The Last ExpressSometimes the adventure game genre can feel played out. How many more Myst clones can you click through? How many more bad actors emoting against a blue-screen background can you endure? Some games try to innovate by playing with pseudo-postmodern conventions (narrators who are "aware" they're in a game, for example) or by trying to wow you with more screens, more dissolves, more, more, more.
Or a game could try to be original. The Last Express is set in 1914, on the Orient Express bound from Paris to Constantinople. Instead of a moribund, rendered, and empty environment, the game's look is contemporary to the plot: The scenery and characters are in a bright and strong art nouveau style. The characters sometimes aren't fully animated (instead, they fade from point to point), but they look natural and real. The actors were filmed and then the art was drawn over the film (a technique known as rotoscoping).
Gameplay begins with your character, the dashing American Robert Cath, jumping onto the Orient Express in transit from a speeding motorcycle. You're there to meet an old comrade, but you find that he has been murdered. Your ultimate goal is to find his killer and unravel the mystery of why he was on the train, but first you must dispose of the body and avoid the police. On the train with you is a wealthy and mysterious art collector, a harem, a beautiful concert violinist (and spy?), explosive Russian revolutionaries, and a man who, thinking you are your dead friend, wants to conclude some shady deal involving a lot of gold and a stolen relic. Y'know, your usual gang.
Aside from the graphics, The Last Express' best feature is the plot. Although you are thrown into the story with little time to get your bearings, once you're in, it's believable; if it were a novel, it would be a page-turner. Also, features are well integrated with the time period. You can pick up a newspaper and read real reports of the day, including ominous rumblings of war. To play, you don't need to know a Menshevik from a Trotskyist, but the more you know, the better the plot points fit.
Gameplay is based on the point-to-explore paradigm, but because events unfold over a more or less "real time" frame, there are times when you'll simply have to sit and hide in the lavatory as the police check rooms. Important dialog boxes are pre-scripted, but where you go—and when—affects what happens next. You'll best enjoy The Last Express if you break the old adventure game habit of "try everything" and act as if you were there.
The only complaint is that this is a difficult game to play casually. It might be best to bone up a bit on your World War I history and take notes while playing. The flip side is the immersive experience. To the game's credit, if you make a fatal error, such as pulling the emergency stop, the game gives you a brief endgame, then rewinds to the point of your error. Don't worry—you'll still have some work to do, figuring out the next correct move.
All in all, The Last Express is an impressive twist on the adventure game, and it's gorgeous. If you're accustomed to playing shooters, you may find the action slow, but if you regret never riding the Orient Express and enjoy the pace of train travel, you will relish this trip.