Twelve hours into DRAGO Entertainment’s newest release Gas Station Simulator I find myself at a crossroads. The first few hours are a wild ride that seems to buck the trend of the asset-flip homogenous “simulator” game genre, only to fall to pieces as its flashy mechanics degrade into annoyances to be automated or outright ignored. In those opening hours it’s better than the rank-and-file barely-functioning “[Insert Job] Simulator” games, but what points it earns with moxie it loses to unpolished jankiness and an insidious dark secret. Welcome to a 4,300 word review of a $20 game you’ve barely hard of.
To properly dissect Gas Station Sim, though, we have to establish some baseline understanding of the current state of the “[Insert Job] Simulator” genre.
Hi, I’m a writer with ADHD and various undiagnosed neurodivergencies that would make you wholly unsurprised to learn I never grew out of childhood hyperfixations (trains, dinosaurs, Egyptology, etc.), I collected them. Games that involve building up and improving on an existing framework are my kryptonite. Unsurprisingly, this has led me to sample quite a few games with “Simulator” in the title over the last twenty years. An unfortunate side effect of this is getting to watch a rapid mutation of the simulation genre into something damn near unrecognizable outside of a few legacy series. Thanks to a handful of companies (most of which are located in Poland, for some reason) games-with-the-word-simulator have evolved from tiny games for hyperfocused nerds to genericized shovelware. Chum for the hoards of Twitch variety streamers who need a steady stream of “hidden gem” to play until the honeymoon phase wears off.
In the early 2010s job simulation games generally involved a vehicle in which the player controlled a camera glued to the driver’s seat. They’re tasked with doing repetitive, complicated tasks that only a huge nerd would know before the traditional long-ass tutorial. OMSI: The Bus Simulator (2013) does what it says on the tin. You are a bus driver. You drive a bus and keep a timetable. The exquisite corpse of a decade of yearly updates that is Train Simulator holds no surprises in that department either.
Then a new trend began to form. Suddenly simulator games had to have first-person walkaround areas in which the player could dismount their vehicle or machinery. Goofy ironic uses of the term simulator found viral success (e.g. Goat Simulator in 2014). Games-with-the-word-simulator didn’t always have to be self-aware comedy games, but the precedent for wackiness was firmly set. Self-serious games like OMSI have been shuffled off search results by pick-me asset-flip shovelware games with some variation of “Bus Simulator” in the title. Games that oftentimes barely have timetables, let alone passengers that look like more than an hour was spent on their character models. Games developed knowing full well their customer base prefers to play stuff with cobbled-together physics engines and a lack of fail states so they can scratch Grand Theft Auto chaos itches and ramp a loaded bus off a bridge into a harbor.
Whether or not this shift is directly attributable to the rise of a streamer/let’s play culture that thrives off open-world first-person games, there is a marked homogenous feel to any game with “Simulator” in the title developed after a huge turning point in 2018: House Flipper.
Publisher Playway S.A. blew the doors off the games-with-the-word-simulator genre with House Flipper, a game in which you purchase houses in various (oftentimes “funny”) states of disrepair with intention of gutting the place, redesigning to your heart’s content, then selling at auction to make more cash to buy bigger houses. House Flipper isn’t perfect, but it got the important things right. Small tasks that’re pains in the ass have an upgrade mechanic that rewards players for their work. Painting as a new player is arduous and mind-meltingly boring. Painting with a few upgrades under your belt, though, feels like one has color-magic at their fingertips.
And, of course, publishers took this not as a sign their games needed more refined mechanics. No, now everything has to be as House Flipper as humanly possible. PlayWay’s Train Station Renovation is, at the end of the day, a jankier House Flipper with extra superfluous mechanics stapled on (see: its mind-numbing trash collection mechanic). Last week a new game-with-the-word-simulator dropped and, predictably, became a critical darling with streamers for a few days. GamerRant published a half-assed article saying it’s a huge hit on Steam, so obviously it’s a good game, right?
