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The Last Express

Review by Skinny Minnie
September 2002

Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest; now boarding the Orient Express! Renegade, harem, thief, lover; political intrigue to uncover!

The international political machinations from which World War I. exploded are what you plunge yourself into from the moment you leap aboard The Last Express. As enigmatic American Robert Cath, you are on the lam and stow away on a train hell bent on steaming its way through a Europe frothing over with multinational conspiracies, hatreds, and anarchy. Your own checkered past and veiled intentions thrust quickly aside, you will be drawn into (or alternatively thrown asunder by) the lives and ultimate intentions of your various European co-passengers.

As I played much of this first-person, point-and-click adventure game twice, first on a Windows XP Athlon PC, then on a Windows 98 Athlon PC, I was amazed at how different each trip through The Last Express was. I made it a point to wander into the restaurant car at a certain time during one play, being sure to break into a passenger's room at that same time during the second play through the game. Eavesdropping to and fro and dodging witnesses to the least modest of my actions, I discovered that many different events were happening altogether aboard the train. Two other surprised Express players confided to me their methods in certain stressful situations, and the three of us were amazed that all of our approaches had been different ... but all were entirely workable! Some of us encountered scenes that others of us completely missed, and yet all reached final outcomes eventually. This is one tale that has not only multiple branched endings (featuring varying degrees of frustration or satisfaction), but multiple paths and happenings throughout, some of which you shall miss out on in one pass through the game no matter what you do! Fear not, though, for amidst the occasional point-and-click fistfight, knifing, gunplay, or explosion, you will have the opportunity to sample at least some of the different plot choices available, should failure strike you down. A perpetual auto-save game function maps your progress on the opening game screen, and time can instantly be rewound for a replay if need be.

Uncover Eastern Curses with Western Cursors

Follow the cursor arrows for movement and click on all items that the hand cursor indicates, but do it quickly! You will have more than a few unseemly jobs you'll be forced to carry out as the gritty story progresses, not the least of which will get you arrested or killed should you be discovered. The tunneling, 90-degree turns of this game serve to emphasize the narrowness of the lovely train's painted and paneled hallways and the tightness of its quaintly decorated passenger quarters. Every time a conductor or passenger squeezes by you with pardons, your breath will come just a little shorter. A modest amount of collectable inventory will accumulate below Robert's face icon at top left, but if you are smart you will scatter some of it about the Orient Express. Otherwise, certain passengers may ... "alter your inclinations," shall we say, by forcing you into a second or third pass through a scene. Upon your arrest or untimely demise you will be shipped back to the opening game screen, where you may choose to turn back the clock a little or a lot. Thus you shall always be free to seek alternate passage through The Last Express.

Stop, Look, and Listen

The elegantly rendered, two-dimensional graphics feature stilted, chopped-frame movement. While this is standard for 90-degree-turn, first-person games, seeing the cartoon-like passengers in the same stuttered motion takes a little getting used to. Third-person cutscenes frequently depict Robert Cath in the fray as well, revealing your gaming alter ego more closely. Facial expressions are strikingly vivid and colorful, despite a lack of proper lip-synching. Considering that the game was originally released in 1997, the graphic quality still holds up well. Old, weather-beaten suitcases harbor leather-bound books or letters on wrinkled parchment. Carpeted floors echo the floral patterns and matching color schemes for each train car, while marbled bathroom sinks offer antique faucets and adjacent glass lamps. Photos, letters, books and diaries are well rendered and quite detailed, most offering quality voiceovers too.

The continual chugging and clacking of the train on the tracks as well as the traditional steam engine whistles add to the backdrop of multilingual commentary found aboard The Last Express. Pans clang in the kitchen as chefs prepare dishes, and glasses clink as passengers imbibe in the restaurant car. Windows thud as they slide open, the wind whipping and whirling in response. Footsteps patter, and well-schooled musicians rehearse and perform at several points along the journey. On the whole, though, music is at a minimum. Voice acting, however, is both plentiful and superb. From Englishmen and French aristocrats to Serbs and Americans, the accents, inflections, and acting are top rate, and they are all accessible through eavesdropping or the simple conversation bubble cursor.

Puzzles mainly consist of using common, early twentieth-century inventory items such as matches, written correspondence, clothing articles, briefcases and the like in ways that protect the identity of your character or the safety of innocent passengers. However, puzzles are often timed to the extent that certain aggressors will take negative action in response to your attempts if you don't succeed quickly enough.

The Final Stop

The Last Express is in many ways a truly classic adventure game, with its inventory puzzles, escalating plot and tried-and-true interface. However, its extreme nonlinearity, the inclusion of violent scenes, and a sense of being what is in reality a completely timed game set it apart from standard pure adventure fare. Quite frankly, I haven't clenched my teeth this hard since 1994 when I was in labor with Mini Minnie! I also have not played one computer game for this many hours in a row in years. By the end of my train journey, poor Mini was penciling up signs for what she wanted and waving them beside my computer desk!

Will the Orient Express make it to its final destination in Constantinople? How many passengers will live to see it? Will Robert Cath find a "happily ever after romance," or will it be "duty before cutie?" You'll just have to buy your own first-class ticket and find out! The End

The Verdict

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The Lowdown

Developer: Smoking Car Productions
Publisher: Broderbund
Release Date: 1997

Available for: DOS Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

PC:
640x480 resolution, thousands of colors
90 MHz Pentium
16 MB RAM
35 MB free hard disk space
4X CD-ROM drive
Windows 95 or DOS 6 or higher (Ran fine on WinXP without changing desktop settings or running the compatibility wizard)

Mac:
Power Macintosh required
System 7.1.2 or higher
16 MB RAM/9 MB free
35 MB free hard disk space
2X CD-ROM drive (4X recommended)
13" or larger monitor, thousands of colors

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