The Last Express

Last week, one of my favorite older PC games was re-released for iOS devices.  It’s a point-and-click adventure called The Last Express, designed by Jordan Mechner  (better known for his Prince of Persia series).

The Last Express was released in 1997 and is unlike any adventure game you’ve ever played.  The story follows the dashing Robert Cath as he stows away on (what turns out to be) the final journey of the Orient Express before the start of World War I.  Cath quickly becomes embroiled in the many unusual events taking place aboard the train as he tries to solve the mysterious murder of his friend, Tyler Whitney, all while assuming Whitney’s identity.

This is a game about exploration, observation, and making smart decisions.  You must discover what Whitney was involved in before his death, learn the political and social motivations of the other characters, and figure out how to reconcile these conflicting agendas without getting yourself killed.  To do this, you’ll have to speak with the other passengers, eavesdrop on conversations, break into locked rooms, make shady transactions, and in general make logical decisions that fit within (and directly affect) the game’s narrative.  There are no arbitrary puzzles shoehorned into this game (solve this sliding tile puzzle to defuse the bomb!), it’s all realistic, mostly sensible action.

The most compelling aspect of The Last Express is that it is set in real-time (accelerated by a factor of six).  The train has about thirty characters, each with their own agenda which they pursue completely independent from the player.  You might see Tatiana Obolensky in the dining car one moment, but find she’s returned to her room five minutes later.  Whatever conversation she might have offered you during her time in the dining car is gone, and impossible to recapture.

Except that it isn’t really impossible, because the other key feature of this game is the time rewind function.  At any point in the game, you can rewind the events by a certain amount and try again.  This is useful if you feel you’ve missed a key event or action, and necessary if you get yourself killed (highly likely).

The real-time aspect of The Last Express does wonders to spice up sometimes-boring point-and-click adventure genre.  Though there are only a handful of precisely-timed, race-against-the-clock events in the game, there is a general feeling of compulsion to be very active. It’s essentially move, learn, adapt, and act or die, gameplay rarely encountered in a point-and-click.  Your exploration has a greater sense of purpose because the game is going to move on, with or without you.  And I find something so compelling about the feeling that this little thirty-person world is living on its own.

That brings me to another great design feature of the game, which is scope (I mean this in terms of the in-game world, not project size which we’ll get to later).  With so many massive open-world games out there today, it’s fun to examine something as self-contained as The Last Express, whose world consists of just a few train cars.  You get the feeling that the designers chose to put a limit on their scope and do things extremely well rather than spread themselves thin over a larger world.  Even the game window itself sometimes becomes constrained, skinny and vertically-oriented like the cramped hallways of a train dictate.

Unfortunately, this scope does take well to point-and-click exploration.  You could argue that point-and-click gameplay does not lend itself well to exploration across the board, but it’s especially problematic here.  The UI is arguably the worst feature in the game, and most players have a hard time getting their bearings straight in the beginning.  The doors in the sleeping car all look the same, and you might do a 720 before you’re able to make your way back out of the tiny bedrooms and bathrooms.  In a game where time is of the essence, nothing is more frustrating than wasting 10 minutes trying to find that one door or compartment.

Let’s talk production quality.  One of the better-known factoids about The Last Express is that it was a huge commercial failure due to a series of unfortunate events starting with the walking of the studio’s marketing department just weeks before release.  But the game might have come out okay if it wasn’t made so damn well, to the tune of five years of development and $6 million in total costs.  And that was time and money well-spent.  This game oozes quality.  Most notably, the game’s ambitious animation sequences used footage of real actors for all thirty characters (matched with another thirty-some-odd professional voice actors) which was then rotoscoped via computer and painstakingly hand-colored.  Though this technique hasn’t aged particularly well by graphical standards, but the humanity these 40,000 frames worth of animation inject into the game is still undeniable.

Animation process

 

Some behind-the-scenes footage shows the art team researching one of the few remaining pre-war wooden sleeping cars like those used on the Orient Express in 1914, and the attention to detail in the game’s settings is breathtaking.  The soundtrack, though sometimes a bit cheesy in a Labyrinth synth sort of way, has some truly gorgeous moments and a unique string melody.

 

And that’s all to say nothing of the actual gameplay and plot progression, expertly designed by Mechner, the compelling and colorful characters, the smart, witty dialogue that makes you want to listen in on every conversation, and the engaging politically-driven plot that draws from the history of the period.  The Last Express is a game that respects the player every step of the way

It’s great to see the game get a second life through DotEmu and the iOS release.  It seems like a lot of the great PC games from the 90s have just fallen into obscurity, with no way for the people who loved them to revisit that experience or share it with a friend.  If any game is deserving of such a revival, The Last Express certainly qualifies.

There are also exciting talks about The Last Express being adapted into a movie!  I think most people cringe at the thought of game-to-movie adaptations, and with good reason as interactive games usually don’t translate well into passive media.  I would say that The Last Express is a big exception to that rule.  It’s essentially like playing a movie anyway, but in all the right ways.  Narrative plays a huge role in this game, and the plot is strong enough to stand on its own minus the interactivity of the gaming medium.  Add in the historical setting of Europe on the brink of WWI, the gorgeous backdrop of the Orient Express, and Robert Cath as the archetypal charming, rogue hero (Nathan Fillion, are you listening?) and you’ve basically got a blockbuster right out of the gate.

Anyway, do yourself a favor and go get this game, either for PC or your iOS device.  Give it a try.  Take your time.  When I first played, I tried to rush through everything and ended up having a bad time.  Then I decided to start over and play more thoughtfully.  I moved carefully, took notes (!), and got invested in the characters and plot.  The result was an extremely satisfying experience that puts The Last Express among my top five favorite games.  I highly recommend it to fans of mystery and great storytelling.