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SummaryThe definition of class in video gaming
The GoodSometimes a game's personality is so strong, and its content and gameplay so creative and original, that they set it apart from other games and make it a one-time achievement, a phenomenon, something that has broken new ground, but at the same time is impossible to imitate.
"Last Express" is unique in every aspect, one of those games that don't fit stylistically in almost any category, a game which could have been - but unfortunately was not - a spiritual father of a completely new style, of a new approach towards the problem of the adventure genre.
The first thing that strikes the player is the innovative and fascinating time concept. "Last Express" is a real-time game. It doesn't have is own "reduced" internal clock like Ultima or Quest for Glory: its time flows like in the real life. In fact, "Last Express" remains until now one of the few (if not the only, at least to my knowledge) examples of a true real-time adventure.The only game that comes close is the recent Shadow of Memories for Playstation 2, that also flows in real-time, but presents only small, limited time segments instead of a whole day.
The characters in "Last Express" act according to their own schedules, not according to the progress you make in the game, like in virtually every other adventure game. Nobody will wait for you in a certain place, because nobody is "supposed" to be there until you find a way to solve a puzzle or just want to take a break. There can be no breaks taken in "Last Express", just like the real life allows no breaks. This idea, which seems simple, creates an amazing feeling of reality in the game. In no other adventure game I know does the player have such a feeling of "being there". The behavior of characters is strikingly realistic: they go here and there, talk to each other, so that the train, in which the entire game takes place, is never the same: there are always changes that occur as often as it would have been in a real train in the real life. The characters move a lot, and don't just sit and wait for you to come, and if occasionally you stumble upon one of them, he (or she) will say "pardon" and proceed his (or her)way. The characters talk to each other regardless to your actions, and one of your main activities in the game will be listening to their conversations and learning about important things from the. There's all the time talking in the game, so you just can wander around and see how the world changes as the train keeps moving. The realism of the game is nothing short of amazing.
The game's design is stunning not only because of the game's unusual visuals, but also thanks to the precise historical background that is manifested in conversations, outfits, decorations, etc. The game is set in 1914, shortly before World War I breaks out, and the unique atmosphere of the time is perfectly maintained and recreated in the game. The designers did a fantastic job in researching this concrete historical epoch and making it as credible as possible through fitting characters and environment. The graphics of the game are worth a special mentioning. Real actors were filmed and changed into cartoon-style figures on photorealistic backgrounds. By deliberately abandoning the popular "real movie" style, the game produced even a more impressive result by making the graphics unusually stylish and artistic, and avoiding the usual artificial look that is unavoidable when real actors move over still pictures.
All this is wrapped around a suspenseful, thrilling story - a murder mystery. Trying to discover the mystery in real time is one of the most exciting gaming experiences you'll ever have. But the story and the meaning of the game are much more than just a detective mystery. The hero of the game, Robert Cath, starts as a strange character we know virtually nothing about, and first appears to be a shrewd opportunist without any moral responsibility. But as the game progresses, he develops into a much more likable and interesting figure. The tremendous political conspiracy that takes place in the game forces him to choose sides. But there seem to be no "good" and "bad" sides in this tremendous struggle for power in Europe. The unexpected love makes things even more complicated. In the end, the hero of the game finds himself facing problems he is unable to solve.
The complex main plot, that involves many characters, each one of which plays a certain role in the mystery, is accompanied by some very interesting sub-plots that regard various less important characters. It is interesting to discover the inner world of every character in "Last Express", even though it may be irrelevant to the story. For example, the diary of the young girl is written in a fantastic language, with perfect stylization - it is interesting to read even though it is not necessary to understand the main story of the game.
The murder mystery and the political struggle is coupled with some supernatural symbolism, that might have appeared out of place in such a realistic game, but in fact serves as an extra stress on the game's underlying message. The symbolic interpretation of the supernatural events is evident. The Firebird becomes the incarnation of war, which is presented in the game as a terrible force that almost bears a character of a pre-destined disaster.
