THE LAST EXPRESS / Broderbund / PC
Jordan Mechner is best known for creating the rotoscoped action games Karateka and Prince of Persia, but prior to his retirement from the gaming world he also used this early motion-capture animation technique here to create an adventure game with a first-person perspective and full-body animation. Despite frames being cut here and there to keep things moving along briskly on 1997 computers, it's an impressive technique and almost worth the price of admission by itself.
The game is a cult classic with the emphasis strongly on "cult". Why? Well, part of it is sheer obscurity due to an almost total lack of marketing and some "development hell" when the game came out. But it's also trying to do things that the technology wasn't really quite ready for yet in 1997, and while the effort is admirable and impressive, it's also pretty clunky to actually play and requires a inordinate amount of patience to get through.
The game begins basically in media res, with the Orient Express departing from a Paris train station and a man in a green suit on board looking about nervously. Cut to the train leaving the city, with our dashing young protag jumping on board from the back of a motorcycle. There's absolutely no dialogue or narration to this point, but a quick riffle through his inventory reveals his name is Robert Cath and he was invited to the train by his friend Thomas, who wants his opinion on an "extraordinary discovery". The note also hints that the two have some sort of Sekrit Agent background, and a newspaper clipping further hints that Cath is already embroiled in some Serious Shit, wanted for a murder he didn't commit and looking to avoid even any minor sort of scrutiny. Exploring the train quickly yields the dead body of Thomas in his cabin, violently murdered and with a suspicious empty carrying case that looks like it's for some sort of Faberge egg. So we'll have until the train reaches Constantinople to figure out what Thomas was mixed up in while also avoiding getting arrested or killed.
The player will likely get a very rough introduction to the game, either having the conductor walk in on them while they are investigating Thomas' cabin, or getting busted for unknowingly walking back out into the hall with blood on their suit after moving the body. Fortunately, the game manages to work in the "time rewind" structure that Mechner was so fond of in the Persia games; each city the train stops in acts as a general checkpoint you can go back to at any time, and you can also often rewind or fast-foward by the minute to make up for mistakes. This mechanic is basically the only thing that keeps the game at all playable, however, as without it it would be a completely impossible battle against a breakneck real-time schedule while using controls that are often frustrating and opaque.
The time-rewind ability doesn't completely compensate for the game's shortcomings, however. What's not immediately evident is that the game expects you to rewind and play segments multiple times to get the full story. Key events often take place simultaneously or too far apart to run between, so one play-through of a leg of the journey won't get you all the information you need. A major problem is just a general lack of focus; you often have no idea what the hell you're intended to be doing and have to blunder around like a galoof until you find something interesting at random, but the real-time nature makes it very easy to accidentally miss key things. Precious time is also eaten up making mistaken moves with the sometimes odd context cursors and just wrestling with the game to get it to do what you intend for it to do. All of this leads to a hell of a lot of tedious replaying of the same segments over and over.
The writing is fantastic, as is the immersive World War I-era European setting. But in the end I felt the game was a little too much High Concept and not enough player consideration. As much as I want to live in an alternate reality where interesting, inventive games like this get AAA budgets instead of Dew-Powered Dorito Warrior 15: Call of 13-Year-Old Homophobes Yelling Into Headset Mics, I completely and totally understand why people didn't embrace this particular game. It's just too goddamned clunky and hostile to the player. I would LOVE to see a modernized remake with a better interface and a little less obtuseness (we'd be in potential 5/5 territory if done right), but this original is hard to recommend except to the most curious and patient.
* Gameplay Video