Gas Station Simulator comes to us from DRAGO Entertainment, a Polish developer who seems to be adopting the Playway strategy in spades. As of this writing it appears there are quite a few cousins to GSS set to release in a suspiciously short amount of time. Within a year GSS will be joined by its cousins Road Diner Simulator, Paparazzi Simulator, Airport Contraband, Miner’s Hell, Detective Simulator, Winter Survival Simulator, and Food Truck Simulator. These are just the games DRAGO has on their calendar. If I were to include other games with painfully similar asset-flip aesthetics, mechanics, and homogeneous vibes this paragraph would be comically-long and the word Simulator would have even less meaning than it already does.
You run a gas station, juggling various chores and minigames to keep the business profitable so you can upgrade the station and unlock both cosmetic and mechanical improvements to the business and surrounding area. That’s the game in a sentence.
For all the big-picture preamble needed to establish why I cautiously assume any “___ Simulator” to be a cynical asset-flipping cash grab, I have to give props to Gas Station Sim for at least attempting to build a plot with voice acting and occasional 3D characters in a genre that traditionally keeps all story content in text form (games-with-the-word-simulator tend to be downright epistolary with how much they rely on the old email-from-the-boss mechanic). .
We play as Sam, a random person driving the patchy tarmac remains of Route 66 when he comes upon the old Dust Bowl gas station. Sam sells his car on the spot and buys it. The next morning Sam’s uncle calls, a mob boss caricature that’d make Fallout: New Vegas gangsters feel inadequate. Uncle fronts a not-specified amount of money that is slowly doled out throughout a tutorial that’s hell-bent on preventing experienced sim players from being too successful too early. Sam’s also introduced to an in-game mechanic for borrowing money, though this comes with the risk of Uncle’s bikers wrecking the shop and lowering its popularity ranking if he defaults.
That’s about it for the story. It feels like what story you can experience with voice acting and actual characters happens within the first few hours of the game (conveniently where variety streamers and players who might refund before hitting the 2 hour mark will see). After that you get one phone call from Uncle per major upgrade to the station. At 12 hours of gameplay I have reached the fifth upgrade to the station and it feels like I’ve done everything the game has prepared for me. The final objective is to simply run the station profitably until I have $5,000 in my pocket to finish off the vague loan from the beginning of the game.
Outside of Uncle there’s basically no interaction with NPCs in the game. Employees that live on the property don’t make a sound. What little voice acting the customers have is fine on a technical level. From a script perspective there’s not much to work with. It feels like DRAGO came up with fifteen or so phrases and had every VA do multiple takes to pepper in randomly assigned NPCs. Unfortunately some of the phrases (e.g. a relieved “I thought for sure we were stranded!” obviously written for successfully fueling or fixing a car) have far less impact when said in response to you successfully scanning whiskey, three kinds of chips, and five identical copies of a crossword book.
Uncle could’ve been interesting. Unfortunately he exists purely as a mouthpiece for a tutorial that lasts the entire length of the game. There’s never not a moment when Sam has an ability to make a decision for the future of the Dust Bowl. Sam simply orders more snacks and cigarettes while making numbers go up so the mission on the right side of the UI will change to a new, bigger number to fill up. Uncle is effectively a quest-giver from the start of an RPG who never lets you finish the quest. A shame, given those kinds of characters usually are the lifeblood of a game’s heart. Hardspace: Shipbreaker’s Weaver is effectively an exposition spout, but careful writing and pacing make him a vital part of what makes Shipbreaker a special simulation experience.
Normally I find it tiring when reviewers put stock in graphics being important to the overall evaluation of a game’s success. That said, we are dealing with a game in a genre famous for cost-cutting by using pre-built assets purchased from an online store. GSS is chock full of mis-matched art design that, if not actually asset-flipping, has the same vibe. The actual road of Route 66 is degraded as hell with the image of a modern city skyline in the distance indicating modernity, yet there’s a ton of traffic on this abandoned, shitty stretch of highway.
Multiple times throughout the game players can witness a fuel tanker from the 1940s pumping gas into the station while a 1970s muscle car sits in the garage and an early 2000s box truck full of soda and stuffed animals honks to get Sam’s attention while he’s managing payroll on an internet-connected computer. Suffice it to say there isn’t much tonal consistency to the visuals of the game. It’s obvious the developers have a heavily pop culture-influenced idea of what a desert gas station on Route 66 looks like, and they also played a hell of a lot of Fallout.
