Games age so quickly. Jordan Mechner's The Last Express [$4.99] was first released in 1997. That's 15 years ago: time enough for pop to become "classic rock", and more than long enough for a television show to have developed an eternally loyal fanbase (Babylon Five ran 1994-8) or have been forgotten utterly (Lost ran 2004-2010). In the worlds of art and literature, 15 years is the blink of an eye.

But videogames age faster than dogs. I think only the fashion industry devours itself on a more regular basis. Here, 15 years is a bloody eternity.

So it was a relief to see just how gracefully The Last Express has aged, just how natural it feels on mobile, and that Dot Emu delivered such a masterful port (on a level with their port of Another World [$3.99]. The Last Express plays like it was designed for mobile, albeit in a "headphones strongly recommended" way.

That's one of the game's weaknesses: it is driven by it's audio and categorically inaccessible to the deaf. There isn't even an option to subtitle every conversation (dialogue in languages other than English are subtitled, just as in the original US release).

But where are my manners? Some of you may not be familiar with The Last Express in any form. The entire game is set in a world tipping inexorably into war (1914, after the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), and on the most famous train in history: the Orient Express. The game takes place in real time over the course of a single run from Paris to Istanbul, and has a plot worthy of a mystery novel or noir film: indeed, it seems certain that Murder on the Orient Express and The Maltese Falcon were among Mechner's influences.

Without giving away anything past the game's intro, I can tell you that the protagonist, Robert Cath, is on the run and had made plans to meet his friend Tyler Whitney on the Orient Express, only to find when he gets there that his friend has been murdered. Once you figure out how to dispose of a body on a moving train, all that remains is for Cath to figure out who murdered his friend, who stole valuable items in Whitney's possession, and just what game is being played by the cast of generally suspicious characters he is on the train with.

The Last Express is an adventure game, broadly in the same vein as the old Lucasarts and Sierra games, but with two crucial differences. The perspective is first, rather than third, person, adding to the sense of claustrophobia as the game takes place entirely within the train's limited confines, and, much more crucially, everything happens in real time, so people move about the train, have conversations, etc. regardless of whether you're there or not.

Wanting to hear and see things you missed before gives The Last Express somewhat greater replay value than other adventure games. Replay also exposes how confined the game is: a thing that some have been very critical of, but that seems to me to be simply a functional part of its design. The real-time model gets fudged a little in certain ways, but never feels forced.

If anything about the feel of the game is odd, it's Cath's ghost-like presence. The man must have a knack for remaining unnoticed, as people continue their conversations in his presence as if he weren't there. The game makes good use of thin walls and doors to allow you to overhear secrets, but at other times you can literally stand peering down at people as they gossip about you and they don't react to your presence.

Similarly, while the conductors will prevent you from going into someone else's stateroom if they see you trying to do so, they are content to let Cath linger by someone's door waiting for an opportunity to enter unseen, and they never ask questions when you mysteriously emerge from another traveler's stateroom. Pair this with the way you move by shifting position or view (like Myst or any old-school dungeon crawler) and the result can be eerie, occasionally even disorienting.

Once you get used to these quirks, the game's rich visual and auditory landscape rolls over you, and it is easy to get lost in this game. You may find yourself reading all of the articles on a newspaper's front page (the entire front page is legible, and most of the stories are completely irrelevant to your predicament) or lingering at your table in the dining room as other people arrive and then leave again.

The plot will catch up to you, however, and you may find that you are doomed because of something you did or didn't do an hour ago. No problem! When Cath meets an ill fate, the game simply rewinds (shown on a jeweled clock and in terms of the train's progress on it's route) back to the last playable point. This means you can read that paper and then rewind back to before you read it, if you want to, or you may enjoy the act of skimming another character's private diary while they're away, looking for clues while hurrying to avoid being caught.

Part of how The Last Express passes the test of time so easily is because of it's sure-footed sense of style. The combination of carefully-drawn railcars and rotoscoped characters create a distinctive period feel. The bits with full-motion rotoscoping are great, and the stop-motion (almost La Jetee-like) rotoscoped images work well enough.

There's a lesson here that should be obvious: good design uses technology, bad design gets jerked around by the "latest thing." Dot Emu deserves a lot of credit as well: portrait mode suits the narrow confines of the train, and the option (default-on) icons on hotspots does a lot to keep this incarnation of The Last Express focused on story and suspense, rather than turning into a game of hunt-the-pixel. There's even a progressive help feature to ease the transition.

