Caveat: It should be known that everything I’m about to say here is affected by the fact that I play and enjoy my fair share of simulator games, and on a Friday evening, I can often be found hovering around Discord with a drink in hand, chatting with friends and driving from Aberdeen to Norway in Euro Truck Simulator. But as much as I enjoy this genre, I’m equally as baffled about the sheer size and profitability of this niche that appears to be growing by the day as I am intrigued by it. Flights sims, truck sims, farming sims and even train driving sims have all found their own corner of the market, with rabid fans dedicating hundreds of hours to games that on the face of it seem to merely be boredom simulators, but play them I do, and popular they are.
There’s something incredibly relaxing about spending a day at work being stressed and overstretched and then wiling away the evening chatting with friends or listening to music or a podcast while you hit the open road and unwind. Many might look at games of this type and scoff, but they absolutely have a place in the gaming landscape, and for someone like me who suffers from periodic bouts of anxiety, having a game that allows you to turn off and zone out for a few hours can prove an invaluable tool. What about Bus Simulator 21 then? Well, its a game that is surprisingly more in-depth than someone picking up this title might think, and depending on your tastes, this could be either a positive or a negative.
Bus Simulator 21 allows players to get into the nitty-gritty of not just driving your bus from point-to-point but also the minutia of running a bus company, from bus selection to route planning and even organising your fleet of busses to cater for the demand around the city. For some this is a simulator with a surprising and engaging amount of depth, but for others this will be an overly detailed, complicated mess. There’s a fine line in these games between giving the player enough to do so it isn’t one-note and boring but also being simple enough that players can boot up the game and get going without being overwhelmed, and unfortunately, Bus Simulator 21 strays all too often into the former without enough of the latter. Players coming to this title for an engaging and detailed simulator may find a lot to like here, but for more casual players, it simply asks too much of the player to be relaxing in a way many will be looking for.
The main improvement for Bus Simulator 21 over previous outings and, actually, over most other sims of this type on the market is that the developers have made a real attempt to cater to every type of player that might want to pick this game up. There are multiple ways to play this game with options that will let players drill as deep down into the art of bus service provision as they like. For the more casual player who just wants to relax and drive, there is, of course, the option to purchase a bus and just follow a route, earn money and buy different kinds of buses to drive around two huge maps. But the game will also allow players to get behind the desk of a bus company owner, purchase a fleet of buses and plan the routes and timetables to best cater to the public demand. This requires players to consider things like area coverage, as well as consumer demand in these areas and fluctuating demands during rush hour periods. Many of these sim games are simulators in name only, but Bus Simulator 21 takes this moniker very seriously, attempting to deliver a true bus simulation experience, and for the most part, it succeeds.
There’s strategy and planning to a minutia that you would never expect. You can play this game for hours and never get behind the wheel of a bus, and there will be plenty of people that do just that. If you are the kind of player that is coming to Bus Simulator 21 for these features, this is a solid start, but ultimately, it begins to feel somewhat thin on the ground in terms of long term play. You can certainly get into the weeds with this, but in future instalments, it would be good to see some dynamic gameplay added to this section of the game that will challenge the player in different way; things like local events that will dramatically increase public transport use, like a sporting event such as the Olympics, or even things like pandemics that will mean more passengers will stay away. In essence, this feels like a largely static experience simulating an environment that is constantly shifting. Let’s be honest though, what we are really here for is to get behind the wheel of the bus.
When you log into this section, you are greeted with a hilariously detailed character creation suite that allows you to design your driver in almost any way you like…except how you might imagine a bus driver to look. After creating the most hipster bus driver ever, you then enter a first-person view and are asked to purchase your first bus, then you are guided around the basics of moving from point-to-point to picking up your passengers. For the most part, this works well, giving the player a good outline of what is happening from moment to moment and what is expected of them, but on one occasion, I found myself at a stop, unable to make the bus move again with no idea what I had to do, meaning that I had to restart the entire mode in order to see the tutorial again as at no point does it repeat itself if it becomes apparent that the player may be stuck. This is by no means a game-breaking issue, but it is an annoyance that seems completely avoidable.
Beyond that, the game opens up to allow the player to choose and run their routes. Moving from stop to stop has a timer to ask the player to try and be on time, and when you arrive at the stop, you need to make sure the bus is parked in the correct position and that the correct doors are opened to allow passengers on and off, all of which is scored based on your performance, and financial penalties will be issued if you fail to meet criteria such as making it to stops in time, traveling to stops unsafely and moving away from stops either before passengers have embarked or disembarked.
Overall, this is a well designed and fairly comprehensive package for the bus or sim game enthusiast. One of my many pet hates in games criticism is the incredibly lazy “fans of the genre will enjoy this game” line, but as much as it pains me to say this, it’s a largely true statement for this title. Those interested in a game like this will likely already know whether or not this is something they are going to want to dig into, and on the other side of the coin, long term sceptics of this genre of game are not going to be motivated in any way to pick this up and give it a try.
For many sitting on the fence and thinking about trying a sim game to see if they might be able to experience some of the genuine and warranted joy that this genre can offer, ultimately, unless you have a specific interest or passion for buses, this is a hard one to recommend over the more popular flight sim or even Euro or American Truck Simulator games that offer a much more finely tuned and streamlined package, complete with mods and gameplay tweaks to create as much of a simulation or pick up and play experience as you like. Bus Simulator 21 boasts some improvements over previous incarnations with the inclusion of multiplayer, as well as improved AI for traffic and passengers and graphics. The game also lays claim to a decent amount of licensed vehicles and designs, which is a good thing because the mod support at present is incredibly limited at the time of writing. Bus Simulator 21 certainly isn’t a bad game, in fact, you could even go so far to say that this is a good offering, but ultimately, it falls short of being able to be afforded over the more popular and established truck sim games…for my part, it’s just a touch too engaging to be the zen tune out experience that I look for in these titles.
Developer: Stillalive Studios
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Release Date: 7th September 2021