A great deal of artwork in menus feels as if they are trying to ape a 1950s aesthetic without fully understanding why they’re doing it. There’s no rhyme or reason beyond the unspoken acknowledgement a gas station on Route 66 would have been in its heyday in the 1950s… but the game isn’t set in the 1950s. What this leaves us with is a vague morass of stylized rockets and old Cadillacs on in-game menus for the fun of it.
Then there’s the NPCs. I don’t want to be too rude to the design skills of a small developer but there’s no denying the humans in GSS are humans in name only. Sam’s customers all look as if the McElroy brothers custom-built each one in an upcoming episode of Monster Factory. Inconsistency seems to be a watchword that follows through a lot of the game, as these mugshots of my employees above do not match how the employees look in game.
There’s an NPC obviously modeled to look like Elon Musk in the regular rotation of customers. Nothing is special about him, he has no special dialogue, but a mugshot of him scowling pops up on the “are you sure you want to fire this employee” screen. I guess the developers feel Elon Musk is this generation’s Monopoly Guy insofar as his look = rich? It’s less of a negative against the game and just… odd.
Oh boy, the mechanics.
The majority of management for the Dust Bowl is done through a rickety PC monitor on the checkout counter. In it is a menu where Sam can order stock for the shelves, fuel for the pumps, buy upgrades to the station, take out loans, and manage employees. Out back of the station, behind the ruins of a car wash (put a pin in that) is the warehouse which Sam must unload delivery trucks every time he orders new stock.
Everything in GSS that doesn’t involve physically picking up an item is a minigame. Scanning groceries, fixing cars in the garage, lockpicking customer’s cars to steal money, pumping gas, painting walls. Everything has a bespoke UI element that requires clicking at a specific moment. Yes, you read that right: even painting walls. The painting mechanic is far and away the worst idea I’ve encountered in the game. On the surface it’s your standard House Flipper-emulating fare: click on a color you want, click on a section of wall you want to change color, boom. Except, because everything is a minigame, painting a wall necessitates a ten second Flappy Bird-esque grind in which players have to hold left-click to keep an arrow inside of a safe zone, otherwise paint will splatter on the ground and it takes longer to paint that section of wall.
This would not be too much of a problem if paint only had to be applied once, but there is a degradation mechanic that makes paint fade and age into a filthy-looking texture over time. Sam also unlocks different colors as he upgrades the station, inferring the developers fully intend painting the station and surrounding buildings multiple times to experiment with new looks. It’s baffling to see this when the mechanic for painting a wall take so goddamn long and is so goddamn boring. I have spent multiple hours scanning items at the checkout without complaint, but these painting mechanics drove me up a wall, ironically more so than the paint itself which I now refuse to apply. By the time I reached a level five station I stopped painting over graffiti and and fixing the times I accidentally picked the wrong color. The Dust Bowl now looks worse than when Sam originally bought it, and I don’t give a shit. If the age of the paint affects your popularity or income in any way, the game does not communicate this nor does it genuinely affect anything.
If players become overwhelmed with customers or run out of product and can’t find time to stock the shelves there is a solution. At the bottom of the highway sign is a giant lever one can flip to close the station. New customers can’t come in, existing customers will leave immediately. If only we had this lever in real life.
It’s nice to have a button that effectively gives the player infinite breathing room to clean, paint, restock, and let employees regain stamina. As long as Sam has no impending loan payment the Dust Bowl’s hectic atmosphere during rush hours is entirely optional. The need for more money is eternal and I know regardless of how relaxing the closed periods are, I will have to open the floodgates once more.
The gameplay loop in general is fun in the early phases, especially once employees are unlocked. The fuel pumping minigame is solid and hasn’t broken on me once. The lock-picking mini game is so much a ripoff of the Fallout lock-picking system I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if the photo of the lock is the same one from Fallout 4. It’s not a perfect clone of the system and breaks pretty regularly but it’s a fun distraction. The grocery scanning system, on the other hand, is bizarre.
