Variable State’s debut title, Virginia, was an impressive and memorable experience; from the wordless narrative (it was the indie craze of 2016) to the orchestral soundtrack, it seemed like any other narrative-driven walking sim from a well-funded studio, but looks can be deceptive. Virginia compels with its wordless story and genuinely creates mystique and intrigue, while its excellent visual and musical direction guides the experience effortlessly. It was more than a pretty game with a great soundtrack; it had a deep story that chose the medium of video games as its most suitable vehicle and it was a huge success, a game I’ve loved a lot and have not seen replicated yet. So, when Variable State’s next title is announced to be a partnership with one of the most prolific and assured publishers, Annapurna Interactive, you bet I am going to be excited. Then the trailers dropped and the game was showcased, which left me cautiously optimistic. I was not expecting Virginia 2 or something that adhered strictly to what Virginia was, but seeing Last Stop on its own, I would have never guessed this was Variable State’s follow up project.
On the face of it, Last Stop does look like Variable State’s unique brand of low-poly models but with a lot more detail and colors added, while Lyndon Holland’s impeccable score is once again performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Moreover, Variable State’s fascination of telling stories about the bizarre, the unknown, the paranormal, are all still part of the core idea behind Last Stop; that is where the similarities end however. Last Stop is about three separate stories dealing with different themes, protagonists, and paranormal occurrences, where all three tend to be a bit more comedic and rely heavily on dialogue. Players will take control of John and Jack – a single, middle-aged father of one who swaps bodies with his young adult neighbor after an encounter with a strange man – Meena – an ambitious professional struggling to find the balance between her family life and the thrill of her career – and Donna – a teen who has to deal with a situation gone wrong, alongside friends Becky and Vivek, while trying to keep her overbearing home life separate. These stories are split into six chapters, which work similarly to 30-minute episodes of a limited series, and will eventually start to connect with each other in interesting ways. This is a huge departure from Virginia, but (once I accepted that this experience will not be similar to Virginia) I grew very fond of it by the end; all stories are funny and dramatic, but the way those two goals are met is varied and intriguing. John and Jack’s story, for example, works like a sit-com with a bit more depth; there are clear-cut jokes and silly situations, but all characters are still motivated by humane wants and still have a growth that is satisfying to experience. On the other hand, Donna’s story starts off as a YA show, but grows in intensity and drama as the story and characters go on, while Meena’s more somber take is occasionally injected with some dark humor.
My biggest problem with Last Stop has less to do with the writing or the story being told and more to do with how Variable State has chosen to translate that to the video game format; to put it bluntly, it feels like the devs addressed the wrong criticisms from Virginia or took the wrong feedback (at least from what I loved about that game). Last Stop’s more conventional dialogue choices, the trivial bits of button pressing, the decision between two gray endings; it foregoes what made Virginia so unique and what makes games like it so special. The confidence in your story and capabilities to deliver it without pandering to players; when Virginia created a tightly-paced narrative, directed solely by the music and visuals, it was something few games even thought of attempting and carried a weight that few other games matched. Last Stop’s conventional mechanics to serve a good experience, but one I feel like I’ve played before and have begun to feel less enthused or interested by. It is still a well-throughout narrative (where your choices simply color the same characters in different shades) and your choices are blatantly not affecting the story, but to accommodate for this Last Stop loses that tight pace and that aura of mystery. There are many questions created throughout and those questions will be answered in a very interesting way, but it doesn’t feel as novel or as engaging.
Having said that, I do still like a lot about Last Stop; its not often a game gets comedy right, but its even more hard to get dramedies of this kind right. While the middle part drags with all stories feeling like they are dragging their feet towards a pretty great ending, I did still find enough to enjoy from those sections that I don’t feel like they wasted my time. Moreover, they are so well acted and directed that it makes the whole game worthwhile just to see that level of effort put into these features that rarely get that much attention. Voice acting was top-notch for every character, while the directing of the camera and the locations is mind-blowing; there are games with less colors that have more important functions which don’t allow players to figure out where they are supposed to go as effortlessly as Last Stop. However, with that came a few issues; character models will look stiff and have a few awkward animations from time to time, especially when there are two characters in the same scene or one character following the player-controlled protagonist.
Regardless of these small annoyances, I look upon Last Stop with fondness rather than with sourness; I will always prefer the KRZs or Virginias of the world that use video games as an interactive mean to tell a story without feeling the need to pander with pointless choices or meaningless interactions, however the TellTale model is very popular and can lead to experience that I like as well. I was initially disappointed by this decision, however as I accepted the game for what it was and engaged with the experience it was trying to provide, I ended up having a good time and enjoyed taking 6 hours to experience those stories and that world. I will not remember it as fondly as Virginia, but that only makes that game so much more special to me and leaves room for Variable State (or other studios) to exploit that gap and grow/learn. Even if it takes the TellTale model, Last Stop’s insistence to provide clearly communicated choices (that still lead to where the story should go), pallet-cleansing interactions that simply pace the story rather than drag it down, and truly grey endings (for most stories at least) that gave me some pause to consider, are what differentiate Last Stop from most narrative-driven, dialogue choosing adventures, which is why I enjoyed it as much as I did.