Game: The Last Express v1.0.8
Category: Trivia / Puzzle
Price: $4.99 (Google) / $3.99 (Amazon)
The Last Express is a first-person mystery point-n-click adventure game that originally came out on PC back in 1997. It was a passion project by the legendary game designer Jordan Mechner (most famous for the Prince of Persia series), created by his company Smoking Car Productions, and was published by Broderbund. Mechner spent a ton of money to make it (by game standards then) at around five million dollars and the game took five years to produce. Unfortunately for the Smoking Car team, despite receiving great critical praise for the game and the obvious high quality nature of the product, the adventure game genre was beginning its decline in favor of 3D action games, and their producer, Broderbund, was having financial troubles and would be bought out by another company the following year. As a result of this, The Last Express got virtually no marketing push and was an expensive bomb. That being said, like it happens with movies, sometimes games acquire a cult status later on, and due to its extremely high quality The Last Express achieved this status and got a second life in recent years on mobile devices.
The Last Express uses a very unique blend of art and animation styles. The game is set on the Orient Express in 1914, and the train itself is designed in a fairly realistic and highly detailed fashion (Mechner and his team actually found one of the few remaining trains of the style and photomapped it). However, for the character models the characters are real actors but covered in an art nouveau style. They are animated in two styles (which will probably be the most jarring thing for people). When walking around the train and during action sequences, the characters are animated smoothly using rotoscoping (used in movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). It looks really good and is particularly impressive when characters slide by your character walking through the train and make eye contact with you or the conductor tips his cap your way. Unfortunately, probably due to budgetary concerns, that is not the majority of the animation as most of the time you will instead see the characters transition between animations with still shots more akin to a comic book. While the art style still holds up great under those circumstances, it would have been insane if they could have maintained the rotoscope style the entire way. That aside, it is a very unique and appealing combination of styles that is detailed, colorful, and still looks great today.
Audio-wise, The Last Express is outstanding and continues to be very unique in that it actually features a very diverse range of characters that speak multiple languages. The majority of what you hear throughout the game is still English, but as your character understands multiple languages, you'll have scenes where you get subtitles (typically while eavesdropping on people) if your character understands the language in question. It amazes me that none of the cast went on to do more serious work to my knowledge because the voice acting across the board is sensational. The soundtrack in the game is great as well, but used sparsely, as you are mostly focused on listening to conversations and the sounds of the train.
There is yet more uniqueness in the gameplay on several levels. First off, the entire game is played in real-time (multiplied by six), with the characters having certain routines that vary and can be broken entirely depending on your actions. If something happens to end the game or you think you missed something, you can rewind time to try and fix things. Second, the game has some traditional logic-based and inventory puzzles, but the primary drive of the game is to be in the right spot at the right time by listening to conversations and gleaning the information from them. As a basic example, a meaningless but amusing conversation is listening to two French women talking about your character in the dining car not knowing your character knows French. There are no dialogue trees or anything of that nature. At points, this can result in some tedium because you might not know where you need to be, but the game has a nice hint system that helps guide you along the right path if needed and a lot of the game is based on exploration and learning about the characters. Lastly, there are a few Quicktime style action sequences but they are fairly easy and are mostly a further showcase for the rotoscope animation. The game's time frame can vary a lot, it has a solid level of challenge but for most gamers I would estimate about 12-15 hours of playtime. It does have good replay value with all the conversations you can miss and the high number of endings you can get.
Finally, this type of game wouldn't work out well without a good storyline and The Last Express from start to finish has a great story. Without going into too much detail, your character is an American doctor on the run from the authorities and meeting a friend (in unorthodox fashion) on the Orient Express that has found something which he thinks will interest you. You are almost immediately wrapped into a multi-faceted mystery involving political intrigue and murder once you arrive on the train (and your character himself is somewhat mysterious in his reasons for being on the run). The characters are all archetypes (the suave American, the anarchist, the innocent youth, etc) but are all developed exceptionally well as you play through the game, even the passengers less critical to the main plot aren't skimped on. A minor negative is that this game is a fairly large download at 1.3 gigs. The difference in animation styles can be jarring to some and it can be tedious at times when you are wandering around the train looking for where you need to be. However, the game's positives so far outweigh the negatives for me that it gets my first full five-star review, and if you like adventure games or just a great story, it's a must-play.
- Great story.
- Outstanding voice acting.
- Multiple art styles and animation.
- Real-time gameplay with conversation focus.
- High replay value for the genre with lots of endings.
- Large download.
- Small sections of tedium.
- Changes in animation style can be jarring.
Device/OS used: Samsung Galaxy Note 5 / Lollipop 5.1.1, Samsung Galaxy Note 2 / Kitkat 4.4.2
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Mobilism: The Last Express v1.0.8