A conveyor belt moves items from right to left so they fall into a green basket. To the left of the basket is the scanner. Players have to pick up the item, wave it over the scanner, the bring it back to the right and drop it into the basket. Frequently the game will spawn items randomly on the belt in a way that causes physics to freak out and send the item flying, which counts as not scanning the item. If even one item out of a 20+ item purchase isn’t scanned properly the NPC will get shitty with you and not tip. Perhaps this is the most realistic thing simulated in the game: customers getting mad over issues that aren’t the employee’s fault.
I don’t expect much realism from a game that has a button that can summon UFOs to abduct everybody on the map (we’ll get to that), but it’s difficult to let go of the fact this scanning system only makes sense when you take into account you are playing a video game and there needed to be a fail-state. Perhaps there is some perverted European gas station chain I have never seen before that incorporates this system that’s nonsensical to my pampered American sensibilities.
At the beginning of the game there are some obstacles the player must overcome to open up new areas of the station. An excavator named Rudy is used to clean up sand piles around the property, with multiple bespoke mechanics (refueling Ruby with a jerry can, the ability to overheat Rudy) that strongly imply Rudy is going to be used regularly throughout. I used Rudy five times to clean up five sand piles: one blocking the gas pump in the tutorial and four covering unlockable customer parking. There’s a dust storm mechanic that is supposed to leave sand piles around the property that need to be cleaned up immediately, but as of this writing I have not encountered a single one. The tutorial also mandates picking up garbage to clean up the space in multiple places around the property. It’s a good way to get players to explore, but in retrospect it has an ulterior motive: making the game seem bigger than it is.
Remember the car wash I mentioned earlier? It’s right behind the gas station. The road is set up in such a way that it’s obvious NPC cars could easily drive up to it. The entirety of the time I streamed the game (and talked about it while playing offline) the car wash was the goal. Obviously somewhere around level 5 you will have a button you can push that rebuilds the car wash. Perhaps you have to dig up the sand and clean up all the trash before it can be operated. A new minigame! Perhaps it’ll be fun!
There’s also an empty wooden platform with a sign reading “UFO” that gave me the vibe I would be able to purchase a tourist trap UFO and place it there for customers to take photos. The property is dotted with little wrecked items and locations that feel like the developer intentionally placed them to communicate to the player these are things that can be unlocked later. These intentions are further communicated by the fact the tutorial has a section that puts the player in a remote control car to race a track that spans the entire property. It’s effectively a tour of all the ruins you will get to fix as you build your gas station up to its former glory.
Then I got this email after unlocking the final level of upgrade for the station.
That’s it, good luck.
Someday you may face changes or new challenges never seen before.
At best this is an implication there’s free content updates planned. At worst this is DLC-bait. Regardless of which is true, I’m left with one big takeaway: Gas Station Simulator is secretly an Early Access game.
Most games by smaller developers release in Early Access on Steam these days. It’s a pretty solid way to get a fanbase built up so that when your game is polished and done you can do a grand opening and leverage that existing base to get traction on social media and sell more copies. It also gets you funding while you finish this game that you don’t have the resources to work on like a larger developer can. There’s no shame in Early Access, the majority of popular games these days that aren’t developed by huge companies usually are in Early Access or have just come out of it.
GSS has that distinct feel of an unfinished game, but it never had an Early Access phase. It simply launched. The day after launch the developers pushed an update with a bunch of tweaks to address complaints from players. Here’s the noteworthy ones (parentheticals from me):
- Removed Giacomo the Snake until we can add the Ophidiophobia mode (much like House Flipper’s Entomophobia toggle).
- You should no longer be able to close Warehouse doors while a truck is entering or leaving the warehouse (see the next section for why this is a huge deal).
- Removed the piece of terrain that was sticking through the ground in the main station.
Note the bit about removing a piece of terrain clipping through the main station addressed only the bit of terrain that’s visible when you haven’t spent a few hours upgrading. There’s a piece of terrain clipping through the floor visible in a station with two upgrades that wasn’t addressed, for some reason. The end of the update post also links to a YouTube video on how to use the UFO button. Let’s talk about that button.
