The Last Express republished

Edge just reported that retro game specialist DotEmu has republished Jordan Mechner’s classic adventure game, The Last Express!

That’s $10 or €7.50 for the Collector’s Edition, a 1.4 GB download which includes a making-of video, a walkthrough, and the complete soundtrack as MP3 files. It’s compatible with Windows XP/Vista/7, both 32 and 64 bit. I just finished downloading and checked that it does indeed run on my 64-bit Windows 7 setup. Very nice, I missed the game when it was first released and always wanted to play it.

Great story and atmosphere in a quite painful game. Prepare to spend an awful lot of time clunking up and down two railway cars… walkthrough recommended.

I would buy this for iOS in an instant if somebody ports it.

I suppose no Steam version? I missed this game and read a lot about it. In fact, you can watch the entire game in video on Jordan Mechner’s blog page. No need to play the game. Google is your friend.

Isn’t one of the appeals how the game is in real time and the story is dynamic? I don’t think watching a video is the same.

I’m an adventure game aficionado. I love the genre to death.

And I’ll go ahead and blaspheme here: I think The Last Express is not as good as the hype.

What it is is a technical tour-de-force. The graphics still look very good, and that’s for a game that came out, what, almost 20 years ago? The story and voice acting and writing? All are excellent.

But…the actual gameplay itself is a frustrating, back-tracking, “how many times have I seen this scene?” exercise.

Because of the ambitious and branching structure of the game, it also makes it possible to commit the cardinal sin of adventure games–taking you deep down a dead end. Those of us who remember playing this genre of game in the early 1980’s remember a time when adventure games weren’t very tightly constructed, and it would be possible to play deep into a game only to find out that an essential inventory item to complete a puzzle had to be discovered dozens of hours beforehand (Wizard And The Princess? I’m looking right the hell at YOU!)…and that there was no way to go back and retrieve it. One of the great innovations in the genre was eliminating this fatal butterfly effect in adventure games. In Last Express, however, it is possible to play deeply into the game–using multiple saves along the way–only to discover a decision you made or something you did or didn’t do or see doomed you to a bad ending much earlier on.

Finally, for us sufferers of gaming OCD, realize it is possible to get the best ending in the game and still miss interesting and neat bits of the game that take place elsewhere in the game world while you’re not there. I understand the design choice, but as someone jumping from rooftop to rooftop in Florence right now looking for one more feather, it runs completely contrary to the way I tend to play games.

Sadly, this is true. I’m beginning to think watching the video would have been smarter.

The game looks great in screenshots – I do like the stylized look! – but most animations are literally two frames per second, like paging through a comic book, with ugly dithering effects for transitions. I’m not sure if this is a stylistic choice or a hardware limitation, but in a real-time game with such a famously expensive production I had expected smooth animations throughout.

The controls are indeed painful as well. It’s from the era when people thought that “fully mouse-controlled” was a good thing, so you walk by painstakingly moving the cursor to the window edges until the desired movement arrow appears. Then you move step by step, frequently losing orientation because you can only do 90° turns, like in an old Bard’s Tale game. Some things are curiously impossible, such as talking to a person through an open compartment door – you have to wait for the person to come out before you can interact.

A complete game guide (walkthrough with optional actions) is thankfully included, and I rather quickly gave up trying not to use it. The game is not quite about cat hair mustaches, but it’s firmly rooted in the obsolete adventure game design philosophy where you figure out the designers’ intention by lots of trial & error & dying. The (mercifully few) action sequences are annoyingly difficult as well, I literally don’t know how I eventually finished the second one.

I do love the setting and the story, so far as I’ve seen it. All characters are fully voice-acted in their native languages which is a nice surprise. Can’t recommend the game even for $10, though – it’s terribly obsolete in too many ways. Someone should take the story and voices and design a new game around them.

That’s what replays are for! It doesn’t negate OCD in the slightest, you just have to recalibrate it from “play for 200 hours to see everything” to “replay 10 times to see everything”.

Isn’t that also what the clock is for? If you think you did something wrong or you just want to try something different, you just rewind time.

That’s true, but you rewind through an awful lot of clunk.

There’s a good ‘Making Of’ video that puts it all in context, and shows how much effort it was and how much it predates recent game design ideas. It’s a strange mix of things that haven’t been bettered and some painful game systems. Thinking back, I think it’s the step by step clunking up and down Chris describes, with the 90 degree turns that may be useful here… or maybe not until one clunk further along, that really kill it for a modern audience. If that could be streamlined, I think it would still work pretty well.

I like the animation style. Interestingly, the characters aren’t hand-drawn. They filmed actors then kind of downtouched them to look like rather realistic drawings…

The game is a classic, but not one that I relish the idea of replaying. I can envision a proper remake with modern technology, but they’d have to “fix” the story aspect to allow for greater control over gameplay, to avoid the “deep dead end” problem previously mentioned. Yes, you can rewind, but without knowing how to change the timeline you generally don’t know how far to rewind or what to do differently.

At this point, I think YouTube walkthroughs are just as satisfying as actually playing.

  • Alan