Theme parks share much in common with video games: both offer an escape from the humdrum mundanities of daily life and the opportunity to immerse oneself in another life, place, and time; and both are capable of providing a vast range of experiences wherein the keywords are fun and engagement. Yet, for all the joy inherent in their shared promise of carefree diversion, both can also become sources of frustration as plans go awry or particular aspects of experience fail to live up to expectations. As a theme park simulator, Planet Coaster, the latest game from Frontier Developments, brings together these two very different forms of entertainment, powerfully—though unintentionally—capturing the curious juxtaposition of amusement and annoyance present in both.
The audiovisual experience of Planet Coaster abounds with childlike exuberance, and this sense of enthusiasm is reinforced by the quality of Frontier’s work in these areas. Light and breezy are the keywords of the background and menu music, resulting in simplistic yet catchy tunes that set a gentle tone for the entire experience. During play, however, this gentleness gives way to a more frenetic soundscape created by the ambience of the theme parks. The ride music (comprised of both original and licensed tracks), the effervescent babble of crowds, and the various audio prompts that accompany player actions come together in a cacophony that draws one deeper into the experience, blotting out the exterior world and acting as a lens to focus much-needed attention on the game’s complex systemic interweavings. Helping to create this effect is the fact that the audio, taken as a whole, is a fairly authentic recreation of the sounds to be expected from carnival environments, though the balancing between music and ambient noise can seem slightly off at times.
Likewise, Planet Coaster’s visuals are unlikely to win any technical merit awards, by the highly stylised plasticine-like aesthetic results in a singularly engaging atmosphere. Bright colours and exaggerated setpieces dominate the visuals, making the game more welcoming still by teasing the eye and heightening the excitement that seems to ooze from every angle and frame. The tremendous effort poured into the audiovisual presentation would be squandered if not for the stunning feat of engineering that allows for dozens of rides, hundreds of environmental artefacts, and thousands of NPCs to appear on screen simultaneously, moving and interacting in dizzying cycles with minimal impact on the player’s ability to manage each theme park—a task similarly awash with moving pieces.
The colourful, family-friendly aesthetic belies a wealth of depth and complexity that demands the player’s full attention, particularly on the higher difficulties of the Career and Challenge modes. The intricacies of Planet Coaster’s systems are both pleasure and pain. Getting lost in statistics and flow data in an attempt to uncover the key to greater foot traffic—and thus profit—is a joy, but the layers of data that must be sifted through and the often seemingly random keys can be almost physically draining. Increasing revenue streams is never as simple as constructing new attractions without thought; placement, scenery, cost of entry, ride prestige, and various other behind-the-scenes statistics all play a role in determining the overall value, and thus utility, of any given ride. To this end, Career mode is a training ground, offering an introduction to the mechanics and demands of the game. First come the fundamentals: buying and building rides, managing money and staff, analysing crowd flows and demographics, and setting up media campaigns. In keeping with the inherent difficulty of the game’s central task of managing a theme park, Planet Coaster, wisely, provides little guidance, preferring to let players learn from mistakes.
As such, even the earliest missions can require several restarts before a winning strategy is found. Although this level of challenge may be off-putting for some, as in the Souls series, perseverance becomes its own reward when breakthroughs are made and a mission’s goals draw ever nearer to achievement. Mastery of the game’s vast number of interlinking systems comes slowly, with introductions to several important features coming quite late in the Career mode after potentially dozens of hours have been poured into learning the ropes. The level of gating involved in this gradual progression towards full understanding of the game’s systems can be frustrating at times, particularly given the need to complete a series of increasingly difficult objectives in order to unlock more of the Career missions, but the layering is sensible—if not entirely necessary—considering the underlying complexity of the game. Each Career difficulty setting comprises of three missions that share a theme, but little else besides. Thus, Planet Coaster offers only the vaguest of motivations and no ongoing narrative to speak of, but such inclusions would undoubtedly seem contrived within a game of this ilk. Of the three game modes on offer, the Career is the most highly structured, while the Sandbox lies at the other end of the spectrum, offering almost unlimited freedom.
The Sandbox provides scope for boundless imagination, but also makes apparent some of the game’s more frustrating issues. Players begin this mode with a vast patch of untrammelled terrain (available in a range of flavours) and an endless supply of cash with which to build a dream park. Following on from the heavy restrictions of the Career, this freedom to construct a masterpiece of entertainment is heady, but the process of doing so threatens to slide into tedium without goals and targets. Some players will nevertheless find joy in planning and building, watching the park grow ever larger, drawing in ever more customers, and constructing ever more intricate rollercoasters, but others will struggle to engage with this mode: a battle against boredom made more difficult by the often fiddly controls. Most interactions are mouse-based with the keyboard frequently acting as a modifier, and while this set-up feels natural enough, problems arise from the camera. The gameplay of Planet Coaster defaults to an isometric viewpoint, though the perspective is fully mobile, able to give a mile-high overview of the park, sit alongside the individual park visitors on the ground level, or even see the park from the first-person perspective of any NPC. While the freewheeling camera allows any perspective to be adopted at any point, finding the best viewing angle for a given situation can be needlessly difficult and determining the location of objects in relation to others, when placing them, can be a frustrating process. Though in most situations these issues are minor, they do flare into true obstacles when putting together rollercoasters—a vital element to the success of most parks given their inimitable value. Augmenting the camera issues in the construction of coasters is the lack of clarity about the utility and purpose of certain track pieces. Despite these problems, however, coaster design is a powerful tool that allows for some breathtaking creations, as even a quick search on YouTube will attest. The Sandbox, then, demands that players set personal goals to make their own fun, which can be a daunting ask. For those who are less enamoured by freedom, but also fight against the shackles imposed by the Career, Challenge mode strikes a happy medium.
As in the Sandbox, players begin Challenge mode with a plot of ground uncluttered by pre-existing assets, but the desire to build is hampered by the existence of number of limitations. The selected difficulty setting modifies the various obstacles to progression, including initial capital and ride breakdown frequency, but ultimately has limited impact on the player’s overall experience. Instead, the true structure of challenge mode arises from the inclusion of an endless series of goals determined by current progress, which may include achieving a certain level of monthly revenue or building a coaster with particular statistics. The subject and timing of these targets are randomised (within certain parameters), making Challenge mode the most dynamic of the three on offer.
Whether they focus on cities, zoos, theme parks, countries, or prisons, management simulators are a niche genre, and Planet Coaster is not likely to change anyone’s mind. Despite failing to appeal to a wider audience than its forebears, Planet Coaster is a game for all seasons with options for players who enjoy both directed and free-form play. Endless layers of complexity, supported by a stunning audiovisual presentation, make for a powerfully engaging game let down slightly by some minor, yet persistent, control flaws and a degree of obfuscation to the behind-the-scenes statistical works that sometimes appear anomalous. Despite these issues, Planet Coaster is rarely unenjoyable, though one could certainly argue that it makes for a better design tool than entertainment product.