The Last Express, the 90s real-time adventure game that still feels groundbreaking
A look back at Jordan Mechner’s tense and beautiful train-bound thriller, The Last Express.
Originally released in 1997 by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner’s Smoking Car Productions, The Last Express is a captivating adventure game that drops you into a tense world of intrigue onboard the Orient Express as it journeys from Paris to Constantinople in 1914. Unbeknown to the passengers, they are on the last Oriental Express train to cross Europe before the outbreak of World War I.
A commercial failure upon its initial release due to publishing issues, The Last Express has maintained a high level of critical acclaim thanks to its strong story, time-driven mechanics and its stunning hand-colored visuals that hold up well today (its current Metacritic score is 90). The original version is available from GOG.com (PC) and the remaster can be found on Steam (PC) and mobile platforms (Android and iOS).
You play as American doctor Robert Cath who is on the run from the police. His friend Tyler Whitney suggests he join him on the Orient Express. However, after sneaking aboard the train, Cath soon discovers that his friend has been murdered and assumes his identity.
It seems that Whitney was involved in some kind of deal and as Cath, the player must piece together clues about what exactly he has got himself muddled up in. As The Last Express is a first person point and click adventure game, this involves searching the train and listening to conversations between the various passengers. The game takes place in slightly sped up real-time, with the passengers and guards moving to different parts of the train as they go about their business. It is important to keep track of where different characters are on the train at certain times, as you will need to sneak into their compartments to gather clues. The time limit maintains the tense atmosphere through the course of the entire game and can result in some dramatic game overs if you fail to do things in time. To get the train safely to its destination, you will need to hide bodies and foil sabotage and smuggling attempts.
The Last Express’s clever and unusual mechanic is the ability to rewind time using the Fabergé style clock on the menu screen. When you get a game over, the hands automatically move back to the last point from which you can successfully steer the story back on track. Time can be moved back or forwards by the player at any point during the game. This makes it a useful gameplay strategy to ensure that you don’t miss an important encounter or conversation.
Another two aspects that set the game apart are its distinct visual style and voice acting. The game uses rotoscoped animations for the characters. This involved photographing real life actors performing the scenes. Digitized black outlines of these scenes were then hand colored. The result resembles an Art Nouveau painting in motion, which very much matches the aesthetics of the game’s 1914 setting. To make the train’s detailed pre-rendered backgrounds look authentic, the developers modelled them on a real Oriental Express carriage. The voice acting is very good, especially for the mid-1990s. The diverse passengers communicate with the main character in English, but frequently talk among themselves in languages such as French, German and Russian (which are subtitled). These capture the multicultural environment of the train.
The game also pushed boundaries as to how player action (or inaction) in a story-driven game can impact the plot. During each in-game day and night, the other characters will seek to complete their own agendas, and may alter their actions slightly in response to the player. The game has multiple endings, including ones in which you can end up dead or arrested, but only one true “good” ending. The game rewards players who pay attention to detail.
The Last Express still holds up today thanks to its high level of polish, unusual setting, distinctive art style and intriguing story. Although not essential to enjoy the game, a general understanding of Europe’s political situation in 1914 adds an extra sense of melancholy to the fates of certain characters.
Two versions of The Last Express are currently available. The remastered version of the game offers a more modern interface, a map and tutorial messages to make it easier to understand what you need to do in the game. Alternatively, the original 1997 release available on gog is recommended for those who want the authentic experience or more of a challenge.