The Last Express



Genre:   Mystery Adventure

Developer:     Smoking Car Productions

Publisher:    Broderbund Software, Inc., Havas Interactive

Released:  1997

PC Requirements:   60 MHz or faster Pentium, DOS 6.0 or Windows 95, 8 MB RAM (16 MB RAM recommended), 35 MB hard disk space, 4x or faster CD-ROM drive, SVGA monitor/local bus or PCI video (640 x 480 resolution with thousands of colors), Sound Blaster 16 or 100% compatible 16-bit sound card

MAC Requirements:   Power Mac, System 7.1.2 or later, 16 MB RAM with 9 MB free, 35 MB hard disk space, 2x or faster CD-ROM drive (4x recommended), 13-inch or larger color monitor with thousands of colors






by Drizzt


A Journey back in time…

While I have not read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, I do certainly recognize an “inspired” work when I see one. Perhaps not as painfully obviously clear as in “Chaser” and “Red Faction” (both which were direct rip-offs of the good old Arnold movie “Total Recall” from the 80’s).  But I know enough of the setting and atmosphere to speculate that this game recalls the classic beloved novel, reworked to the computer, 90’s style. The Last Express, involving Jordan Mechner of the Prince of Persia games, is a journey back in time to pre-war Europe, with the tensions, conflicts and peculiarities of the time, all taking place aboard the fabled Orient Express.

Yes, the Orient Express -- home to a multitude of tales, upon which only the richest of the rich could travel. Starting at Paris and with the final destination of Constantinople (quite the long journey), there is plenty of room and time for intrigues and thrilling adventures. As the games’ advertisement states: “It leaves Paris with passengers…it reaches Constantinople with survivors” – this will be no holiday journey. With conspiracies and murders around each turn and every other passenger a stranger, a young man named Robert Cath (played by you) is unknowingly thrust into the fray.  He sets about unraveling the mysteries of this Last Express in a world on the brink of destruction.

Adventure with pressure

The Last Express is an adventure game, but not quite an adventure game like all others. First, the entire game is played in real-time. I believe that one can (although I never tried it myself) spend the entire game sitting in one’s cabin without any knowledge of the events unfolding. Since that would make a poor game, however, I would not recommend it to anyone except those with too much time on their hands.

The Last Express is also probably the most “free” adventure game I have experienced. You can go anywhere you want, whenever you feel like it, as long as the conditions are the right ones. For example, barging into people’s private cabins through the outer window of the train is not the most appreciated gesture. While this makes for a more “realistic” feeling and a freer way of solving the mysteries, it is a double-edged sword that can be very frustrating. Why? As mentioned earlier, you may go anywhere you want as long as the conditions are the right ones. This means that if you miss an opportunity to do something crucial in the main storyline, you are stuck with the result.  And to those who are unaware of what they’ve missed, it can be frustrating, to say the least.

But if you overslept in your cabin, with Vienna flashing past outside the window, and you still haven’t even greeted your fellow passengers

 -- do not despair. The entire game is played in real-time, yes, with a minefield of ways in which you can go wrong. This is where the developers (in a stroke of genius) implemented a “clock” feature. When you start playing the game for the first time, this clock starts ticking (it is accessed via the main menu, and it can be rewound from there), giving you another shot at solving things. To not leave you totally in the dark as to when a key event is happening, there is also a very stressful “tick-tock” sound that starts when anything important is about to occur. (Quite the kick in the rear if you’re in the cabin of a certain Austrian lady snooping through her belongings).

The game is played in a simple point-and-click mode. No quizzical key combinations here. There is an arrow for navigation through the train (beautifully rendered screens, but no 3D) and a hand for manipulating objects.

Story and environment

A friend, Michael Whitney, has invited Robert Cath - the main character - along for a ride on the Orient Express. Not being able to arrive in time for the departure, however, we can see Mr. Cath making a dramatic late entrance in the game introduction. As a stranger on the train, without a ticket or a proper reason for embarking, he has no clue at first as to why he is there.  This is where you step in.

The Last Express is full of atmosphere, and while the beautiful (for its time) graphics and music are a major component of its success, where the developers really surpassed themselves is in the persona gallery. Without revealing too much, I can safely say that this includes the typical (corpulent) German industrialist businessman, a Russian revolutionary, a happy Englishman, a beautiful musician, an aristocrat and his granddaughter, a group of outsiders who keep to themselves and a mystical African man. All with hidden motives and different goals, with you in the middle of it.

 Almost all of the characters on the train have some part to play, and even with those who don’t are still interesting to listen to. I heard it said that every time one plays The Last Express, it is a different experience, and I believe it. As time passes, the characters go on about their business: eating, talking and arguing. Since you can never be in two places at the same time, and these things happen simultaneously, you can never experience it all in one go. (A motivation to play the game again, if ever there was one.) You can sit in the restaurant car and listen to the conversation of those around you, relax in the smoking car, or listen to private conversations through doors.

One of the characteristic features of these conversations is how Russians will speak Russian, Germans will speak German and the French will speak French. I may not be a linguist, but it is a refreshing thing not to have to deal with Germans who zpeak like zis even wif otter Germans. Luckily, since our Mr. Cath is a learned person, he can understand them and he kindly provides us with subtitles. I wouldn’t have minded subtitles with the English conversations as well, but you can’t have everything, can you?

That all the voice acting is near-to-perfect does not make it worse, either.

The atmosphere

There are cutscenes from time to time to propel the story forward and also the occasional fight (these can be tricky the first time, but you will get hang of them quickly). The major problem with the cutscenes – and some things in the game itself – is how everything “stutters.” The animations here do not flow, but are merely one picture after another. There must be some technical explanation for this, but I cannot grasp what it could be, as the animations (made by motion-capture) of people moving around in the game itself are smooth and very well done (most of the time). Other than that, the graphics for a game released in 1997 are as expected; crisp, clear quality and beautifully rendered. The painstaking process of recreating the train is evident in the amount of detail offered. From the elegant private cabins to the claustrophobic baggage car, everything is just as one would think it had been.

And through all of this, we have Elia Cmiral’s retro/orchestral soundtrack playing. Violins mixed with heavy percussion and string instruments, setting the mood. Very well composed, with a fitting song for each situation, this masterpiece adds a lot to the atmosphere. (The soundtrack is also available on Amazon.)

Finally, before concluding this review, I must admit that the first time I played the game, I had a walkthrough printed out next to me. The Last Express is hard. Very hard.  And it can be frustrating too, mostly because you have no idea of what to do next. There are practically no pointers and there are a few very illogical solutions to problems (the “Golden Whistle” most prominently). If you are an inexperienced adventure gamer, my suggestion is to first play the game with a walkthrough and watch the bittersweet story unfolding.  Then make a second attempt, this time entering the world of The Last Express as Robert Cath; alone without any idea as to what is going on.

A genuine classic, much overlooked.




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