Last Stop Review
Last Stop is a character-driven sci-fi adventure that finds its footing in great storytelling and strong direction. Interactivity comes in the form of quick-time events, trivial dialogue choices and fixed walking paths that often disrupt the story’s flow, rather than enriching it. While the game doesn’t break new grounds to redefine interactive storytelling, there’s tempered success in its clever and captivating narrative delivery.
Set in a fictional borough in London, Last Stop follows three characters in isolated tales as their lives fall into disarray by a supernatural event. London is brought to life through vibrant 3D art direction that gorgeously depict its lively high streets, lush green parks and snugly packed neighborhoods. A variety of cinematic angles are used to pan through the game’s scenic imagery that elevate its visual storytelling. Topping things off is the splendid orchestral soundtrack that colours the ambience of every scene.
However, aside from the occasional prompt and prodding characters along lengthy walking scenes, there’s not much to do other than sit back and watch the story play out. While I appreciate how quick-time events are choreographed to relate to each character, they feel forced, serving more as obstructions rather than adding any sort of nuance to its tale. Walking scenes, for instance, last way longer than they should, and use fixed camera angles that haphazardly switch perspectives from behind a character for a few steps, to in front of them, making you fumble to quickly adjust the direction so characters will keep walking smoothly. It interrupts conversations and mars what would otherwise have been unruffled, mellow banter between them.
A mystery at the centre of it all
Fortunately, the tale still unravels with a well-paced plot, likable cast, an intriguing mystery and acutely placed cliffhangers that keep you engrossed till the end. The narrative hits its stride early on by establishing an underlying mystery in its prologue; a portal has appeared in the depths of the London Underground. From there you advance the story by playing through the perspectives of three seemingly unconnected characters in separate arcs till they ultimately converge.
More effort is put into telling a good story with effective use of familiar cinematic tropes. We have John Smith, a downtrodden middle-aged public council worker who finds himself in a Freaky Friday situation when a turn of events sees him body swap with his neighbor Jack Smith—a younger, fitter and more care-free individual. Elsewhere in London, Meena Hughes, a relentlessly ambitious ex-spy and certified badass, struggles to find gratification in her new placement at a desk job. And finally there’s Donna Adeleke, a teenager looking to sidestep family responsibilities in favour of goofing around with her best mates, Becky and Vivek, when a seemingly harmless late night excursion turns into an accidental abduction.
Not so meticulous
Variable State uses all tools at their disposal to ramp up the adventure. However, there’s a few things the game glances over to maintain its meticulous grip over how the story unfolds. Curious details and relevant social commentary are tucked in the backdrop, but their nuances aren’t fully explored. The cast looks wonderfully diverse, representing the immigrant population of London, but they all more or less sound like a variation of an archetypical English person with no trace of cultural diversity. In one story arc, there’s a character who develops empathetic video games at an indie studio where crunch culture is enforced, which prompts him to quit on the spot, but that’s all there is to it: the game simply makes a blanket statement about how crunch is bad, without adding more to the conversation.
Yet there’s enough of a twist to familiar archetypes that makes Last Stop’s characters and their seemingly predictable development come into their own. The story smartly and aptly cycles through perspectives in each chapter, which keeps the plot moving. Just when things seem to slow down, the story interjects new twists to shake it up, adding further tensions between characters or teasing a reveal to entice you to keep playing. This is boosted even more by the splendid voice acting that lends depth and authenticity to the characters. John’s soft-spoken nature is captured in the calm delivery of his lines, while Meena’s clipped dialogues and firm tone showcase her shrewd and calculating personality.
Then there’s the staggered episodic structure, which works well too. Do you want to continue with a dangling mystery from a previous chapter, or delve into a new perspective to keep things fresh? While you’ll still follow a tightly-knit linear narrative, you’ll also retain some control over the order in which you experience these chapters, which helps keep the story from feeling stale. Each episode is paced well, efficiently prodding the plot along without overstaying its welcome.
Eventually, these loosely connected tales intertwine to form a thoroughly entertaining finale. The characters are thrown into a tricky situation that tests their mettle, and we get to see how much they’ve grown through their individual journeys. And towards the final sequence, you get to make the only choice of any consequence in the game, and that’s to determine the fates of John, Meena and Donna. That said, it’s not as affecting or potent as it sounds, with the epilogues falling a little flat. For me, watching these characters navigate their messy circumstances and seeing their growth in the final act felt more powerful than the afterword.
Last Stop isn’t perfect. Its limited and tepid interactivity makes it better suited as a TV show, but I can’t deny that the story is entertaining and absorbing enough where, in the grand scheme of things, its shortcomings didn’t matter much. It took me back to the days of charming British sci-fi tv shows like Blake 7, Doctor Who and Torchwood, where these shows shared a love of telling character-driven stories on a backdrop of big themes despite budget constraints. With its intimate cast of characters, eccentric English charm and cosy story-telling, Last Stop replicates these shows’ charisma, creating an enjoyable sci-fi tale that’s gripping and one you’ll want to see through to the end.