The Last Express is, surprisingly, a unique point-and-click (P&C) adventure game in first-person perspective taking place on the Orient Express train, journeying from Paris to Constantinople in 1914; only a few days before the First World War starts. While it is an adventure in its own right, it combines genres such as murder mystery, suspense, romance and an Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes like adventure all together in one solid package.
The story starts off with Robert Cath, a young multilingual American doctor, getting a telegram from an old friend, Tyler Whitney, about a recent discovery he made while Cath was retreated in Paris after a firefight involving Irish nationalist and British policemen. The proposition is to meet on board of the Orient Express going to Jerusalem, but just when Cath manages to get on board illegally (since he was followed by policemen), he soon discovers his friend was murdered in his own comportment. From this point on, the game begins as a simple murder mystery case, but the plot thickens as the story progresses. With Tyler gone, Cath takes Tyler’s identity throughout the journey as means of disguising himself, making his task of finding the murderer a lot easier and safer without anyone else knowing he actually died. This is where the game shines because it always provides something fresh and keeps the player invested in the plot. There is always an unexpected twist just around the corner, and you will eventually discover that everyone on board is not who they seem to be at first glance; a solid inceptive to find out what is actually going on. In fact, almost all characters are related to the main plot to an extent, like a big masquerade. Ultimately, from start to finish, this is one heck of a journey. Something big and eloborate is behind the plot and Tyler's death is only the catalyst. A memorable adventure throughout the 10-hour plot, at a normal pace.
What is unique about The Last Express is the real-time simulation mechanism. Nearly all the events happen in real-time, giving the player a certain amount of time to complete tasks non-linearly on board of the train. These can range from talking to characters, eavesdropping conversations (which can provide invaluable information on characters’ backstories) and searching compartments for clues. Time does indeed pass in the Orient Express, with every single clock tick. Moreover, all the NPCs are excellently programmed as well, since they go about their own things in real-time, so there is always the possibility of missing out on their acts in any playthrough.
It is correct to say that everything can be approached non-linearly within a time gap in the game. However, there is at least a certain point in the game which may require the player to do the specific tasks in an exact order since otherwise you end up to a dead-end due to a bug, I believe. In my case, avoiding any spoilers, I was supposed to put a certain briefcase (what is in the briefcase is for you to find out) which I retrieved in my own comportment but due to the chronological order I approached things, the briefcase would always disappear from my inventory when I was entering the comportment. Nonetheless, the simulation is nothing I have ever seen in an adventure game before and it is entirely functional and, yes, revolutionaly.
And this leads to another interesting thing which is the number of possible “deaths” the game can offer. Since tasks are meant to be done in a certain time gap, failing to accomplish them can result in different outcomes ranging from simply being killed to getting arrested (in different circumstances). Most of these trigger when you are too late since time never stops. For instance, at the start of the game, you have to find Tyler before anyone else on the train, otherwise they will find the corpse and stop the train to check every passenger on board, ultimately discovering that you do not have a ticket, leading to your actual identity. Thus, in a way, it is rather interesting to see the different ways you can “die” and increases the tension without actually being a frustrating experience. There is almost never that feeling that you are running out of time, forcing you to rush. How come?
Well, even if you die or made a mistake, The Last Express features a functional and unique Rewind button which always you to go back to whatever point in time you want. This way, you can approach things differently without getting the game-over screen. It works like a save file, albeit much more immersive. In reality, it works like in Prince of Persian (2003), but instead of seconds it can range from minutes to hours. And this is not a surprise since the same person who designed Prince of Persia also designed The Last Express, so the similarities can be spotted in this rewind feature.
The bottom line is that the player can take different paths in the game, leading to different final endings. Thus, chances are no two people will play the same game, increasing the replay value. For example, without any major spoilers again, there is a point in the game where you can either run away with the briefcase or hand it back.
The puzzles are definitely not hard to solve and the hint system in the Gold Edition is useful if the player ever gets stuck. In general, the puzzles are adequate but hardly a strong point of the game. Not because there are poorly implemented or illogical, but because they are less memorable. Actually, there are not that many puzzles in the game in the traditional sense of combining inventory items and placing them on things to see what happens. If applicable, the puzzles are mostly of “be there, at the right time” for the event to trigger.
While The Last Express shines brightly as an adventure game with a great plot and believable characters, it is visually outdated by today’s standards and did not age well. While the character drawings are acceptable, it might put off a number of people used to more realistic 3D graphics by how pixelated they look. Since the game back then (in 1997) used up 3-CDs, it can be clearly noticed that the developers had to compromise in the animation department to save up space. For example, travelling in the game is more or less static, along with the cutscenes. But bearing in mind the circumstances, being a 17-old game at the time of writing this, I strongly believe it does not break the overall immersion and spark if you accept the fact that the game is old. In fact, it might have been a great looking game back in 1997 on the 640x480 resolution monitors given that the developers tried creating characters which look more human than some cartoony sprites like in other old P&C adventure games. I respect that. Also, there are some fighting scenes with required QTEs which can be frustrating at times though. Lastly, one last grip might be the advertised length of the game. On Steam, it says the plot lasts more than 20-hours, however myself and other people completed it around 10-hours. While it is still a relatively lengthy game, especially for when it was originally released, I personally felt a bit disappointed by that because I always had the impression that there would be more stories to tell by the time you arrive in Constantinople.
Conclusively, as an adventure game, despite being visually outdated due to its old technology, The Last Express is an amazing game and a true masterpiece. It has everything: a great branched plot with many twists, well-written and voiced cast of characters, realistic circumstances with a choice-and-consequence mentality, and most importantly a unique and revolutionary real-time simulation mechanism to advance the plot. Easily one of the best adventure games ever made. If only the visuals were to be remastered accordingly, I would easily see this game wiping the floor with most other similar games out there, new or old. And to hear that the game flopped commercially at launch, it breaks my heart!