I won't spoil you the ending of the game, but if you've played enough video games you must know that even the greatest of them often have disappointing endings. Well, the finale of "Last Express" is undoubtedly one of the best videogame endings ever. The impact it has on the player can be compared to the one of the famous intro to Fallout.
A whole chapter should be dedicated to the game's unusually high educational (or, should I say, cultural) value. It is not an educational game that throws at you facts and demands you to remember them, not even in the spirit of Gabriel Knight games, where the amount of the information about occult sciences you received and had to learn was a bit "educational", as an interesting topic that is very important to the series. "Last Express" doesn't require you to learn anything, it simply contains a cultural lesson, not as textual information, but as a part of the game's environment. "Last Express" breaths and oozes class with every little detail, and the combination of those details make it look so authentic, that we forget for a moment we are playing a game. Video games were simply never ready for this. Allow me to bring some examples.
All the passengers on the train speak their native languages when talking to each other, with English subtitles appearing on the screen. How many games you know even bothered to create an illusion of a multi-lingual society? But in "Last Express", it is not an illusion. The languages are authentic and correct. They invited French to do the French phrases, Russians to say the Russian ones, etc. How many movies you know actually bothered to research the languages, to invite foreigners in order to record authentic phrases, instead of using the usual broken English with funny accents?
Now think of the game's characters. They are not only interesting and convincing: they are detailed up to the point of reflecting the typical mentality traits of their nationalities, without resorting to any stupid and cheap stereotypes. Take the young Russian revolutionary as an example. He is a passionate young man, obsessed by his utopian political ideas and the contrast between their cruelty and his own vulnerable, romantic nature. In the beginning of the 20th century, many young Russian nobles joined revolutionary anarchist movements , partly because of their feeling of guilt, justified or unjustified, towards the peasants, partly because of the wish to follow only the most radical and "advanced" theories, which is typical for young people. Now, this character is not just another video game figure, taken out of context, thrown into an artificial game world, lacking true background and status. This is in fact a type, through which we learn a lot about Russian culture, society, and political situation before World War I. Imagine a game full of those characters, and we get a story that is wrapped in an authentic historical report, that gives it so much additional weight and credibility.
As a final example, I must mentioned the amazing performance of Cesar Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano in Kronos' department. You can stay to listen to the music, or leave at any time, and then come back. In any case, Anna and Kronos will continue performing the entire sonata (four large movements about forty-five minutes altogether). A whole musical piece, and not just any piece - the very complex and "heavy" Franck's Sonata, that certainly doesn't belong to those pieces everyone can whistle - appears in the game! Listening to this music was one of my most unforgettable videogaming moments ever. I re-wound the clock just to rush into Kronos' department, to sit down on the chair and to listen to the whole piece.
The BadI don't feel like nitpicking at this magnificent game, but there are some minor things that perhaps could have been slightly better. The animations are at times very realistic, and at times a bit clumsy. Either my CD ROM drive has a problem, or there is a great deal of chopped animations in the game.
The interface of the game could have been better. It is a 1st person perspective game, where you jump from picture to picture, like in so many other games of the kind. The interface is similar to that of graphical Zork games: turn left, turn right, go forward, click on objects which allow you to click on them. It is quite confusing, because you constantly turn around and it is difficult to have some orientation. You never have a full view of a room, you alway have to turn quite a lot before noticing something which lies on the floor or hangs down from the ceiling. A 360 degree rotation would have been much more appropriate and realistic here.
The real time system has its disadvantages. You can't just take your time and explore. You have to rush around the train, hoping to meet a certain person and to gather necessary information. If you don't meet this person, you'll have to wait until it appears again, which it maybe does not. Fortunately, the game allows you to turn the time back, so you can always try again and experience the game from different angles. But since you can't be everywhere, it can get a bit difficult to find a clear path in the game.