Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express has been one of the best kept secrets in video games. Originally released in 1997, it was immediately the victim of chronic bad luck. Its publisher’s marketing team quit a week before release, resulting in no advertising. The publisher was soon bought out by another company that was only interested in edutainment titles, and the game quickly went out of print. It was picked up and republished a few years later, only for the new publisher to go bankrupt shortly thereafter. Even without all that drama, the fallout of the adventure game genre made the game’s chances of success an uphill battle. It seemed as if The Last Express was destined for obscurity.
Only in the last few years has it reemerged through digital distribution stores to finally reveal itself to a wide audience. With this happening at a time when adventure games are seeing a little bit of a resurgence, maybe its luck is finally turning around.
The game is set aboard the Orient Express in 1914, just before the start of World War I. The player steps into the shoes of American doctor Robert Cath, who sneaks aboard the train to meet up with his old friend, Tyler Whitney. Unfortunately, Tyler has been murdered, and Robert assumes his identity in order to carry out the deal that Tyler was involved with, as well as find his murderer. The plot quickly escalates into political espionage that, as you can probably guess, ties into the start of The Great War.
The story is masterfully told not by shoving cutscenes into the player’s face, but by allowing him/her to observe it simply by inhabiting the game’s world. Unlike most point-and-click adventure games that patiently wait for the player to trigger the next story event, The Last Express happens in a “living world,” where time passes even if the player does nothing. The train is always moving, relentlessly heading for its destination. The other passengers go about their business. It’s up to the player to intervene, eavesdrop, and snoop around in order to uncover the plot before things go awry.
This, of course, can lead to situations in which the player misses doing something important, causing the game to come to an abrupt end. But the game avoids frustration by including the ability to rewind time, which is a really brilliant design decision. In many cases, after getting a game over, the game will even automatically rewind to a time when the player is able to avoid the previous catastrophe.
One of the best aspects is the fantastic characterization. Each character is intelligent and fully fleshed-out, even the ones that are not directly involved in the storyline. They give a sense that their lives really stretch beyond the game’s world. It underscores the excellent writing, complemented by equally impressive voice acting.
In fact, so many aspects of the game are brilliant that it’s hard not to want to discuss them all in-depth. From the rotoscopped graphics presented in an Art Nouveau style, to the music and ambiance, no part of this game feels arbitrary.
The only blemishes, really, are the few technical issues that seem to be inherent to these types of “living world” games. Having a character appear in two different places at the same time due to overlapping scripted sequences can take the player out of the experience.
But still, for a game that came out in 1997, it’s a remarkable achievement. Perhaps it’s just as well that it took so long for it to gain wider exposure, as the game was certainly well ahead of its time in many respects. It’s a little non-traditional as far as adventure games go, but it must certainly be one of the best. The Last Express is a truly gripping ride, and I give it my highest recommendation.