The Eye on iOS feature returns once again, now bigger and better than ever. Or bigger, anyway. For the first time since we began this article series, we're no longer focused exclusively on the smaller iPhone and iPod touch platforms, but the iPad as well. (We'll get to the iPad mini someday, but one step at a time.) This time around, there's a few high profile ports to choose from, including Jordan Mechner's train classic and the latest Pendulo Studios offering with a new/old name, along with a few iOS exclusives and even a children's story by Jane Jensen.
The Last Express
The Last Express, the 1997 PC game designed by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, has become a cult classic among adventure gamers thanks to its enveloping narrative and innovative real-time gameplay. (To learn what makes it so unique, check out Adventure Gamers’ 4½ star review.) The game was recently ported to iOS by publisher DotEmu, and is currently available for $4.99 as a Universal App for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.
You play as Robert Cath, a stowaway on the Orient Express in 1914, days before the onset of World War I. Cath arrives on board to find his companion, Tyler Whitney, murdered in his sleeping car compartment. After disposing of the body, Cath assumes Whitney’s identity and mingles with the train’s other passengers in search of the culprit. The simmering political situation, secrets guarded by other passengers, and Cath’s own suspicious past come to a head as the renowned train travels across Europe on what would turn out to be its final voyage before the Great War. A faithful port, the iOS version maintains the original’s rotoscoped, art nouveau-inspired graphics, node-based movement, and most importantly, its innovative real-time structure. It also boasts a few minor additions, such a progressive hint system that can be engaged at any time by tapping the screen.
This first-person game uses the slideshow-style graphics popular at the time, with movement represented by incrementally-changing still frames as you move around the train. Arrows at the edges of the screen indicate which directions you can move, with curved arrows representing “turn around” and additional action icons depending on the context. You can choose for the icons to display at all times, or only when you hold down your finger on the screen. Navigation is straightforward: simply tap the icon that represents where you want to go or what you want to do. But tapping doesn’t always do what you’d expect. On screens with a lot of hotspots, the icons were too close together on my iPod touch’s small screen, so I might try to tap the left arrow and the game would register this as “turn around.” Other times, an icon just didn’t do what it was supposed to do; I’d tap the forward arrow and Cath would turn right, or I’d tap the back arrow and he’d sit down. Combine this with a generally poor sense of direction—that’s my own issue, but I can’t be the only one!—and much of The Last Express can be spent trying to figure out how to get where you want to go.
It doesn’t help that the game is set on a relatively small, visually homogenous train. This version of the Orient Express has two long corridors, each with eight look-alike rooms, and you need to traverse these corridors many, many times. It’s a tedious task that requires tapping the forward arrow to move, one slow step at a time, through almost-identical frames as the graphics transition from one position to the next. It takes 14 taps to get from Cath’s compartment at the front of the Green Sleeping Car to the conductor who’s sitting at the end of the car, even though you can plainly see him the whole time, and once you finally reach him with the plan of engaging in conversation, he simply stands up so you can pass into the next corridor to do it again. Because so much of the game is spent traveling up and down these hallways, the repetitive tapping gets old fast. The small sleeping compartments and closed-in dining cars also present problems. In the sleeping cars, I kept ducking into the bathroom when I meant to exit into the hallway, or turning in circles as I tried to get my bearings. In the dining cars, I’d try to approach characters who were sitting at a table and end up sitting down across the aisle or pacing back and forth in front of their table.
Fifteen years after its PC release, The Last Express remains an innovative game thanks to its real-time structure, but the very gameplay that sets it apart also makes it an iffy choice for those who like to play iOS games on the go. In this non-linear game, characters carry on conversations in different parts of the train at precise moments and it’s very possible to miss crucial information if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of the portion I played involved eavesdropping on the other passengers, and because I wasted so much time just trying to move around, I felt like I was missing out on details I needed to understand the story. In my sampling of the first four chapters, I didn’t get stuck to the point of being unable to progress, but I did feel lost much of the time—like I wasn’t grasping what makes this much-lauded game so special for so many people. And since I tend to play mobile games in small doses, every time I resumed this one it took a little while to get back into the swing of things.
The Last Express auto-saves your progress, and if you choose to replay a segment (either because you encounter a “game over” scenario or simply to see what you might have missed in other areas of the train), you can rewind and resume the game from an earlier time block. There are multiple save slots, however each playthrough is contained within its own slot; rewinding overwrites any progress you’ve already made beyond that time block.
Sometimes characters speak in foreign languages that Cath understands, and these bits are subtitled for the rest of us, but the majority of dialogue is in English with no subtitle option. This makes playing in public really tough. Even wearing headphones, in louder environments it was too hard to follow without English subtitles (my attempt to play on an airplane failed miserably). Several language options are present for the spoken dialogue (French, Italian, German, and Spanish, in addition to English), so at least those non-native speakers who normally look to subtitles can play the game in their mother tongue.
In a tweak for iOS, a handful of action sequences are treated like Quick Time Events, with icons appearing on-screen to be tapped throughout the sequence. The port also has unlockable character bios that give a bit of background info about some of the people you meet on the train. I found these helpful for differentiating the various supporting characters, but they would have been even better if they’d included each passenger’s room number. (Keeping track of which character occupies which compartment is pretty much impossible without taking notes—not good for a mobile game!) In spite of some complaints about sound issues in the App Store reviews, I didn’t encounter any major technical issues in my playthrough. The game did crash on me three times, but thanks to its auto-saves I was easily able to restart and pick up right where I’d left off.
Even though I had some trouble getting my bearings with The Last Express on iOS, the fact that this game is almost universally praised makes it a pretty good bet for adventure game fans. If you tend to play your mobile games in public, in small doses, or on an iPod touch or iPhone (as opposed to the larger-screened iPad), you might be better off with the PC version. But if the issues I’ve described don’t sound like they’d bother you, or if you’re already a fan and are looking to relive the magic, The Last Express is waiting for you in the App Store.Continued on the next page...