A Great Story, But Is It A Game?
Storytelling in gaming has come a long way since the days when a text scroll at the start of the game felt involved. More and more certain genres depend on their storytelling to drive the game forward. Does there come the point where a title ceases to even be a game, however? While not the first game to make me wonder this, I can’t think of one that gave me as much pause as Last Stop. Featuring interesting characters, a strong story, and a strong presentation, Last Stop has a lot to offer. I’m just not sure the people who made it even wanted to make a video game.
Last Stop is told in three separate stories, each with six chapters. A final chapter brings the entire thing to a conclusion, pulling everything together. For most of their run time, these three stories feel mostly distinct. You can play the three stories in any order you want in each chapter, though you’ll need to complete all three stories for one chapter before moving onto the next—no finishing one entire story before touching the others.
While all three stories take place in the same general part of London, they each have a very different vibe. Some characters do make appearances in more than one story, but mostly only have an impact in one. A doctor, for example, has a decent-sized role in one story, while showing up briefly in another. His role in the second story is small, though. The main characters once in a while show up in the background of each other’s stories, but none take on any real role in them.
Paper Dolls puts you in the shoes of John, an aging single dad trying to put food on the table and just barely getting by. He hates his job but puts on as brave a face as he can manage for his daughter. He’s exhausted, however, broke, in poor health, and there’s no sign he’s doing much to solve any of these issues. One day he has a weird encounter with his neighbor Jack, a much younger, healthier game developer. Jack seems to have a lot going for him, but he’s closed off and a bit lonely. A magical situation sees them waking up the next morning in each others’ bodies.
After coming at least slightly to terms with the situation, John and Jack have to figure out how to make things work. They end up forming a bit of a team and even a sort of family. The growth of their relationship, literally walking a mile in each other’s shoes, changes them both in some very interesting ways. It’s an involving story, to be sure, and I think the one which is the most satisfying from start to finish.
Stranger Danger has you play as Donna. A high-schooler trying to navigate an overprotective sister, a mom with some health issues, and just growing up, she spends most of her time with her friends Becky and Vivek. One night the three of them follow a stranger who lives across the street from Vivek’s dad’s fish shop. What they find leaves them in a dangerous situation they don’t know how to get out of.
Unlike Paper Dolls, which outside of the central body-swapping conceit feels somewhat grounded for a long time, there’s little doubt that the supernatural is a major component in Stranger Danger. The stranger himself doesn’t do much to hide his abilities, even if he won’t answer many questions. This may be the story of the three with the highest highs, but it also has the most issues. A lot of questions feel unanswered, and not in a way that feels satisfying or interesting. None of the endings available to Donna felt satisfying to me either.
Perhaps my favorite of the three stories is Domestic Affairs. Of the three, this may feel the most grounded for the longest time. It’s not until late in the story that I even realized it was tying into the rest of what was going on. You play as Meena, a former military woman who now mostly works behind a desk for a private contractor. Her work, or at least what it could be, still excites her, but she has trouble finding much to interest her in her private life. She’s gone searching for more, hence the affair in the title.
Meena is a fascinating protagonist, the kind we so rarely get in video games. She’s ruthless, willing to sell out almost anyone to get what she wants. There’s no illusion; she doesn’t hide this part of herself. She struggles to connect with her child, clearly has issues with her husband, and is driven like few others. I loved how both she and John were older parents, not the sort of character we frequently see as a video game protagonist. Her section was usually the first I jumped into with each new chapter.
It All Comes Together
After completing all three stories, everything comes together into a wild final act that goes in directions I was not expecting. I greatly enjoyed it, despite how different the tone was. Perhaps my favorite part was how it all made sense. The seeds of where this was going were clearly planted throughout the game. I just didn’t see them until they came together. The best kind of twist as far as I’m concerned.
The game’s structure doesn’t always do it favors, though. Making all three stories last the same six chapters leaves some where one story is over shockingly fast, especially towards the end. I also would have loved more chances to actually impact the story. You often are asked to choose a dialogue option, but very few of these feel meaningful. I’m actually not sure there’s a single meaningful choice in the entire game until the very end. A few spots clearly give you a chance to impact something in the story, but even that’s rare. Those impacts all seem very superficial as well. Often the biggest choice I felt I was actually given was what clothes to wear in each chapter: a nice touch, but hardly an important one.
Last Stop provides a great version of London. Everything feels really true to life, with a diverse cast of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds. The anti-diversity crusaders shouldn’t find anything that bothers them. While the characters come from a wide range of genders, national backgrounds, sexuality, ages, and even economic levels. While these factors are a part of their lives, for the most part, the game spends little time calling attention to them. They’re just there, providing representation, because they’re a part of London and thus belong in a story set there.
You Actually Have To Play It
None of the gameplay here has any real impact. You mostly walk from one area to another, in a way that doesn’t even feel like you’re in control. Outside of answering questions, which mostly feels meaningless, the only other thing you do consistently are a series of quick-time events. They don’t come up all that often, but when they do, they don’t add much. Rotate the analog stick to stir your character’s coffee. Hit two buttons back and forth to run. Tilt a stick to eat cereal. It mostly feels like busywork.
A couple of sequences deviate from this at least slightly. There’s a neat bit where you play the piano, and a late sequence investigating a character’s house has a lot of cool details to find. I especially enjoyed exploring their DVD collection stored under their TV. This sort of tiny detail put a smile on my face. There are just too few of these sequences throughout the game. Last Stop makes Telltale games look like they have deep gameplay.
Cleans Up Nicely
The presentation throughout Last Stop is mostly nice. The actual look of the characters feels a little off, however. The animated look the game strives for is fine, with really nice environments and minor details, which add a lot. There’s something in the faces, though, that just felt a little off to me. I got used to it eventually, however. The music isn’t a standout, but it consistently sets the right tone, and the voice acting is consistently strong. It really helps to connect you to the characters.
Each screen is set up with a cinematic camera angle, but I found the transitions between these really well handled. If you keep holding the direction you were on the last screen to move forward, your character will continue to do so on the new screen. If you let go, you’ll then need to point them in the correct direction for the new screen. It worked well and made controlling their long walks around London a breeze. There were now and then, however, screens that had so much going on that I had a hard time locating my character on the new screen since the orientation often had no connection to what came before.
Last Stop tells a wonderful story that is well worth your time. There’s just so little that feels like a video game in it. Most of what is here feels like it’s included because someone was afraid players had too little to do. At its best Last Stop feels more like watching a solid season of TV. That’s not inherently a bad thing. A few sequences, however, show how embracing the gaming format is able to enhance it, and definitely left me wanting more. As long as you go in with the right expectations, though, I think you’ll find a lot to like.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Xbox Series X(reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, PC ; Publisher: Annapurna Interactive; Developer: Variable State; Players: 1; Released: July 22nd, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Last Stop.