The Last Express was originally a PC game released in 1997. Critics loved it, but sadly that love was not matched by sales, mostly because gamers didn’t know about it: the publishers lost their marketing department shortly before the release, so there was very little advertising. Thus, The Last Express was a commercial failure, and stopped being distributed relatively quickly. I think I first heard about it by watching some gameplay on Youtube many years afterward, but I thought I’d never be able to play it myself: even if I got my hands on a copy, it probably wouldn’t work on modern computers. Recently however, just by chance, I happened to search for it on Amazon – which revealed that The Last Express was now available as a game for iPads and iPhones! I wasted no time in downloading it.
The game begins in Paris in July 1914, as the Orient Express – the last service to run before the First World War, hence the title – departs for Constantinople. You play as Robert Cath, an American fugitive who makes an unauthorised boarding of the train to meet his friend Tyler Whitney. You get dropped right into the action, as Cath enters Tyler’s apartment to find his friend dead on the floor. After taking whatever steps you choose to make sure you aren’t caught immediately, you are left to roam the Orient Express, mingle with the other passengers, and investigate (and possibly carry out) the dangerous trade that Tyler had intended to make.
The Last Express bears many similarities to Titanic: Adventure out of Time. It’s set in a similar time period, features a multinational cast of characters, and gives a constant appreciation of circumstances in the wider world, with the outbreak of the First World War just a few days away. You’re also given an environment to roam around in freely, though obviously not as big as the Titanic, and you have a lot of similar activities like item collecting and puzzle solving.
One big difference is that in Adventure out of Time, time passed and new events took place based on how much you had accomplished, standing still otherwise – but in The Last Express, you don’t get that luxury. The story does sometimes move into new chapters based on your actions; but mostly, events take place in real time, noted by the clock in the Pause menu. The world around you is alive, with other passengers moving back and forth and talking to each other; this means there is sometimes pressure on you to take certain actions, like searching somebody’s compartment at the right time. Sometimes it can get a little dull when you’re just waiting around for something in particular to happen and have no way to speed things up, but it is often enjoyable to listen in on other passengers’ conversations. Eavesdropping isn’t essential to gain information for completing the game, but gaining a better understanding of the characters does help you appreciate the situation more. As with Adventure out of Time, they’re a diverse bunch, from an overly talkative Englishman, to a Russian anarchist, to a pair of ladies whose strongly implied relationship would certainly raise eyebrows in 1914.
The overall story is non-linear, with a variety of different outcomes based on what you manage to do – though most of these involve Cath dying or getting arrested. If you’re going for the optimal playthrough where you do things as they’re “meant” to be done, it can sometimes be tricky to figure things out. In this version at least, there’s a helpful hint function if you’re not sure, though this can bring about the opposite problem and make things too easy.
I found the controls on the iPhone to be a bit clumsy at first, but I soon got used to it. One part where they’re not so good, however, are the game’s few fight scenes, which involve pressing icons as they appear on the screen to avoid getting killed. This requires fast reflexes, and pretty much every fight required multiple attempts to pass.
I’m very glad I finally got the chance to play The Last Express, and I’d certainly recommend it if you enjoy games of this particular style. Rating: 4/5.