The Last Express

Developer:  Smoking Car Productions
Publisher:  Broderbund
Year Released:  1997

Review by Gordon Aplin (June, 1997)
lastexp.jpgIt is July 24, 1914 and the Orient Express is about to leave Paris on its journey to Constantinople across a very tense and anxious Europe. Archduke Franz Ferdinand has recently been assassinated in Sarejevo and the world is about to be plunged into war, making this particular train ... the last express.

On board the train is your friend, Tyler Whitney, who has landed himself in a precarious situation and has asked that you join him. You are Robert Cath, an American doctor, and the introduction shows Tyler anxiously awaiting your arrival as the train leaves Paris without you. This gives you the opportunity to demonstrate that you are a resourceful, if unpunctual, fellow when you leap aboard the moving train from the back of a speeding motor cycle.

Enjoy the ride
From this moment you gain control of the game which is largely played from a first person perspective, but interspersed with third person cut sequences showing Cath carrying out some action or talking to other characters. Your first task is to find Tyler. For the rest of the story you are pretty much carried along by events on the train itself as it hurtles through Europe. Where you can, you must talk to other characters or eavesdrop on their conversations to learn what is going on and, like the train, time hurtles on even if you are standing still.

Turn back the clock
What this means is that, as in real life, you may only overhear a snippet of conversation, and while you are listening to one you may miss others that are going on in a different part of the train ... you can't be in two places at once. However, you do have the luxury of turning back time so that you can try different things and follow different threads if you feel that you have missed an opportunity somewhere along the line. The game saves automatically and, although I didn't like this feature at first as I felt it took away some control from the player, it actually works very well and 'restoring' to an earlier time is very easy to do. Once I became used to it, I found that I didn't need to worry about 'saving' at all and could concentrate on my investigations knowing that I could simply 'back up' at any time.

This feature is also very useful because there are occasions when something you do (or don't do) in time will end the game prematurely. You may be killed or arrested, but you are immediately returned to the main screen from where you can recommence your journey at an earlier stage and try something different. In this context, I should point out here that there are several fight sequences which progressively become more difficult (at least I thought so) and which may frustrate many adventure players. However, with patience and a little practice you will get through them even if you are not an action/arcade game player. As for me, though I persevered and witnessed Cath being resurrected more often than I would have liked, I managed to get through them with my sanity intact. Still, I would have appreciated an easy way to 'skip' them so that I could get on with the real business of adventuring ... snooping around and sorting out clues.

Intriguing story
Despite the fight sequences and the timed elements I thoroughly enjoyed this game. It had a well-crafted and intriguing story, and a great atmosphere -- I really felt as though I was on that train. The graphics, sound effects, and excellent music all contributed to this effect, as did the voice acting which, like the overall production, was top notch. I loved the claustrophobic, narrow corridors and the way the trainmaster would sidle by with an "excuse me, monsieur." Actors were used for the live action sequences and these were then transformed into the cartoon animation used in the game, though no attempt was made to lip-synch speech.

Your character, Robert Cath, is a personable young man, daring, resourceful, intelligent and caring, with the merest suggestion that his part in all this is not as innocent or accidental as it seems. Then again, the presence of many of the characters you meet on this journey is also not accidental or innocent. This is the strength of the story -- learning about your fellow passengers, their backgrounds and the motives for their actions.

Mingle with other passengers
It was a little disappointing that you can only talk to a character if the game allows it. Frequently, I sought out a particular passenger to follow up on something and was unable to interact with them further. On the other hand, I suppose this did remove some of the pointless and oft repeated dialogue I have encountered in other games when conversations are not updated in line with story developments. Also, there is no on-screen text for dialogue except when Cath overhears his fellow passengers speaking in a language other than English, and then, only if he understands that particular language.

The obstacles to overcome are in keeping with the plot and setting and generally follow on from what you learn during the course of the game. It's up to you to take advantage of every opportunity that's presented to carry out your investigation and do whatever you can. You do have an inventory, but it is not necessary to continually access it -- if you have an item and can use it your cursor will usually change into a representation of that item. I know that not all adventurers will appreciate this feature as, once again, it removes some of the control from the player. It is also a little inconsistent in that there are a few instances, particularly in timed sequences, when the cursor doesn't change to the item you are carrying and you must choose the correct item from your inventory yourself. I think it would have been preferable to maintain player choice throughout. Though, this is only a minor criticism and it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the game.

The Last Express is a quality production, but it's not for everyone -- the timed sequences and fighting sequences may turn off some adventurers, which is a shame because there is much here to enjoy. Mystery, political intrigue and romance set against a background of impending catastrophic upheaval, made all the more poignant because we know what is about to happen. As Robert Cath we can briefly influence the course of events on the Orient Express, but are powerless in the face of the gathering storm clouds outside. Why did this game remind me of the movie, Casablanca? rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1997. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
WINDOWS 95: 60MHz Pentium(R) or faster, 8MB RAM Required; 16MB RAM Recommended. Requires 35MB hard disk space, 4X CD-ROM drive or faster, SVGA monitor/Local Bus or PCI Video, 640 x 480, thousands of colors (16-bit) Sound Blaster 16 or 100% Sound Blaster compatible 16-bit sound card.
DOS CD-ROM: DOS 6.0 or higher, 66MHz 486DX/2 or faster, 8MB RAM Required, 16MB RAM Recommended Requires 35MB hard disk space, 4X CD-ROM drive or faster, SVGA monitor/VESA compatible Local Bus or PCI Video, 640 x 480, thousands of colors, Sound Blaster 16 or 100% Sound Blaster compatible 16-bit sound card.