Review: “The Last Express” (Computer Game)

(And, yes, I just HAD to make a rotoscoped title illustration for this review.)

(And, yes, I just HAD to make a rotoscoped title illustration for this review.)

Mysteries! Murder! The Orient Express! Yes, what else could it be, but “The Last Express“?

Surprisingly, I hadn’t even heard of this game until earlier this year, when I happened to see this intriguing review of it by “Pushing Up Roses” on Youtube. And, after I’d seen some footage of the game – I just had to play it.

So, I ended up buying a DRM-free download of it for about four pounds on GoG (it also seems to be available on Steam and other platforms too).

For a game from the late 1990s, the file size was surprisingly large (over 1GB!), although the reasons for this will hopefully become apparent later in this review.

I should also point out that, at the time of writing this review, I’m somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of my way though this game – so it will only reflect my impressions of the game so far. But, damn, did it make an impression!

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Last Express”:

Last express title card

“The Last Express” is set in 1914 and – like in John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – the events of the game take place shortly before the beginning of World War One. You play as an American man called Robert Cath – who is on the run across Europe after being implicated in the murder of a policeman in Ireland.

After recieving a telegram from his friend Tyler Witney, Cath sneaks onto the Orient Express in order to meet him. But, when he finally gets to Tyler’s cabin, he finds that Tyler has been brutally murdered by persons unkonwn.

So, after alerting the authorities and co-operating with their invest… Oh, who am I kidding? Like the smooth criminal that he is, Cath throws Tyler’s body out of the window and impersonates him in order to solve the murder himself:

 Because THIS does not look suspicous at all...

Because THIS does not look suspicous at all…

However, in the course of investigating the murder – Cath quickly realises that there is more to this train journey than first meets the eye.

In a train filled with shady international businessmen, secret agents, revolutionaries and nobility – solving Tyler’s murder quickly turns out to be the least of Cath’s problems…..

The gameplay in “The Last Express” takes place from a first-person perspective and you navigate between (a fairly large) series of pre-rendered still images, with animated characters overlaid on top.

Kind of like this..

Kind of like this..

As well as lots of animated cutscenes (where the animation is often frame-by-frame ), there are also a few fluidly-animated quick time event scenes, which were quite innovative for a game made in the 1990s:

 The quick time events are all fight scenes. Although the controls take a bit of getting used to, they really add some extra drama to the game.

The quick time events are all fight scenes. Although the controls take a bit of getting used to, they really add some extra drama to the game.

Since a lot of the game focuses on intelligent storytelling, compelling drama, beautiful artwork and atmosphere – there’s slightly less interactivity than you might expect from an adventure game from the 1990s.

In terms of the level of interactivity with settings, items and characters, “The Last Express” is probably slightly closer to a modern hidden object game than a classic 1990s “Point and Click” game.

Plus, because this game takes place in a long, thin train – many (but not all) of the explorable areas in the game are presented in narrow-screen. This is a bit strange at first, but you’ll probably get used to it after a while:

 Ironically though, this game was made in the good old days before smartphones were invented. Still, I imagine that this game would be a lot of fun on a smartphone.

Ironically though, this game was made in the good old days before smartphones were invented. Still, I imagine that this game would be a lot of fun on a smartphone.

One thing I will say about “The Last Express” is that, for the first half of the game at least, it isn’t really a “traditional” adventure game.

If you want to, you can spend about the first half of the game just wandering around the train aimlessly and overhearing lots of fascinating conversations between the other passengers. I absolutely loved this aspect of the game and it was both extremely fun and wonderfully relaxing.

Best of all, most of the conversations on the train realistically take place in other languages (mostly French, German and Russian) and a lot of the dialogue is subtitled. Even though this reminded me of how rusty my French was, it also adds a lot to the general atmosphere of the game.

This is also helped by the fact that the voice-acting (in all languages) is absolutely top-notch. Seriously, “The Last Express” contains some of the best voice-acting I’ve ever heard.

Well, it wouldn't be a game set in France if there wasn't at least a little bit of romance...

Well, it wouldn’t be a game set in France if there wasn’t at least a little bit of romance…

However, about halfway through the game – the difficulty level jumps upwards quite significantly.

Basically, there’s a 30-45 minute long classical music concert in one part of the train and – whilst the other characters are distracted by this – you’re supposed to do a very specific series of actions (and pick up certain objects) in order to avoid the game ending early with one of it’s many “bad” endings.

Yes, the whole concert is included in this game. Now do you see why it's over one gigabyte in size?

Yes, the whole concert is included in this game. Now do you see why it’s over one gigabyte in size?

 But, good luck with working out the series of actions you have to perform to get to THIS part of the game WITHOUT using at least TWO walkthroughs...

But, good luck with working out the series of actions you have to perform to get to THIS part of the game WITHOUT using at least TWO walkthroughs…

One interesting thing is that this game takes place in something similar to real time (although time in-game is sped up slightly) and this means that you have to be in the right place at the right time to overhear conversations, perform certain actions and sneak around certain parts of the train.

The last one of these things is simultaneously one of the best and one of the most frustrating parts of the game. Basically, even after you’ve found a master key that allows you to unlock any door in the train – you can’t snoop around any of the other passengers’ cabins (and certain other parts of the train), unless the conductors aren’t looking.

Still, you'll feel like a smooth criminal when you DO...

Still, you’ll feel like a smooth criminal when you DO…

What this means is that you’ll have to wait until they walk into another part of the train or start talking to someone before you can start snooping. I love how much realism this adds to the game, but it can understandably get frustrating during time-sensitive parts of the game.

