Developed with a whopping $6,000,000 budget yet selling less than a tenth of the units it required to break even, The Last Express is considered to be one of the biggest commercial flops in video game history. Lovingly crafted by games design pioneer Jordan Mechner (Karateka, Prince of Persia) over a period of five years, The Last Express is a stunningly atmospheric adventure game featuring Hollywood standard production values and an unprecedented depth of story telling. Unfortunately, the game’s 1997 release coincided with the demise of publisher Broderbund – and despite rave reviews – it sunk without a trace.
It’s a colossal shame, because The Last Express is one of the most originally conceived and cleverly constructed titles the video game industry has yet seen. Nominally, it’s a point n’ click graphic adventure, but the Last Express largely eschews the “find an object, use it on another object” tradition of the Sierra or LucasArts adventure games that have come to define the genre. Instead, the focus is on character interaction, paying attention to details and discovering clues in the style of a classic Whodunit. The player finds himself eavesdropping in on conversations, asking pertinent questions and attempting to piece events together in a definable sequence as the twisting plot unravels itself. There are not really any traditional adventure game puzzles as such, but there is a lot of figuring out to do.
The story is essentially an elaborate murder mystery set on the Orient Express on the eve of World War I, with all of the game’s events taking place on the train itself. The evocation of atmosphere is so convincingly realised that it really is possible to feel as if you’ve been transported to an international train journey back in the early days of the 20th century. The effect of walking up and down the train carriages, for example, and overhearing realistic snippets of conversation coming from the various cabins, is quite stunning. There is a genuine sense of a living, breathing world going on around you.
The biggest innovation of the game is that it takes place in real time. So instead of progressing from one point to another, triggering the next part of the plot as you go, the story actually unfolds around you, with characters going about their business regardless of your involvement. In effect, then, the game evolves every time you play it, as which sequences you will witness depends entirely on where you are and what you’re doing on the train at any particular moment in time.
The key to resolving the game is in figuring out precisely where and when you need to be to discover all of the clues in the correct sequence, allowing you to see the story through to its conclusion. In practise, this could have become a mess of stopping and starting as you constantly load save games in an effort to discover important plot points you’ve missed along the way. But the game features another great design twist by doing away with save games altogether. You simply pick up wherever you left off and can freely jump back in time to any point in the story whenever you want to try a different approach. In effect, then, The Last Express is not just a train journey, but a time machine.
Considering that The Last Express was originally released in 1997, the graphics still look fantastic. The game is rendered in such a distinctive fashion, with art nouveau stylisation and rotoscoped characters (i.e. – drawings overlaid over live action footage). The unusual animation technique, which consists of slow fades between just two or three animation cells, is a bit disconcerting at first, but it does work quite well. It gives the game a slightly phantasmal quality, as if you had actually stepped back into the pages of history. The heavily stylised graphics help to ensure that, even 12 years on, the Last Express doesn’t look out of date. It just looks… unique.
But perhaps the best thing about the game is the quality of the writing. The story line is simply first rate, and the cast of characters have a realistic and “adult” depth unheard of in a video game. You encounter a cross section of European society at the dawn of the 20th Century: a German gun runner, a Russian anarchist, an Austrian concert violinist, Serbian revolutionaries and even (so it is strongly implied) a couple of secretive young lesbians on a cross continent liaison. All of the characters appear to have their own interests and motivations, which then dovetail naturally into the plot. They never feel as if they are just cardboard cut-outs, waiting for you to come along and interact with them. They feel almost real.
The Last Express is not without its faults. The interface is a bit clunky and not especially instinctive. Often you want to move in a particular direction but find that you’ve clicked on the wrong place on the screen, and have to fiddle about to re-orientate yourself. And because the plot unfolds in real time, there are rather too many moments where you are left twiddling your thumbs, wanting to move the plot forward and unable to get it to do so. Sometimes you find yourself just wandering up and down the train carriages, wondering precisely what it is you’re supposed to be doing. But these are just minor quibbles and don’t detract much from the overall experience.
The Last Express isn’t an easy game to track down these days, but its well worth doing so. If you were a fan of the point n’ click graphic adventures that ruled the PC games market in the late eighties and early nineties, then you’ll love this game. The more so because it’s utterly unlike any other graphic adventure that was ever released. It’s a totally unique and captivating experience, exquisitely realised with a multitude of hidden depths to uncover. The atmosphere evoked by this game really is quite enthralling. It’s almost like an interactive Russian novel. If you feel that you’ve rather outgrown much of the juvenile nonsense that clutters up the video game market these days, then the Last Express might be precisely the overlooked gem you’ve been searching for.