Jordan Mechner’s eye on providing cinematic experiences driven by expressive gameplay and tough challenges have slowly percolated over the years since Karateka in 1984, right on through the Prince of Persia series on PCs. But the prolific designer and storyteller would take his biggest gamble yet with his company, Smoking Car Productions, in creating one of the most uniquely crafted adventures ever to hit shelves. In 1997, players would get the chance to ride the Orient Express during its heyday in 1914 before the storm of WW1 broke over Europe.
There really isn’t anything like The Last Express, even today fifteen years after its release. The art nouveau, sketch-like art that makes up the adventure gave it a signature look elevated it above the usual pixel and 3D CG of anything else at the time. And the game was in real-time. Accelerated for gameplay, and with enough permutations to make no two playthroughs the same, The Last Express was a katyusha attack on the perception that games could not only look lifted from the walls of the Louvre but sacrifice none of the challenge borne by their roots. It was still a game at heart, but what a game!
The visuals were done using rotoscoped art. Real actors in period-accurate dress performed their parts from a script as long as 800 pages and then specific frames from the footage were picked, drawn over, and then ended up in the game. Because it would probably take an animation studio the size of Disney to smoothly transition between every frame for a game of this size, the artists decided to present the action in each scene with key moments by having character art simply dissolve from one major action to the next giving it the appearance of a lush, sketched comic-book. Instead of turning a head to look at you, a character’s head may simply fade from looking outside a window to right at your character. Full animation was also used in certain spots for dramatic effect, albeit sparingly. The overall effect was amazingly stunning giving it a kind of inked signature.
Setting the game on the eve of WW1 and packing the Orient Express ranging from everyone from Russian nobles to a German arms dealer, you play as the American doctor, Robert Cath. Bad news for Robert, however, is that he’s suspected of murdering an Irish police officer. The good news is that a friend sends word to meet him on the Orient Express traveling from Paris to Constantinople which can be the answer to escaping his problems. The problem is that he’s arrived to find his friend dead. And the ticket guy has started knocking on doors just down the hall.
If you don’t find a way to get rid of the body, which I didn’t do my first time around, the game won’t wait for you. Nothing stands still in The Last Express for long. Everything from the on-board performance of musicians for a recital to the schedules that the thirty or so NPCs keep during their day-to-day on the trip take place regardless of you. You can even stay in your cabin for the entire trip and encounter one of the multiple ways to end the game.
At its core, it’s also still very much an adventure game. Clues need to be gathered, items found, and NPCs spoken to in order to find out who killed your friend. But because of the real-time system, not everyone will always be in the same place and you can actually miss out on certain decision points simply because you were late in getting there or in figuring things out in time. It sounds like it might be a bit much to manage, but this is also a game that is meant to be replayed. And using the save system, you can break things down into experimental chunks trying out different things. In a way, The Last Express’ relatively sandboxy setting offers enough wrinkles to warrant going through it more than a few times to see what consequences are delivered by your actions.
After five years of development, the Last Express swaggered into stores in a big box and was released at the tail end of adventure gaming’s golden age. Critically acclaimed, the game would be out of print in less than a year thanks to a combination of factors ranging from Broderbund’s marketing department quitting to Interplay going out of business shortly after acquiring the title and quietly marketing it as a budget sale.
The dramatic two page spread above survives as proof of the kind of game that The Last Express is. It’s a great ad showing off the art style that Jordan Mechner and his team at Smoking Car put together over five years of development. Sad that it didn’t get enough press or the sales that it deserved at the time, but thanks to services like Good Old Games, you can snag it along with the solid soundtrack. The Last Express’ title is perhaps all too appropriate as one of the last, big adventure games of the nineties, or even for the genre as a whole as it petered out towards the end of the decade.
It wasn’t perfect. It has its own share of tiny issues, not to mention a somewhat tough learning curve for anyone who isn’t used to playing against the clock. Yet The Last Express easily stands as another fantastic example of what a dedicated group led by a visionary designer can accomplish. Beautifully done.