Three complete strangers, going about their ordinary and separate lives, are drawn into a supernatural mystery that will turn everything that they think they know on it’s head and change their lives forever. That’s the elevator pitch for Last Stop, the new game from developer Variable State (Virginia) and publisher Annapurna Interactive. A narrative adventure that will appeal to fans of strong storytelling in games, but might fall short for those who want compelling gameplay to go along with it.
The game takes place over the course of seven chapters, with each chapter being divided into three parts, one for each of the main characters of the story. John is a middle aged single dad, raising his daughter Molly the best he knows how while working his tedious job. Donna is a teenaged student who lives with her mom and sister and hangs out with her best friends Becky and Vivek in the afternoons. And Meena is a career woman, rising in the ranks of a private military contractor, but her home life is coming apart at the seams. These characters may seem unremarkable at first glance, just three ordinary Londoners going about their lives, but a couple of chance encounters will change all of that and bring the trio together in extraordinary ways.
John is riding the train one afternoon alongside his neighbor Jack, whom he happens to share a last name with. This coincidence has led to their mail constantly being delivered to each other’s address and the two constantly having to exchange their deliveries. The two get into an argument while rushing off of the train and collide with a stranger, knocking him to the ground. The stranger, aggravated by their carelessness, grabs them by the hand and tells the pair that they are made for each other. Confused by the encounter, they go about their separate ways, but when they awaken the next morning they find themselves trapped in each other’s bodies.
Donna and her friends are hanging out after school one day and notice a mysterious stranger who for days has been seen bringing people into his apartment, but none are ever seen leaving. When the teens follow him one evening to an abandoned building to see what he’s up to, they end up being spotted by the man and discover a dangerous secret, revealing that there might be much more to this stranger than they ever could have imagined.
Meena is vying for a big promotion at work, but her boss brings in a much younger and less experienced agent to compete for the same job. To make matters worse, her home life is falling apart due to arguments with her elderly father who can’t seem to stay out of trouble, and a marriage that is being strained due to the late hours she works and the secrets she must keep from her husband and son due to the confidential nature of her job. But does the agency that she works for have a much darker agenda?
As the stories of these three strangers unfold and ultimately intertwine, I found myself becoming invested in their lives. The writing is very well done, the characters are interesting, and the voice actors do a good job of bringing them to life. With a supernatural mystery as the backbone of the story, it could have been easy to let those elements do all of the narrative heavy lifting, but it’s really the characters and their lives that propel things forward. I cared much more about John’s relationship with Molly (who steals most of the scenes that she’s in) or whether or not Meena and her husband could make things work than I did about discovering the secrets behind the Twilight Zone-esque plot. And it’s that focus on character that makes the story work so well.
As much as I enjoyed the narrative of Last Stop, when it comes to the interactive elements of the game I found it to be much less successful. Like many games of this genre, most of the conversations allow you to choose from dialogue options to (in theory) alter how the scenes play out, the problem is that those options seem to, for the most part, be purely window dressing. Often times when I would be presented with three choices of dialogue, the differences between them were minimal or non existent. When your possible responses to a question are “Yes” “Okay” and “Of course”, what’s the point in even giving you an option? And when there were some distinctions between those options, I didn’t get the impression that my choices were significantly changing the direction of the story in any meaningful way, and if they were, the game didn’t do a good job of making that clear.
There are also moments when they try to introduce other gameplay elements, but they are rarely interesting and almost never fun. For instance, when a character needs to run from someone you alternately tap the LB and RB buttons, when you accidentally break a vase you need to slowly rotate each piece to try and glue it back together, and to brush your teeth in the morning you move the analog stick left and right. The mechanics are boring and the reasons for their inclusion are weird. While I agree that dental hygiene is incredibly important, I really don’t feel the need to control that particular moment in the game. If they couldn’t find ways to make these bits of gameplay interesting, they would have been better off leaving them out completely.
As far as the presentation goes, it’s also a bit of a mixed bag, but there are definitely more highs than lows. As I mentioned already, the voice actors do a really good job and the soundtrack by BAFTA award winning composer (and co-director) Lyndon Holland is quite good. The game uses a somewhat simple, cartoonish art style which I thought did the job affectively, but the animation of the characters really did the game a disservice. Characters move awkwardly and unnaturally, with going up or down stairs looking particularly silly. There’s also this minor but annoying thing that the game does, where instead of finding a natural way for characters to walk around each other, a passerby will simply vanish as they get close to you and reappear behind you. These annoyances might seem nitpicky, but when a game is hanging it’s hat on it’s storytelling, little things like that can pull you out of the experience.
Despite all of these annoyances, from the uninspired gameplay to the subpar animation, I still found myself drawn to the game and excited to play it each night when I got home. There’s just something about these characters and their stories that drew me in and kept me engaged until the credits rolled. Chalk it up to the good writing and storytelling I suppose.
Last Stop is well worth a play for fans of narrative adventures such as Life is Strange or Call of the Sea. If you come to a game for the story, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The lives of Meena, Donna, and John are interesting and the mystery behind their supernatural connection is intriguing and has a good (and weird) pay off. On the other hand, if you are looking for entertaining gameplay and a branching narrative that let’s you determine the way that the story plays out, you’ll most likely end up a bit disappointed. I enjoyed my time with the game, but I can’t help but feel like it was a missed opportunity to be something really great with a bit more polish and some tweaks to the gameplay. Either way, Variable State is a very talented studio and I’m excited to see what they do next. Hopefully Last Stop is in fact just one stop on the way to really nailing what they’re aiming for and delivering something spectacular.