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The Last Express: A Train Long Gone

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.

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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.

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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.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Video Game

 

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Wandering in the Cold: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In general, I believe in experiencing the original version of something before indulging in remakes. There are exceptions; the Bourne films are, by all accounts, far more penetrable and interesting than Ludlum’s novels. I made sure I rented the original Swedish version of Let the Right One In, not the American remake, but then again I didn’t read the book because I’ve read synopses and would like to continue to sleep at night…

Okay, this is getting a little sidetracked. But to segue via the Swedish connection, I broke that rule yet again when fate dropped the English-language version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in my lap.

From this I elected not to watch the original ever because if I assume the pattern holds true that European films allow a lot more leeway than Hollywood when it comes to explicit content, then this version was quite enough for me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo features Mikael, played well if somewhat inexplicably by Daniel Craig. Mikael is a journalist who has recently been made a fool of publicly after being sued for all he’s worth by a billionaire. Keen to get out of the limelight for a while, he accepts an offer from an aging business magnate played by Christopher Plummer (a man I believe to be incapable of giving a bad performance). The magnate’s niece disappeared, presumed murdered 40 years ago and he has been trying ever since to sort out whom in his large, rich and fractious family might have had a hand in her demise. Mikael, he says, might turn his investigative mind to finding something he has missed all this time.

In a related matter, Plummer’s character chose Mikael after receiving a shockingly detailed and informed report on his character and work from Lisbeth, played by Rooney Mara. Lisbeth is a master of computer hacking and used that to compile a report on Mikael. She is also a ward of the state; dysfunctional in numerous ways, in no way helped by the fact that she is repeatedly and (very) graphically raped by her social worker, who blackmails her into it by promising money and favourable progress reports.

Mikael ends up getting her to join him as a research assistant as together they track down the killer, and Lisbeth forms both a sexual and emotional bond with Mikael.

I admit I had high expectations of this movie. The trailers made it look like an intense whodunit thriller with disguises and shadowy clues and things. For all the pathos and build-up, however, the movie was a big disappointment. The mystery itself involves a series of dreary interviews and squinting at photographs ending in a serial killer twist worthy of a workaday CSI episode. This is interrupted every so often so we can watch Lisbeth getting victimized with no sense of plot momentum at all. All of the master-of-disguise intrigue is within the space of one montage that has no bearing on the mystery. Mikael and Lisbeth both figure out the mystery independently of one another, spoiling the character dynamic since it wasn’t the synthesis of skills that cinched the deal.

Lisbeth meanwhile never confides in Mikael, she’s already turned the tables on her social worker (in a spectacularly sadistic and poetic way) before she even meets Mikael, and they go their separate ways at the end. Lisbeth’s character development fizzles and neither of them is noticeably different at one end of the story or the other. The fact that she’s the title character is just weird. I thought she was going to be the focus of the mystery, a suspect or potential victim, or maybe a vigilante or secret agent of some sort. In fact she gets less screen time than Craig does, is his research assistant, and on the occasions when she wasn’t wearing baggy deadbeat Goth clothes, I couldn’t even tell which of her selection of tattoos was the titular one. 

I’m not saying there are bad performances, quite the opposite. Lisbeth is not easily forgotten but the script in which she exists comes across as the writers periodically forgetting what kind of movie they were making and so the story arc just sort of bounces around. I’m told that the book was the first in a trilogy. I don’t know if they plan to adapt the rest of it, but they needed to put a bit more effort into making me give a toss.

It’s hard to like it anyway since not only did the English speaking world feel the need to do their own version of it, but rather than transfer it to America, use American characters and culture (as in the above case of Let the Right One In) they kept the setting, plot and characters pretty much the same and just used English-speaking actors.

This insular quality of the Anglophonic film industry is a whole essay unto itself, but between the shallowness of the adaptation and dreary, meandering plot, I fail to see why this movie would make any sort of a bang. Don’t bother is my advice.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Movie

 

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