat, appropriately clad in top hats and gears. Unfortunately these elements actually miss-match the tone of the game, as there is very little that is excitingly anachronistic about the gameplay. Sure you can eventually add airships to your fleet of trains and boats, but that promise doesn’t really offer anything new. The aesthetic/gameplay disparity actually makes one long for the cool steampunk game that could have been.
All games of this type feature mechanisms that are ultimately designed to make the player invest in premium currency, and there is nothing wrong with that. Transport Empire does it too soon and too frequently, leaving you with nothing to do much of the time unless you spend extra resources to complete tasks immediately. The game does tease an overarching narrative, having to do with an estranged transit baroness and her family’s company, but it is neither well-written nor compelling, and adds nothing to the dry gameplay.
I recognize that games of this type are not designed to be action-packed, but my time with Transport Empire was boring. There really isn’t a nice way to say that, but there it is. While the visuals are good, the core gameplay feels somewhat pointless. This may have been mitigated if delivery contracts didn’t take so long on average to complete, of if there was just one other element to the game, but as it stands Transport Empire doesn’t make you feel like a powerful captain of industry — it makes you feel like a desk clerk who has to occasionally take breaks from playing other games to fire off some paperwork about the train schedule.