From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear – The Last Express

The Last Express

Murder, mayhem, and fine music while rubbing elbows with a mix of European society’s shiny happy people. One of whom had kindly left a body for you to deal with.

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.

4 responses to “From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear – The Last Express

  1. Pingback: From the pages of the past! FMV games of yesteryear – Dracula Unleashed « World 1-1·

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  3. I’m not sure whether Jordan Mechner intended outright for this game to be rotoscoped from the outset (though of course many of his earlier games were). Sometimes I wonder if it would have been cheaper for him to make as an FMV game with live actors on green screen–“5 years of development” means that the game certainly went through the “FMV gaming” craze of the mid-1990s which unfortunately did not produce many good games.

    This kind of clock-focussed (i.e., NPCs will be at different places within the game world at different times, and you have pay attention to your clock to be at the right place at the right time if you want to win) gaming was probably most well-known among players of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but I think it’s a pity that The Last Express is not more well known (partly due to the circumstances you mentioned), as well as the fact that there was no sequel.

    Thanks to the lack of a sequel, to this day I’m still wondering who the woman who drove the motorcycle that brought Robert Cath onboard the eponymous train was. She was clearly someone he trusted since that kind of maneuver is tricky and quite possibly lethal. I still want to know what happened to Anna, and if Robert Cath ever found what he was looking for (it’s not made very clear in the game why he’s going through all that trouble to get on that train, save for the fact that he’s a wanted man throughout Europe). Thanks again for this detailed review of what should have been a gaming classic.

    As for “the tail end of Adventure Gaming’s golden age,” I take it that Gabriel Knight 3, released in 1999, was the definitive end of that tail?

    • I also want to know what kind of adventure Cath went through to end up on the back of a motorcycle racing to board a speeding train! It’s an interesting angle like the others you’ve mentioned that could be explored. I just wish that there was a way for Mechner and company to give it another go, if they’re still interested (or have the time and resources to) pursue something like it.

      As for the end of Adventure Gaming’s Golden Age, that’s a really good question and one I don’t have a “catch all” answer for. It depends on who you ask, though Gabriel Knight III certainly is a mile marker in Sierra’s final chapter (with Escape from Monkey Island in 2000 Lucasarts’). I remember seeing fewer and fewer adventure games on the shelves in the late 90s thanks to FPS titles and console games jockeying for space and the long decline didn’t help.

      When Sierra and Lucasarts bowed out of the adventure game market at the turn of the century, I think that’s when a lot of people really noticed that a major turning point was reached since those two were responsible for a big number of iconic games. If they had called it quits, then what did that mean for everyone else?

      The good news is that even though one chapter of adventure games’ golden age had closed at the end of the 90s, at least in the retail space, thanks to companies like Wadjet Eye, TellTale, and Frogwares among many others, things are hopping in the adventure space again. Even Kickstarter has helped return FMV Tex Murphy to the screen with the Tesla Effect and opened a new chapter for the Broken Sword series. And if you miss the King’s Quest series and are looking for a definitive end there, fans over at Phoenix Online have The Silver Lining available for free!

      Keep adventuring!

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