Having a bad day? Week? Year? Planet Coaster is here to help.
It won’t unelect anyone, or bring anyone back from the dead, or uncook the planet, but it will, for brief, shining moments of time, make you forget everything else except the fact you feel very, very good while playing it.
Planet Coaster is a theme park management game. No twists, no bold new ideas, it’s simply a 2016 take on classics like Theme Park or Roller Coaster Tycoon. You build a theme park, you design some roller coasters, you hire janitors, you watch people puke.
What makes Planet Coaster so good, though, and what sets it apart from even those genre heavyweights, is its excellence in two areas.
The first is its presentation. Like TP and RCT, Planet Coaster knows that this is a fun game about people having fun, and so joy is at the heart of everything here. The character designs are happy. The mascots are cheery. The parks have a cartoony slant to them. The aspiratonal theme song, which would normally drive me to murder in any other circumstance, brings a smile within the confines of this experience. Even the menus are bright and breezy. It’s just a pleasant game to be around.
The second is that Planet Coaster knows that the real fun here is in building, not management.
While this is a management game as far as back-of-the-box genre-labelling goes, being that it’s full of stuff like income, expenditure, staff rosters and bank loans, that stuff’s for nerds, along with anyone worrying their way through the game’s career and challenge modes, which despite occupying the same amount of space on Project Coaster’s main menu, are very much peripheral experiences.
The heart of Planet Coaster, the thing that’s going to define it in the months and years going forwards, is its sandbox mode. Where the other game styles available are about fulfilling certain strict mission criteria, usually dabbling around the edges of someone else’s park design, sandbox drops you on an open plain and just lets you get to work. Make whatever you want.
It’s daunting. At least at first.
The game is overflowing with options and items, from themed toilet blocks to different varieties of trash cans, and that’s before you realise that in addition to loads of pre-designed buildings, the game also includes countless objects and textures to cobble together your own stuff.
You’d be forgiven for taking one look at that blank canvas, or at the masterpieces already being made by fans, and just chucking it in. Digital agoraphobia is real in Project Coaster, and you are OK to feel threatened by it.
But I’d also implore you to stick with it, because it doesn’t matter how big the empty spaces are, or how intimidating the build options might be, this game doesn’t care, and neither should you. The point here isn’t to build the biggest or the best theme park, it’s just simply to build.
Planet Coaster is a Bob Ross experience. It’s creative, it’s chill, and the pleasure comes not from the final product, but in each tree, path and building you place down along the way. Popping a bright green tree down next to a path teeming with grinning cartoon people, having the time of their lives under a clear blue sky while soft guitar strums in the background and a man dressed as a T-Rex makes kids smile...you can’t really do the wrong thing here. Anything you build will be something good.
It’s also one of the most distracting video games I have ever played. I’ll fire it up with every intention of building a small medieval village, but within five minutes I’ll be agonizing over the length and curve of a roller coaster turn. There might be filth all over the paths, requiring your urgent attention, but it can wait, alright, because I need these flowers to be in just the right place.
Planet Coaster is beset with pleasantries acting as diversions from pleasantries.
Of course, most of that only applies if you want to play sandbox mode. The game’s other two options, as I’ve said, are more limited.
Challenge mode begins with the same empty plot of land as sandbox, only you have to research new rides as you go (sandbox gives you everything) and complete allocated tasks to keep the money coming in. Play this if, instead of relaxation and happiness, you prefer spreadsheets and stress.
Career mode, meanwhile, is a mess. It looks and sounds like the core of the game, but is actually just a series of tutorials, and not very good ones at that. Dropping you into theme parks that have already been built, they’re all effect with little cause, as they’re continuously telling you to do things without ever doing a good job of telling you how to do them.
Sad example: for a game all about building roller coasters, I had to hit up forums and YouTube to actually learn how to build roller coasters. The game includes some basic pop-up hints, and its main menu screen contains a link to “tutorial videos”, but...come on.
This knowledge gap is worth overcoming, though, because Planet Coaster’s ride-building tools—which for more hardcore users will make or break the game—are fantastic. You can design a track in almost countless ways, not just basic stuff like its length and curve, but also speed and stopping gates, angles, brakes and even special effects.
Then, when the roller coaster itself is done, you can go nuts dressing it up in themes and even allocating custom music for it, which you’ll hear when the camera gets close enough.
And yes, you can go on the rides.
Rounding out the whole thing is the mod community, which thanks to a lengthy beta is already very healthy. I’m usually wary about including mod talk within a game review, since I’m meant to be reviewing the game here, not what fans have done with it after the fact, but mods are so integral to the Planet Coaster experience that I’d be mad not to.
The game ships with Steam Workshop support, so you can just head over and plug stuff straight in. From rides to buildings to the terrain you build on itself, there’s already a ton of incredible content available to flesh out your park and help you build whatever the hell you want. This can make a big difference to a more casual player, who might be more interested in just dropping cool shit on the ground than spending weeks building their own rides, and having it all right there (and looking so good) feels like we’ve accidentally been given a bunch of DLC and expansion content for free.
Those who are more interested in the management side of running a theme park will probably be disappointed with Planet Coaster. The game’s data (of which there’s a lot, much of it handy) and poor notifications system just aren’t linked well enough to make playing the game like this much fun.
Instead, Planet Coaster is best when treated as a giant LEGO set. A sunny, cheery tabula rasa, lying there waiting for you to go nuts in a never-ending quest to make yourself as happy as the grinning faces of the people lining up to take your rides for a spin.