Whilst the time-sensitive gameplay adds a surprising amount of realism, suspense and drama to the game, it also means that playing “The Last Express” isn’t always the kind of leisurely and relaxing experience that an adventure game should be. Then again, it’s supposed to be a thriller game, so I can’t complain too much.

Yippie Ki-Yay mechanical falcon!

Yippie Ki-Yay mechanical falcon!

But, if you miss something at a particular moment, you have the option of rewinding time (in 5-90 minute intervals) and re-playing various parts of the game. This kind of takes the place of the saving system in the game and – for the most part – it works reasonably well.

However, the game itself decides how far you can rewind time every time you press the “rewind” button. So, I’ve had at least one moment when I’d wanted to rewind time by five minutes, but the game took me back an entire hour. So, it would have been nice to see a conventional saving system in this game as well – even though the time system is fairly innovative.

But, despite my minor criticisms of the gameplay mechanics, I cannot fault this game for it’s graphics, characters and story.

Although I don’t usually care much for graphics in games, I absolutely adored the realistic art nouveau-style graphics in this game. In fact, all of the animated characters in the game were actually rotoscoped from live action footage, and this gives the game an absolutely unique look.

Yay! Art Nouveau!

Yay! Art Nouveau!

Likewise, the story in this game is one of the best that I’ve ever seen in a computer game. All of the characters have realistic motivations and compelling backstories that are hinted at throughout the game (depending on which conversations you overhear and how much snooping you do).

Likewise, the story of the game itself is rich, complex and surprisingly intelligent. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s pretty much as good as any novel.

Although the game contains it's fair share of action and drama, there are also lots of subtle sub-plots too.

Although the game contains it’s fair share of action and drama, there are also lots of subtle sub-plots too.

All in all, even though the gameplay in “The Last Express” can be a little bit clunky sometimes, this game shouldn’t be played for the gameplay alone. This game is an absolute work of art and it is also one of the most realistic and narratively complex games that I’ve ever played.

In fact, it’s probably more like an interactive movie – or even a simulacra of real life – than a computer game. There is nothing else quite like it in the world and it is something that everyone should play at least once.

If I had to give what I’ve played so far a rating out of five, it would get a six for graphics and storytelling. But a four at most for gameplay.

(Why don’t you make it sing?)

Today’s Art (18th April 2014)

Well, I was still in an art nouveau mood when I made today’s watercolour pencil painting. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with making one A4-size painting a day or whether I’ll go back to making two A5-sized paintings a day (I don’t know, at the moment, I prefer the space and quality of A4).

I don’t know, I was trying to create something vaguely reminscent of those old French calendars and I’m quite proud of how “Avril” turned out (even if had to do a lot of digital editing after I scanned it).

"Avril" By C. A. Brown

“Avril” By C. A. Brown

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

One Surprising Reason Why You Should Look At Other Types Of Art

This little sketch is a parody of Eugène Grasset's "La Vitrioleuse"

This little sketch is a parody of Eugène Grasset’s “La Vitrioleuse”

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I had a sudden interest in art nouveau for some reason. From the limited examples I’d seen of this style before (eg: the most famous Tarot deck – the Rider-Coleman-Waite deck is illustrated in this style and I’m a fan of Pamela Colman Smith’s art too), I knew that this was a pretty cool style.

But, I didn’t realise how much of an amazing style it was until I looked at it in slightly more detail – from dramatic Eugène Grasset pictures to some of Gerda Wegener’s more NSFW offerings (seriously, along with Kiki De Montparnasse and Pamela Colman Smith, she was one of the coolest people in the early 20th century. She was also pretty ahead of her time too.)

But, what’s more, I realised something else too….

My current art style, or at least what I hope it will eventually evolve into, looks a bit like art nouveau. Seriously, I can look at art nouveau pictures and wish that I’d drawn them or, dare I say it, I can even see some of my artistic future in them.

They have exactly the right blend of cartoonish simplicity and artistic complexity that I love so much. They’re very stylised, but also very realistic too. Not only that, they have a certain poetic otherworldliness to them too.

Of course, there are probably a couple of reasons why my art style looks vaguely similar to art nouveau. I’ve been influenced by western art styles which might have, in turn been influenced by it.

Not only that, manga has been an influence on my art style [even though I don’t usually draw manga – see this article for my thoughts on the subject]. Manga, of course, was influenced by traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e art (which I absolutely love too). And, well, Ukiyo-e prints also influenced many 19th century and early 20th century art nouveau artists too.

So, in a very roundabout way, my art style was probably already influenced by art nouveau (or at least had a couple of things in common with it) without realising it.

No wonder I saw a tantalising glimpse of my artistic future when I looked at some of these art nouveau pictures. No wonder many of them looked totally new, but also oddly familiar at the same time. Unknowingly, I’d stumbled onto a part of my imagination that I was only barely conscious of before.

After all of this, I just had to try to paint something vaguely art nouveau-esque and I ended up producing a large A4-sized picture called “La Reveuse”, which I’ll post here on the sixteenth. In the meantime, here’s a detail from it:

This little detail was probably also inspired by Dali, Hokusai and Bougereau too.

This little detail was probably also inspired by Dali, Hokusai and Bougereau too.

If you are an artist, then it’s a really good idea to look at other types of art. Not only will this broaden your imagination and expose you to new ideas, it may also help you to learn more about the hidden history of your own art style. It might also help you to tap into your artistic “subconscious” and see what surprising things are in there.

These days, you have no excuse not to at least take a quick look at other types of art. Whilst, a few decades ago, you’d have to buy expensive art books or spend quite a bit of time and money travelling to galleries across the world. These days, if you want to check out an art style you’ve never really looked at before, then it’s as simple as looking on Wikipedia (especially for older art) or just doing a Google image search.

So, what are you waiting for?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