NOTE: As is the nature of mobile games, it is possible this game may undergo changes to its gameplay design, monetization model, or it may include limited time events. This is a review of the game’s state as of January 30th, 2018.
There’s a beautiful simplicity to Mini Metro’s presentation. A railway manager can have plenty of details and minutia to get lost in, but Mini Metro strips the concept down to its bare bones and tasks you with drawing very simple lines between stations for the rail cars to travel across. The visuals are pared down to only what is needed, with different shapes representing the train stations people want to go to and the people taking on the shapes of the station they desire as their destination. Add some rectangles that can hold those people and lines to carry those rectangles and you’ve got the entirety of Mini Metro’s visuals, but the limited visuals allow you to focus on the task at hand, the effective running of a railway system across a few different real world cities.
Creating railways in Mini Metro is a snap, a simple dragging of a line between stations creating your route, although sometimes you might have to pull on the line a bit to make it the best angle for the trains to travel across. There are a few rules restricting you from just going nuts with the lines, beginning with a limitation on how many lines you can have going at once. Every level starts you off with at least three lines and three trains to put on them, although if you’re savvy you can try and figure out how to make each line as optimal as possible and put those trains on the main line instead of splitting them across many. So long as you prevent any of your stations from getting overcrowded with waiting passengers, you can keep the game going, gradually unlocking new engines for your line and getting a choice between different helpful items like more lines, extra carriages for the trains, or bridges or tunnels that allow the trains to travel across water. Almost every city starts of pretty slow and manageable, the game putting in a fast forward feature to help you get through the early slowness after you’ve got a hang of how to make proper railways, but over time more stations will pop up that ask you to replan your lines or add to them, the clean simplicity of your earlier designs descending slowly into the winding chaotic spiderwebs of intertwining tracks as you try and make sure that everyone gets where they need to go. Somehow, this manages to be both relaxing and suspenseful at the same time, the constant need to keep up with the changing demands of the city keeping you active but the sight of your layouts working away cleanly keeping it from growing too hectic. Even with fast forward on though there will be slow moments where you are just waiting for the next station to crop up and force a change of plans, or you might be desperately looking at the clock and hoping that the week will roll over so you can get new tools to help your lines expand.
Mini Metro’s gameplay is wonderfully designed, and besides a few hiccups with the touch controls that crop up when trying to rearrange your lines, it works exactly how it should for the most part. You can, if you wish, pause the game too in order to rearrange your lines, so having to do a major overhaul is not a death knell. Sadly, Mini Metro’s design starts at a pretty good point but never pushes beyond it. The game has many different cities to unlock for you to build rail systems for, but besides the presence of water to bridge or tunnel under, the city rarely has an effect on the actual gameplay. Rarely, a level might introduce a new twist on the formula, like the Japanese city that gives you occasional bullet trains that move much faster than your other engines or the smaller passenger cars of Mumbai that necessitate higher quantities of carriages and engines. For some reason though, these gimmicks are pretty much locked to that single level, with most of them feeling exactly the same even if the level nominally has more stations popping up or more demanding passengers. I realize minimalism is a core tenet of this game’s design, but it can make levels feel too basic because of it. The need to score high enough to unlock the next city at least gives the game a bit of a goal outside of just playing it, and when you fail at reaching it, it’s pretty enticing initially to try and restructure your plans and go right back into it.
The major problem with planning in Mini Metro though has to be how easy it is to game. Some aspects of the design you might keen to naturally and their addition makes the game more fun, such as making loops out of your railways instead of bending lines. The biggest flaw though comes in the fact that you can move trains freely between different tracks, the train dumping its passengers at the next station to wait and switching to where you dropped them after a short delay. This means that if you have one station that’s about to be overcrowded, it’s not too difficult to grab a train that isn’t too busy and plop it on top of it, emptying the station to extend your time in a way that doesn’t feel clever and feels counter-intuitive to the rest of the game’s design. Sure, you won’t get far with sloppy transit lines no matter how much you abuse that aspect, but it does undermine the game’s focus on making optimal routes when you can just slam a bunch of engines around to empty problem stations. If you wish to try the other modes though, you at least won’t find that exploit to be functional anymore. Endless mode initially might seem like a mode that is more relaxed and goalless, but the game manages to add some progression to it. You cannot truly lose in Endless mode, but you are instead tasked with growing an ever more efficient rail system, the game rewarding you once you’ve hit milestones for passengers delivered per day. Since there is no pressure of failure, there’s no reason to do anything too unusual to keep going, and it is nice to gradually make the metro function better and better over time. Extreme mode is a shift in the opposite direction, the levels themselves already a challenge to unlock and the game requiring more intelligent line placement as every line and engine you place is a permanent decision and cannot be adjusted in any way, only expanded. Expert mode is much slower to accommodate this though, but while it avoids the workarounds of the regular play, it doesn’t really make the game too much more interesting as it focuses more on immediate results rather than the efficiency you can manage through reworking older lines in the other modes.
THE VERDICT: Mini Metro is a fine game to get lost in, and I often found myself surprised when I’d see how long I had been playing a city before I had lost. Endless mode only makes that even easier to do, but Mini Metro ends up being more of an idle amusement then a game that can keep its hooks in your for too long. Adding more city layouts is a nice idea, but the layouts mostly fail to distinguish themselves from one another save where some water was plopped down, and most every game session boils down to you executing the same few things once you’ve figured out what works best in the game. Building the metro thankfully never gets boring, it just never really evolves beyond the sum of its parts.
And so, I give Mini Metro for iOS…
A GOOD rating. Making something minimalist can sometimes limit its potential, and while the ease of understanding with the visuals makes for why Mini Metro is an appealing game, the game resists adding extra elements to it that could keep the levels interesting. As it stands, Mini Metro is mostly a progression of you finding out the optimal way to design most any metro regardless of the city, you just sometimes have to rework it a little if you need to cross some water. The learning experience is fun, but after you’ve got the basics down, there’s not much left to the game save slight tinkering. Adding more things like the bullet trains that require unique adjustments to your game plan would help Mini Metro in retaining that early appeal of trying to get better and better at building the rail system. For now though, the “Mini” part of the title appears more important than the “Metro”, but at least you can enjoy this game in small bursts with its satisfying sensation of getting a bunch of small things working in expert harmony.