The Orient Express is about to depart from Paris to Constantinople. As the train slowly begins to move away from the station, a young, courageously looking man jumps on it from his motorcycle and makes his way inside. This man is an American doctor named Robert Cath, escaping from authorities as a suspect in the murder of a policeman. In the train, he finds the dead body of the person he was supposed to meet. Now he has to act quickly. The only way not to arise the suspicions of the police is to disguise himself as the murdered man. A very dangerous investigation begins, and the hero soon finds himself involved in a deep net of personal intrigues and political conspiracies.The Last Express
is a real-time adventure game set in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the World War, in a concrete historical and geographical environment. The game uses a simple point-and-click interface for interacting with people and objects, and navigating the character from a first-person perspective through pre-rendered backgrounds. From the moment the player gains control of Robert Cath, time begins to flow. If the player fails to solve a part of the mystery until the train arrives at the next station, certain events the player was supposed to prevent will occur, ending the game prematurely. It is impossible to permanently die in the game, as the player has the ability to rewind the clock in order to replay a specific period of time.
The player is for the most part free to explore the train, and the story progression has a certain degree of non-linearity. Characters follow their own schedules, frequently moving between locations, talking to each other, and generally acting independently of the player's input. The player can decide to interrupt conversations, remain unnoticed, or openly follow characters and witness their activities. For example, at a certain moment in the game's timeline two characters will perform a classical sonata for violin and piano; the player can opt for staying and listening to the performance, or use the time to explore other locations. Along with detective work and a few inventory-based and logical puzzles, the player's main task in the game is to eavesdrop on people's conversations, talk to characters, and solve the mystery by finding out more information about the bizarre case. There are also several timing-oriented fighting sequences in the game.
The game's visuals resemble "art nouveau" style that was prominent in the historical time period described in it. The similarity to the style is achieved by using rotoscoping technique. Actors wearing distinctive make-up and costumes were filmed against a bluescreen, digitized, turned into black-and-white frames and colored by hand. The game is also notable for including authentic dialogue recorded by native speakers of several languages (French, German, Russian and others), with English subtitles displayed.
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Designer Jordan Mechner
makes a cameo appearance, as one of the porters loading August Schmidt's merchandise crate onto the train at the Munich station.
In Marc A. Saltzman's Game Design: Secrets of the Sages
(BradyGames 1999), Mechner points out several sources of inspiration for The Last Express
- The Alfred Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes (1938) provided the idea to use a train as the setting
- The plot was modeled after spy novels such as John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and stories by John Le Carré
- European comic artists François Schuiten and Enki Bilal inspired Mechner to use stylized drawings instead of real-life actors
- Characters were drawn in the style of the Art Nouveau period
- The game is set during World War I because “the Second World War as a scenario is overstressed, in games as well as in movies”
The soundtrack of the game is available on audio CD. Its composer, Elia Cmiral
says the following about the score:
The Last Express was my first composition for a computer game, as well as my first serious assignment after moving to Los Angeles. It was a large project that took three months to complete. Before I could begin, however, I had to learn the requirements of writing for this new medium, and plan how to write such a large number of short cues. Director Jordan Mechner was a great help and a good teacher to help me navigate both the game and the new genre. The story has many unique characters of different ethnicities, exotic environments and a wide range of moods including suspense, drama and love. I developed groups of cues and assigned them themes or orchestral colors. Each group expresses a certain feeling and is tied thematically to the others in the group. This reduced the number of themes and kept me focused on the characters’ emotions. The main theme evokes a touch of sadness, romanticism, and tension on the eve of the First World War. The score relies on a small ensemble of strings with violin solo, some hand percussion, and extensive use of synthesizers for color and texture.
The music Anna and Kronos play at the concert in Kronos' private car is Sonata for Violin and Piano by C. Franck, a Belgian/French composer of the end of the 19th century. It is one of the most famous violin sonatas of all times. It can be heard any time the player goes to Kronos' car.
Developer Smoking Car Productions
went to great pains to digitally replicate the Orient Express accurately. When they tried to find an authentic train car from the period before World War I, they soon learned that there were two versions: Teakwood wagons that were in service just up to 1914, and the steel cars that replaced them since. Unfortunately, few of the fragile wooden cars had survived World War I, even less the chaos of WW II.
Through a network of train buffs, however, the production team was able to track down a sleeping car. A man in France gave the team the name of a man in Italy who knew of a car in Athens, Greece. It had lain there abandoned for some 50 years.
Lead 3D artist Donald Grahame
and his crew took hundreds of photos of the car and complemented them with contemporary pictures. The design staff also rummaged through archives and dug out original blueprints, train schedules and logbooks, read pre-war newspapers and magazines, traveled and dined in trains, and watched any Orient Express movie they could lay their hands on – all this to ensure that they would be able to recreate the Orient Express and the atmosphere on board in detail.
Most characters in the game talk to each other in their native tongues, but strangely enough, the native German speakers Anna and Schmidt rarely use German when talking to each other. Also, unlike in most movies, the Russians (as well as the French and the Germans) of The Last Express
are absolutely authentic. All the Russian characters speak Russian without a trace of an accent.
The project took nearly four years to complete and included a month-long blue-screen filmshoot and a round-the-clock staff of up to 50 animators, artists, asset wranglers, and programmers. The game only remained in stores for a few months. Broderbund
's marketing department quit just weeks before the game was released, resulting in virtually no advertising for it. Softbank
pulled out of the game market, dissolving its subsidiary GameBank
and canceling several dozen titles in development, including the nearly finished PlayStation port of the game. The Last Express
was out of print long before its first Christmas season and nearly a million units shy of breaking even. By dropping their support of an already completed game, Broderbund and Softbank most likely increased their losses.
All the game’s characters are drawn in Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau (French for "New Art") was a major movement in European arts, starting in the 1880s and declining with the beginning of the First World War in 1914, the time The Last Express
is set in. Artists of all kinds (writers, sculptors, painters like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in France, architects like Gaudi in Spain) aimed for a unification of all arts and for an erasure of stylistic boundaries. Art Nouveau paintings are naturalistic, yet minimalist through the use of clear lines, strong colors and little to no shading. To modern eyes, this makes them sometimes look like cartoon drawings. The Last Express
mimics this style.
Despite their ink-paint look, the passengers of The Last Express
were not hand-drawn, but played by real-life actors. Smoking Car artists processed the blue-screen footage of the characters into thousands of black-and-white stills, which were then recolored in Art Nouveau fashion, rotoscoped (i.e. cut out) and finally projected into the 3D-rendered Orient Express backgrounds. To increase the cartoon look, the actors had to have distinctive features such as beards and hats and wore special costumes with marked lines and strong colors. Make-up artist also tortured them with colored streaks in the hair and a homogeneous facial make-up. Take a look at the production pictures here
Information also contributed by
Unicorn Lynx and
Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe.
- Buyers Guide
- 1998 - Best Adventure and Role-Playing Game
- Computer Games Magazine
- One of the Top 10 Graphic Adventure Games of the 1990s
- Family PC Top Rated Awards
- 1997 - Best Adventure Game
- Macworld Game Hall of Fame
- 1998 - Best Role Playing Game
- Washington Post