The Last Express: Poignant, entertaining, and just short of a masterpiece
Nestled among some of the more recognizable games of 1997 – a list that included Fallout, Final Fantasy 7, and GoldenEye – was a PC adventure/murder mystery game called The Last Express. Published by Broderbund (you might know them for a little-known series called Where In the Crap is Carmen Sandiego, if you’re old enough), The Last Express was released to little fanfare.
The game begins in a train car on the Orient Express. There’s an intro movie, of course, but other than showing your character, Robert Cath, getting onto the train in fashionably late style, you get a scant few details. It’s your job to figure out who’s who and what’s what.
As you make your way through the cars, you’ll get the very real sense that this train is surprisingly lifelike. Things are actually happening. There’s the annoying kid running through the cars, blowing a whistle and amusing himself at everyone else’s expense – until his mother yells at him. There’s the conductor that stops to tip his cap and say, “Bonsoir, monsieur” as you walk by. There’s the two socialite girls sitting in the dining car, conversing about Madame Bovary in a mixture of English and French. Sure, it’s a game, but if there was ever a game to make you feel like you’re sitting on the Orient Express circa 1914, this is it.
The Last Express is largely a point-and-click adventure game. If you’ve played Return to Zork, 7th Guest, or Myst, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from the context-based mouse interface. You move around and explore the train by clicking certain areas of the screen, and carry an inventory of items that you can use to interact with the world. It works, but I can’t say it works quite well (more on this later). The entire game takes place on the train, and a good bit of it consists of going from one end to another, waiting for opportune times to sneak into other passengers’ compartments, and rifling through their luggage. I’m not even kidding.
One of the game’s major gimmicks (I hesitate to even call it that, it’s done so well) is that it takes place in real time, except sped up significantly. That means, while you’re sitting there reading the morning newspaper, there are conversations and events going on that you’re missing out on.
Fortunately, The Last Express also provides a rewind and fast-forward feature, letting you go back in time to any cutscene, train stop, or other semi-important point. You can then opt to replay the game from that point on, erasing your now-future progress, or simply go forward in time up until the latest point that you’ve reached. It’s an excellent save system, and if you miss something important, it’s pretty much your fault.
It’s hard to actually describe much of the story without giving away substantial hints, but here’s a taste of what you’re in for on the Last Express: murder, a golden bird, terrorists, spies, a bomb, a concert, more murder, a million conversations, and by far, my favorite – getting punched in the face and losing the game.
Presentation is solid; the game uses a mix of pre-rendered backdrops and line-drawn animations, and the sound – the music, sound effects, and the voice acting – is well done. The voice acting is especially good, and combined with the script, makes for an extremely memorable experience. There’s an amazing variation in languages onboard the train – expect to hear a mixture of English, French, German, Russian, Serbian, Persian – some of it subtitled, some not (your character understands English, French and some Russian, so you get subs for those).
So where does the game fall short? Two areas.
First: in The Last Express, there are many ways to end the game (99% of which are deaths or being arrested, but in one you take care of the bad guys, get a medal AND STILL LOSE), but only one way to “win”. Getting there will require you to fail repeatedly and rewind/replay certain points until you figure out the exact path that the game wants you to take. Are you supposed to help the Serbians? Or the prince guy? Or the Austrians? You don’t find out until someone stabs you in the chest and you realize, welp, I guess that was the wrong move.
Second: the interface. 1. There’s a fair bit of pixel hunting in this game, and since locations are pre-rendered shots, it’s often hard to tell what you can and can’t interact with at a glance, short of moving the mouse over every possible thing. 2. Some items are designated as “large”-sized, which means you can’t do much while holding them – including boneheaded things like PICKING UP A KEY. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t tell you when you’re carrying something large-sized. 3. You’d be better served ignoring the manual’s advice: “it is not productive to take items from your inventory at random and ‘scan the screen’ with them.” When you’re stuck, this is EXACTLY what you need to do.
All in all, these are relatively minor quibbles that detract from what is really a pretty brilliant game.
The Last Express is available for the PC and iOS; I haven’t tried the iOS version, but a touch interface would be pretty well-suited for the game. Recommended.