I have always been a firm believer that even free games deserve a review. Spotting Bus Simulator 21: Next Stop as a recent addition to the PlayStation Plus Extra service, I decided it was time to have a go with another game I typically wouldn’t touch. This mindset has yielded some of my favourite games of all time in the past, such as the Dishonored series, though has also introduced me to games I truly despise like Ace Combat 7.

I downloaded Bus Simulator 21 thinking I’d mess around with it until it started asking me to do boringly realistic things, or just until I’d seen enough and didn’t want to carry on. Somehow, the game got its hooks into me early on to the point of sidelining a candidate for my favourite game of the year, Final Fantasy XVI. I’ve since played two dozen hours of what is essentially the same gameplay loop over and over again, and as soon as I’ve posted this review I’m going to immediately play more.

It wasn’t plain sailing setting off, and while I selected full driving simulation from the assortment of options when you first load the game, the tutorial tells you what you need to do to drive your bus, but not the order to do them in to get it moving. I spent ten minutes activating and deactivating different features on my bus just in an attempt to get the wheels turning, with it eventually transpiring the thing I’d been missing was putting the bus in Drive.. I guess my eyes had just skirted round the large ‘P’ for Park on the gear options when scouring the menu.

Once on the road it was a real trial by fire, or should I say trial by fine. Every little bump and knock you sustain docks your money earned at the end of the route, though fortunately never by an excessive amount. Money in-game can only be spent on purchasing more buses, and while there’s a healthy selection to try out, I never found myself caring much about whichever one I was driving.

You’re likely perplexed as to why anyone would ‘care’ about their bus, but the game provides ample opportunity for you to customise yours with paint jobs and decals. Most colour options are unlocked as you progress through the game, with only a paltry four available at the start. After painting my first bus sky blue over the dirty coat of beige I purchased it with, I never thought about doing so again for any other buses in my ever expanding fleet.

Your choice of vehicle ranges from a typical small city bus through to an executive sized coach. There are also bendy buses as well as a singular double-decker which the game takes way too long to unlock. Each bus has a range of various stats to consider before using such as passenger capacity, fuel type and turning circle, most of which affect the difficulty of navigating different routes depending on your driving preferences. I could never get on with CNG buses but found electric ones a lot more fun thanks to their faster acceleration, even if it meant I unintentionally bumped into street signs and motorway barriers more frequently.

There are two large maps within the game, one set in the United States and one set in Europe. A lot of the place names sound German in the European map, but I don’t think it’s ever named outright as Germany. I got bored of the US map inside my first hour of gameplay, but thought I’d check out the Europe map before uninstalling. This is where I have sunk dozens of hours.

The graphical style is fairly basic though is as good as it needs to be, with a simple yet robust colour palette. There’s a good variety of different towns as well as small rural villages, motorways, forest tracks and open country roads. I took a coach off-roading once to see if the game would let me, and not only did it embrace my new found wild side, it had included little collectables to find down the rough tracks. They only take the form of little hovering green buses which, as far as I can tell, give you nothing, but it was a nice little touch nonetheless.

Creating your own routes depending on the game map’s requirement at each stage, you can choose to drive in various conditions from perfect sunshine, night time darkness and torrential rainstorms. Regular ambient sounds like loud passengers, traffic noise and, bizarrely, cow bells (only near cows but always heard over a bus engine) constantly keep your ears engaged in what could have otherwise been a dreary sounding experience.

The main thing which Bus Simulator indulges that keeps me coming back for more is how you are welcome to be either a patient, polite and courteous road user, or play as an impatient and hostile wretch making other drivers lives a living misery. This is where I shine in the game.

You are invited and encouraged to check that your passengers have paid for tickets whenever you wish, in a bid to catch out people trying to net a free bus ride. It is never outright said that you can stop and block traffic in the middle of nowhere to do so, yet I find a reason to pretty much every journey.

There’s a deep satisfying ‘thunk’ sound effect which plays when you catch someone without a ticket, so now I check every passenger all the time just hoping to get that sound. It’s like the ping of a PlayStation trophy popping in that it never gets old. I’ve also discovered that if you arrive at a bus stop and exit the driver’s cab before anyone boarding can buy a ticket, the game allows you to penalise them for being there without one. It’s clearly an innocent design oversight, but one I abuse constantly.

The highlight of my time with the game so far was while I was behind schedule on my route, only for a pensioner to visibly be struggling to get to the bus before departure. I left without them (blaring my horn). You’re never too old to learn that punctuality is important.

The game’s AI is well optimised for the most part, but when it goes wrong it goes severely wrong. The Sat-Nav is a constant thorn in my side for randomly directing me in the opposite direction to where I need to be going, forcing me to take a longer route to get back to where I need to be. While this aggravates me at least once per play session, it is made up for with the fact most traffic will automatically divert to follow a route you are not on, so if you do get stuck behind someone you’re never tailgating them (blaring the horn) for long.

The traffic can be irritating at times, though was made significantly less so as soon as I realised that using the bus to ram them out of the way seldom fines me more than 1500 of the currency at any time. I tend to net a couple hundred thousand a day at the moment so I don’t mind paying chump change to land a dithering driver in A&E (blaring the horn) when they hold me up.

I regularly experience an issue while trying to check a boarded passengers ticket, where my character will miss the ‘check ticket’ option and instead start sitting with the passenger. This never ceases to be annoying while against the clock, but I admire the passive-aggressive aspect when it transpires the passenger in question has not paid.

After nearly two years of Forza Horizon 5 being my unwinding game where I can mute the TV and just drive around listening to music through headphones, Bus Simulator 21 has very much taken its place of late. There’s nothing I like more after a day at work than creating a long winding route through the country and just zoning out for an hour, snapping back to consciousness when accidentally (or deliberately) ramming a learner into a bush or accidentally crashing into a street sign again.

I have been very pleasantly surprised by Bus Simulator 21, and provided you’re prepared to become addicted to it too, I can heartily recommend becoming a virtual bus driver. While it is typically priced at around £35 on the PlayStation store, which is drastically too much for what it is, if you have PlayStation Plus Extra or Premium you can play today at no charge. Let down by frequently dodgy AI but made up for with the satisfaction of sending crawling cars to the scrapheap for just a couple grand a day, I score it

8 / 10

Written, edited and images sourced by Alexx.