As I mentioned on Channel F this week, I’m really enjoying Last Stop, the latest game from Virginia developer Variable State. Like the previous game, it’s a relatively forthright experience: a story-based game in the vein of a Life is Strange or similar adventure, with plenty of simple interaction and dialogue choices to support the emphasis on story and character.
Last Stop consists of three main storylines, all following a central character, with plenty of hints of interaction among the three. All of them are of the supernatural thriller or present-day sci-fi variety: something weird is going down in London, and John, Donna, and Meena all have a front row seat in their respective (and very different) lives.
John is a struggling single dad with a mundane job, an awful boss, and a cardiac condition that said awful boss lords over him. He also has a very cute daughter and a fateful connection to an aloof, fitness-obsessed neighbor. Meena is a cold government agent with a troubled home life. Donna is a rebellious teen who stumbles into something wild with her friends. If the writing wasn’t up to task, the game would be a total wash, but it’s all put together with care and attention to detail. The overall plotting is engaging, and even the banter and flavor text is fun, particularly for Donna, the teen in over her head (I actually played a bit of her storyline with my game design class today, and a British student said the UK teen dialogue was spot-on).
The writing offers enough hooks that make it feel like a bingeable TV series: I keep playing because I really want to know what happens to these people.
It also has a real flair for cinema: especially in its many gorgeous long shots depicting our heroes running around the city. Like Virginia, there are plenty of first-person sequences and small moments of light gameplay, and there are also many Life is Strange-style dialogue sequences. In between many of them, Donna, Meena, and John go about their business, walking from place to place (and often enough, to or from tube stops, hence the title) in a series of long shots that give the impression of a bustling city.
Donna will run home at night, with buildings looming ominously in the background. Sometimes the camera will track all the way overhead, making her look small against a vast city block. John will walk his daughter to school in the morning, winding through sidewalks and paths, past storefronts and pedestrians. Meena does the walk of shame after having an affair with a hot doctor on her block, tiptoeing back to her husband and child with excuses about being held up at work.
No matter the situation, the wide shots always make this version of London feel big, busy, lived in, and a little strange: like something wild could happen at any moment. That’s good, because it fits in with a series of stories about body-swapping, mysterious doors that lead to nowhere and a lot of glowing green… stuff.
It’s even more impressive because the game is clearly not a massive-budget open world: the developers are doing a lot with a little here. The aesthetic is colorful, but borderline low-poly, the art direction a bit cartoonish and even a little rough-hewn. While the character animation is very basic, the camerawork is always fluid and dramatic. It was a little jarring at first, but once I got used to it, I couldn’t imagine the game any other way. For me, it works, and it works really well for a genre that is funky and broad and bizarre.
I’m currently running through the middle chapters of the game, in each of the main stories, and I’m having a hard time putting it down.