From Agatha Christie to Alfred Hitchcock, the Orient Express has always evoked mystery, romance and decadence in equal measure, exerting an irresistible pull on the imagination. What better setting for an adventure game than on that exclusive luxury train as it slowly winds its way from Paris to Constantinople just before the outbreak of WWI?
In The Last Express you play an American fugitive, Robert Cath, who boards the fateful train via moving motorcycle. You quickly discover the man you’ve arranged to meet, a Mr Tyler Whitney, murdered in his compartment. After disposing of the body and assuming his identity, you become embroiled in a highly political conspiracy, involving Serbian nationalists, German gun runners, mysterious exiled African princes and Austrian opera stars, all of whom make up the train’s intriguing clientele. The train and its inhabitants form a fascinating microcosm of the themes, ideologies and emotions that triggered the first world war, mixed with a good helping of classic espionage thriller and just a touch of the supernatural.
It seems incredible that for all modern gaming’s attempts at creating a living breathing world, it takes a game so old and so overlooked on its release (a surprise given it was created by Jordan Mechner of Prince of Persia fame), in a genre normally as rigidly scripted as point and click adventures, to really show you how it’s done. The Last Express is one of the few games in which you truly get a sense that the NPCs have a life of their own. Even the most minor background characters run on a schedule based on the game’s internal clock (which can be rewound Sands of Time style to allow you to try again, or explore one of the many different paths), and if you’re not in the right place at the right time to hear a key conversation then that’s just tough.
As you roam the corridors of the Orient Express you dip in and out of conversations, tangentially witness events and generally experience the ambience of a train full of very interesting people in a very interesting time. It often seems like The Last Express has some of the best writing there is outside of the great works of literature; whether subtle and soul searching, or full of delicious sarcasm, intrigue and concealed intentions. Tyler Whitney observes them all like some detached classical narrator.
Aside from its forward thinking approach to structure, the game also innovates graphically by using an evocative rotascoped animated style (one of the first of its kind), the jerkiness of which brings to mind a comic book brought stuttering into motion. As you walk through the train the conductors and other passengers squeeze past you, the cramped corridors exaggerated further by the portrait shaped aspect ratio much of the game is presented in, a stylistic choice reminiscent of Studio Cing’s Hotel Dusk. Indeed there are many comparisons to Hotel Dusk; from its atmospheric and claustrophobic setting, the emphasis given to the passage of time, vivid minimalist art style, or its characters who all seem to be interwoven into an elaborate mystery.
There are many enigmatic hints and references in the game that seem to suggest a sequel, and Mechner has even published the script of a prequel on his website, but tragically the publisher Broderbund went bust not weeks after its release in 1997, which seemed to nip things in the bud. Rumours have been rife the last few years, however, that Paul Verhoeven is working with Mechner on a film adaptation. Just as the Orient Express was relaunched 18 years after the war, perhaps The Last Express hasn’t quite disappeared into obscurity just yet. Either way you can find the original The Last Express on Gog.com or on iOS.