Oct 18, 2007
The sandbox (genre) is no place for kids. Between GTA, Saint's Row, and True Crime, lil' Ginny Gamer has smartly stayed the hell out, lest she shovel up murder weapon Uzis or carry home a pail full of sticky condoms. Enter concerned citizen Lucasarts, who with their new theme park grab-bag Thrillville: Off the Rails, has picked out all the used syringes and, sack o' toys in hand, reclaimed the sandbox for preschoolers.
Which, color scheme aside, is not immediately apparent: like its predecessor, Off the Rails puts on airs of complexity. As park manager, you have access to a fairly involved system of menus that directly or indirectly lets you manage things like ride cost, customer thirst, marketing campaigns, and park research. These things invariably work as they should, are respectably complex, and are of almost no consequence: in Off the Rails, like in Kindergarten, everyone's a winner! Don't want to waste time building basic amenities to keep people spending money in your park? That's OK, just play the "plot"-advancing missions (usually gussied-up versions of one of the game's 34 minigames) and you'll never run out of cash. Losing at one of the easier-than-blinking minigames? Wipe away those tears, little guy - you still get a prize.
The absence of consequence, difficulty or narrative priorities - you can unlock the game's 5 parks in about as many hours - frees the gamer up to do whatever, which is admittedly almost always fun. The minigames are all playable and frequently entertaining, from a Snood-like puzzler (which somehow trains your food staff… to play Snood), to a rhythm game that trains your cheerleaders (more plausible), to the all-new Tank Frenzy, which is just like a vertical-scrolling arcade shooter from 1990 but really, really easy. Special mention goes to Bandito Chinchilla, which is basically what Streets of Rage would be if it starred the Taco Bell dog and was directed by Robert Rodriguez. The roller-coaster design is still enjoyable and offensive to physicists, although a game this kid-friendly should have a more fool-proof track auto-complete.
Most additions to the original game seem to have been made according to the design principle "wouldn't it be neat if…?!" And so, you can paint your Whirligig with cool racing stripes! You can put a ring of flame around your roller coaster track! You can chat with guests about crappy school lunches! They sure suck! It's also super neat that Frontier has slapped a fresh coat of varnish on the 360 version, although buying Thrillville for this reason is like riding the kiddie train at Six Flags because it's shinier than all the roller coasters. Plot, which is never neat, stays at home because it gets sick on coasters; from time to time you are confronted with cutscenes of your boss, a Doc Brown clone who seems about forty years away from making something as cool as the Delorean.
Like any tolerable children's entertainment, Off the Rails contains a smattering of moments that will make adults smile: a robot-related mission is called Paranoid Android, and a Pac-Man style minigame is set to the Monkey Island theme music. Yet the much-vaunted social interaction - what should be an incentive for grownups to play the game - disappoints. The dialogue is clever, but this is no branching, subtle conversation (like, say, KOTOR); rather, it's a series of semi-amusing non-sequiturs.
In other words, like the rest of the game, it's perfect for children, for whom things don't have to "be integrated" or "logical". A series of semi-amusing, unconnected activities: sounds a lot like a sandbox, which, once you graduate middle school, loses its charm unless you can bring your gat.