As a storyteller, gaming has several personalities. Sometimes we go story-game-story-game with cutscene 'movies', or we pick through branching prose with interspersed decisions, or we read out comic book narratives interrupted by puzzle breaks. Sometimes the action is the story, like Breath of the Wild’s millions of private adventures emerging from its systems – but that was paid for with a loose narrative that divided opinion. So you can go wide-open and emergent but lose authorship, or tell a tight story but weaken the interaction that makes games games. Last Stop is a story game that does the latter; in this supernatural tale of the London Underground, you’re railroaded.
After a short retro-sci-fi prologue, we see three passengers sitting along a bench seat on the Tube. Each has a story to play, their paths and fates intersecting in an urban fantasy adventure. London is well realised – not in detailed models of famous landmarks but in quiet observations of the day-to-day. You’ll skip your schoolwork and loiter on the estate, have an affair behind your husband’s back and fall short as an overworked dad with a dud boss. The scenarios feel real and get across something of London’s spirit. These are great little vignettes of the mundane in front of which the fantastical plot points can shine. Intriguing, funny, touching: good stories, well told.
But as a game, Last Stop founders. With the strength of the story and artistic presentation, all the mechanics really need to do is get out of the way. Unfortunately, they too often do the opposite.
Despite sitting squarely at the on-rails end of the storytelling spectrum, you’re asked to bring a fair sized gaming vocabulary, including running characters through 3D environments that flick between fixed cameras, first-person move-and-look, and timing-based power gauges. However, the game can’t reciprocate in the fluency of its execution. Efforts to engage you in the story include sticky obstacles, finicky aiming and obviously specious dialogue choices. The ice cool of a suave secret agent can be somewhat undermined when she doubles back on herself nonsensically five times, then walks smack into a handrail without flinching before trying to go out through the “In” turnstile and eventually walking right past her own house. It’s hard to overstate how much Last Stop would benefit from ironing out the flaky controls or just cutting or greatly simplifying those interactive elements.
What can’t be undone by these rough edges, though, is the strength of the writing, the substance of the characters, the perspicacious animations, the well directed visual design that does a lot with not much, and the engrossing musical score. Last Stop aims a bit too high – but isn’t it more interesting to have a flawed execution of something brilliant than an OK execution of an OK idea? As you would expect from publisher Annapurna Interactive (Florence, Kentucky Route Zero, Donut County, Gone Home…), Last Stop has something special in there to share over its six-or-so hours. Well worth having on the wishlist until the time and price are right for you.