I was a fan of Virginia, Variable State's first-person FBI thriller. It used unusual camera cuts to create a really filmic vibe, something that games are always trying to do but rarely succeed. Last Stop is Variable State's new story adventure game, and adds two more fully voiced protagonists, three converging storylines, and a bunch of glowy green sci-fi light, while keeping the TV show style. With all the stories taking place in the same (fictional) borough of London, the result is somewhere between Black Mirror and Doctor Who.
Our three protagonists are middle-aged single dad John, ruthless spy Meena, and tearaway teen Donna. Each protagonist's story has six chapters, with their stories all converging on a seventh, final chapter that ties everything up. Your job as the player is to make dialogue choices (some of which might have ramifications later), walk in the right direction where necessary, and do a few mini-games of the rhythm-game-piano or brushing-teeth-after-breakfast variety.
The stories are pretty different, which is what gives Last Stop an anthology feel. John is struggling to balance work and look after his precocious (and acceptably adorable) daughter, and ends up in a Freaky Friday body swap situation with his 20-something indie game dev neighbour. Meena wants to get back working in the field for her privately-owned intelligence agency, but finds herself under pressure from a new star agent and also her extramarital affair. Donna, on the other hand, feels trapped by her family and spends her free time lacing used nos cannisters at bins with her mates Becky and Vivek until they accidentally kidnap a hot stranger with mysterious powers. So you have a family comedy, gritty drama and supernatural thriller.
There's a lot of really good stuff in Last Stop. As its name implies, there's a strong transport and travel theme in the game, which accurately reflects how people interact with London in real life. Donna runs and walks around a lot, or gets the bus, and she visits places over a more limited distance than the others; Meena is a superior bougie and raging dickhead incapable of telling the truth, and goes everywhere in the back of a black cab.
It also has some great musical stings (a later one in particular giving off massive whiffs of "comedic sneaking around bit in Star Wars") and the voice cast is universally great. You can tell they had fun with the script, and the writing in general is surprisingly light touch. Its cast of characters is wonderfully diverse, too, and many of them play against expectations for the type of protagonists you'd normally expect to see in their respective genre stories. The third person view also allows for even more filmic angles and cuts. It's particularly satisfying when someone is running desperately down the street and the camera gradually sweeps upwards behind them into an extreme wide shot, just like in the movies!
But alongside the good bits are bad ones. Animations in general are a bit wonky, with the facial animations in particular reminding me of the comedy and tragedy masks from Ancient Greek drama - a Sim doing a gurning downturned sad face or cartoonish joy. Background characters are literally faceless drones, like walking shop manequins. A stylistic choice, perhaps, but one that still feels jarring in the moment.
The ending is, I promise you, absolutely not what you were expecting either, but sadly not in a good way. Every character gets a Final Choice that is presented as big and important and central to their story, but all feel pretty tacked on and unearned. The three central stories themselves are inconsistent when stacked up next to each other.
Donna's is the most sensitive, heartbreaking and interesing, with the elements of an abusive, coercive relationship transposed into something paranormal, but Donna herself doesn't get the character arc she deserves. The arc John goes on, by comparison, is much more traditionally satisfying, even if his story as a whole isn't as original. Meena doesn't really get either, but she has by far the most interesting supporting cast to bounce off, notably her dad, a die-hard socialist and fan of LSD.
It also takes until about episode three for each of the stories to really hook you in, which is a bit of a downer because that's half of the game. From that point on, each story shows a real command of the different tones and beats required by their different genres, so it's a shame the earlier sections feel less confident. In other respects, Last Stop's chapter format has a lot to recommend it, if only because the end of an episode gives you a natural place to stop when it's bedtime, you can decide to binge one story or flit around a bit, and there are even "Previously on" catch ups at the start of every new episode to remind you what happened.
Overall, Last Stop feels like a game of unfortunate inconsistency. That's not for lack of effort, I have to stress. On the contrary, I get the feeling that Variable State could have really let rip with this if only they'd had more time, money and resources, along with the robust production and editing processes that goes along with that (and that's not just because I'd have loved to play the fourth, although sadly cut, Junji Ito-inspired story either, I promise). In that sense, Last Stop is probably the opposite of Black Mirror and Doctor Who... but one I'm glad I saw through to the end regardless.