Top 100 Games – 98 – The Last Express

15 Feb

The Last Express
Year: 1997
Genre: Adventure

The Last Express is almost as well known for its lack of success as its quality, and that is a pity. Developed by Jordan Mechner, the man behind Prince of Persia, The Last Express is an absolutely unique and incredibly clever adventure game. Taking the pre-rendered backgrounds popular in the mid to late nineties and adding an animation style called ‘rotoscope’ which creates an impressive visual style. It’s reminiscent of the art popular during the era of the game’s setting, a visual style that has never really been used elsewhere. Only Bioshock comes to mind, but it’s still a far cry from the level of accuracy shown here. Taking place over three days prior to World War 1, on the famed Orient Express, the game is a little Agatha Christie and a little Hitchcock, possibly evem some F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our hero, Robert Cath, is more Indiana Jones than Hercule Poirot or Jay Gatsby, but it’s the setting and large cast that make it stand out.

The art design is incredibly unique

The train itself is a monument to excess and adorned in a gorgeous art-deco style. It’s all accurate, down to the weather outside, the stories in the newspaper and some of the political groups and events mentioned by characters. This exhaustive research combined with the period visuals make an immersive experience that has rarely been matched. The real-world period setting may have put off many gamers, but this is a remarkable achievement. The characters are the most important element of the game however. There are no stereotypes here, each minor character is brilliantly acted and memorable. The characters also speak in their native tongue and subtitles only appear if Cath understands their language. From a Russian revolutionary to the naughty aristocrat’s son, they are all evocative of the era. Even more stunning are the conversations which occur as the game plays out in real time. There is the palpable sense of the end of an era, the shift in power from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. Travellers on the Express speak of revolution in far-off nations and your character is embroiled in a plot to arm the Serbian resistance. Communists reading Nietzsche cross paths with society ladies looking for adventure. It’s a truly incredible atmosphere.

The gameplay is a little different to the standard adventure game. There are multiple endings, and minor alterations in the players actions can lead to death, premature ending or, if you’re lucky, reaching Constantinople. The ability to ‘rewind’ time allows these outcomes to be changed, and actions understood. It’s a huge encouragement to play again, and the story is mysterious and exciting, yet slow-paced. The game plays out like a novel, the action is not always on-screen and there is more subtle conversation pushing events forward than outright confrontation. Diplomacy and intelligence win the day, though the threat of violence looms heavy in the air. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on is compelling, with even Cath himself being of questionable moral standing. The Last Express is an absolute one-of-a-kind in the gaming world – slow, thoughtful and highly intelligent. If most games want to be movies, this one sets itself apart by wanting to be a book.

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3 Responses to “Top 100 Games – 98 – The Last Express”

  1. Sina February 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    Really want to play this now

    • James February 21, 2011 at 2:44 am #

      Gog.com is the best place to get it, it’s only about €5, well worth it.

      • planestranger April 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

        despite the fact it is not original but hardly modified there…

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