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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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The Leviathan Trilogy: A Whale of a Good Read

When I walk into a bookshop, my first stop is usually the Young Adult shelves. Regardless of target audience, it’s the place whence the finest examples of fantasy literature seem to appear.

With that in mind, I just finished Goliath, last part of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy. In addition to being Young Adult fiction, it’s also alternate history, a genre I have fairly limited experience of.

The year is 1914, and Germany has just declared war on Britain. However, instead of imperial tensions driving the conflict, the two factions are split by their technological doctrines.

On the one hand, we have the Central Powers – Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – known as ‘Clankers’ who use ‘mechaniks,’ basing their military and infrastructure on steampunk-style machinery a bit like Imperial Walkers that run on boiling water and coal.

Meanwhile, the Triple Entente – Britain, France and Russia – are ‘Darwinists.’ Society replaces most machinery with ‘beasties’ fabricated from the ‘life threads’ of natural creatures. Krakens take the place of submarines, a massive global nerve network replaces the telegraph service and zeppelins are substituted with aerial whales, massive ‘hydrogen-breathing’ ships filled with an artificial ecosystem of attack birds, messenger lizards, and watchdogs.

In the first book, Leviathan, Deryn Sharp, a teenaged Scotswoman and experienced balloonist, has disguised herself as a man to become a midshipman aboard the airship Leviathan. Said airship takes aboard Dr. Barlow of the Zoological Society, an expert in life thread fabrication and granddaughter of Darwin himself. They are setting out on a secret mission to Constantinople; Dr. Barlow brings aboard a mysterious cargo as a bribe to keep the Turks from coming in on the side of the Germans.

Meanwhile, word of the declaration of war reaches the young Austrian Prince Aleksandar when he is taken by his mentors aboard a land ship at the dead of night. His parents, Archduke Ferdinand and his commoner wife have been secretly assassinated by Alek’s granduncle, the Emperor. Ferdinand opposed war and also received a letter from the Pope granting Alek a place in the line of succession, making him a pretender to the throne. The plan, to Alek’s dismay, is to flee to Switzerland and wait until the aged Emperor dies, so Alek can claim the throne and save the day.

Alek and Deryn meet when the Leviathan is damaged near his hideout by German attackers. Against his mentors’ wishes, he aids them and ends up helping repair the ship, but German attack forces Alek to join the suspicious British crew of the Leviathan on their mission.

In the second book, Behemoth, Alek and Deryn become friends as Alek tries to find a place for himself in the Leviathan. A tangled web made of the plans of Alek’s domineering guardian, Dr. Barlow’s secret mission and Deryn and Alek’s mutual conflict between duty and friendship is woven against a backdrop of political scheming in the Ottoman capital. Alek and Deryn go their separate ways, only to be thrown together again in a dangerous plan to break the Ottoman Empire free of the forces trying to draw it into the war. Alek, unwilling to hide away while others fight, plays the public opinion game with the help of a shady American reporter. As their friendship deepens, Deryn struggles with her last great secret and her growing attraction to Alek.

The third novel, Goliath, sees the Leviathan cruising over Russia, and taking aboard a Russian expedition led by the famous Clanker turncoat Nikola Tesla. Tesla has a grand, possibly totally mad scheme to end the war, and possibly all wars, but at what cost? Alek, keen to find a way to stop his people being killed, eagerly supports Tesla, but both his teacher and Dr. Barlow are sceptical. After Tesla receives Admiralty backing, the Leviathan carries him to America. Alek and Deryn’s friendship is sorely tested by mishap and revelation, and must stand up to a great crisis as Tesla’s plan threatens millions of lives in the name of peace, while America balances on the edge of entering the war.

As I said, alternate history is terra incognita to me, but this could not have been a better introduction. Much like C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower stories, the action of the trilogy takes place away from the main historical events, but has an important impact nevertheless. While it’s too bad in a way that there are so few epic battles, it’s refreshing to see a World War I story that involves intrigue, adventure and derring-do abroad instead of the misery and horror of the Western Front. I always found my World War I lessons at school rather annoying because from them it sounded as if this ‘World War’ occurred almost entirely down a hole in Belgium. The Leviathan Trilogy almost reads like military travel literature, with the places travelled to at once fascinating and new and recognizably classic. Historical characters like Tesla, Churchill and William Randolph Hearst affect our heroes’ experiences even as events get steered down a new road.

The real kicker is the characterization. The conflict between doing the logical thing and doing the right thing is classic to military fiction, and Alek and Deryn both approach it in their own ways, but both have to answer similar questions: what comes first, your agenda or your friends? Which is more important, being a good soldier or being a good human being? Alek has his duty and ideals to juggle against his personal sense of right and wrong, while Deryn has to reconcile honesty to her friends with the desire to do her duty and live her own life. The conflicts are genuinely touching and my throat definitely tightened up in the finale.

If the story lacks for anything, it’s details in the world-building. The nature of the setting – the mobile and airborne Leviathan, means it’s hard to get a handle on just what sort of world we’re living in. The full applications and practical differences between Clanker and Darwinist society outside of the military is never explored very extensively, although tantalising hints abound. On the other hand, not telling too much, such as exactly how life thread fabrication works, adds mystique to the story that helps draw you in. Some it feels a bit slapdash though; in particular, even though the Pope has pull over the Clanker royalty (who call the Darwinists ‘godless’ many times) Italy is referred to as a Darwinist nation, which doesn’t make much sense beyond the fact that, despite what my schoolbooks claimed, Italy was an ally of Britain in the Great War. I would have been perfectly fine with Italy being neutral or switching sides, or just being the exception to the Clanker vs. Darwinist rule in the interest of keeping this consistent.

In general, however, the Leviathan Trilogy was a lot of fun. It isn’t very dense or profound, which may disappoint older readers, but the action is thrilling, the story is beautiful and the plot is surprisingly intricate. The world is delightfully original, reminding me of the Golden Compass or Nation crossed with A Series of Unfortunate Events if it took itself seriously. My only major complaint is that there isn’t enough of it. The world is so tantalizingly rich that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more books, although 2013 promises the release of a supplemental illustrated book about the setting. Throw in the wonderful illustrations interspersed through the text by artist Keith Thompson and you have a recipe for a shining, if seemingly under-appreciated jewel of a read. I highly recommend it.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2012 in Book

 

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