The Last Express Review
I bought The Last Express from GOG years ago during a summer sale (I think it was called The Battle of the Games or something to that effect). The purchase was impulsive, driven by player promises that the game is unlike anything else before or since. Trying to play it for the first time, however, was hair-pullingly annoying; the vanilla version offered at GOG doesn’t have any hotspot indicators or anything that could possibly help out a new player, so you’re very much left wandering in the dark, trying to figure things out as you go along. Eventually I became hopelessly stuck and gave up on it, making a mental note to buy the “gold” version that includes hints and give it another try at some point. That didn’t actually happen until this year, and I ended up being glad that I had both versions of the game since they both come with their own pros and cons.
The story begins days before World War 1 breaks out
The Last Express begins with you, Robert Cath, finding your way onto the Orient Express after receiving a letter from friend Tyler Whitney asking for your assistance. Within the first few minutes, you discover said friend brutally murdered and decide to assume Tyler’s identity in order to find the person responsible, something complicated by the many different schemes and personalities aboard. This is all in the days before the outbreak of World War 1, and you share the train with members of the Black Hand (whose assassination of Franz Ferdinand helped spark the war), anarchists, musicians, art collectors, and a number of other personalities, each with their own secrets.
World War 2 is the era most games gravitate toward, and it’s honestly refreshing to be immersed in such an underrepresented period of history. Beyond that, all of the characters are interesting once you get to know them, from goofy German arms dealer August Schmidt to charming and mysterious violinist Anna Wolff. The back stories and personalities of the game’s characters—even the minor ones—are fleshed out through eavesdropping and breaking into cabins to look for clues whenever people are distracted, and the game plays out in real time, making the experience feel like you really are on the train without ever becoming game-y for it.
There’s really only one ending despite claims I’ve seen to the contrary; sure, there are plenty of dead ends where you get murdered or end up playing into someone else’s hands, but these are little more than game over screens with a brief voiceover explaining what happened so that you know where you went wrong. There’s only a single path that leads all the way to the end credits, and navigating your way past the game’s many potential pitfalls by playing along and acting like Tyler would is the only way to get to the real ending. That said, there were a few game over screens that made no sense to me in the context of the story, such as one you get when you give a certain character what he wants and receive a briefcase full of gold in return. This nets you a game over screen where you get off the train with the gold instead of playing along like Tyler would have, and this comes out of nowhere. I suppose it’s because the game came out in 1997 and having multiple paths to the ending would have been a bit more complicated to implement, but it’s still a jarring turnabout that makes little sense given what we know about Robert Cath as a character.
An eavesdropping, stealing, and hiding simulator
While the story remains strong to this day, the actual game mechanics are woefully dated. You navigate through the train one screen at a time, listening in on conversations and breaking into other people’s cabins (as they also break into yours) to piece together what’s happening. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the train isn’t consistent about where you can move. In one screen, you can only move forward or to the side, while inside cabins you’re able to move and look in a huge number of different directions. This makes navigating the train confusing at times, and I can’t count the number of times I accidentally entered a bathroom instead of exiting a cabin. There are also a few areas that are a pain to get to, such as the dog kennel that you have to pass through the dining car to reach. Not only is this area inaccessible early in the game, but once you’re able to venture back there, there’s only a single screen that lets you move into that area. Even then, the trainmaster (the guy in blue) will kick you out if he’s back there. The whole thing adds up to be confusing and awkward, especially when you’re new and trying to figure things out.
This is why I suggest starting with the Gold version of the game; not only does it include hotspot indicators that show you where you can move and what you can interact with, but it also has a hint button that you can use whenever you’re stuck. This makes the game much more newbie-friendly, and I can honestly say that I’d have never reached the end without abusing the hint button every time I got stuck. The Gold version of the game also includes character biographies that make it easier to remember who’s who, something that the hints also work toward aiding. This makes untangling the mess of politics and clashing character motivations much more manageable than it is in the vanilla version of the game, where you have to spend a great deal of time eavesdropping to figure out who everyone is. Even then, the animation isn’t smooth (something I’ll cover later, though you can no doubt see what I mean in some of the embedded videos), so it’s difficult to tell who’s talking if you’re listening in on two women or two men speaking to each other.
