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The Last Express (PC) artwork

The Last Express (PC) review

"This review is of the version of last express from december 2011, and it reflects any bugs/bugfixes/optimizations/whatever associated with that version. "

This review is of the version of last express from december 2011, and it reflects any bugs/bugfixes/optimizations/whatever associated with that version.

The Last Express is a fascinating and delightful adventure game from Jordan Mechner, that dude who made Prince of Persia. More of a period piece and less an action platformer than PoP, TLE brings the player to 1914 and the eve of the great war. European politics are the dry kindling on which Mechner lays his story, and, as becomes quickly evident, there are a lot of sparks flying. You, the player, are Robert Cath, an american on the run and aboard the fabled Orient Express as she journeys from Paris to Constantinople. A stranger in a strange land, one where Cath only knows half the languages being spoken, you will learn to play all sides against the middle as you attempt to solve your own personal mystery. The characters you'll meet are enchanting and believable, (hard to say realistic because who alive can remember?) their stories perfectly woven together into the setting and into the story.

The party-piece of last express is its timing system and save feature. The entire game takes place in 1/6 real time, so 1 real minute is 6 game minutes. The other people on the train have their own agendas, their own conversations, their own lives to live, and they only sometimes involve Robert Cath. Being in the right place at the right time is critical because the game, unlike death (and there will be death), does not stop for you. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, even worse than the typical adventure game where one can easily miss picking up an item 5 hours earlier that was only a few pixels wide and then need to restart the game. Last Express goes to great lengths to avoid this, and the result is delightfully playable. Click on the little blue egg in the corner of the screen, and you're presented with a timeline and a clock. At any time, you can roll back the clock to any point you've already played through to move back to that point in time and begin moving forward from there. Walked in half-way through what sounded like an important conversation? Rewind and come into the room a few minutes earlier. Failed to find an item you needed in time for a scheduled interaction with another character? No problem, last express will happily kill you (or otherwise end the game) and then restart you back at a time when you are able to prevent your death, which usually is no more than 5-10 real minutes earlier. For a game with a timer, Last Express is almost never frustrating. Only three times in the game did I need to check a FAQ for a hint, which is probably a record for me in an adventure game, and none of the solutions were so obtuse I couldn't have figured them out with another 10-15 minutes of searching.

One of the first impressions a player will have of Last Express is its unique visual style. Played largely, though not exclusively, in the first person, the game consists of what feel like hundreds of beautifully animated images representing each step and perspective of walking and exploring the cars on the train. Those familiar with the original Myst will feel at home, though Last Express goes much further with the idea. The train's passengers and crew are similarly rendered in something like flip-book fashion, with motion broken down to often less than one frame per second. The pay-off for this potentially off-putting visual choice is that the interiors of the train and the character models are highly visually detailed and expressive, with the models themselves rotoscoped in the style of art nouveau. Almost 15 years have passed between the release of TLE and this review, and yet the art direction puts many current triple-A games to shame.

Audio is also a high point in TLE. All dialogue is fully voiced, and the acting (at least the english acting, since I don't speak any of the other languages) is among the best of any game ever. If Phantasmagoria and Wing Commander 3 had had writing and acting this good the live action videogame might very well still be around. Sitting in the dining room or outside someone else's room eavesdropping is a pleasure, with beautiful writing that touches all the right notes from the playful joy of a child irritating his mother to the tenderness of old friends comforting one another after a loss. Eschewing the common practice of using a silent protagonist, or at least an unvoiced one, the player character is excellently voiced and an omnipresent part of all your many conversations. The game also features some lovely instrumental music, though it never gets oppressive. In this reviewer's experience, there was a rough crackly sound in the background during much of the game, but that might easily be corrected by someone with more familiarity tweaking dosbox sound emulation.

Being almost a decade and a half old at this point, it's easy to overlook this funky looking title with its weird graphics. And that's a shame, because Last Express might be the finest adventure I've ever played. It trades in the huge worlds and the pixel hunting for simple, brilliant, human storytelling in a very small world. (read: very small. just a handful of train cars) You'll fail a lot, because it's an adventure game and that's how adventure games work, but rather than be frustrated you'll actually learn a little more each time about how the game works and why a certain character was in a certain place to foil you. Then, with a little ingenuity, you'll spin back the clock and take another step forward on your journey. It may be on rails, but it's definitely a journey you want to take.


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Featured community review by Typodragon (December 28, 2011)

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