Jordan Mechner is well-known for having laid the groundwork for the Prince of Persia series, but he also dabbled in the adventure game genre with his real-time first-person point-and-clicker The Last Express.
American doctor Robert Cath gets on the last Orient Express in 1914 to find out what his friend Tyler Whitney is involved in, but soon becomes entangled in political conspiracies, involving a mysterious golden egg.
Novel characters and interactive plot development
The idea of having the whole story play out on a train with a limited amount of time for the player is innovative and unique, but it also shows problems in coherence and character development. While the main plot seems at first suspenseful, it loses some of its impact due to many other characters whose life stories are simply more interesting to listen to. Maybe it’s not even their individual social and political backgrounds (although these add to the European atmosphere), but how they interact with each other. There’s a sense of intrigue of what makes them tick and behave the way they do and also of how they fit in the overall plot.
Unfortunately, not everyone plays such a big part, and one can’t shake the feeling that it would have made for a better game experience if one was able to simply listen to their conversations without any time limit. Still, there are enough mysteries and secrets to uncover about most of the characters. The problem is that one has to be in the right place at the right time which isn’t always feasible, leading to some missed opportunities but also encouraging the player to replay the game in different way, especially since there are multiple endings.
Usually, games try to imitate cinema and rarely literature. There are of course cinematic references here with the presentation, but the way how characters talk makes it feel very much like a book, i.e. people talk like real people. What’s also interesting is that everyone speaks in their original language. So a German speaks German, a French speaks French, etc.. Sometimes they also speak English to each other, but when they don’t feel observed, they use their own. Only by sitting next to them or advancing closely is it possible to understand their words, shown by subtitles. However, this also brings its own problems, e.g. when more speak simultaneously and one has to decide which coversation to listen to. Granted, this is more realistic, but not being able to shut out certain people as in real life to focus on specific conversations, this can get quite difficult and tiresome.
First-person narrative and navigation
What is also difficult is the way one moves through the train, and it’s here that the gameplay can’t live up to the cinematic storytelling approach. First-person adventures have struggled (and still do) to make navigation easy, but rarely succeeded due to more clicks than necessary to walk around (unlike 2D point-and-clickers when there’s only the left and right direction to choose from). It becomes extremely cumbersome to go from one place to the next if there’s an additional arrow that automatically makes you run through a whole compartment, because it’s very close to the standard walk-forward arrow. But turning around in rooms and/or going back and forth isn’t easy either, and soon losing orientation combined with losing patience becomes the biggest problem in addition to the time limit.
Real life, real time
The non-linear nature of the gameplay is unique in that one feels a realistic passing of time with various stops during the journey announced by the train conductor, people going from their compartments to the restaurant or spending their time elsewhere. Of course there are many re-used animations which break the illusion of seeing them behave differently each time one passes them by, but the train atmosphere still works for the most part.
What doesn’t work, though, is that the player rarely gets any clues of what to do next… if he doesn’t use the in-game hint system (and even this one isn’t always synchronized with the current event or actions). This can get extremely frustrating when one plays for a long time but wasn’t quick enough to do certain actions. Sure, a hint is given at the end of what one could have done differently, but the gameplay still boils down to trial and error.
Real conversations, real problems
One usually tries to listen in on conversations. While some are about fleshing out the characters, others are more important for story progression, although one has to be very attentive to pick up hints. In many instances it’s possible to miss something or someone. Sudden deaths are also very frequent. Only after dying does one get the chance to understand what could have prevented it. At least the game saves automatically and one can turn back the hands of time to travel back and try out different things.
This is of course reminiscent of the later Prince of Persia titles, but it’s an original concept for an adventure game nonetheless. Its implementation isn’t perfect though, as there aren’t any indications of what one did at a specific hour. One can of course jump all the way back to a specific train station stop, but it would have been nice to be given an image or description of the time frame. Thinking too long also results in being stuck at the time one travelled back, a rather unnecessary side effect.
Puzzling train journey
Being a point-and-click adventure game, the importance of puzzle solving is surprisingly less prominent with few object combinations and/or logic puzzles. The latter is of course commendable, while the former certainly adds to the more realistic presentation, e.g. one can’t carry big objects around without losing part of one’s flexibility. But there are still enough illogical conundrums when it’s not exactly clear what to do with few hints provided. While some puzzles are easier to solve than others, relying on old tropes certainly doesn’t do the game’s pace any good. Looking for secret switches or trying to find out how to catch a beetle with a matchbook isn’t a lot of fun, while running around the identically-looking compartments to find certain people isn’t great, either.
Not everything that’s gold…
The Gold Edition makes things a bit easier by including a hint system, although it doesn’t necessarily tell the player everything, while the controls info popups can clutter the screen quite a bit. Another problem of DotEmu’s version is that one has to manually change the system’s (i.e. Windows’) country language in order to get the English version. So for example, if Steam is set on English, but everything else is German, the text and voice acting are both in German as well. Changes to the graphics or sound quality aren’t made either, although a making-of video and the soundtrack were added by DotEmu.
Production values not quite like big budget movies
Technically, the game tries to achieve something the engine isn’t capable of, i.e. cinematic cutscenes are too slow, characters’ lip synch is off, so that certain dramatic effects are lost. Interacting quickly in specific scenes (e.g. in a fight or giving a character an item) is also difficult to do. There’s certainly a unique art nouveau style with both the characters and backgrounds well-drawn, but in motion, it demands a lot of patience on the part of the player to feel genuine suspense or suspension of disbelief in some scenes. However, the soundtrack and voice acting are both quite excellent with a full orchestrated score and very convincing voices which aren’t overdramatized.
An almost successful fusion of gaming and cinematic storytelling
The Last Express is an ambitious game, a very ambitious one. So ambitious in fact that it fails in many cases to deliver the experience it wants to convey. It’s still a good title and unique in the adventure game genre, but Blade Runner tried the real-time formula later on and succeeded better. This might have to do with higher production values, a licence everyone knows, or simply because the game was easier to control with fewer head-scratching puzzles to solve.
On its own, The Last Express succeeds in creating a European train travel experience like no other with quite a few thrills on the way. Listening to the realistic characters makes it feel more like a book than a game, but that’s also part of the problem. Anyone who’s had reservations about first-person adventures or games in general, will find it a bit hard to progress very far without using the in-game help system. It’s a shame, because the writing and presentation are still memorable enough to make it stand out from other point-and-clickers in particular and games in general.
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