Last Stop is the second game from Variable State, with their first being the celebrated Virginia. We loved Virginia, not only for its love of Twin Peaks, but for its boldness. It never insulted the intelligence of those who played it: the timeline jumped around a lot, and there were question marks over whether things reliably happened or not. It felt experimental, yet so much of it plain worked.
Following Virginia was always going to be a challenge. The second game would define who Variable State were as a studio, and what kind of games they were going to make. They were at a crossroads: what parts of Virginia were going to be their signature? Would it be the Lynchian weirdness? The Americana? The narrative complexity? The focus on story over gameplay?
Having played through Last Stop, Variable State’s answer to that is both surprising and a little disappointing. Let’s set up some caveats here: we were perhaps overly excited about Virginia’s other-ness, and that makes the next sentence a little subjective.
We were disappointed because Last Stop could have been made by any other studio. Where Virginia was bold, Last Stop feels safe. Where Virginia was a narrative labyrinth, Last Stop is as ordered, chronological and neatly cut up into chapters as possible. And it’s not just the structure: so much of Last Stop feels like you’ve played or seen it before.
Last Stop is three stories centring on three different characters. It initially feels like an anthology piece, but side-characters start crossing over, and you realise that you’re heading in a direction where the stories will meet. It would have felt fresher if David Cage and Quantic Dream hadn’t done very similar things with Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human, but we were still on board.
Last Stop allows you to choose which story you progress first, which feels exciting until you realise that you can’t progress one story beyond the others. Complete chapter one for one character, and you have to catch up on the others. It’s a compromise to maintain the integrity of the ending, where the plots criss-cross, but it felt like Last Stop could have been bolder: allowing free play on your choice of chapter until the ending. It wouldn’t have damaged the plot’s integrity, not particularly.
The three stories are a mixed bag, and unfortunately none of them truly nail it. The best, Paper Dolls, belongs to John Smith (whose name is annoyingly on-the-nose, as he’s a wallflower who’d prefer not to be noticed). But even the best of the stories feels achingly familiar: he and a neighbour bump into a kind of wizard, who swaps their bodies. John, middle-aged and with a child, swaps bodies with Jack, a young game developer and man-child. It’s Freaky Friday, Vice Versa, Big, 13 Going On 30, Jumanji, The Change Up and any number of other movies.
But while the setup might make you sigh, the execution is brilliant. All of the movies we’ve mentioned aim for laughs or fish-out-of-water scenarios, but John Smith’s story is more realistic and Ken Loach-like. How would the body-swapping work if one of the characters had health issues? And a child? And what if they both had career issues like mandatory overtime and toxic bosses? There are laughs and warmth to be found in this story, so it’s not all social commentary (the daughter, Molly is an absolute star), but it’s the social-realism that makes it sing.
A large step down is the story of Meena Hughes, called Domestic Affairs. It commits the crime of being all build-up and very little payoff. While the other stories introduce their magical elements early, Domestic Affairs waits until the very end, and – if you’re like us – you will have lost attention before then. What you’re left with is a tale of a woman who’s married to her job, which is unfortunate as she’s also married to her teacher husband, and has a child who craves attention that you can’t offer. It’s a story that’s relatively new to gaming, but has been the subplot of many kitchen sink dramas. Here, it’s made into the main plot.
Domestic Affairs leans on one of Last Stop’s few innovations, which is to enforce character on you. You’re offered four dialogue options for each situation, but Meena is such a strong character that they are often much of a muchness. You can be mean, scathing, brutal or savage. It’s initially refreshing and works well – there’s no Shephard-like ability to be a Paragon here – but it means you’re exposed to Meena and railroaded by her throughout. When she’s as unlikeable as she is (some conversations with her husband are gruelling, as she’s so clearly in the wrong), you can almost feel the snap as you detach from her.
Finally, Stranger Danger is a more interesting, fantastical story that gets fumbled. You play Donna Adeleke, a student who, along with two friends, watches an attractive stranger bring people to his house, only for those people to fail to re-emerge. They decide to stalk him to an abandoned swimming pool, where he showcases some supernatural abilities and – through a series of pratfalls – becomes their hostage.
