There’s nothing quite like getting settled with a good story. Losing yourself among the characters and events, and if it’s a mystery, working out whodunnit or what’s going on, is all quite enticing. Last Stop manages to hit these notes of mystery and intrigue with its story, but unfortunately the gameplay often gets in the way and winds up feeling unnecessary at best, cumbersome and tedious at worst.
Developed by Variable State and published by Annapurna Interactive, Last Stop starts with a bang as two kids flee from a couple of bobbies (police officers) through the tube (subway). The two wind up face-to-face with a strange man standing in front of a door that opens to a dimension full of green light. One slips through while the other is left staring at the now-blank wall. The next thing you know, you’re choosing which of the three main characters’ stories you want to experience first.
There’s John Smith, a rather wimpy single father to an energetic daughter; the sociopath Meena Hughes who is portrayed as having robot-like emotions and is in the middle of an affair; and Donna Adeleke, a teenage girl who’s more interesting in “skiving” school and hanging out with her friends than facing the reality that her mother is really not well.
The story, if you can’t tell by this point, is set in England. All the dialogue, places, and people are dripping with authenticity, whether it’s the electric kettle and power outlets or the slang used between characters.
Each characters’ story is told in an episodic format. After you complete one chapter, you cannot play the next one until you play through the other two characters’ chapters. This ensures all the stories move along at the same pace, which proves to be important as these characters’ lives are connected. An unfortunate by-product of this is that if you’re not connecting with a character (like the objectively bad person that is Meena) you’re forced to play through their story before you’re allowed to see more of the story you want to see (like the shenanigans of Donna and her two best friends).
While the story is slow in the first few chapters (which is compounded by having to play each characters’ chapter in-turn), it begins to get juicy after a few hours. I found myself looking forward to sitting down and exploring these characters’ lives and the recaps helped bring me up to speed on the narrative. Unfortunately, if the story is a big juicy steak you’re enjoying, the gameplay is a waiter that comes over every 60 seconds to ask how your mouthful of food is going and informs you that to enjoy your next bite, you must walk around the table and sit back down.
Entertainment for travel
Last Stop’s gameplay is where the experience falls apart. The game presents itself as having a Choose Your Own Adventure type of foundation, akin to the Dark Pictures Anthology, but in reality the dialogue options you select have no real bearing on the outcome. Most dialogue merely changes what your character says and then what the other character responds with, and in some cases, nothing about the response is different. The dialogue options give the characters a bit more spice, but otherwise it all leads to the same destination.
One example occurs when Meena is in an interview, fails to hear the question, and you’re given the options of “Yes”, “No”, and “Ask the question again”. No matter which you choose, the interview ends the same way, with the interviewers saying that they have all they need.
Player choice certainly gives the game more flavor, but unfortunately the experience is soured when you realize much of it is an illusion and your decisions don’t really matter. In fact, each character has only two endings, which are not affected by the dialogue options you make, and it simply comes down to a binary choice for each of them.
When it comes to picking the right dialogue for you, while it doesn’t necessarily matter, it is bothersome to select an option thinking the character will respond one way but they respond in another. It’s as if some of the wording doesn’t align with what’s actually going to be said. A few times I caught myself thinking I wouldn’t have chosen that option if I had known the character was going to say it like that.
There’s also no way of skipping dialogue, which means if you wanted to see if there was an alternative outcome (or hear a different dialogue option), you’re stuck waiting for the conversation to move along. For example, in one scene I had to sneak past a receptionist, which involved holding an increasing number of buttons down. I wanted to see if this Quick Time Event had any bearing on the outcome. I immediately failed my first attempt, saw the scene, then quit and reloaded. I had to go through the previous scene’s dialogue options, waiting for each one to complete, before I got to retry the receptionist stealth section.
Further compounding the issues here is that the QTE I mentioned before didn’t actually matter. I successfully held all the buttons to sneak by the receptionist, but the scene was scripted to have the character fail. It didn’t matter that I succeeded. Much of the QTEs are like this – there are no stakes, which means you don’t really need to participate in this aspect of the game. One thing you definitely don’t want, as a developer, is for the main gameplay mechanic of your game to be entirely optional.
There are plenty of other QTEs, like having to tap the shoulder buttons to run faster (again, not needed, the story continues regardless) or mashing the A button to move a sheet of roofing to crawl through a fence. It’s not exactly engaging gameplay.
Most of the time the gameplay elements actually felt as if they were getting in the way of the story. Much of the gameplay can be summarised as “walk the character to the next cutscene activation point”. It’s not as though you can even explore the lovely environments, as the playable area is often quite narrow.
To make it a bit more problematic, some cutscenes show the playable characters walking while others require you to walk the character by pressing the thumbstick. Sometimes I’d be holding the stick only to realize this was a cutscene while other times the characters would be standing still talking only for me to realize I had to be the one directing the scene.
Jumping the rails
Though the story is tight and enjoyable, Last Stop is hampered by technical issues beyond design choices. There are problems related to assets clipping, poor facial animations, and some audio woes.
The art style of Last Stop is rather charming. The environments come alive with the bold colors and the lighting has a lovely effect on the mood of the scenes. However, any character that isn’t voice acted is basically a mannequin. They are often unmoving, faceless, and entirely creepy. It’s made even more surreal when a character has to interact with them. In one scene, John leads a meeting in a room full of motionless, lifeless bodies. It’s supposed to be a heartfelt moment, but it comes across as macabre.
Last Stop also suffers from some janky animations and poor lip syncing. At several points the characters either float above physical objects (like boxes and crates) or clip through stairs. Problems also extended to the audio mixing, with characters’ voices sounding like they’re inside a recording booth as opposed to walking outside across a street.
End of the line
Last Stop feels like a glorified interactive cutscene, though a cutscene I was eager to continue watching. It’s just unfortunate that the gameplay comes across as an interruption rather than anything that lifts the experience.
This review is based on a Steam code supplied by the publisher. Last Stop will be available on PC, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch on July 22, 2021.
- An intriguing story that will keep you guessing
- Lovely visuals and art style
- An authentic English setting
- Boring gameplay that gets in the way of a good story
- Dialogue options that don't matter
- QTE events that also don't matter
- Animation and audio issues and glitches