Back then, in the early 1910's, World War I was rising, beginning to hit all across Europe. Germany began to plot against all of it's enemies. However, this had yet to strike the entire world. People were still feeling slightly safe, traveling all around. Things began to seep through some governments as information showed. European forces were beginning to make their own moves to trade for guns when they could. It was on one fateful journey, more specifically July 24th, 1914 to July 26th, 1914, that not only involved the war, but also a trail of murder, personal interests, treachery, political conspiracies, and tragedy. This was, for the Orient Express, it's final journey and, subtly-named, The Last Express.
Indeed, the only game made by Smoking Car Productions, created by Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia) as a subsidary of Broderbund, is not only the finest adventure game made, it can highly be considered as one of the greatest games made. Allow me to give a small explanation of it's background before the actual review:
Background: During his time whilst working on Prince of Persia, the idea of working on this project came to Jordan Mechner's mind in such a way that he requested for a group to join him. This became Smoking Car Productions. What occurred became one of the biggest attempts ever made for a video game. Under a massive reported budget of 6 MILLION dollars, The game used live-actors, into full research about the actual incidents and of the Orient Express itself. All of the art was fully detailed, everything. All of this money and work would cost time, however, nearly 4 years to be exact. However, when released quietly, it became a commercial failure, never getting the public praise it deserved. The production company went bankrupt soon after, relinquishing all rights to Broderbund. The PC version was released, but the almost complete Playstation port was cancelled. Currently, it isn't in print, but you may find this game at GameTap.com on the gold list. Now, to show you why it is heralded as one of the most innovative games made.
.....sorry, a little pointless, yes, but I kinda like doing that.
Story: As said above, this game takes place on July 24th, 1914. You are Robert Cath. You are currently a fugitive from the French police for being suspected of killing someone. However, your close friend Tyler Whitney has invited you to come with him on the Orient Express, saying that he has come across something truly exceptional. With your wanting to go and meet Tyler, a friend with a motorcycle drives you to the train, just as it is leaving. You make a jump for the door and manage to hold on and get inside. You then further go down to Tyler's compartment. There, the hard part is done. Or so you think.
Oh my god.....Tyler's dead. You quickly close the door so that no one sees anything. Somebody killed him, you think, so I better find out who and what for. And thus begins your investigation for the murderer.
However you may think, this is not an ordinary mystery. So many intricate plot webs are sewn into this story, that you will be gasping for breath so many times. There are over 30 characters, including Serbian terrorists, an Austrian violinist who acts very suspicious, a very merry German who deals in arms, and an intriguing Egyptian pasha. Another very unique and shocking fact of this game is the script is 800 pages long. That is because of another fact I will describe in the gameplay soon.
Graphics: Deriving from an 'art noveau' style (ironically popular in the 1910's), the live actors had to wear special makeup in their scenes. Afterwards, a limited number of scales were chosen for the best looks. These frames were then changed into black & white, giving the animators the chance to color them in with better coloring, all the more breathing life in to these few scales. Rotoscoping was then used to give off a live feel. Now, this game was made and finished in 1997, but it looks like it would've been made much later than that. The visuals....they are absolutely breathtaking.
I am serious. These graphics are quite possibly the most detailed I have ever seen. Partially due to the fact of their research on a car of the Orient Express, the attention to detail shows from the high production values. The animations on the actors and scenery is so seamless and so beautiful. Victorian stylings show all along the sides of the cars, even the doors. I kid you not, I stared at my apartment door for 12 minutes just because I was in awe of it.
Sound: One of the biggest parts of why I love this game. You will hear all sorts of sound as you think you would. The train making stops, the passengers inside their compartments (another factor I'll explain later), the ticking of a clock (or something else. ^_^), even the barkings of a dog. Another interesting note: Because it takes place in Europe, there are a large amount of languages ranging from French to German to Serbian. Yet an extra showing of just what sort of money was used for this game.
My absolute favorite, however, is the classical music played within this game. Truly a great treasure within this game. Not to spoil too much, but there is a live piano and violin duet: "Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major". Seriously, you will attend it and watch it. Absolutely mind-blowing.
Now, to fully disect this game.
GAMEPLAY: You know how life goes through? Every second passes? Well, The Last Express takes place in life. In REAL-TIME. Yes, you will be playing every second there is to move in this game. In fact, not only are you going to be moving, but so will the characters. They act so alive, having their own schedules and things to do. However, one of the most fascinating things you can do is listen in on conversations between people. That is one of most important things too, because you need information and these people are speaking it with their own breath. Everything is moving. Everything has a life in this game.
You don't neccessarily have your own agenda, though. Because you can freely move around the train, you can do whatever you wish to do. Totally non-linear. Have to meet someone for dinner? Forget it, I want to go meet that girl. Make a trade with arms dealers? Sure, then I can take the money for myself! However, remember that almost everything you do has a consequence. What actions you take will affect the other characters.
Now, as for what you do, this is a point and click adventure game. You WILL need your smarts for this game otherwise you'll lose your head (literally, in one ending). Your objective is to investigate as further as possible, but you can also relax about and look all around what you can. One thing to consider when you're playing is all of the characters' actions. You see, you have the ability to rewind and go to a 'checkpoint' in order to not do some stupid thing you just did. Therefore, you can properly solve puzzles, making it a little easier. After all, every person's actions need to be investigated. The possibilities for choices are so large because of this. This was truly an ingenious idea made by Mr. Mechner and his crew. Absolute props for this innovative gameplay.
Extras: Also included with this already luxurious presentation is a documentary of the production and research that was put towards everything. I cannot believe that they would really go this far. It's so marvelous!
Overall: Well, now you see, do you not? I am proud to say I own one of the original copies from a long time ago. Absolutely 100% pure beauty, this game. Find it if you can, get it from GameTap if you can. This is a MUST-HAVE, if not, a MUST-PLAY!