Last Stop feels like a massive leap for developer, Variable State. Their last project, Virginia, felt less like a conventional video game and more like an interactive take on a silent film; a pure exercise in mood and emotional tension. Now, they are tackling complex overlapping storylines in very different styles, all while mixing and matching genres at the drop of a hat. It is very ambitious in comparison to their prior work, and it manages to hit a curious state where even its stumbles are too fascinating to be seen as flaws and its successes handled so well it is downright charming.
Three Little Commutes
After a brief cold open, the story centers around three separate protagonists as they go through their daily lives in Britain. John is an older single father and office worker who gets wrapped up in a bizarre scenario where he swaps bodies with a younger millennial game developer named Jack. Meena is a past her prime secret service agent dealing with a struggling marriage as well as competition in her workplace. Finally, Donna is a teenager that while hanging out with her friends, notices a string of disappearances and the mysterious individual that may be responsible.
At first glance, these stories seem completely unrelated to one another. John's bodyswap antics are presented as a quirky comedy complete with rapid-fire jokes and asides. Everything with Meena starts out like a lurid drama involving tensions between her family and work life. Meanwhile, Donna's situation starts as a psychological thriller before slowly changing into skin-crawling existential horror. Each of these three stories can be played in any order and are separated into several chapters, complete with a TV-style “previously on” recap cutscene so you don't get lost. As the stories progress, characters and ideas start to mix and intermingle, implying that something supernatural is just behind the scenes influencing everything. All of which ends in a final chapter where the three leads meet and handle something far too fantastic to spoil here.
What really helps with these shifts in tone is that Variable State has a fantastic grip on camera work and shot composition and integrating that language into gameplay vignettes. This is a refinement of their prior work from Virginia, using fixed camera angles with various camera tricks like sightlines, lighting, and objects of interest to let you know where you're going at all times alongside cinematic cutscenes that keep mixing up gameplay sequences in natural ways.
Just Another Day In The Tube
Last Stop focuses on its narrative first and foremost. Active gameplay is mostly kept between dialogue options, brief quick-time event sequences, occasional key-hunting puzzles. Game Over screens do not happen here. The only real failure state comes from optional challenges that inform the characters, examples include Meena not leaving any sign she was there while investigating an area of interest or John playing a duet on the piano with his body swapped companion, and even then it usually means missing out on an achievement.
As for the stories themselves, they each have their own highlights. John and Jack's bodyswap ordeal is chock full of adorable dialogue options and a slice of life wholesomeness. There's an extended sequence where they try to go to work and the pure disconnect between their work environments and their own personalities is comedy gold.
Meena's plot by comparison feels more like a mystery thriller. In addition to juggling relationship issues – do you keep texting the guy you're having an affair with, what's the excuse this time to your husband, etc. – there are psychoanalysis sequences where Meena assesses people to see if they're a threat or if they're hiding something. It's the most uneven of the three storylines. There are a few red herrings thrown around, but they're all based around some endearing plot cul de sacs with Meena's father, Samir, but a major story turn near the end practically evaporates all the intrigue as it shifts to a more conventional conspiracy storyline meant to tie into the finale. It all fits in terms of structure and plot, but part of me wished to see the resolution of it play out without the sci-fi trappings attached.
Donna's might be the most unsettling and insidious of the three plots. To explain any further would be to give away several of the major story turns, but needless to say, I didn't expect a novel twist on abusive relationships by way of Men in Black-style memory modification to be a key plot point here, and now I need a shower just thinking about it again.
Minding The Gap
There are a few technical problems that do pop up time and again with Last Stop. While the overall look of the game is a solid mix of appropriately broad color palettes highly expressive stylization, there are some spots where the mid-tier production limitations show. Sometimes character models move too robotically during close-ups or a character's pathfinding wigs out before popping back to the character you're controlling. There was even one sequence where I unintentionally chuckled under my breath during an otherwise tastefully done sex scene due to how janky the character animation got.
These are not dealbreakers by any stretch. For every single immersion-breaking hiccup I mentioned, there are at least five great uses of subtle facial animation or fantastically realized movement or physics on display. These moments just stick out more in a production that tries so hard to maintain the verisimilitude of a grounded world with human problems.
Which does bring me to the finale and how I feel it loses itself. It seems that Variable State excels when it comes to quiet and subdued character interactions, they can make the simple act of taking someone's hand feel meaningful.
That is still the case here. But it seems that whenever something possibly mystical or supernatural occurs, the leap of genre and tone leaves something behind. This happened in Virginia where it seemed the otherwise grounded detective story was devolving into esoteric Twin Peaks-esque madness before just stopping. While in Last Stop, it goes from three different stories involving interesting characters dealing with heightened but still grounded problems ranging from the quirky to the unsettling before they are thrown into something straight out of an early Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp story. Thankfully, things do come back down to Earth in the end, complete with branching endings and conclusions for everyone involved. But the build-up to some of these moments can ramp up very quickly if you're not prepared.
Last Stop | Final Thoughts
If you enjoy character-driven narrative games peppered with some gameplay diversions, Last Stop does have a lot to enjoy. Taken all together, the entire game can be finished in about five hours, making it great to enjoy in a weekend if you are curious. The stories are enjoyable, the characters are interesting, and the overall plot dips into the fantastic, those very foundations keep it from feeling like complete tonal whiplash. It is well worth your time if only to tell your friends about it later.
TechRaptor reviewed Last Stop on PC with a digital copy provided by Annapurna Interactive. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch
- Expressive, Colorful Art Direction
- Stellar Orchestral Music and Solid Voice Acting
- Creatively Manages Multiple Overlapping Stories
- Occasional Audiovisual and Animation Issues
- Several Undercooked Subplots