The year is nineteen dickity four. Archduke Franz Kafka has just been felled by an anarchist’s bullet. Kaiser Wilhelm is turning into a bat each night and stealing the breath of Serbian children as they sleep. Old alliances are crumbling under the weight of new imperialist policies, and the world stands on the brink of war! Into this tumultuous powder keg of political intrigue and mutton chops rides The Last Express!
The Last Express is a point-&-click adventure game developed by the great Jordan Mechner in 1997. It’s a Hitchcockian murder mystery set on the last run of the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul prior to the outbreak of WWI. You play as Robert Cath, an American doctor with a shady past, summoned to Paris by a mysterious telegram from your friend. You hop the train and find him gruesomely murdered in his cabin, so you huck his body out the window, put on his clothes, assume his identity and set about the business of finding his killer. The cast of suspects are nearly all archetypes of the early 20th century: There’s a German arms dealer, a Russian count traveling with his granddaughter, An Austrian concert violinist, and a young Russian aristocrat turned anarchist. There are conductors, dogs, Black Hands, eunuchs, princes, and little French twerps who all play their parts in the mystery.
The gameplay in The Last Express takes place entirely on the train, and in real time. You wander about the train gathering clues by eavesdropping, chatting with the characters, breaking into cabins, reading diaries, collecting items, etc. Since the game is played in real time, the characters act on their own timetables, chatting with each other, eating, sleeping and moving around the train. If you miss a key moment, The Last Express includes a time manipulation system that lets you roll back the clock and play a scenario again. If you die or otherwise reach a point in the story where you can’t continue, The Last Express will show a brief epilogue, in the form of a passenger’s diary entry, and then roll the clock back to a point when it’s still possible to win the game. As unique as this system is, it can be very frustrating. You’re not given much direction, so you’ll often wander aimlessly through the train hoping to pick up a tidbit about the plot at just the right moment. You might make it all the way to end of the game missing a critical item, get sent back in time a day or more and end up playing most of the game over. Without a hint guide or walkthrough, you will probably backtrack a lot during your first play-through.
The presentation in The Last Express is amazing. The characters are actors filmed in black & white and then rotoscoped and hand-animated in an Art Nouveau style. The train is rendered in great detail from period photos and a visit to an actual surviving sleeper car. Each character speaks in his or her native language, which gets translated in subtitles when you approach them. Nearly every character speaks volumes too, so if you want, you can spend hours in the smoking car immersing yourself in these people’s lives. The Last Express so expertly mixes the intrigue of a thrilling mystery with the mundanities of train travel that I’ve never felt more immersed in a game’s world. It’s a truly unique gaming experience.
The Last Express was not a commercial success, but it eventually gained a strong cult following. Original copies on CD are hard to track down, but it’s available for download on Windows now, and should be released for iOS devices later this year. Check it out at http://jordanmechner.com/last-express/.
Thanks for reading my review! Next week, It’s a super-zapper blast to the past with Tempest 2000!