Qt3 Classic Game Club #20: The Last Express

Having skipped most of the games we’ve played so far - due to either lack of interest in a particular game, or because I’ve been too busy at the time - I haven’t been the most diligent member of the Qt3 Classic Game Club, but like most others (or so I suspect) I have considered which game I would pick if and when my turn came. I think I came up with some pretty good ones, but when Nightgaunt informed me that my turn had come I drew a complete blank and had to start from scratch.

I wanted the game to pass three criteria: it had to be arguably classic, it had to be easily and legally available, and preferably it should be something that I personally haven’t played before. I looked over the list of previous games, and noticed that it has a distinct lack of adventure games, although I guess Realms of the Haunting counts as such. I think that adventure games were the first gateway into pc gaming for a lot of gamers of my generation, and even though the genre’s popularity has waned since then (but never died!) many of the adventure games from the late 80’s through the 90’s can be considered true classics. I’ve played most of them, and I have fond memories of many of them, but two of my absolute favourites are the Laura Bow games. In those games time passed as you walked around trying to solve a murder mystery, and since the game played in real-time you could easily miss one or more clues by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the end you had to rely on the clues you did find to answer a series of questions, which would determine whether the murderer was caught or not.

So it was that I recalled The Last Express, another murder mystery with (as I understand it) similar mechanics that I’ve been wanting to play since it was released in 1997. I never managed to find a copy back then, but I did pick it up years later when it was released on GOG and it’s been sitting unplayed on my virtual shelf ever since. Well, no more! This game is like a bottle of fine wine that’s been sitting in my basement, waiting for that extra special occasion and now it’s finally going to be opened. Let’s hope age hasn’t turned it to vinegar. :)

Here are some bullet points from the GOG page:

[li]Unique Art Nouveau graphics achieved through rotoscoping.[/li][li]One of only a few adventure games played in real-time, among AI-controlled characters with their own goals and means with which to achieve them.[/li][li]Incredible playability with many endings thanks to a complex, adaptive storyline.[/li][/ul]
It sounds great, right? The game can be purchased on GOG or Steam:


Note that Steam only sells the slightly more expensive Gold Edition, which includes a built-in hint system and an improved UI, as well as various other minor stuff. Your choice, although I’ll be playing the GOG edition.

Let’s go sleuthing!

Your GOG link is currently broken! :)

Oops. Fixed.

Ah ha! I watched this one on a video recently so I’ll be skipping it. Good choice for the game club, of course.

DONE! In fact I already have it installed and partially played (due to the frame game). I’ve got a total of about an hour in the game, but looking forward to it. Love the setting, and that Rob Zacny spoke so very highly of it on 3 Moves Ahead makes this an easy call for me.

So in the interest of getting the game rolling: this is a game that looks gorgeous in screens, but the animation is a bit lacking. It’s not a big thing, I tend to be quite forgiving on the graphics end, but there it is.

One tip for all players, and something I missed, you have an inventory in the top left. Check it when you get on the train. It will make things easier by letting you know who the hell you are, and what you are doing. There is also some vital information there. It is possible to go for a while in the game, and likely reach several fail states, without knowing this. You are literally dropped into the train with no context. So getting the basics of who you are, why you are there, and why your dramatic entrance will make it easier to avoid some of the early fail states.

Also just note that things have their own internal logic, and so far I’ve yet to come across any egregious ‘adventure game’ thinking.

This has been on the backlog for ages. I also always get it confused with Cruise for a Corpse, also a good rotoscoped adventure game set in the confines of transportation.

Great, great choice. Everyone should listen to the Last Express episode of Three Moves Ahead that Craig mentioned. They cover its virtues and its flaws with a great deal of nuance and affection.

Is this the first adventure game we’ve done? (I guess, arguably, there was my Ultima adventure-game-masquerading-as-an-RPG.) I don’t want us to be sensitive about spoilers, but for the first few days, let’s avoid giving too much away so people who are seriously going to play the game can enjoy some of the twists. That sound okay?

Everyone should just listen to Three Moves Ahead anyhow, it’s my favorite non history podcast.

And yes I’m in for avoiding spoilers. I’m not that far in myself (if you look at my screen from the frame game you know exactly how far I’ve gotten).

There are some things that we can talk about without spoilers, and I’ll go a bit into them now. The characters.

