Who would have thought that Jordan Mechner, the man behind such action classics as Karateka and Prince of Persia, would design one of the most innovative adventure games of the last few years? Upon closer examination, Mechner's involvement with The Last Express makes sense: Karateka was the among the first games to be emotionally engaging, with small cutscenes adding a narrative layer that was unheard of in the early Eighties. The Last Express is revolutionary in a similar way - through its use of real time and brilliant writing, the game ups the ante for storytelling in gaming. And if it weren't for a few gameplay issues, The Last Express could very well be among the best adventure games ever.
Taking place on the Orient Express immediately before the outbreak of World War I, The Last Express is a tale of international intrigue, a love story, and a murder mystery all at once. While this may sound trite, the intelligent writing overcomes the cliches through its complex characters, unpredictable plot twists, and some of the most convincing voice acting ever heard in a game. You assume the role of Robert Cath, a fugitive American with a mysterious background who has come onboard the Express to visit an old friend. You arrive and find your friend has been murdered, but trying to discover the mystery behind his death will not be as simple as it seems. Despite this tired premise, The Last Express never feels like a "Host Your Own Murder Mystery" party on a CD. The plot plays out like a cross between The Maltese Falcon and the French classic Pepe Le Moko, and it remains intriguing all the way to the spectacular ending.
The only thing that stands in the way of enjoying the story is the gameplay. There are some great innovations in the play mechanics, but they come with a price. The game takes place in real time -characters go about their business - going to dinner, having conversations in the smoking car, and wandering the hallways - according to their own schedules. To pick up valuable info, you have to be in the right place at the right time, but, with a few exceptions, it's never a life or death necessity to see or hear everything that's going on - which would be impossible anyway. At any given time, there may be people making small talk in the dining car while others discuss the political climate in their private car and still others whisper about their personal lives in hushed tones. The process creates an amazing sense of environment; just wandering up and down the hallways of the train is a fascinating experience. But the real-time device has its price: There are times where literally nothing is going on, and if you've figured out everything you need to do in this particular segment, you simply have to wait for the next big event. Since there's no way to make the time pass quickly, this gets a bit frustrating.
The Last Express' biggest shortcoming is that it tries to walk the line between being a traditional adventure game and being something new altogether - and frustratingly ends up being both and neither. It doesn't have enough puzzles for a traditional game, making the game zip by in under 20 hours. On the other hand, the puzzles themselves are very traditional, forcing a jarring interruption into the otherwise organic experience.
But anyone playing The Last Express will realize almost immediately that the game isn't about solving puzzles. It's about interacting with characters and enjoying the environment, and it is hugely successful in that department - especially considering the amazing ending, which will justify any frustrations you've had along the way. The graphics are highly stylized, mixing photo-realistic environments with roto-scoped (a process in which actors are filmed and then animated) characters, and the animation follows a strange stop-motion technique. The result is effective, but it takes a little getting used to. The sound is spectacular, combining the excellent voice acting with a gorgeous score. For those who are looking for an enthralling experience rather than a series of unrelated brain-stumpers, The Last Express is highly recommended.