The Last Express
|Reviewed by: Diana Griffiths|
|Platform:||Windows 95, also on DOS, Power Macintosh.|
|Category:||Real-time Suspense Thriller||Version:||1.0|
|Price:||Retail: $ 48 US Street: $ 34 US||Author:||Smoking Car Productions|
|Sound devices:||SoundBlaster 16 or 100% compatible 16-bit sound card|
|Computer||Memory||HD space||CD speed|
|Minimum||P75||8 M||31 M||x 4|
|Reviewed on||P133||32 M||31 M||x 6|
|Recommended||P133||16 M||35 M||x 6|
You board the Orient Express in 1914 Paris
The year is 1914, the stage is Europe on the brink of war. You play the role of Robert Cath, a young American who has arranged to meet his old friend Tyler Whitney in Paris and join him for a journey on the Orient Express. You take control of Robert's actions once he boards the train. First you have to find your compartment. When you do so you find Tyler's dead body. He has been murdered! You must decide what to do next. If you act quickly and correctly Robert will assume Tyler's identity and Robert will try to find out who murdered Tyler and why.
The other passengers (suspects) on the train are Europeans from several different countries and different backgrounds. Some stay in their compartments and will not talk with Robert, while others seem keen to 'use' "Tyler"'s services.
The Last Express has been designed such that time progresses at the same rate whether you take the appropriate actions or not. The train rolls on from station to station sticking to it's original schedule. At certain points, if you have not performed the right actions, Robert may get murdered, arrested or the game may end prematurely without Robert discovering Tyler's murderer.
I found the puzzles in The Last Express of moderate difficulty. Some solutions I just stumbled across, some were logical, but some seemed very obscure. Most of one's time is spend wandering up and down the train hoping you will overhear something or someone will talk to you, wondering where your next clue is going to come from. You will think all is going well, when suddenly you find the game ending prematurely! In other words, this game can be frustrating, but there is enough compelling about it to try and try again. I should mention that there is more at stake here than Tyler’s murder, if that wasn’t enough. You are uncovering plots and hidden agendas of a political nature as well. And having to prevent many a calamity due to the dubious nature of your fellow passengers.
Typical train corridor scene
Passengers aboard the Orient Express
While Robert is under your control you have a first person perspective. But when the game takes over with movie action, it switches to third person perspective.
The graphics in The Last Express are mixed. The background scenes are very lavishly represented. There are some gorgeous turn of the century patterns and everything in the scenes is drawn and coloured in great detail and depth. Not so the passengers and crew of the train. All the NPCs and Robert are drawn in an Art Noveau style, animated, "clean-lined ink drawings coloured with flat washes" to quote the game documentation. The game designers have documented two reasons for doing this. Graphics of live action would have required much more CD/disk space. The designers also believe that the player will be drawn into the story more instead of being distracted by the acting. I found this an interesting decision, given the trend of the adventure game industry to use live actors and a plethora of CDs. Does it work? I think so. I was not bothered by my sketchy characters while I did appreciate the richness of the backgrounds. However, this perception may have been thanks to the voice actors.
I was impressed by how the characters could be seen from many different angles depending on your perspective, proximity and timing.
About to crash through Serbian border
All the movie sequences are very good. The movies are composed of the same mixture of graphics and animation quality, but they usually contain drama and have the impact of a thriller movie.
The Last Express is rich with sound. There is wonderful, suitable period music, and music that picks up tempo as the game gets more exciting. There are applicable sound effects for every motion, and the acting of the characters is excellent. The acting is to be particularly commended as several languages are spoken and each passenger and crew member has a particular accent when they speak English. When you are close enough to the people talking, there are English subtitles when French, German or Russian is being spoken. Since Robert knows no other languages, only those languages are translated. I don't think the use of sound sets the mood for this game exclusively but it certainly helps a great deal. There is even a music concert held on board and if you wander the corridors during this concert you will hear passengers not attending the concert commenting upon the wonder of it!
There are a few combat sequences in this game. Near the start of the game you have to, bare-handed, fight off a man with a knife. The later fights are similar but they get increasingly difficult. The user interface is very intuitive, but the actions to avoid being killed are a bit tricky. However, the game design is such that you get to try and try again until you succeed and eventually you will!
The default screen is the adventure screen showing the scene before you. This is centred on the screen and may change size and shape depending on the circumstances. It is usually a narrow train corridor shape.
Inventory - depicted down left edge of screen
Manipulating an inventory item
In the upper left is displayed a small portrait that represents Robert. Next to this portrait there may be representation of an item that Robert is holding. Other inventory items are identified and available to select, on clicking Robert's portrait. Selecting an inventory item allows you to inspect it further or use it. There is not much flexibility here. The game tightly controls what you can do with an inventory item.
All actions are performed using the left mouse button click. As you move the mouse cursor across the screen, the cursor will change to the appropriate action for that hot spot. Normally you will see arrows indicating possible movement directions. But more specific actions are identified by symbols of hands, fingers or by the item Robert is holding in his hand.
You can zap through the movie sequences by right clicking.
In the lower right is an icon representing system options. Clicking on this icon, displays a full screen map of the journey, elaborate clock and calendar, and three system options.
