When was the last time you experienced a game? I’m not talking about simply tapping the screen and waiting for something to happen. Or in some cases, smashing the screen because of what’s happened. We all do that. I’m talking about touching it, smelling it, gently caressing it as you hold it in your arms while you…hold on, I think I’ve gone too far here.
My point is, with most games you’re very much aware that you’re playing exactly that – a game. However, after a few hours with The Last Express, I’ve been held under a spell and completely immersed in it’s world; as if it was really happening around me. Literally.
The whole thing takes place on a train. The Orient Express to be exact. This makes sense; all the best games in history have taken place on moving vehicles. There was…er, and…well, rumour has it that the Halo series was originally set on a cruise ship, but for some mysterious reason that idea got canned. So there. You play as an American Doctor called Robert Cath who boards the famous train in order to meet up with his friend Tyler Whitney by pulling up alongside it on a speeding motorcycle and jumping in through an open carriage door. Gee Rob, there are easier ways to get on a train, even if you can’t afford a ticket.
Unfortunately for him (but more unfortunately for Tyler), Robert discovers Tyler’s been murdered. It’s always an inconvenience when you’ve planned to meet someone only to find them covered in their own blood. It’s up to you to find out what happened.
It’s a first person point and click adventure first released on the PC in 1997 and now ported to the iPhone. It’s punctuated by simple, but charming hand-drawn cut-scenes that look as if they’re straight from a children’s story book. (The in-game animations of the characters uses the same art style, and are quite rough, but easily forgiven). The main interface is reminiscent of trying to find a curry house in an unfamiliar city using Google Street View – you move through the static train background by clicking arrows to orient and move yourself around. Due to the cramped confines of the Express, and the fact that it all looks so similar from carriage to carriage, it can sometimes be difficult to tell which way you’re facing, or where you’ve come from. Movement from place to place isn’t exactly smooth either, Street View, remember. The screen can also look like a confusing mess of arrows and contextual icons at times, with symbols that frequently overlay each other.
The occasional interface problem is the only downside to an otherwise wonderful experience however. Let me explain; as you fumble about trying to figure out what’s happened, the game plays out in real time. You might be standing in a carriage wondering what to do next, but it doesn’t just sit around waiting for you to make a move before something happens. Characters have their own agenda; they walk around, talk to each other, pop out of their cabins and generally get on with their lives. Loads of games claim to have NPC’s that act independently of you, but this is the first time it felt as if the story was progressing without me; if I didn’t do something, I’d miss something.
I’ve never seen anything like it. You’ll have to play it to see what I mean. Bear in mind I’m talking about a 15 year old game here. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a great example of standing the test of time, or a very bad reflection on the current state of the games industry.
Combining this gameplay mechanic with fantastic ambient sound makes you feel as though you’re there for real. The period score is full of tension and foreboding, reminding me of an episode of Pirot. In fact I swear Pirot actually pops up in the game somewhere or other. Effects such as the rhythmic ‘Ca-cha, ca-cha’ of the train and people opening and closing doors of their own accord add to the spell that this thing would continue with or without you. Also, ‘Ca-cha, ca-cha’? I think I need a new thesaurus.
There’s also a three tier hint system which lends a helping hand if you’re stumped. Tap the speech bubble icon and a hint will appear. Tap again, and another, more obvious tip pops up. A third time, and it tells you in no uncertain terms exactly what to do while making you feel thick, which in my case, is not untrue.
The biggest compliment I can give this game is that the story has completely hooked me. Most times the plot feels like something you only pay attention to once you’ve completed the current level of blowing someone’s face off. But here, aided by some brilliantly realised characters, the plot is the game. Like I said at the beginning, this isn’t just playing. This is experiencing. And even though it’s not perfect, in this day an age probably even more than when it was first released in 1997, that’s saying a whole lot.
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