Gas Station Sim is one of those games where players develop a rhythm of saving and re-loading every half-hour or so because one can feel the engine is about to reach a Bethesda-esque breaking point. Items picked up off the ground have a high chance of phasing through the ground and disappearing despite still counting as being “in” the player’s hand. NPC pathfinding degrades. Cars begin piling up. It’s a mess.
There’s a button next to the lever that opens and closes the Dust Bowl. It’s marked with a crude spray paint flying saucer. This button’s only job is to wipe the map of customers and cars. It’s the gaming equivalent of a dev door in a Mario Maker level the developer couldn’t beat. In the case of Gas Station Sim this get-out-of-jail-free card summons a fleet of UFOs (complete with camera glitches and 1950s-themed music) to abduct all customers and cars from the map.
While funny the first few times, the more times I made that walk to press the button the more I realized why it’s there: DRAGO has so many systems stacked on top of each other it’s a foregone conclusion the NPCs will end up bugging out and soft-locking the game. In the first five hours of the game it became an hourly tradition to wipe the map because a delivery truck had gotten stuck, preventing me from ordering new products because the game only allows one type of delivery truck to exist on the map at a time.
While writing this I took a moment to look at my steam achievements for the game and noticed that the game is so bugged out right now I don’t have achievements for doing certain actions for the first time, but I do have achievements for repeating that action multiple times (e.g. I don’t have On the Map for unlocking the first popularity level but I do have the five subsequent achievements for levels of popularity after the first level).
It’s also worth noting that booting the game up from a cold start takes so long the the text “It may take a while” is on the bottom of every loading screen. I average two to three minutes of loading when starting fresh. Saving and loading in-game is quick, though every instance of it feels like one is taking a big risk when the price of a crash is three minutes of silence. There’s also reports of bad optimization in the Steam reviews, but I’ve yet to encounter anything broken in the game that can’t be chalked up to the game itself rather than optimization.
Gas Station Simulator has its moments. It certainly isn’t as bad as some of the garbage the games-with-the-word-simulator genre has churned out in recent years (ranging from bland and broken Train Station Renovation to bland, broken, and problematic as fuck clickbait titles like Drug Dealer Simulator).
Tune in to a stream or watch a few videos on YouTube to get an idea of what is coming. Currently the game comes with the $20 price tag. Had I not experienced emergent fun with my chat by streaming the game, this likely would have been a 5 hour grind that I would’ve then discarded to go back to having fun in Shipbreaker or Valheim, games that understand how to make repetitive actions you do with a video essay on your second monitor worthwhile and fun.
In its current level five state my Dust Bowl feels like a chore to maintain, rather then something I worked hard to upgrade so it will run smoothly and profitably. There is so much floor space in the Dust Bowl to use for shelves that I don’t feel motivated to buy more. The balancing of how customers pick up product off shelves is such that you really only need one large shelf of each item that can have a large shelf. The only reason I have multiple pastry shelves in my version of the Dust Bowl is there isn’t a large pastry case and there are too many types of pastry to fit in just one. My initial visions of building long aisles of product shelves to emulate gas stations I’ve seen in real life faded as soon as I realized there’s probably tons of space in the station because the NPC’s have wacky pathing. If I were to try and cram it full of shelves it would be a pain in the ass for me to stock everything and I do not have faith the game’s AI would be able to handle it.
So here we are, 12 hours later and the Dust Bowl looks like this. All of the paint is at maximum degradation. The interior of the store isn’t even fully painted as I haven’t bothered painting the new additions I’ve unlocked. The ending of the game, if I ever reach it, will never be able to satisfy the potential future I saw when looking at trailers and playing the first few hours.
I cannot explicitly say one should or should not buy this game. Perhaps this is the right form of janky for you, I know I had a lot of fun exploring just how broken this game can be. You can launch cars into orbit by just sweeping them with your broom. It does have a special Gmod quality to it at times. It’s also fun to expose friends to just how bad the NPC’s can look on occasion. I merely wish to note the fact that the majority of positives I have given about the game over this 4,000 word review are things that shovelware, broken titles tend to rely on for entertainment value so that people like me (a streamer and media critic), will laugh at and show people online for free advertisement.
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