By clicking on the stations on the map you may return to an earlier point in the journey, so that you can play the action over differently. Similarly you can use the clock to wind time back a few minutes or a few hours. If you have rewound the clock, for about a minute thereafter, you may also use the map and clock to move forward in time. This is so you can find the exact point you want to return to, or change your mind and return to the current time again.
You can also start a new game by clicking on the upper part of the clock. There are five different games you can switch between, blue, red, green, teal and purple so that you try out different actions to see what works out for the best.
The system options are volume and brightness controls, and quit. There is no save and restore function due to the time management design of this game.
Although this user interface is very unusual for an adventure game, I found it very intuitive and easy to use.
Installation was very straightforward and fast. The Last Express comes on only three disks. I had to switch disks about a third of the way and two thirds though the game. If you rewind back to an earlier time you will have to swap disks, but this is no great hardship.
There is a Making of The Last Express video on the CD1 which is worth viewing, perhaps after having played the game, when you can appreciate the end product better.
I had one or two performance problems with The Last Express at specific moments when the game seemed to be busy processing. But most of the time the game reacts immediately.
I encountered no software problems at all.
Towards the end of The Last Express, there are some flaws in what is best called stage direction. Robert has had to make his way to the engine, the only way possible, over the roof of the train. Suddenly, the leading lady appears in her posh outfit. How did she get there? Certainly not the same route Robert took! Similarly a couple of characters appear at the front half of the train who didn't seem to be there before and had no way of getting to the front of the train. This is nit-picking however, because I only noticed flaws like these very late in the game. Most adventure games have not tried to have such complex plots, so have not got into these kinds of difficulties. They are the sort of continuity problems you see in movies all the time!
The documentation comprises of a user manual and a trouble shooting guide. I did not need to use the trouble shooting guide. The Last Express is very resource hungry so some players may have problems if they have programs starting up automatically when they boot Windows 95. Since I found the user interface so intuitive I barely needed the user manual either. I did notice a couple of features in the manual that I had not discovered on my own. The box also includes a competition to win a trip on the current Orient Express.
There is some missing documentation! In the review package I received there were some background bios of the main characters in The Last Express. Also on The Last Express web site there is some very interesting pertinent information. This information makes the game more complete, understandable and enjoyable. I think this information should have been made available to all players by putting it either on the CDs or in the hard-copy documentation package.
The final closing sequences of The Last Express are excellent. The story has been building to this moment and it is essential that it end with a fitting experience for the player. It does. Most adventure games on the market these days end happily ever after. The ending of The Last Express is more complicated than that. I had quite a surprise when I figured out who killed Tyler, but it made sense. And it doesn’t end there. There are a few loose ends to clean up, and most of them are. To say more would really spoil the game for you. Finally as the credits role you get a history lesson in the political map of Europe from 1914 to the present day. I thought this was an extremely clever idea.
I have been writing a series of articles called The Gender Gap for Games Domain Review. In Part IV, I list a number of ingredients that a game should contain to appeal to women. In fact this list is appealing to adventure gamers, regardless of gender. So I am using it here to show how The Last Express measures up:
Men dominate in this game slightly, but there are a substantial number of women characters who have major roles. This means that this both men and women will be able to identify with the characters. None of the women are portrayed as sex objects or are scantily dressed. Most of the women and men have depth of character. The fact that the characters are developed is one of the many reasons this game pulls you into the story.
There are several relationships to understand and explore between the train passengers. There are several family relationships, some old friends, and a couple of romances. There are also political relationships for you to discover.
The setting of this game is 1914 Europe. The highly significant historical background adds drama and tension to the game. When I finished The Last Express, I felt rather ignorant of this period of history, and I was inspired to me find out more. I found this period of history all the more fascinating because of the recent political events in Eastern Europe!
The combat in The Last Express is well integrated and makes perfect sense within the story. Because The Last Express is a "real-time" game the fights are also in real-time. However, the fights are short and you do not get too frustrated being defeated time after time. Also by the time you get to the later fights, you feel so compelled to continue, you are highly motivated to win!
It is also important to mention The Last Express’s replayability. Not only will you miss hearing conversations or perhaps not perform every possible insignificant but interesting action, you will also find that no two games play exactly the same way! Events will occur in a different order, requiring different actions from you. Hence this game can be played several times in a row, without getting too repetitive.
So The Last Express excels in almost every way I look at it. In fact, I believe that Jordan Mechner has taken adventure gaming to a new level. Hence The Last Express has been designated with a Gold award. If there was anything higher, I would have used that!
Second Opinion by Barak Engel
|Appeal:||All gamers must play this one!|
|Originality:||Innovative, sophisticated, a new level in adventure gaming.|
|Graphics:||Mixed. Backgrounds beautiful & realistic. Characters animated.|
|Audio:||Excellent sound effects, speech, acting, music. All round great.|
|Longevity:||Over 40 hours of game play. Most replayable adventure game yet. Never plays exactly the same way twice.|
|Interface & Usability:||Innovative and intuitive. Mouse driven only.|
|Packaging & Docs:||Good, but character bios should have been included as well.|
|Bugs & Problems:||None|