There was an ill-timed incompatibility issue with the iPhone 5, but that's been fixed, so the less said of that the better.

The Last Express does show a few signs of it's age and it strictly requires audio, but it plays really well on iOS and its just as enjoyable as it was (and just as novel and unconventional as it was) back in the days of CD-ROM drives and the legalization of divorce in Ireland. The Last Express is a game I want my toddler to play in about a decade, and I have renewed hope that he'll get the chance.

TouchArcade Rating

  • heresandypandy

    How has Lost been "forgotten completely"? Anyway, great game. Pretty impressed by the iOS port.

    • Spamstic

      "Legalization of divorce in Ireland" What does that have to do with anything!? Why would you even mention that and provide a link. Im confused.

    • Spamstic

      Sorry @heresandpandy didn't mean to reply to your comment.

    • kendahlj

      What's this "Lost" you speak of?

  • deafgamer

    I bought the game in excitement, as hasn't played the original but Cruise for the Corpse on Amiga was something I enjoyed back in the day and thought this is something I must get.

    Utterly disappointed and despondent, regretted the impulse as game is completely inaccessible and no good for me.

    No English subtitles and Man I don't know other languages such as French etc which would be useful.

    So never again.

    • Tof Eklund

      You have my sympathy. I think that every game should offer subtitles (except for strictly-audio games like Zombies Run and Papa Sangre).

      Short of that, if a game absolutely requires sound to be playable, the devs should say so first-thing.

    • Gamer_Kev

      It's the same for me, I'm severely hearing impaired and could not play this game when I originally purchased it when it was new. I was really hoping that they would add subtitles to this one since voice only games are not that suitable to mobile devices, but when I found out that they didn't, I decided not to get it. Very disappointing as I've always wanted to play this game.

  • drloony

    Excellent review, I'm experiencing this game for the first time and loving every minute of it.

  • teesquare

    No subtitles again, even after many criticisms for 15 years. How frustrating.

  • John McCoy

    To be fair, regarding the subtitles: A central plot point to the story is that Cath (the playable character) speaks English, French, and Russian; in addition, Serbian, Arabic, and German are spoken by some characters (there may be others, but those are the ones I remember). Subtitles are used for languages that Cath understands, which is a brilliant way to allow the player to assume Cath's abilities. Perhaps there should be an additional option to turn on subtitles for English, but even doing that would not convey the point that you are listening to Russian and can understand Russian because Cath speaks Russian, nor would it convey when you are hearing a language Cath doesn't know. I understand that this technique excludes deaf players (as well as people playing in environments where audio is not a good option), but it works so beautifully from an artistic standpoint that I understand not wanting to provide an alternative. 

    • Gamer_Kev

      Though I understand it as an art decision, they still could have added subtitles in the options with it off by default. Still, I'm not really sure if it was an art choice as this game came out during a time when many developers where overlooking hearing impaired gamers and going overboard with spoken dialogue due to the extra memory of CD-ROMs. I remember having an email discussion with Ken Williams about adventure games not having subtitles and came to the conclusion for the most part it was an oversight on the part of developers than anything else. Once Sierra started adding subtitles to their voice games, (which started with Torrin's Passage if I remember right) things started to change. Still from time to time you would get the odd game that came out without subtitles and no warning on the box. Last Express was unintentionally deceptive as pictures where foreign languages were translated would make the game look like it had subtitles. Still, I would love to play this game should anyone ever release it with subtitles. On a side note, it would also be wonderful if someone ever brought Torrin's Passage to iOS, that was a great adventure game that's largely forgotten today. 🙂

    • Tof Eklund

       John, I just don't buy that argument. Having subtitles for English as well would in no way diminish the sense that Cath understands some, but not not all of the languages spoken on the train. When he doesn't understand (and the player doesn't need to know) there is no subtitling. So why not subtitle *everything* he does understand (including English).

      I think that would make Cath's range of languages comprehended more, not less, clear.

      (Minimally, to echo Gamer_Kev, there's no good reason not to provide an option for subtitles.)

  • BrosephofArimathea

    Dynamic hint: Anna is really hot. I should stare at her while she eats.

The Last Express Reviewed by Tof Eklund on . Rating: 4.5