The Last Express: Review

the last express - chess

The Last Express is the most immersive game I have ever played. Jordan Mechner’s ambitious adventure game takes place on the famous Oriental Express right before the beginning of World War 1. You play Robert Cath, an American on the run from both the British and French police for an incident in Ireland. He jumps on the train to meet his friend Tyler, who he finds murdered in his compartment. Robert assumes the identity of Tyler and decides he needs to find the murderer. What follows is intrigue, mystery, and history unfolding on three train cars in real time.

The setting of the Last Express, the days leading up to World War 1, is almost unique. The game embodies it perfectly in its limited space. Setting the game on a train might seem claustrophobic but it is one of its strengths. This forces the player to interact with the characters and observe their conversations. All the passengers are archetypes who still manage to stay unique. You have the chubby German industrialist, a famous Austrian violinist, a French family, a rich, exotic villain, a Russian noble turned anarchist, some Serbian freedom fighters (or terrorists, if you prefer) and more. As a cast, they all romantically resemble more or less their respective countries in the time leading up to war.

Most games that bill themselves as immersive experiences tend to end up stale because they serve the player a playground rather than an experience. It is not so with The Last Express. Characters move freely among the train cars and have conversations with each other according to their individual schedules. Hang out in the smoking car and you can overhear a British businessman clash with a Russian anarchist. But if you are not there at that time, you will never hear it nor even know that it had happened.

They also don’t always have something to say to you. If there is no reason for you or for them to interact with you, they will not talk to you. They are also not exposition robots which is such a relief. When walking around Skyrim, every villager comes up to you and tell you what they think of the King or how they injured their knee. It is a horrible immersion breaking experience. These characters will go about their business and you are free to observe them, although sometimes they will give you a look like “what are you looking at?“.

The unique presentation of the game was created by rotoscoping live actors, stripping the colour in a computer, and then hand painting them in an art-nouveau style. Using real actors really adds to the immersion of the game. There are subtle hints in facial expressions that can really only be accomplished with actors. Despite the crude quality of graphics by today’s standards, the expressions  of the characters are instantly recognizable, more so than in most other games.

The characters in The Last Express act as living people. They even have special animations as they squeeze past you on the train – something which I absolutely adore. One of many pieces that makes this game feel alive. It feels more like a movie happening around you, where you can explore and notice different things with each playthrough. The world isn’t static. It is alive and it doesn’t really care if you are there or not. It will keep on doing what it’s supposed to do and it is your job to figure out just what that is.

last express chitchat

As you can imagine, this can make the game quite challenging. Sometimes you won’t know what to do until you have failed (and there are many ways to fail, believe me.) The game has a time mechanic , where you can rewind to certain parts of the journey and replay your actions. These are usually denoted as stops along the route, but this makes playing the game largely trial and error since it is not always clear what you need to do.  It can be frustrating since there are a few blocks in the game where you needed to have done something different an hour or two ago to get past.

The game is about many things – class, the political landscape in 1914, how people lived then, how common people thought and dealt (or didn’t) with the coming turmoil – and a lot has been written about and discussed elsewhere. I would like to add Time to that list. The game’s credit sequence is imposed on a political map of Europe. As the credits roll, the map changes. It shows the shifting borders year to year since World War 1.

On 3 Moves Ahead, Rob Zacny says that history is about many things being broken and never fixed. It is sad and romantic how things can never be what they were and that every passing moment is temporary. Whether it is forgetting or regretting something or the larger history of empires and mankind, things happen and then they aren’t anymore. The game’s rewind mechanic is just about that, wishing you could go back and do things differently and see how things will turn out. It isn’t part of the canon, like in Life is Strange, but it gives this power to the player to explore roads not taken. But then again, isn’t that what reloading a savegame is always about?

It is ironic perhaps that we play The Last Express, such a vivid depiction of the past – close enough to be recognizable but still feel alien – and wax nostalgic of better days that were objectively worse for most. Mostly by reading and looking at photos and videos of the VSOE. When the game tells us that even if we can rewind time, nothing changes. No one on the train can stop the imminent war. There are no good endings for Cath, just bad ones and less bad ones. The “good” ending is inconclusive, leaving our hero with as much as he started with – nothing. Cynical for sure but dark times were coming that would drastically change the face of Europe forever.

To this day the continent is still wrestling with the aftermath of the actions of one young Serbian man. But time barrels on, like a train. You can’t turn around, you can’t stop, you can just go onwards to the next station.

 

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