Hotspot indicators also make the game’s rare fighting scenes easier to understand, showing you when you can dodge and when you can attack. That doesn’t necessarily make the fights easy to succeed at, though, and a certain fight against a sword-wielding opponent toward the end manages to be incredibly difficult until you’ve figured out the timing. The Gold version also includes a different inventory that opens in a separate screen whereas the original inventory could be opened while watching the things happening around you. I’ll admit to liking the original more in this case because of how it’s faster and more convenient (especially when you have to find a key to lock/unlock a door), though both take some getting used to.
In truth, gameplay is mostly comprised of running around looking for conversations to listen in on. Things get quite a bit more action-packed toward the end, but there’s really no denying that The Last Express starts off slowly. The big draw of the game is its inclusion of a “rewind time” feature similar to that later used in the Prince of Persia trilogy (The Last Express was designed by Jordan Mechner, creator of Prince of Persia). This is a nice feature, if a bit awkward in practice; the game relies entirely on autosaves as you play, with no kind of manual saving, and rewinding time gives you 30 seconds to fast-forward back to your original point before the game overwrites the save and strands you at the point you rewound to. That would be fine if there was some method of fast-forwarding time to make the few occasions where you’re left waiting around for something to happen a bit less boring, but there isn’t. A feature that allows you to speed up time would have been a great complement to the rewind feature.
Gold version or vanilla?
Thus far I’ve recommended the Gold version overall because of how much accessible it makes the game for newcomers, but the truth is that the vanilla version is better. The rotoscoped graphics (which are actual live-action performances) are sharper since there’s no stretching to fit HD resolutions, there are no annoying icons littering the screen, and it seems far more solid and bug-free than the Gold version. For example, the first embedded video on this page was originally twice as long, but I actually ran into an issue where Anna refused to sit down and let me interact with her. She just stood around doing nothing for hours, which was bizarre. I also experienced some weird issues where Tatiana would teleport, held items required for the completion of the game would disappear when I left my cabin, and some moments where the button for skipping cutscenes stopped working. These are the kind of things I’ve never encountered in the vanilla version. The Gold version also allows you to revisit certain video sequences, but this doesn’t actually work for me, instead showing the end cutscene no matter which scene I choose. The mobile Gold version also includes nag screens that ask you to rate it, and these had a habit of popping up every time I reached a new chapter. Lastly, the vanilla version has an amazing credits screen that shows borders changing over a large span of time. The gold version’s credits have removed this, replacing it with a static background image with normal credits rolling on top. All things considered, I still recommend the Gold version for newcomers, but it’d be ideal to buy both versions and play them back-to-back to get the best of both worlds.
The music and graphics are unlike anything else
The Last Express’ graphics are actually live-action video that was drawn over in a process called rotoscoping, a technique used in films such as A Scanner Darkly and Heavy Metal. Since everyone has schedules throughout each day and the sheer amount of character activity balloons the amount of (costly) rotoscoping that would have been required for consistently smooth movement, the animation isn’t always as fluid as it is in fight scenes, with many conversations instead being made up of static images that occasionally fade and appear in a checkerboard pattern. This occurs in both the vanilla and Gold versions of the game, though it’s worth mentioning that animation of characters walking down the train’s corridors and many action scenes are beautifully fluid.
Once you get past the occasional static images, however, and become accustomed to the narrow, claustrophobic train interior, you really have to marvel at how unique the game’s graphics are. All of the characters have their own style, from August’s proclivity for wearing brown to Prince Kronos’ distinct orange garb, and the train’s interior was even modeled after the actual Orient Express. I don’t think “a treat for the senses” is quite deserved given the stunning graphics modern games are capable of, but it’s definitely unlike anything else you’ve seen and carries a style all its own, one that makes the time period irresistibly interesting.
The music is equally unique, with the normal soundtrack being a mix of stressful atmospheric music and occasional synths that somehow never feel out of place despite the time period represented. There are also character themes in violin that bring to mind the best of Arcanum’s music, and a few more upbeat, synthy pieces that kick things up a notch toward the end. Midway through the game, you even get invited to an impromptu concert where you can listen to a beautiful classical piece by César Franck that lasts between 10-30 minutes. Sadly, you have to take that opportunity to break into people’s cabins, but you can still listen to a good amount of it if you hurry.