Well, it’s April, so I’m going to take another crack at my attempt last year at dedicating the month to Adventure Games.
While I wait on tenterhooks for Syberia III to make its appearance later this month, I sought out another old one I’ve had in my Steam account for some while.
Oddly, like my last-reviewed adventure game, the Journeyman Project 3, I first encountered the Last Express via a Myst game.
The original CD-ROM edition of Myst we had included a trailer for the game, created in 1997 by Jordan Mechner, also of the original Prince of Persia game.
The year is 1914 and you are Robert Cath, called up by an old friend and fellow globetrotter, to join him on a shady journey via the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople and thence on to Jerusalem. However, Cath gets aboard the train only to find his comrade dead, his room ransacked. Cath assumes his friend’s identity and has to find out how he was killed and walk a line between various factions among the train’s passengers: a German industrialist, a Serbian partisan fighter, a Russian anarchist, a mysterious prince, a beautiful and mysterious violinist, all of whom have their own reasons to deal with Cath, revolving around the mystical and priceless Firebird.
The game has a very noir-style story, and the bird-shaped objet d’art makes it clear that the noir classic the Maltese Falcon is a major influence. The other one, inevitably, is Murder on the Orient Express. Cath is not a policeman or detective – he claims to be a doctor but whether or not he’s just a con man isn’t totally obvious – and the murder becomes almost secondary to negotiating the clashing agendas aboard the train.
The gameplay is the standard look around and pick up things. These things can be used for solving various puzzles, or to get yourself in the good books of other characters – in particular the money meant for the arms dealer. For an additional twist, however, time is a factor. Time passes consistently during the game, about 5 times faster than in real life. This introduces issues like actually having a time limit to do certain things, such as having to get certain ducks in a row before you arrive at one of the cities on the Express route.
This creates a fascinatingly varied experience. Encounters with characters and what order you do some things is dependent largely on your own timing, cunning and luck. I had to rewind a long, long way back at one point in the game and ended up not having some minor encounters I’d had on the first pass, because the timing made other things take priority.
It also means that the game has a vast variety of endings – although granted almost all of them are failure conditions. You can get arrested almost at the start of the game. You can let Anna get to the train’s secret cargo before you and she ends up getting killed. You can keep Prince Kronos waiting too long and have his bodyguard knock you off. Or you can take the money and run at Vienna, and the Orient Express goes on its merry way without you. That is also treated as a failure in that the narrative says you regret it, and there’s no closure, but you survive.
Meanwhile, the story comes to you as it may by eavesdropping and snooping. Time your explorations of the train correctly and you’ll overhear conversations through doors and across tables in the dining car, and have a few of them yourself. The train is populated by quite the cast of characters: the arms dealer, the violinist, the anarchist, the Serbians, the senile Russian nobleman and his granddaughter, the chatty English businessman who is not what he seems, the young English diarist on a whirlwind romantic trip with a Frenchwoman, and the French family in the oil business whose son is obssessed with bugs.
The game does a grand job of capturing the lavish decor of the Orient Express, and the sense of scale of Europe on the eve of World War I. It hearkens back to a time when the world seems, in retrospect anyway, like a bigger, more varied and exotic place. It does rather unquestioningly imitate the Orientialist fetishism of the time, with the Turkish passenger with the harem of veiled women and the sinister but suave African-coded Kronos (he kind of reminds me of portraits I’ve seen of Haile Selassie) and his also-African lady-bodyguard. Nonetheless it’s a visual feast as well as an exercise in strategic thinking. The minimalist animation combined with rotoscoping also lends it an appropriately vintage look.
Granted, it’s not perfect. The game’s a bit buggy, in such a way that if things don’t go in a way the game expects, like when a pre-scripted event kicked in just as I was hiding the Firebird, then the next scripted event didn’t happen and I had to rewind way back and begin again. The controls are a little fiddly as well. The cursor doesn’t have to move far to the side of the screen to make the ‘move forward’ arrow turn into the ‘turn around’ arrow, and sometimes I’d get stuck moving forward and go whizzing past my destination. Also, given the uniformity of design of train cars, if you do accidentally hit the turn-around button, it can take quite a while to notice. Plus, the baggage cars are weirdly hard to navigate in.
Beyond that, the game has lots of material, but it seems like it’s shallower than all this detail warrants. The Serbians end up being more serious antagonists than Kronos, who has vanishingly little screen time and no backstory to speak of, and is dealt with with strangely little ceremony. I sense the odd plot hole, like how Cath somehow goes from being invited by his friend on the trip to being determined to get to Jerusalem for his own purposes, and the way the game insists you get the gold doesn’t make immediate sense to me, and the role of the anarchist as anything but a side plot is unclear.
This isn’t helped by the solution to the mystery suddenly veering out of Murder on the Orient Express and into Raiders of the Lost of the Ark in a way that doesn’t really seem to reward a lot of your detective work, and is scarcely foreshadowed, since anything supernatural wasn’t really on the menu prior to that. Plus several supporting characters get a ‘rocks fall and everyone dies’ treatment and Cath and Anna’s shared arc seems to fizzle out, although the tragedy element of some noir does make sense there. I gather Mechner intended to spin this out into a franchise but it didn’t pan out. And as a result of trying to leave it open-ended, it comes across as a story half-finished. Holding back details like Myst does can create a sense of mystery and imply a bigger world, but this isn’t doing that, it just feels like a lot of the world, mythology and characterization is either missing or isn’t used.
It’s still good, mark you. The time element lends it replay value, and it certainly stimulates fascination with the time it’s set in, and interest in a colourful and diverse range of characters, but it lacks the intricacy and intelligence of the Journeyman Project or Myst. In general I get the impression that Mechner had high aspirations for this game and refused to accept the tools he actually had and make the most of them. Nonetheless, a fun time, and if the plot doesn’t have a lot of closure, at least my memory of that trailer has some now.