That’s what immediately stands out to me, you get on this train and it is not a video game environment, but it is crafted to feel like a real one. Characters have their own lives, and talk about them. Go to the dining car and listen to the old Russian aristocrat with his granddaughter (?). For the most part they don’t care about you, their conversations aren’t about the main character. This stands in stark contrast to many video games. In many games the incidental conversations involve the player in some way. Not all, but many.

In The Last Express they only talk about you if they have a reason, usually because you give them one. The biggest exception, and I love this, is when you first enter the, I’ll call it the parlor car. Right before you get to the dining car there are two women talking about life. Good friends apparently, despite one being British, the other French, and of differing socioeconomic backgrounds. They are talking about how the one is too forward, and she starts talking in French about your player character. But it is in context of their conversation, andit is clear they are talking about you, but it is not really about you. She is talking to her friend about how to describe people, and you are nothing more than a cute piece of furniture to her. She is describing you merely because you were in the room (all in French mind you, and she says ‘don’t worry, he’s American, I doubt he speaks French’).

And that’s it. You are no more than a piece of furniture to them. Decoration. Something moving through their world, but not really important to it. I love that. It makes the world seem more alive, as if these people exist, and are not merely decoration for your adventure.

This is such an important part of the feel of the game. Arguably, the NPCs with “minds of their own” running on their own schedules makes the adventure game puzzles thornier (more interesting, maybe, but complicated and hard for players to grasp), but its one reason why the story is so effective and the setting is so evocative.

Ok I swear I’ll join this one, because I’m like a Last Express fanboy based solely on a Three Moves Ahead podcast. Plus this week I’m a virtual bachelor, so free time!

Oh excellent, an old school point and click adventure! I think this will get me back into the classic club.

Interesting choice.
I’m never sure what constitutes an ‘adventure’ game, but I think the sum of my experiences with the genre are probably a handful of King’s Quest games (which I only really enjoyed and made substantial progress in after I had a walkthrough book to alleviate some of the ridiculously-obscure-to-me-puzzles).

That said, I’m really tempted to try this one, so I’ll look into a bit more and/or listen to the 3MA podcast this weekend to see if that pushes me over the edge (incidentally, when did 3MA start covering adventure games?)

Does anyone here have experience with the Steam version (or better yet, Steam vs. GoG)? I’m tempted by the prospect of an ‘improved’ UI and built in ‘hints’ (especially since I’ve always shied away from puzzle games in the past), but the very first review on Steam is extremely critical of the ‘Gold’ edition, saying:

This fellow sounds like he may be overreacting a bit, but maybe I should stick with the GoG version for the sake of ‘classic-ness’?

3MA only really covered this one as a novelty. Rob really loved the game, and the setting made it fit in perfectly when they did a month on The Great War. They occasionally dip into other games, there was also one on F1 racing games, but only 3-4 I can think of.

Granted they do sometimes stretch the definition of strategy game to fit, of course Tom has a rather broad definition of strategy too (and one of the people who pushed some of the more boundary pushing games).

Also available for android and apple tablets, FWIW.

Not to be discouraging, but I don’t think the interface of the old one was all that intuitive. But I haven’t played the new one to compare. If I were in your shoes, I think I would go with the newer one, primarily for the hints. I think this is an adventure game that can really be enjoyed with just a touch of hand-holding because of the real-time nature of it.

Counter point: I watched a video of someone playing the new game and saw about a million in-game (as in, not steam) achievement popups for simply clicking on things. Looked incredibly annoying.

Such a great game, and I appreciate that the game progresses on its own, without regard for you or your actions. That said, I remember that getting a “good” ending is rather involved, to say nothing of trying to get the “true” ending.

There’s only one ending. The rest are just long death cinematics…

Played day one and most of day two last night. I remember a lot of these portions of the game from playing them over and over until I got stuck and used a walkthrough to help me finish the game.

Man, Jordan Mechner had some serious balls making this game. Not only does he not talk down to the player at all, he barely talks to the player at all, as a player. Everything is suggestion, from the very beginning. Who the protagonist is, his relationship to his friend, what he picks up on (that you might not), who has what and for whom… It almost does require multiple playthroughs to even bring your mental model of the situation in line with the one the protagonist constructs for himself as he meets people.

Add on top of that, of course, that there are things you can miss out on due to the real-time gameplay…

There’s really only been one real puzzle so far, and I know I’ll get hung up on the ones that come later, but so far there’s really only one big flaw and that’s the sameiness of the environment combined with the Myst-like movement system. So often I have no idea what direction I’m facing. Definitely good that the environment is extremely constricted.