The Last Express is one of those games that adventure game fans talk about with a sort of somber reverence. Released in the late ’90s, it was praised for its innovative and thrilling storyline, unique art style, eclectic cast of characters, and ‘real-time’ gameplay. Unfortunately it was also saddled with a horribly bungled release that led to it being overlooked by virtually everyone. Over the years it has garnered something of a cult status and has been released in numerous different formats for new and old gamers to enjoy. Now it’s finally made its way to iOS, and is proof that a fantastic story and an unique experience can outlast the years… and shaky ports.
In The Last Express, you play as Robert Cath, an American expat who has stowed away onto the infamous Orient Express to meet up with his friend Tyler Whitney. Upon arriving on this seemingly doomed train, he finds that his good friend has been murdered, and that Tyler’s reasons for wanting to see Robert again are more mysterious and nefarious then Robert could have ever imagined. And thus begins Robert’s attempt to piece together why he was summoned, what his friend was doing there, why so many people on the train already know who Tyler is, and why no one on the Orient seems to be who they say they are. If you like murder mysteries, then you’ll find plenty to love about The Last Express.
You didn’t tell me this was a knife fight!
The things that make The Last Express memorable are the story and characters. This is the kind of intrigue that would make Dickens proud and Bogart smile. It’s a tense, sometimes overwrought plot where overhearing the slightest whisper from around the corner can be just as important as finding that big clue after breaking into someone’s sleeping-quarters. It’s a bedlam of intrigue, political conspiracies, backstabbing, taboo love, deception, and murder most foul. It features a multifarious cast of characters like a German arms-dealer, an Austrian spy, Serbian nationalists, an African prince and Russian anarchists. They all have their own reasons and machinations for taking this transnational trip, and it’s up to you and Robert to figure it all out and claim some kind of justice for his friend.
One of the most intriguing aspects about The Last Express is that the game takes place in ‘real-time.’ Now, that doesn’t mean that one hour in the game translates to one hour in the real world, but the game has it’s own sped up clock and internal reality, and it’s usually pretty important to keep track of it. If something is going to happen in one hour, then it’s best you see what time it is in the game so you know when that particular event will happen. The best example of this is when the big concert in the private car is taking place. Nearly everyone in the story will be distracted by the concert, and you have about a half-hour to sneak around and gather as many clues as you can before the concert breaks. It’s a crucial point in the game, and attention to detail and keeping track of what’s happening around you is critical. One wrong step, or someone seeing you doing something you shouldn’t be doing can be a game ender. Thankfully, the game has a rewind function that lets you go back in time and attempt to get right whatever it is you got wrong.
Enjoying a spot of tea with the ladies.
Last Express also has tremendous production values, so you’re not only getting a cracking story, but you’re also getting a visual and audio treat to boot. This may sound like a weird thing to say given the almost quaint look of the screenshots, but that style is exactly the point of the game. That sort of art-nouveau, painterly look fits into the context of the game perfectly and just adds to the richness of the experience. The game also has some the most fabulous sound-design work in any game, period. The ‘world’ of the train explodes to life with realistic sound effects, characters constantly having their own conversations independent of Robert’s interaction, and a wonderfully melodramatic soundtrack that ratchets up the tension or plays it cool when the situation calls for.
Unfortunately, most of the positives about the game are about the original game itself and not about this port. You actually have to expend concerted effort to discover what makes the game so special. This port isn’t terrible in any way, but what is arguably the most important thing, the controls, can be an absolute headache. You navigate through the game via a series of arrows and action icons that pop up on screen. This would be all fine and good, except for the fact that the screen can sometimes be confusingly cluttered with arrows and fingers and icons that muck up your view. You’re also given no indication as to what the buttons will do when you hit them, as the context of what they do changes in every room. What does that spinning arrow do? What does this arrow pointing down do in this room? What exactly is that finger pointing at?
Nobody makes me bleed my own blood.
Since the geography of the train can get confusing, certain parts of the train look the same, and the game likes to orient your view at it’s own discretion. That makes it a pain to figure out how to navigate the environment. There is an option to turn the arrows and icons off, but that just leaves you tapping the screen like a crazy person until you find something that does anything. We’ve also found that the game will just randomly take control of Robert, sending him zipping down a corridor for no reason that we can discern. RealMyst had an excellent control scheme in a similar type of game, and we think something like that would have been much more agreeable here.
Luckily, the somewhat flawed game mechanics aren’t a deal breaker here, and The Last Express is almost as good an experience today as it was if you were lucky enough to have played it almost 20 years ago. DotEmu has done a pretty wonderful job of bringing this enduring cult classic to the mobile audience. A good story is timeless, and The Last Express just happens to have an excellent story. Any adventure fan should check this one out.