It feels fresher than Paper Dolls, and it’s got real tension at the heart of it. But those feelings evaporate for a couple of reasons: the stranger’s powers are confusingly presented, and you’re never quite sure of the rules around it. We won’t reveal too much here, as we’re skirting on spoilers, but the power works differently on different people, and the separation isn’t clear. Stranger Danger also repeats itself too often, as the events become cyclical. Confusing events happening over and over again aren’t particularly satisfying, which is a real shame, as Stranger Dolls had the greatest premise, and also made best use of its working class London setting.
The three stories come together in a final chapter, but rather than intertwine perfectly like a Pulp Fiction, it’s a matter of three characters bumping into each other in the same place. It’s a matter of coincidence, and there’s no deft dovetailing which would have made the – occasionally directionless – preamble worthwhile. That being said, the ending is large in scope and more lavish than we expected, so it’s a spectacle that can draw attention away from the inelegance.
We’re wary of being overly unkind on the storytelling, simply because we expected so much from the writers of Virginia. There is certainly plenty to admire if you ignore the lack of innovation.
Having lived in and around London for much of my life, there’s a fantastic authenticity to Last Stop. We could almost pinpoint much of Stranger Danger to areas of Brixton and Lambeth. The parks, council houses, pubs and video-game studios all feel on the money, and Variable State have clearly lived and breathed the Big Smoke. There’s no hokey slang, no surplus of red buses and no Queen’s Guards running around with corgis.
We loved the art style too. Similar narrative games like L.A. Noire and Quantic Dream games have felt uncanny, while Telltale and Life is Strange characters can feel doll-like and plastic. While Last Stop is more towards the Telltale end, it manages to capture the personality of the characters in stylised and attractive-looking models. There are a few weirdnesses, which were always going to happen when a small team tackled a world this ambitious: the characters’ hairstyles can dance about like Medusa, and background characters lack faces, which occasionally gives the world a creepy, marionette vibe.
The dialogue can be brilliant too. John, Jack and Molly in Paper Dolls are a riot. Molly never quite seems to take the situation seriously, and it brings some much needed light to an occasionally dark story. There’s a written quality here that’s on a par with the best of Telltale and DONTNOD.
Less astounding is the gameplay. You’re probably wondering how Last Stop plays, and it’s what you’d expect: you are moving characters to other characters, initiating conversation and then choosing dialogue options. Those options have some divergence, but not much. And then you’re onto the next thing. It works well, but there’s nothing new here.
It’s the walking around that is poor. Last Stop makes the decision to have you walking everywhere: if you’re going to the pub, you’re stepping out of your house, walking no more than a couple of blocks, and then entering the pub. It’s great for conveying London and a sense of place, but it creates an odd game of ‘find the right road’, as the camera and lighting never make it truly clear of where you need to go. You will be running down a street, reversing back, and then choosing another one. It’s an odd sub-game to Last Stop, and it breaks the immersion.
There are a few minigames, and some are memorable. A rhythm action game plays as Jonn and Jack sit at a piano in a pub, acting as a ‘coming together’ moment for them. It’s saccharine but it works. Last Stop also has a fabulous trick to convey clumsy or complicated actions: you have to press four or five buttons at once on the pad, and you’ll look like a weird contorted spider by the end of it. Others are more perfunctory, like tapping LB and RB to simulate running.
But those are sprinklings on top of a game that is otherwise very conventional, very familiar. This could have been Life is Strange: London and we wouldn’t have bat an eyelid. And that’s where the greatest disappointment derives from: Virginia was so proudly and ebulliently unconventional, yet Last Stop hues so closely to convention. It’s an episode of The Twilight Zone; a more committee-created Quantic Dream game. There’s no doubt that it’s enjoyable and has wonderful, memorable moments, but its biggest crime is that it doesn’t emerge with a voice of its own.
You can buy Last Stop for £20.99, or play it on Game Pass, from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S