REVIEWS

LAST TRAIN HOME

Last Train Home is the new release from Czech studio Ashborne Games. The name probably doesn't tell you much and naturally, since the game is essentially their debut (their only other involvement in the industry seems to be taking over development of Comanche after it went into early access). Now, Last Train Home is not about attack helicopters. It's about historical Real time strategy and a remarkable one at that.

Δυστυχώς αργούμε ακόμα

The historical context in which the game is set is central to the studio's entire project. The Czechoslovak Legion was a (mostly) voluntary military formation of the World War I era, which was intended to strengthen the national goal of the Czechs and Slovaks (self-determination) by participating in the battlefield, of course on the side of the Entente. You see, the territories of the Czechs and Slovaks were under Austro-Hungarian rule and, as we know, the Austro-Hungarians belonged to the Central Empires. The Legion's formations were therefore on the western front (alongside the French against the Germans), the Italian front (against the Austro-Hungarians), and the eastern front (on the side of Tsarist Russia against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians). The latter is what we are interested in here.

Towards the end of 1917, with the Bolsheviks gaining the upper hand in the Russian civil war, (now Soviet) Russia capitulates to the Central Empires. This move (the Brest-Litovsk Treaty) had cataclysmic consequences (even Greece was involved in the ensuing wars), which reverberate to this day (e.g. the Russian invasion of Ukraine), but what we are concerned with here is the local fate of the Legion. With the Tsar out of the frame, Russia leaving the Entente and the Eastern Front ceasing to exist, the Czechoslovaks had no business there any longer and had to leave immediately.

Plenty of handmade art

The first thought of a person who does not have an accurate picture of the map of the time is "western Russia-Belarus with Czech Republic/Slovakia", a stroll in a park. But come on, at the time, their country was still under occupation. At the same time, there was no corridor to the other allied countries, since all the territories of the so-called Trimarium (from Poland to the coast of Bulgaria) plus Eastern Thrace, the Straits, the southern coast of the Black Sea up to the Caucasus, were under the control of Germans/Austro-Hungarians/Bulgarians/Ottomans (of the Central Empires), i.e. all the enemies of the Legion! With the steppes and deserts of Central Asia being impassable, there was only one solution: the Trans-Siberian Railway route to Vladivostok, where the Legion would board ships for Western Europe. Yes, the famous Vladivostok, the largest urban center of the Russian Far East. Vladivostok ("Sovereign of the East") located just north of Korea and bordered by the Sea of Japan. Talk about a journey of several thousand kilometers, on the devil's horn, no joke. Literally a modern day descent of the myriads.

Here is the exit from Moscow that marks the end of the tutorial

In Game

This is the starting point of our story, which is essentially acted out through the eyes of a Legion officer, who in the first missions, receives orders from a superior, as a tutorial, and later takes command. The format of the game is as follows: we are in charge of a section of the Legion, which on the eve of the capitulation of Russia, must leave the locations of the eastern front to Vladivostok, but through Moscow. The vehicle we use is an armed and partially armoured train (anyone who has read the history of the Russian Revolution or simply played Battlefield 1 understands what this means) with the end of the line located in the Far East, where our destination is. In between though (with most people viewing us with suspicion or open hostility), we will need to stop over and over again either to send groups of soldiers out to resupply, hunt, fish and touch other resources, or to visit some of the key areas where the battles and the story takes place. Remember that we are dealing with RTS, but not a massive map with hundreds of Age of Empires style units. Here the scales are smaller, in the style of Commandos and the maps just a few screens in size. Objectives vary (encounter with x person, capture of y strategic point, battle at z point, and so on) and generally end with the evacuation of the battle group. This is just the basic concept, because in practice, it is more complex.

The game is difficult. Not so much its core gameplay, but its many parameters and limited margin of error. Various tactics are at our disposal (e.g. ambush, bayonet charge under cover fire, use of explosives, machine guns, artillery, and so on) and battles can be approached directly or with cover/concealment. The maps are full of traps, ambushes, patrols and require the use of all the tools at our disposal. The sheer force of numbers will not take the player far in battle, both because the enemy is outnumbered and because moving all of the units' strength at once makes them very difficult to manage effectively, thus making them an easier target. Personally (and having not played RTS of this style for several years), after having to repeat a few levels from the beginning, as I found the casualties I took to be too high, I found it handy to barricade the bulk of my forces behind cover and machine guns, in places where my back was covered, and conduct careful scouting of the map, on the sly, with 1-2 units.

Leave nothing unexplored

But the train part is no less complex, requiring thorough management of resources, human or otherwise (fuel, food, wagons, medicines/patients or even medals of valour). Even simple operations have pitfalls (e.g. if you give staff a drink to boost morale, there is a serious chance that some will become alcoholics). The whole experience in this part reminded me of Frostpunk. Somewhere here is located the weak point of the game, the user interface, which one soon gets used to, but could have been more presentable and explanatory. Difficulty settings are thoroughly customizable (allowing the player to focus on combat or resource gathering, for example), but the game never becomes easy.

We said, Siberia

Although the whole package is 100% strategy, oddly enough the setup (command train ride and stops in areas where the action and story take place) is very reminiscent of Metro Exodus. For those who have played it, think of it as an RTS instead of an FPS and you'll get a good general idea of the feeling left by Last Train Home. After all, both games, roughly speaking, involve the same locations (Trans-Siberian after all).

Graphics Engine

There is not much of note here. The game is built with UE4, nice eye-candy, low-requirements on hardware and with atmospheric art direction. If you're interested, it will run just fine on five-year-old systems. Good grade here too.

To Sum Up

The Last Train Home is primarily a product of love, a sincere testimony of the soul. Not only is it based on a widely unknown historical event, it's also an RTS, a category that has been out of the commercial spotlight for decades. And for icing on the cake, it's peppered with speeches and names in completely exotic languages for the average North American or East Asian gamer, like Czech and Slovak. The makers of the Ashborne Games studio didn't have commercial success as a priority; their motives were purer. The result, at least in terms of quality, does them justice.

Go to discussion...

RATING - 84%

84%

Thalatta! Thalatta!

A game that disregards mainstream norms and remains unrepentantly romantic.

Βασίλης Ξερικός

Born in Athens in 1979. Gamer by gentle dreams, my first contact with the sport was with a clone of Pong at pre-school age.  Although a loyal PC user since 1989 and the XT era, I have owned several consoles (Atari 2600, various Sega, Playstation series etc.) and my introduction to gaming journalism was only in January 2012 and PC Master. A veteran of adventure games, I now split my gaming time between MMOs, RPGs (of all kinds) and Shooters. Email:  [email protected] Follow me: Facebook | Twitter | SteamID: Kuivamaa

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