The Last Express (DOS)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
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Written by  :  Cor 13 (174226)
Written on  :  May 08, 2004
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars

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Ultra-stylish, classy real-time adventure

The Good

Last Express invites you to experience a unique adventure: a well-researched, convincing historical detective drama with exceptional presentation and far-reaching gameplay ideas.

The first thing that strikes the player is the game's innovative time concept. Unlike many games claiming the same, Last Express truly runs in real time. It doesn't have a faster-paced internal clock like many RPGs; nor does it have time zones triggered by the player's actions. Its time flows just like in real life: each second that passes does so not only for you, but also for everyone else on board the train where the game takes place.

The characters in Last Express act according to their own schedules. 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 the game - just like in real life. This seemingly simple concept needed a good execution, and the game delivers it. The behavior of the characters is strikingly realistic: they walk around, talk to each other, react to your presence, etc. The train is never the same: things keep happening. Much of the gameplay is dedicated to exploration, and the dynamism of the game ensures that you'll always encounter something of interest and be surprised more than once.

Last Express is therefore a significantly more flexible, open-ended game than the vast majority of adventures. Completing an objective relies on what you, the player, have achieved during a specific time segment, rather than figuring out what the designer wanted you to do. Instead of formal logic conceded to the pre-established rules of the game, you follow common sense that wouldn't have been out of place in the real world. If you fail, it will be due to realistic reasons pertaining to the situation your protagonist finds himself in - not because the developers have erected a puzzle on your way and nothing will budge until you solve it. It is needless to say that this concept could have worked wonders and revolutionize adventure game design if it gathered enough attention.

Last Express has outstanding sense of style and presentation. It is set in 1914, shortly before World War I broke out, and the atmosphere of the time is perfectly recreated in the game. The designers did a fantastic job researching this concrete historical epoch and making it as believable as possible through fitting characters and environment. The game's visual design is quite unique: real actors were filmed and then modified with hand-drawn style to match the lush backgrounds, avoiding the usual artificial look that comes as a result of actors moving over still pictures.

The story of Last Express is suspenseful and deals with serious topics such as the political situation of the time. Simultaneously, it never forgets its job as a background for a criminal investigation, nodding to popular Agatha Christie detective tropes with its closed setting, a list of multi-national suspects, mysterious wealthy exotic foreigners and equally mysterious attractive women with an unclear past, etc. The complex main plot involves many characters, each playing a certain role in the mystery, and is accompanied by some very interesting sub-plots regarding various less important figures. It is interesting to learn more about every character in the game, even though it may be irrelevant to the story. For example, you can discover the diary of a young girl written in excellent stylized language, with surprisingly mature and even controversial themes - but you may also miss it, as well as a lot of other material, during your first playthrough. Thus the structure of the plot contributes to the replay value of the game.

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 facts at you and demands you to remember them, in the sense of Gabriel Knight games. Last Express doesn't require you to learn anything, it simply contains a cultural lesson as part of its environment. Allow me to illustrate this with a few 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 a truly multilingual society? How many movies you know actually bothered to research the languages and invite foreigners to record authentic phrases instead of using 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 stupid and cheap stereotypes. Take the young Russian revolutionary as an example. He is a passionate young man, obsessed by his political ideas and the contrast between their cruelty and his own vulnerable, romantic nature. This is a whole 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 wrapped in an authentic historical report that gives it so much additional weight and credibility.

As a final example, I must mentioned the live 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). I don't know any other game that contains an entire classical masterpiece seamlessly integrated into its story and gameplay at once. Listening to this music was decidedly one of the most unforgettable gaming moments ever for me.

The Bad

The interface of Last Express is similar to that of graphical Zork games: you jump between screens in first person and click on whatever can be interacted with. You never have a full view of a room and have to turn around quite a lot, sometimes in a rather awkward fashion, in order to notice something lying on the floor or hanging down from the ceiling. A real 3D engine - or at least full camera rotation - would have been more appropriate in a game that aims for realism and dynamic exploration rather than focusing on exotic imagery. Somewhat choppy animation and inconvenient angles diminish the game's dramatic impact.

The main weakness of Last Express, however, is its puzzle design. It offers a paltry amount of inventory-based tasks, and no real logic puzzles. The real-time investigation is exciting, but after a while you begin to crave for more solid adventuring. There aren't enough spots available for real interaction, and the game is confined to just one location - the train itself. Admittedly large, it still consists of similar-looking areas, and the absence of a strong puzzle system with varied options leads to eventual repetitiveness of gameplay. There is much to discover here, but not really that much to do besides wandering around and eavesdropping on conversations. These flaws, inexcusable in most other games, are countered by the sheer uniqueness of Last Express; but the game doesn't really excel at following the established canons of adventure-making.

The Bottom Line

Last Express is one of the most original adventure games around, and probably also the only one that actually keeps the promise of true real-time gameplay. Puzzles aren't the game's forte; but its great concept, strong writing, and wonderful artistry make up for the lack of traditional challenges.