When Pete and Sam see the green glowing portal in front of them, they are faced with a decision. Either they jump through the portal, not knowing what’s on the other side, or stay put and be arrested by pursuing police. With little time to spare, Sam decides to enter the portal, leaving Pete behind while calling him a coward. No sooner does she enter the portal that it vanishes, leaving Pete and the newly arrived police befuddled.
This introduction to Last Stop raises multiple questions for players to ponder while they settle in. But it also sneaks in a central theme of the game, that your decisions can have permanent consequences, and you need to be the one that makes them. While Last Stop explores the idea of how decisions affect a person, the game’s linear design makes this message feel contrary to the actual experience of playing it.
Personally, I’ve never been British. Not even once. Last Stop let me be British a total of three times, taking over the lives of three Londoners as their lives become extraordinary. There’s John Smith, a middle-aged single father who swaps bodies with his 20-something neighbor a la Freaky Friday; Meena Hughes, an equally middle-aged workaholic who finds herself in competition with a 20-something year old for a promotion at work; and Donna Adeleke, a teenager whose friend group falls into kidnapping a strange and silent man.
Each character’s story is told one chapter at a time, with the player being able to select which order to play them. While this system offers players a level of control over the narrative, it has the effect of reducing most of the game’s tension. In the final moments of the first chapter of Meena’s story, it’s revealed that she is keeping a marriage-ending secret from her husband. The way the game conveyed this secret was the kind of stellar mix of writing and gameplay that is only possible with this sort of interactive fiction. There were quite a few of these moments scattered throughout the game, but the cyclical nature of the chapters made it difficult to maintain my anticipation between them.
The game seems to even acknowledge this, offering a TV-style “Previously on Last Stop” recap before each chapter to refresh the player on what’s happening in that character’s story. These recaps, combined with each story only lasting about 20 minutes, makes the game come across as three separate TV shows set in the same universe but not sharing much else. Getting hooked on one character’s story in a chapter made getting through the other two feel like a chore.
The lack of action added to that sense of drudgery. The game never made me feel like holding the controller was an important part of the overall experience. Timed dialogue choices were the only real reason to keep your hands hovering over buttons. While these choices did allow me to add a bit of personal flavor to each character, they rarely felt impactful on the unfolding stories. Being nice, rude, or condescending all landed me in the same place. Making these choices felt like riding in the passenger seat of a car with a sleepy driver who you occasionally have to prod awake to keep things moving.
This isn’t to say that a game needs deep mechanics in order to be good, or that there needs to be some sort of “traditional” gameplay experience baked into every game produced. Choosing dialogue options and back-seat driving someone else’s life are the backbone of narrative games. But in the absence of traditional gameplay, these games keep the player engaged and wanting to move forward through the actual story. Narrative games accomplish this in many ways, often by having the player chew on a mystery, withholding information, and generally building tension.
Last Stop has moments with these elements, but because the stories are so compartmentalized they have no staying power between chapters. Becoming wrapped up in how Donna’s hostage situation slowly reverses means putting aside your worries about John’s heart condition, which means pushing back your feelings on Meena’s crumbling marriage, and so on. When the stories all finally merged, I was able to actually appreciate all of the characters in real time. But this union only lasted for one chapter, and left me with more questions than answers.
Last Stop borrows heavily from TV to create a narrative experience where the player has control over how the characters behave. But the lack of significant choices coupled with the game’s awkward structure makes it challenging to get immersed into it. There are three solid experiences contained in Last Stop, and if separated into their own games they could probably all carry the impact they were intended to. Together, though, they come across as competing for the player’s attention without adding up to a singular whole.
Last Stop was developed by Variable State and published by Annapurna Interactive. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and the Switch.
Nicolas Perez is a freelance writer who specializes in playing too many videogames. He’s rambling on Twitter Nic_Perez__.