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The Last Express

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The Last Express is a video game created by Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions, published in 1997. It is an adventure game that takes place on the Orient Express, days before the start of World War I. It is noted as being one of the few video games that attempts to realistically simulate real time. The game was a commercial disappointment, despite receiving many positive reviews and a positive post-release response.


Set on the Orient Express in 1914, the player takes on the role of Robert Cath, an American doctor on the train's final journey from Paris to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) before World War I. Cath, already wanted by French police as he is suspected of the murder of an Irish police officer, is contacted urgently by his old friend Tyler Whitney, to join him on the Orient Express, gateway to the East, and a possible exit from all his troubles. Cath boards the train via a motorcycle and looks for Whitney, who is already on board. However, from the moment he steps onto this luxurious train, Cath becomes involved in a maelstrom of treachery, lies, political conspiracies, personal interests, romance and murder.

The game has 30 characters representing a cross-section of European forces at the time, including Serbian freedom fighters, a German arms dealer, a Russian anarchist, a suspicious Austrian concert violinist, a Persian eunuch and his private harem, a mysterious art collector and others. As the train races east, the player must stay alive while interacting with these characters, which includes eavesdropping on conversations, sneaking into compartments and defusing a bomb. The story is non-linear, with the player's actions (and failures to act) determining the course of the story; as a result, the game's script is an extraordinary 800 pages long.


The Last Express is unique for taking place in almost complete real-time, albeit accelerated by a factor of six.[1] The player can also rewind and occasionally fast-forward time at will. The game begins at 7:14 p.m. on July 24, 1914, and ends at 7:30 p.m. on July 27 (if the player has reached the proper ending). The only events during which the game does not proceed in real-time are times when Cath is sleeping or unconscious, as well as a few cutscenes. One of the game's most notable uses of this technique during a concert, in which two of the non-player characters perform a piano/violin duet that lasts approximately twenty minutes of real-time: the player character is free to sit down and enjoy the music, or move as he pleases. The game's some thirty characters have their own artificial intelligence and individual agendas, moving around to accomplish their goals, or changing their plans due to player intervention. In this way, the game has a higher replay value than a similar-length linear game, with no two playthroughs exactly alike. Additionally, the game features multiple endings; about thirty are "fatal", in which Cath is killed or arrested, and four are "non-fatal" endings, of which only one is considered to be the proper ending.[citation needed]


File:TLE Rotoscope Example.png

The game is notable for its unique art style, with characters illustrated in the "art nouveau" style popularized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that was in style in 1914, the year the game's events take place. Since illustrating a game of this magnitude by hand would most likely take an exorbitant amount of time, the look was achieved by using rotoscoping, a process that Mechner had used to a lesser extent in his earlier games. During a 22-day long live-action video shoot, every action by every character in the game was photographed by actors wearing distinctive makeup and costumes against a bluescreen on 16mm film and digitized. From this, a limited number of frames were selected and put through a patented process developed in house, where the frames first had all colour removed. Then, a powerful computer program created black-and-white line drawings of the frames, which were then coloured in by hand.[2][3] The finished product has 40,000 frames in total.[4]


After five years of development, the game was released on a multi-platform 3-CD set that covered Windows, Mac OS, and DOS. Following a bidding war between several major game publishers, Brøderbund, SoftBank, and GameBank split the worldwide distribution rights for the game. Dubbed versions of the game were released in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese.


Running thirty-nine minutes, the soundtrack for The Last Express was published by Intrada in 2000, but is no longer in print. It was composed, orchestrated and conducted by Czech composer Elia Cmiral, who later composed the scores for Ronin and Stigmata. Consisting of a mix of dominant synth instruments and occasional solo violin, the score was recorded at Forte Muzika Studios in Los Angeles. The lone exception is the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major by César Franck featured in the game's concert scene.


The Last Express received positive reviews both in print and online. Newsweek called it "exquisite" and "thrilling" and MSNBC said "the mystery and characters are very fascinating" and "this game is definitely for everyone". Games Magazine declared it the Best New Adventure and Role Playing Game, and it received Editor's Choice awards from PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, Next Generation, and dozens of game websites, including a gold medal from GamesDomain.

However, the game only remained in stores for a few months. Brøderbund's marketing department quit just weeks before the game was released, resulting in virtually no advertising for it. Softbank pulled out of the game market, dissolving its subsidiary GameBank and canceling several dozen titles in development, including the nearly finished PlayStation port of The Last Express. As a final blow, Brøderbund was acquired by The Learning Company, which was only interested in their educational and home productivity software. The Last Express was out of print long before its first Christmas season.[citation needed]

In 2000, the game publisher Interplay bought the lapsed rights and began quietly selling the game as a budget title. A short time later, Interplay went bankrupt, so the game is once again out of print. The game can, however, still be found on various online stores. In 2006, the American subscription-based game service GameTap began offering the game on its network.

Film adaptation

On April 13, 2010, MTV's Movies Blog posted an excerpt from an recent interview with Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven. In the interview, Verhoven is quoted as saying, "I am working on a movie now that is...situated in 1914. Basically, Indiana Jones-ish you could say, but also Hitchcockian." He also states that the source material is a video game, and that "the writer of the video game has asked me to keep [the identity of the game] secret until he has a script."[5] Subsequently, several other websites have speculated that the video game in question is The Last Express, considering the relative dearth of games set in 1914, as well as Jordan Mechner's work on the film version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.[6][7]

Notes and references

  1. Remo, Chris (2008-11-28). The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic. Gamasutra. Retrieved on 2009-02-28.
  2. Barba, Rick: The Last Express: The Official Strategy Guide, page 194, Prima Press, 1997
  3. The Making of The Last Express (short film), 1997. Viewable here
  4. Back of box, Brøderbund release of The Last Express, 1997
  5. Rosenberg, Adam (April 13, 2010). "EXCLUSIVE: Paul Verhoeven Pushes Play On Video Game Adaptation Set In 1914". MTV Movies Blog. 
  6. Sciretta, Peter (April 13, 2010). "Paul Verhoeven Developing Big Screen Adaptation of… Jordan Mechner’s Video Game The Last Express?". /Film. 
  7. Schaefer, Sandy (April 14, 2010). "Paul Verhoeven Bringing ‘The Last Express’ To The Big Screen?". Screen Rant. 

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