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SummaryA new member of my list of all-time favorites. Only a few things keep it from being my #1.
The GoodWhere do I begin? The Last Express has so much going for it, it would be easy to miss something. I picked this up based on Jordan Mechner's involvement, the highly positive reviews I've read, and of course the $9.99 price (August 2000). I would have gladly paid the original retail price for this title, if I'd only known how spectacular it is. Jordan Mechner tried a lot of new things with this game, and on almost all counts he was quite successful. The first thing you'll notice is the wonderful graphics system - it's almost, but not, full-motion video. Actors were filmed heavily made-up, to look like cartoons. The pictures were then converted to black and white scetches (probably using a filter like what you'll find nowaways in Paint Shop Pro or the like), and colors were filled in manually to create a cel art effect. I can't rave enough on how great this system works. Still screen captures do NOT do this game justice. You really must see the game in action to appreciate it. The characters are expressive in a way that traditional animation can rarely accomplish, but because you aren't watching a movie, you concentrate on the game rather than the performance. Since we've entered the age of 3D graphics, this system may never be used again. That's a shame. The vocal performances, by the way, are superb. They were also well recorded - I only noticed one technical mistake, but that can be overlooked. The characters are intriguing, as is the game's story. Characters will begin to draw emotional responses from you almost immediately, and the overall plot is most fascinating. It has plenty of twists, including a few that you might not expect. And the entire process is quite non-linear. The game sacrifices puzzle quantity for a high amount of explorational freedom. Events will happen with or without your presence. You can't be everywhere at once. While this may be frustrating for some, it goes a long way toward creating a sense of realism. More on puzzles in the "bad" side of this review! Kudos to Jordan Mechner for picking a setting that hasn't been over-used. This pre-war Europe scenario has something for everyone; romance, political intrigue, action - it's all there. Adventure games are notorious for having painstakingly rendered, 20 minute epics for opening sequences, and then leaving the gamer high and dry when it comes to the ending. The Last Express is quite the opposite - The ending (there are multiple endings, in fact!) is actually the game's high point. I had to watch it twice. The game even avoids the boring ending credit sequence present in most games; The final credit roll in The Last Express is the best I've ever seen, bar none. Also worth mentioning is the save system - there isn't one. The game is automatically saved in the form of a "clock". You can rewind and fast forward the clock at will. If you die, you can simply go back in time to wherever you made a mistake. Very elegant. If you want atmosphere, The Last Express has plenty. I obviously wasn't around in 1914, so I can't comment on accuracy; but boy, for a little while I really felt like I was a part of the last journey of the Orient Express. That, my friends, is what adventure gaming is all about.
The BadThe game's box claims 40 hours of playing time. I'd say 20 would actually be a high estimate. Granted, that's 20 hours of pure enjoyment; but I'd still call The Last Express a "short" game. It is my heartfelt belief that an adventure game should have good characters, a strong story, and be a total experience - not a collection of puzzles. Even so, I believe that the game's puzzles ought to be addressed so you know what to expect. I spent probably the first half of the game feeling that I was being led, not controlling the action. When the puzzles finally did begin, I had grown so fascinated by watching the story, that I was momentarily jarred away from it. Furthermore, none of the puzzles are of the caliber you'd expect in a good adventure game - especially not one of the quality of The Last Express. With all of these great and well fleshed-out characters, I was a little disappointed that the game never really told me about the person I was supposed to be. While most (Western) role-playing games encourage you to make your character into whatever you want him or her to be, when I play an adventure game I want to "become" someone else. I never really got that chance in The Last Express - the game doesn't tell you much at all about his past, his personality, or his motivations. I didn't begin to understand him until the very end of the game, and by then it was all over. Was this intentional? The Last Express suffers from the lack of a truly compelling soundtrack. I have to admit that my background may make me place a little more importance on a game's music than most might. There's a really spectacular concert sequence about 2/3 into the game, and the main theme is well-written, if not entirely memorable. On the other hand, because much of the game is played without background music, you are drawn to the ambient sounds that exist all over the train. It's a give and take.