Last Stop Review
The illusion of control
Way back in the simpler time of September 2016, I bought a little game known as Virginia on a whim. I had been intrigued by the killer premise and unique presentation of the title. And while I did walk away from the story satisfied, I did feel that there was room for improvement. For as captivating as the story was, the gameplay wasn't fully there. This did lead me to follow the path of developer Variable State. After seemingly falling off the map, they have finally returned with their sophomore effort, Last Stop.
After a brief prologue, we are introduced to the three main characters of Last Stop. Split into three different stories comprised of six chapters each, the largely separate tales all carry their own flavor but occur in parallel. Chief among them is Paper Dolls, the strange tale of John Smith and Jack Smith. John is the middle-aged single father to a young daughter, while Jack is a young programmer with no real personal connections. Despite the similar names, the two are only connected by the fact that their mail frequently gets mixed-up. That is, until a chance run-in with a mysterious stranger that somehow leads to the two of them switching bodies. Now, they will need to not only figure out how to fix their dilemma, but also how to get by for the time being.
In Domestic Affairs story players follow Meena Hughes, a cold woman who works at a high-level intelligence agency. Up for a big job, Meena's life begins to fall apart over a multitude of reasons. From the rookie prospect gunning for the same job, to her crumbling marriage, the walls are closing in around her. Finally, there's Strange Danger, the final tale of the anthology. Focused on teenage rabblerouser Donna Adeleke, this is a story of perhaps alien intrigue. With her two friends Vivek and Becky, Donna ends up encountering the titular Stranger. Despite his regular appearance, there's something up with this man, and the fact that Donna's close friends and family begin vanishing suddenly only reinforces the oddity of the situation.
Of the three, Paper Dolls was easily my favorite of the bunch. It benefits from nailing the tone between comedy and drama that a body-swap scenario would call for. It's an incredibly unnerving situation to be in, and both characters recognize that. However, watching the two try to navigate their very different lives, particularly their day jobs, does lead to many funny moments. It also feels like the story that is the most fleshed out of the trio. The six chapters of this tale don't run too short, which is something that cannot be said for the other two. After playing through the entirety of the title, it's not a shock that this story was what Variable State chose to showcase for promotional material.
Stranger Danger and Domestic Affairs have highlights of their own, but both still feel undercooked. They take a good amount of time setting things into motion, only to rush right into the climax. Huge moments occur towards the end of these tales that would have benefited from some additional reflection time. It also doesn't help that both center around rather unlikable protagonists. Donna has the benefit of being a snotty teen as the cause of her callousness, but Meena is straight up nasty. Unlike in Paper Dolls, where you actually care about the two main characters, it's tough to get emotionally invested into either of these two.
As with Variable State's previous effort, Last Stop is a title significantly more focused on story than gameplay. It's a glorified walking simulator that values its conversation system over just about every other mechanic. You spend a lot of time walking and talking. Or sitting and talking. There a couple of quick-time events sprinkled in, and a late-game chapter does have you doing some snooping around someone's flat in first person view. But if you were coming into this expecting a game with a little more meat to its mechanics, then you're going to end up disappointed.
Building a title around such a light amount of gameplay isn't necessarily a death blow. Developers such as Quantic Dream and Telltale built their oeuvre around strong storytelling. However, the titles from those developers feature conversations that hold weight over the course of the adventure. In Last Stop, though, it can feel like no matter what dialogue options you pick, the story is always going to end up in the same place. When playing as Donna, does it matter how much you backtalk your sister? In the moment, the response you get is different, but at the end of the day, it doesn't change the outcome.
The lack of stakes in Last Stop is a real issue. Without a sense of danger or even failure, why bother complying with the title's directions? What's the point of completing a QTE when the fail state is the same as the pass state? At a certain point, the lack of agency transforms the title from a game to a movie. And it's frustrating because each of these stories would theoretically lend themselves to a more malleable narrative. There are multiple points during all three where the stories could fracture into something different. Instead, Variable State seemed so intent on telling their specific story, that they only give you the illusion of control.
Graphically, the title could perhaps be best described as cartoonishly realistic. The characters look like regular humans, just with a more stylized look than normal. I do love how the main cast adheres to normal body standards. Middle-aged John has the appropriate amount of paunch, while Donna and her crew look like regular teens. The voice acting for the cast is strong across the board as well. They do an excellent job of selling the stakes that each individual tale brings. Despite the strong presentation of the core group, however, the rest of the game is lacking in detail. Non-important characters are missing facial details, and their lack of response to your actions can be off-putting. There also some issues with clipping. I saw more than one instance where one character's hand was phasing through another character's body.
Last Stop is a frustrating experience to accurately rate. As a piece of entertainment, it's mostly enjoyable. The three stories vary in quality, but all at least provide intrigue. Paper Dolls is definitely the highlight, but both Stranger Danger and Domestic Affairs have their moments. However, it's tough to move past the fact that there's very little actual gameplay. With limited stakes and lack of player control, it often feels like a movie you are editing rather than a game you are playing. Variable State are clearly talented story tellers, but hopefully they can bring more interactivity to their next effort.